“The Need to Distinguish Between Domestic Ministry and Frontier Missions”

Below is Dalton Thomas’s excellent piece Driving Convictions Concerning Frontier Missions P4 “The Need to Distinguish Between Domestic Ministry and Frontier Missions” .  I greatly appreciate how Dalton brings clarity to this missions topic. The whole series deserves reading and thinking upon. Thank you Dalton Thomas for this message!


[read the intro]   [read part 1] [read part 2] [read part 3]

At the core of my theology of missions is the distinction between domestic ministry and frontier missions. The New Testament emphasizes this distinction. Therefore, so should we.

I dare say that, to a large degree, the fate of the unreached may hang in the balance.


It’s common in some Church circles to hear statements like these:

“We’re all called to be missionaries.”

“America is as much of a missions field as India.”

“Missions is as much about going across the street as it is about going overseas.”

“You don’t need to go to the other side of the world to do missions. There are unreached people all around us!”

While such assertions appear noble and sound beneficial to the Church’s evangelistic efforts, they lack biblical substance and have grave consequences for the unreached among the nations.

We are all called to live on mission where ever we are. And we are all called to obey Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations–even our home nations. I don’t deny these things! But in our desire to stir passion for the lost around us, we need to discern the apostolic perspective concerning the crisis of unreached people groups.

When we use the term “unreached people groups” we’re not talking about lost people in Orlando, Sydney, and Edinburgh. We’re referring to lost people who don’t have access to a Church, a Bible, or a follower of Christ. According to the Joshua Project there are almost 17,000 ethno-linguistic people groups. Just under 7,000 of them don’t have access to a Church, a Bible, or a Christian.

Those 6,000+ people groups who have never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel are the reason why I think it’s so important to distinguish between domestic and frontier ministry. As long as we believe that “missions is missions wherever you are,” we won’t be able to see the crisis for what it is. Consequently, we will live free from the appropriate burden that is ours to bear.


In the New Testament there is a clear distinction between the work of the evangelist in a location where the Gospel has penetrated at some level, and a location where the name of Jesus has never been spoken. A comparison of two passages makes this distinction quite clear. In II Timothy, we read of Paul’s words to a young man who was established in a city (possibly Ephesus) where Paul had previously labored.[1] He wrote to Timothy saying

. . . do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (1 Timothy 4:5)

The “work of an evangelist” and the “ministry” to which Timothy was called was in a city in which the Gospel had already been preached and a Church already established. This is what we mean by “domestic ministry.” He was laboring in a location in which the Gospel had already penetrated. He was hard at work among a community in which seeds of Gospel truth were being scattered by an established Church Body. Let’s compare this with Romans 15 where Paul explains his own calling.

I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation . . . (Romans 15:20)

Timothy was fulfilling a ministry of domestic evangelism. Paul was fulfilling a ministry of frontier evangelism. Timothy was “building on a foundation” that was laid by “another.” Paul was driven by passion to lay the foundation in regions where there wasn’t one.


Frontier missions and domestic evangelism are both legitimate callings that are indispensible to the advance of God’s purposes in the nations. It is important therefore that we do not exalt one above the other. Both are to be honored, proclaimed, and embraced. Some are called to pour themselves out in “Ephesus” where the Gospel has taken root, and some are called to pour themselves out in “Macedonia” where the name of the Lord has yet to roll from the tongue of even one individual. We must be careful to never hold one in a higher regard than the other. However, with that said, it is apparent that the Church needs to hold frontier missions in a higher regard than we currently do.

Tragically, at this point, frontier missions is simply not a priority to most in the western Church. We invest less than 1% of our resources into ministry to unreached people groups. This means that either God is unconcerned about the issue (which leaves Him responsible for the near wholesale avoidance of these people), or it is we who are indifferent (which places the guilt of negligence upon us). The website of one missions organization puts it this way:

If everyone is obeying God’s “calling” to be a missionary wherever they are then God is calling 99.9995% of people to work among the 44.3% of the world population that already has the gospel, and calling virtually no one (.0005%) to relocate among the other 53.7% of the world population that are not Christian. You have a better chance of being in a plane crash than being one of the 2 billion Christians in the world that are UPG [Unreached People Groups] missionaries.[2]

The fact that we in the west are so unconcerned about the unreached and unengaged is an injustice of epic proportions. Still, after two thousand years, half of the earth’s population has never met an ambassador for Christ! In the book The Spiritual Secret of Hudson Taylor, the son and daughter-in-law of the frontier missionary recall the story of an interaction between Taylor and a new and deeply grateful Chinese convert. The new believer confronted him and

unexpectedly raised the question: “How long have you had the Glad Tidings in your country?” “Some hundreds of years,” was the reluctant reply [from Taylor]. “What! hundreds of years? “My father sought the Truth,” he continued sadly, “and died without finding it. Oh, why did you not come sooner?” It was a moment, the pain of which Hudson Taylor could never forget, and which deepened his earnestness in seeking to bring Christ to those who might still be reached.[3]


The Joshua Project[4] has done extensive research concerning the progress of the Gospel in the nations among the unreached and unengaged. Their research puts the task of frontier missions in perspective.[5] As of November 2011 they reported the following statistics about the progress of the Gospel by people group and global population.

Progress by People Group

Total People Groups: 16,750
Unreached People Groups 6,921
% People Groups Unreached: 41.3 %

Progress by Population

World Population: 6.83 Billion
Population in Unreached People Groups: 2.84 Billion
% of Population in Unreached People Groups: 41.5%

The largest religious block on the map of the unreached and unengaged is Islam. The Joshua Project reports these sobering statistics.

– The population of the Muslim world is 1,537,185,000.
– Within that population of 1.5+ billion people are 2,840 different unreached people groups.
– 87.4 % of those 1.5+ billion people have yet to hear the Gospel.
– Or, to say it another way, 1,343,613,000 Muslims have yet to hear the name of Jesus.


While every religious block constitutes a substantial challenge to the global Church, clearly Islam is the most daunting. It is the largest as well as the most hostile. Consequently, the number of missionaries on the field is tragically few. In the wake of the September 11th attacks, Joshua Lingel explained the level of activity within this block by saying that

Only one percent of all Christian missionaries go to do direct ministry amongst Muslims (1,800 missionaries total). That’s one missionary for every 550,000 Muslims! For every Mormon you have ever met, there are 130 Muslims in the world. That’s equivalent to having about five churches and 150 pastors for all of North America. Said differently, it would be like having the option to go to church in Texas (if you’re fortunate to be that close) or say Boston perhaps, and three other locations in the U.S. on any given Sunday morning.[6]

This should take our breath away, especially considering that the challenge of engaging the Islamic world is not new. Writing from Bahrain in 1902, Samuel Zwemer, the American missionary, historian, and “apostle to Islam,” appealed to an emerging generation of Christians saying that

the twentieth century is to be preeminently a century of missions to Moslems.[7]

The twentieth century has come and gone. And the majority of the Islamic world remains unreached and unengaged. While the number of laborers has considerably increased since Zwemer’s day, so also has the population of Muslims. In other words, we are no closer now than we were 100 years ago to accomplishing the task of establishing a faithful Gospel witness among those whose allegiance now belongs to Mohamed. The proverbial boundaries of the field have expanded, and the Church in the west has not proportionally expanded its efforts to reap it. Thus, it is a harvest which remains ready, yet largeley unengaged.

The challenge of serving the Muslim world demands a thoughtful and sober response. This will be the final frontier of world missions and the Church’s greatest challenge. It will by no means be the only challenge. But it will be the greatest, and the costliest.

The Church is long overdue in its response to embrace the responsibility of engaging the Islamic world. The dangers that will accompany our doing so are real. But so are the scriptural commands to preach the Gospel to all peoples, and the promises of a harvest from every tribe and tongue. The moment we exalt the dangers above the commands and the promises that accompany them, we have gone astray. Thus, while it would be foolish to ignore the dangers, we must be careful to view them in light of all that Jesus has commanded and promised us.

The fact that over 40% of the earth’s population is considered unreached after 2,000 years is not OK.
We don’t avoid the unreached peoples of the earth because of a lack of resources. As Leonard Ravenill said, ”Today Christians spend more money on dog food then missions.” The issue is motivation. We don’t believe that the task is worth the effort and the blood. Acknowledging the difference between domestic and frontier ministry isn’t the solution. But it’s a step in the right direction.
Without a biblical understanding of the differences between domestic and frontier ministry we will be unable to discern our role in the great drama at the end of the age. The Gospel of the Kingdom will penetrate every nation, people, language, and tribe (Mt. 24:9, 14; Rev. 7:9-14). And we have a part to play. But without this crucial framework, we will be blind to the crisis at hand, the urgency of the hour, and the monumental importance of the task.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14)

[1] Visit joshuaproject.net for more information.

[2] Statistics of this kind vary depending on who is compiling the information and how. The Joshua Project is the most reliable by virtue of their extensive research.

[3] Joshua Lingel, “Consider Again Your Vocation,” i2 Ministries (website), accessed November 2011, http://www.i2ministries.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=13:consider-again-your-vocation&catid=27:articles-category&Itemid=72.

[4] Samuel M. Zwemer, Raymund Lull: First Missionary to the Moslems (Diggory Press, 2008) Kindle Edition, Preface.

[5] See Acts 19

[6] The Traveling Team (website), accessed October 2011, http://www.thetravelingteam.org/node/186/generalstatistics.

[7] Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 1955), 81.