April 9, 2021 | View All Stories

Third-Class on the Titanic: Need vs. Access in Global Missions

In 1997, my then-teenage daughter and I went to see the film Titanic when it was first released. The film was based upon the historic 1912 tragedy that claimed the lives of over 1,500 people. To this day, I vividly remember my daughter’s profound sadness and anger at just how unfair it was that so many people lost their lives in the sinking of a vessel that had been proudly touted as “unsinkable.” She was especially grieved that many died because there were simply not enough lifeboats to hold the over 2,200 passengers and crew. The number of lifeboats on the Titanic had been reduced from 32 to 20 so that the deck would not look “cluttered.” As a result, only 705 passengers survived. 

Every woman, every child, every man aboard that great sinking ship was in need of saving. Whether it was the cultured aristocrat in first class or the emigrant alien in third class, each person was equally in need of rescue on that cold April night in the North Atlantic. 

First-class passengers, primarily women and children, were the first to board the insufficient number of lifeboats. Eyewitnesses recounted how several of these lifeboats were lowered only half-full while passengers in third class were, at first, denied access to the deck through the first-class areas. The first lifeboat lowered at 12:25 a.m. on April 15th contained only 28 people — half its capacity.  

“That’s not fair,” we say. That’s right! It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair at all.

Now, I believe we may properly apply this illustration to missions. We in the West, especially here in North America which is rife with the gospel, are like Titanic’s first-class passengers. The Titanic is our fallen world, and the third-class passengers may be compared to those belonging to the thousands of unreached people groups around the world who have such limited opportunity to hear the gospel unless someone comes to them. 

Nearly 42% of the human race — over three billion people — live in regions of the world with little to no access to the gospel lifeboat. That means they have little to no access to a local church or a Bible in their own language (if, indeed, they are able to read), and therefore little to no access to the message of salvation in Jesus Christ, our great Rescuer. 

It isn’t fair. It isn’t fair at all!

Whenever the issue of missions support comes up, especially among peoples outside our own culture, I often hear the question, “Don’t we have people right here at home who need the gospel just as much as people overseas?” 

That is an excellent question. And it has an equally good answer. 

This question comes pre-loaded with the assumption that need is the issue and that local need is more critical than foreign need. But, need is not the primary issue. 

Every person in the world — whether my next-door neighbor or a subsistence farmer living in Nepal — has an equal need of salvation. We are all equally needy because, as Romans 3:23 tells us, we are all sinners equally in need of a Savior, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

So the real issue is not one’s need of the gospel. The real issue is access to the gospel. And that is what we can actually do something about. 

Must we choose between our neighbors across the street and those around the world? Possibly Acts 1:8 is coming to your mind: 

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

There are many faithful Christians who understand this verse to outline a prioritized sequence for world evangelism. Accordingly, we must first reach the majority of people where we live (Jerusalem), then other people nearby who are like us (Judea), and then other people nearby who are not like us (Samaria). After that, with what resources we have left, we should finally reach those who are far, far away and are nothing like us at all (“the ends of the earth”). 

But this passage is not about priority; it is about the scope of God’s mandate for evangelism and the size of His heart for the nations. Notice the word “and” in the text: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” All peoples everywhere have equal importance. 

So do we choose between those near us, like us — culturally, racially, economically — or those far from us, not like us in all those ways? We must do both! For both have an equal need of the gospel, but like the first-class passengers on the Titanic, we cannot, we must not, rest in half-empty lifeboats while so many are locked in spiritual darkness with the waters rising. 

Both our unbelieving neighbors and the world’s unreached peoples are profoundly lost without Jesus Christ. Sin and death are just as real as the ice-cold waters that flooded the Titanic. Just as real and just as deadly. 

But faith, salvation, and heaven, likewise, are just as genuine as the ropes that lowered Titanic’s lifeboats into the frigid North Atlantic. And the promise and reality of salvation through Jesus Christ are an even more significant source of hope, joy, and comfort than the sight of the rescue ship Carpathia steaming toward Titanic’s numb, shivering survivors at sunrise on April 15, 1912. 

Advancing Native Missions partners with hundreds of indigenous ministries who field thousands of native missionaries with greater access to unreached peoples than most of us could ever hope to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  

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Eric Vess

Eric is ANM's International Communications Director.

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