The work I do and write about centers on the concept of Gospel access—the idea that some people have access and some don’t. Some often describe this concept using terms like ‘unevangelized,’ ‘unreached,’ and ‘unengaged.’

It is worth exploring what this idea of ‘access’ means.

Access is not really about the individual. While concern for the individual drives the concept, Gospel access itself revolves more around groups of individuals—places, languages, and peoples. To see this, consider Romans 10:13-15: “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” The logic is clear enough, but how do we practically apply this? How, for example, would it apply to a newborn child?

A child born yesterday is, by every definition, unevangelized. They have not ‘heard’ the Gospel in a way that they can understand it. Further, it will be some time before they can understand–years, probably. So, what happens when they reach an age where they can hear, understand and respond to the Gospel? 

Well, we don’t send a person to specifically knock on the door of their house and say, “Hi, I’m here for Jane Doe’s gospel presentation.” They just hear, randomly and spontaneously, from someone within their community. The ‘presenter’ might be a parent, a Sunday school teacher, a grandparent, a pastor, a friend, a television program, a book–the possibilities are endless. (And, they may have to hear multiple presentations before they do respond. We don’t send someone back to their house for follow-up visits.)

To say it another way, Gospel presentations are not individually targeted. “Preachers” (be it a person or a media source) are located in a community, and the resulting “presentations” encounter (variously) a few, some, the majority, most, or all of the individuals within that community.

Access is not a measure of whether every individual in a community has heard. Those planning evangelistic campaigns try to do so in a way that ensures everyone in a particular region (like a neighborhood) receives a gospel presentation. (This is the idea of a door-to-door campaign.) But it would be nearly impossible to measure whether everyone in a community has heard. First, there’s the logistics of keeping track of who opened their door or not. Second, it would require agreement on what we mean by “hearing”–does it, for example, require understanding? acceptance? (I have heard it argued that if they haven’t accepted, they haven’t heard.) Third, and finally, even if an evangelistic campaign successfully covers a neighborhood, you have to do it all over again in a few years–because of the babies being born or people moving in.

All of this may seem painfully obvious and a bit belabored, but this is the reason why ‘access’ isn’t about a ‘once-and-finished’ task. We might therefore ask, then, is access achievable? Is it something we just strive to provide, or can we measure whether we have gotten to providing it?

A parallel example is in providing food for our children. ‘Have you eaten,’ asked of a child, is something of a status question. It can obviously mean different things in different situations (‘have you eaten today’ vs ‘have you eaten in the last few days or the last few weeks’). Most people wouldn’t probably ask this of my children in any sense other than a ‘have you eaten lunch—should we go get lunch together’ kind of question—because they assume our family can eat. In other words, how the question is asked of me or my family presumes ready access to food at home, and so it’s more of a scheduling or logistical or in-the-moment question.

If we can’t ask ‘have you eaten’ of everyone in the world, it is still possible to ask ‘can you eat—do you have ready access to food’. Or, instead of asking ‘have you heard the Gospel,’ we can ask ‘is it possible for you to hear, or at least have an opportunity to hear, in their lifetime?’ And, just like calculating how many in the world are hungry for bread, we can calculate how many in the world have ready Gospel access. This is the question that research into gospel access is centered around. Evangelistic systems try to cover everyone in an area; missiological measurement tries to make sure everyone is in an area covered by an evangelistic system that continually repeats to cover people missed, born, or moved in. 

People have unequal access. When we try and measure ‘access’ around the world, we do it using a variety of definitions and methodologies—thus, we get terms like unreached, unevangelized, and unengaged. But however we do it, what we always find is that there is an inequality of access. Some people have a lot of access to the Gospel, and others have very little. Some communities have lots of churches, preachers, evangelists, bookstores, broadcasts, and so on—and others have few or none.

There are a variety of reasons for this. Most of them come back to the fact that, at root, most Christians are around other Christians, and most’ Gospel presentations’ are actually in the context of ministry efforts to Christian markets. On the other hand, most non-Christians are not around Christians, but rather around other similar non-Christians (e.g. most Muslims are around other Muslims, most Hindus around other Hindus, etc.). They do not have Christians (and related Gospel influences) nearby, and often they live in places where culture and governments actively try to keep Gospel influences out. And some places, truly, are just places many (most?) people don’t care about.

People concerned with ‘finishing the task’ or ‘reaching the unreached’ are simply trying to address the issue of access. We can talk about ‘closure’ or ‘finishing the task’ or the like. We hear things like ‘why should anyone hear the Gospel twice until everyone has heard it at least once?’ These conversations are centered around and driven by this basic problem: that some people have ready access to the Gospel from birth, and others have little or no chance of hearing the Gospel in their lifetimes. For those people, it’s not that they’re resistant to the Gospel—they’ve just never had a choice. That’s not right.

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