Defining a missiological breakthrough

What is “the goal” of missionary effort? If we have a list of x thousand “unreached people groups,” what does it take for each group to no longer be “unreached”?

One of the best discussions of “the goal” (in the context of the definition of unreached) in very recent history was Dave Datema’s excellent paper: “Defining Unreached: a short history.”

Three things to keep in mind when reading about goals and mission:

  • Unreached and Unengaged are not the same thing. A group can be “engaged” and yet “unreached”; it can even have a substantial number of believers and still be unreached. So we need to be clear and precise with what we mean.
  • Engaging a group is the first step to reaching a group*.
  • Reached and “All Have the Opportunity to Hear in their Lifetime” are not the same thing. Depending on the definition of “unreached” (and there are many – pg. 2 of Datema’s paper highlights 14 different definitions alone), “unreached” can be used by anyone to mean anything from “the Gospel is available in the people group in their language” up to somewhere around “20% of the group is Christian.” As an example, right now probably at least 10% of Han Chinese are believers, and there are still tens of millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) of Mandarin-speakers who will not hear the Gospel in their lifetime.
  • The strategy to get to “missiological breakthrough” (depending on how it is defined) may not be the same as the strategy required for all individuals to have an opportunity to hear.*
  • “Heavily Evangelized by Cross-Cultural Missionaries” and “Reached” are not the same thing. For similar reasons, a group could be heavily evangelized (e.g. told by missionaries) but not have a missiological breakthrough (e.g. the Gospel contextualized/inculturated/”implanted” into the culture). If all the missionaries are withdrawn and Gospel spread ceases, then they were not reached.
  • Missiological breakthrough, however it is defined, involves same-culture believers moving into the forefront of spreading the Gospel. For this to happen requires handoffs that are tricky to successfully achieve. In my experience, in most cases that’s mostly because the cross-cultural workers (e.g. missionaries) don’t really want to succeed at handing things off…

Jargon can sometimes be the enemy of clear goals and definitions. If we’re going to use insider terminology, let’s at least be sure everyone who’s reading what we’re writing understands what we’re saying.

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