What opportunities is your church providing for members to do missions and evangelism? Recent historical study has reminded me that churches which provide their members opportunities are the churches that create soul winners and missionaries. A brief review of the past 500 years of mission history is revealing in this regard.

During the 16th Century, virtually all missionaries were Roman Catholic. Why? Because Spain and Portugal were Catholic countries, and they were sending people all over the world. Christopher Columbus came to the Americas (an Italian funded by Spain), followed by the Spaniard Hernando Cortez and others. Vasco de Gama of Portugal travelled to India by way of sailing around the horn of Africa. And Ferdinand Magellan of Portugal was the first to circumnavigate the globe, though he was killed in a battle in the Philippines. These travels opened opportunities for the expansion of Catholicism, opportunities which were seized and produced results which are obvious to this day. Protestant nations such as Great Britain and Germany didn’t begin such extensive travels until the 17th Century. When English Puritan Christians came to America, this opened the opportunity for Protestant peoples to begin mission work among the Native Americans. The supply of opportunity created a demand for missionaries and evangelists to reach out to the newly engaged Indian nations. As the American Colonies expanded, opportunities to engage Native Americans for Christ grew as well.

Missions took a huge step forward when William Carey sailed for India in 1793, initiating what is termed the “modern mission movement” as hundreds of missionaries followed Carey to mission fields all over the globe. This mission movement happened for one primary reason: opportunities for missionaries to travel to distant lands greatly increased. This expansion of opportunities resulted from two primary developments. First, Protestant denominations had determined that the Great Commission was given not only to the Apostles, but also to all subsequent generations of believers. If the command to “make disciples of all nations” is given to every believer, then every believer is responsible to fulfill the command. Second, as access to distant peoples increased, Christian groups and denominations developed mission organizations to take advantage of this newly-created access. These mission organizations developed the means to send and support missionaries, which greatly increased the opportunities for God’s people to go on mission.

From our earliest days, Southern Baptists sent missionaries, but our understanding of the scope of our responsibility grew significantly about 20 years ago. Until the late1980s, there were many peoples of the world to whom we did not send missionaries. These peoples live in restricted-access countries, such as Communistic and Islamic nations. We had no strategy to send believers to nations whose governments did not welcome missionaries. But about 20 years ago, our international missionaries developed methods to send called Christ-followers to these restricted-access nations. These new sending methods created new opportunities for Southern Baptists to go on mission. “Have they worked?” you ask. Yes, they have worked so well that, today, about 40 percent of those we send overseas work in restricted access nations, proving once again that when God’s people are provided the opportunity, many of them will seize it.

The history of missions is largely the story of expanding opportunities for God’s people to engage a lost world. As opportunities abound, missionaries are sent in increasing numbers. Is your church creating opportunities for your members to share Christ at home and abroad? The more opportunities you provide, the more your people will engage a lost world. The Holy Spirit recreates us as Christ’s witnesses, and when we give God’s people the training and opportunities to share Christ, they will do it.