The Tension Between Domestic Ministries and Frontier Missions

Western Seminary Missions Conference | Portland, Oregon

Before we can distinguish frontier missions from domestic ministries and talk about the tensions and relationship, we need to define them. Discovering the meaning of frontier missions is one of the most important discoveries I have made in the last five years. To help you get a handle on it, I ask with you the question I came to pose for myself:

Is the unique biblical task of the church's missionary enterprise

  1. to win as many individuals to Christ as possible before He returns, or
  2. to win some individuals (i.e., plant a church) among all the peoples of the earth before He returns?

An Illustration

Suppose there were two luxury liners on the sea and both began to sink at the same time, with huge numbers of people on board who did not know how to swim. And suppose you were in charge of a team of ten rescuers in two large boats.

You arrive on the scene of the first sinking ship and find yourself surrounded by hundreds of screaming people, some going down before your eyes, some fighting over scraps of debris, others ready to jump into the water from the sinking ship. Several hundred yards farther away the very same thing is happening to the people on the other ship.

Your heart breaks for the dying people. You long to save as many as you can, so you cry out to your two crews to give every ounce of energy to pull as many as possible from the water. Spare no pain! Spare no effort!

There are five rescuers in both boats and they are working with all their might. They are saving many. Then someone cries out from the other ship, “Come help us!” What would love do?

I cannot think of any reason that love would leave its labor and go, if, in fact, it is fully engaged in saving people right where it is. Love puts no higher value on distant souls than on nearer souls.

In fact, love might well reason that in the time it would take to row across the several hundred yards, a net loss of total souls saved would result.

It might also reason that the energy of the rescuers would be depleted, which would possibly result in a smaller number of individuals being saved.

Not only that, it may be that from experience you know that the people on that other boat were probably all drunk at this time in the evening and would be less likely to respond to your saving efforts.

So love, by itself, may very well refuse to leave its present rescue operation. It may stay right at its present work in order to save as many individuals as possible.

The Moral of the Story

The point of the illustration (as artificial and imperfect as it is, since the manpower of the church is NOT fully engaged!) is simply to suggest that love alone, compassion for lost individuals (from our limited human perspective), may not conceive the missionary task the way God does.

God may have in mind that the goal of the rescue operation should be a gathering of saved sinners from every people in the world (from both luxury liners), even if some of the successful rescuers must leave a successful reached (or semi-reached) people in order to labor in a possibly less fruitful unreached people.

Biblical texts that answered the question for me and defined for me “frontier missions.”

Revelation 5:9-10:

Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.

Genesis 12:1-3:

Now the Lord said to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Psalm 67:1-3 is representative of numerous psalms:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face to shine upon us, that thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations (pasin eqnesin). Let the peoples praise thee, O God; let all the peoples (laoi pantes) praise thee!

Romans 15:18-21:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience of the Gentiles (ethnon), by word and deed, by the power of the Holy Spirit, so that from Jerusalem and as far round as Illyricum I have fully preached the gospel of Christ, thus making it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on another man's foundation, but as it is written, “They shall see who have never been told of Him, and they shall understand who have never heard of Him.

A Closer Look at Romans 15:18-21

Literally Paul says, “From Jerusalem and around to Illyricum I have fulfilled (peplerokenai) the gospel.

What can that possibly mean?

We know that there were thousands of souls yet to be saved in that region because this is Paul's and Peter's assumption when they wrote letters to the churches in those regions.

This is a huge area that stretches from southern Palestine to northern Italy, and Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel in that whole region, even though the work of evangelism is only 25 years old at the most—and some of the churches are much younger than that.

We know that Paul believed much church work was still needed there because he left Timothy in Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3) and Titus in Crete (Titus 1:5) to do the work. Nevertheless, he says he has fulfilled the gospel in the whole region.

In fact, he goes so far as to say in Romans 15:23, “But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions … I hope to see you as I go to Spain.” No more room for work! This is truly astonishing when you think of the shortness of the time since the gospel penetrated Asia and Macedonia and Greece and Illyricum and how much there really was to be done in these regions.

But Paul is finished and is going to Spain. The gospel is fulfilled!

Explaining the Gospel's Fulfillment

What does this mean?

I think it means that Paul's conception of the missionary task is not merely the winning of more and more people to Christ (which he could have done very efficiently in these familiar nations), but the reaching of more and more peoples. There is no indication in Paul's teaching that he had a wanderlust to preach in new geographic areas. But there is a clear indication that he was gripped by the vision of unreached peoples.

For example, verse 11 (quoting Psalm 117): “Praise the Lord all Gentiles (nations) and let all the peoples praise Him.”

Conclusion from this survey:

The unique missionary task of the church is not:

  1. to win as many individuals to Christ as possible before the end comes, but;
  2. to win some individuals (i.e., plant a church) among all the peoples of the earth before the end comes.

Or to put it another way, there must be some people in every generation to pick up the mantle of Paul as well as Timothy. Timothy was left in Ephesus to minister to the church, keeper her order, and do the work of an evangelist in that reached area. But Paul was called to reach people groups that had no church. That is what is meant by frontier missions—not the going to any particular places, but the penetration of peoples yet unreached.

Stats on Unreached Peoples

Today millions of people live in such groups. David Barrett, editor of World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press, 1982), spoke in 1980 of 636 people groups “that have no numerically significant evangelizing church.” (p. 19)

Patrick Johnstone, author of Operation World (1986), says that there are 3,000 groups that yet need to be penetrated.

Ralph Winter speaks of 17,000, because he thinks of less differentness being needed to define a distinct group.

In any case, the job is not done in the view of the biblical call to reach every people, tribe, and tongue and nation.

Defining Our Terms

Now let me give a summary definition of both frontier missions and domestic ministries and discuss the tensions and how they relate.

By frontier missions I mean the effort of the church to penetrate an unreached people with the gospel and establish there an ongoing, indigenous church which will apply the love and justice of Christ to that culture. By domestic ministries I mean the diversified efforts of a local church to supply the love and justice of Christ to its own culture. In both of these I include the individual and his personal conversion to Christ as part of the goal.

If you have a missions week at your church like we do, you should never say that the reason you do is that missions if the ultimate goal of the church. The ultimate goal of the church is to reflect and display the glory and worth of God. Missions is one absolutely crucial means to that end.

But there are other means to that end as well. Indeed, there are almost as many different means as there are different people. If your heart is gripped by the love of Christ and your sense of justice is shaped by the will of God, then there are innumerable ways to apply His love and justice to our own sick culture to display the glory and worth of God—ways that are not frontier missions, but are crucial in our ultimate goal of glorifying God.

Illustrating the Point

Just take a few examples. The love and justice of Christ might burden you for the urban plight of the homeless, or the victims and perpetrators of crime, or the unemployed and hard to employ.

Jesus might stir you to engage yourself in the issues of poverty, medical care, hunger, abortion, unwed mothers, runaway kids, pornography, family disintegration, child abuse, divorce, hygiene, education at all different levels, drug abuse and alcoholism, environmental concerns, nuclear proliferation, the peace movement, terrorism, prison reform, moral abuses in the media, and business and politics.

The Lord might lead you to give yourself to a ministry of promoting and encouraging prayer or Bible study or friendship evangelism. He might move you to pour your life into junior boys in Sunday school or into kids' clubs or music ministries or visitation of the shut-ins or moms of preschoolers. And that just scratches the surface of the kinds of domestic ministries in which a believer can display the love and justice of Christ for the glory of God.

Connecting Domestic Ministries With Frontier Missions

Now what is the relationship between these crucial domestic ministries and the cause of frontier missions? Is one more important than the other? Is one a means to the other?

Let me try to answer this first in relation to the whole church, then in relation to your individual life.

First, in relation to the whole church my answer would be that domestic ministries are a means and a goal of frontier missions. Here is what I mean: Ralph Winter sat at my kitchen table last Sunday night, and as he looked out the window toward the city he said, “You know, the best thing you might be able to do for frontier missions is remake Minneapolis .”

What he meant was that it is very hard to take a gospel message from America to an unreached people if America has the reputation of being just as corrupt as other countries. The engagement of the church in the transformation of its own domestic front may go a long way to creating some credibility for the messengers we send to the frontiers with a gospel we say is transforming. So domestic ministries are a means to the credibility of frontier missions.

Domestic ministries are a means to frontier ministries in two other senses:

  1. If you view your secular job as a kind of domestic ministry—as I hope you do, because in it you can glorify Christ and apply His love and justice there—then the ministry of your job is a means to frontier missions because it earns the money without which the missionaries can't go.
  2. Domestic ministries are a means to frontier missions in that domestic ministries win new recruits to the cause of Christ and give them invaluable training.

So domestic ministries serve frontier missions by creating the funds, the personnel, and the cultural credibility that frontier missions need to be successful.

Some Needed Clarifications

If we stopped here, there would be a fundamental misunderstanding. Frontier missions would appear to be the goal of domestic ministries. That would appear to subordinate domestic ministries to be the servant of frontier missions. But that is not the best way to put it.

Remember the goal of frontier missions? Frontier missions is the effort of the church to penetrate an unreached people with the gospel and establish there an ongoing indigenous church, which will apply the love and justice of Christ to that culture. The goal of frontier missions is domestic ministries. The goal of a missionary is to help start an indigenous church that will do in its own culture all the life-changing, culture-transforming domestic ministries that the American church ought to be doing here.

To put it another way, frontier missions is the planting of a base for domestic ministries in people groups where they don't exist because Christ is not known. The surprising conclusion if that frontier missions is the servant of domestic ministries.

This cuts both ways. It means that young zealots for the cause of frontier missions should not demean domestic ministries, since frontier missionaries are simply the servants and promoters of domestic ministries in new places.

But it also means that people who are earnestly engaged tin American domestic ministries should be among the strongest supporters of frontier missions if they are really consistent. For surely the same Christian impulse that breaks their heart for the needs of people at home would also break their hearts when they consider unreached people who have no Christian advocates for these same domestic ministries. The same love of Christ and the same sense of justice that burdens a person for housing and unemployment and hunger and health care in Minneapolis should also burden a person for these very same needs in people groups where absolutely no Christian impulse exists at all.


In summary then, domestic ministries are not merely the servant of frontier missions; they are also the goal. Frontier missions exist for the sake of domestic ministries—that is, for the sake of causing them to flourish in people groups where they can't yet flourish because there is no indigenous ministering church.

This view of the interrelationship of domestic ministries and frontier missions has gone a long way in our church toward freeing the zealots on both sides to affirm the value of each other's work. They can now more easily see themselves as a team with a unified ultimate purpose—the future global glorification of God by members of every tongue and tribe and people and nation as a result of frontier missions and domestic ministries that have authenticated the reality and sufficiency of Christ.

My prayer is that that same team spirit will exist on your campus as well as you seek the Lord's will for your own individual life in this grand design that God has for His glory and the redemption of the world.