William Carey, the Cobbler from Kettering who became the 'Father of modern missions', was famously rebuked 230 years ago. At a Ministers meeting, agitating about the possibility of foreign missions, Carey was put in his place by this patronising reply, 'Young man, sit down! When God chooses to save the heathen, He will do it without your help or ours!'
Could there ever have been a more monumental misunderstanding of how God chooses to work in the world to fulfill His great plan? Undaunted, Carey wrote his 'Enquiry' pamphlet - An attempt to show that the Great Commission remained valid, and probably the first missionary survey of the nations in the English language, showing regions, languages, main religious groups.
Carey was both disdainful and pragmatic in dealing with some of the main objections to missions amongst the nations. 'First, as to their distance from us....' He puts this down by saying modern boats have a compass and that sailing is now more certain and safe! He acknowledges that European food may be hard to obtain, but masterfully goes on to say that because the 'natives' eat something, so can the missionaries. As to learning their languages, Carey has no time for excuses ; 'It is well known to require no very extraordinary talents to learn, in the space of a year or two at most, the language of any people upon the earth.' This comment of course from a man who taught himself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Dutch and French whilst he was still working as a Cobbler and Pastor in Kettering!
The truth is, God chose to save the heathen by using the 'help' of ordinary men just like Carey. His conviction about the Great Commission, transformed not just his own life, but the pattern of missions that followed. Almost 70 years after Carey's death, in 1900, India and China received more missionaries than any other nation on the planet, mostly sent from the UK and America. Over 7000 men and women took Carey's model as their own, convinced in the upside down way of the Kingdom, that God was indeed wanting to work with them to reach the nations. Could there be a greater legacy than this for Carey?
In a word, Yes! What William Carey could never have anticipated, was the reversal of missionary culture which is now taking place in the 21st Century. Patrick Johnstone's excellent 'The Future of the Global Church' confirms that in 2010, over 82,000 Indians were sent out as missionaries by the resurgent Indian church. Yes you read that right, 82,000 men and women coming out from the nation that William Carey arrived in alone. Indeed, you can add to that over 20,000 Koreans and a similar number from China.
The rise of the church in the Global South and the Far East is shifting the missionary power base in our generation. This change is accelerated by the increasing secularisation of 'Post Christian' Europe, where it is possible to now call nations such as France and Italy 'unreached people groups'. The United Kingdom is a case in point. The home base of pioneers like Carey, and the top nation for sending missionaries abroad in 1900, is today the fifth highest receiver of missionaries on the planet - most of whom have come from the Far East, Nigeria and South America.
So it remains true. To paraphrase the famous Carey put down - 'God does want to save the heathen in Europe, and he will do so with the help of the Indian believers!'