International Day for the Unreached
Kent Parks (CEO, Beyond) and I were on Point of Network to talk about the day – you can watch our interview here (now in full video!)
For more information about the unreached, you can search this website for the phrase. I use it a lot.
Eric D on the Traveling Team talks about the “hijacking” of unreached: how it’s used for lots of things it’s not intended for
Globalcast Video: Pastor Chris Lazo talks about the opportunity and what the church should do about it
Ywam Organic least reached video.
Here are two Bible.com reading plans on missions/unreached:
Are we getting anywhere in mission? https://missionexus.org/are-we-getting-anywhere-in-mission/
God’s Big Heart for the Least: https://missionexus.org/gods-big-heart-for-the-least/
Great Commission quotes: https://missionexus.org/great-quotes-on-the-great-commission/
Perhaps the key thing to do on this day is to join with other believers in prayer, but also to use this day to make people at our church aware of the day – so that next year, an even greater participation can happen.
And, we can build networks of people working on this. In fact, this blog post is in large part the beneficiary of such a network: many of the links were recommended to me by my friend Jon Hirst. He is a Generous Mind.
Globalization, Diaspora, and where the unreached are
Yes, the world is becoming more globalized. Diaspora (refugees, migrants, students, business people, tourists, etc) are in lots of places. The UN estimates there are over 250 million migrants in the world.
BUT: most of the world’s non-Christians are still found outside the West. (And the unevangelized are by definition non-Christians, so most of the unevangelized/unreached will be where the non-Christians are.)
— Global Christianity (@CSGC) March 26, 2018
Over 2 billion–nearly 3 billion–non-Christians are found in India and China alone. These regions are estimated at half-or-more unreached/unevangelized. This is where the bulk of the remaining task is found.
That’s why I still focus on North Africa / West Africa / Asia.
What we mean by “unreached,” and the importance of reaching them
Although “unreached” has a technical definition, with complex nuances, sometimes when people use “unreached” they mean something very different. Exploring the different ways people can use “unreached” shows how easily we overlook or forget the people “unreached” is intended to help us remember.
- “There are lost ___________ (insert favorite denominational group here) sitting in the pews, who are just as unreached as anyone else in the world. Maybe more so.” Here, “unreached” is being used to refer to people whose spiritual condition is in need of revival. They may claim to be Christian (e.g. “sitting in pews”) but are showing little fruit (at least in the eyes of this observer). While not denying the need for revival amongst many Western churches, this is not what we mean by unreached.
- “I was raised in a Christian home, and my parents took me to church on all the major holidays, but I never heard the Gospel until…” Here “unreached” is referring to the “hardened” or “semi-hardened” sinner who has not yet responded to the Gospel. Two variants of this abound: those who “never heard the Gospel” from their supposedly Christian culture, and the “I heard the Gospel frequently but it never made sense to me until ____[I heard it this way]____.” Generally, people have more access to the Gospel than they think, but it often takes a number of Gospel-exposures for it to “stick.” (In fact, some studies suggest the ratio of Christian to non-Christian friends is perhaps the biggest key; if more non-Christian friends, it is less likely for any single exposure to stick.)
- “All those atheists in Europe are just as unreached as all the groups that are getting so much attention.” This example is essentially equating all non-Christians. It is true that lost is lost, at least in terms of the net effect of eternal salvation or lostness. But the major point that unreached makes is: reached non-Christians have had the Gospel brought to them, or will have it brought to them early in their lifetime. Virtually all Europeans know a Christian of some kind (many European non-Christians were once Christians themselves); many if not most know an evangelical Christian. And, for those who do not have a personal friendship with an evangelical, the fact is virtually all are within easy relational distance of evangelical Christians if they were so mobilized. (For example, every place/person in France is within a 30 minute drive of an evangelical church.)
- “This group has missionaries and they are engaged; we should go to the unengaged groups only.” I appreciate what FTT and their friends have done for raising attention and focus on people groups that lack any work at all. But–and FTT themselves would say the same thing–unengaged is not the same thing as unreached. Engaging a group is the first step on the road. Reached means that missionaries are no longer needed; the indigenous church can do the job.
The point of “unreached” isn’t that a person hasn’t heard. The same thing could be said of any child under about 5 years of age. The unreached are important because they will not have a chance to hear in their lifetime. It isn’t that the Gospel hasn’t gotten to them yet or that it hasn’t gotten to them in a way they can understand or that few of their friends are Christians. It’s that the Gospel will likely not get to them at all, and there are few plans (or none at all) to change that. They are forgotten: left out of our minds and strategies, which are largely focused on the people above.
Another on how closure, unreached, reached, unevangelized, etc. are not Biblical terms
Recent conversations have reminded once again that the terms we use to define the task are not Biblical terms. They are barely Biblical concepts. We try to drive our understanding from Scripture, but these measures are always lacking in some way.
It seems very clear (at least to me) from Scripture (Matt 28 and 24 are our go-to passages, always, but Rev 7:9 and pieces from the OT etc fit in as well) that we have been given a task. This task involves both proclamation of the Good News and disciple-making. There’s even a big, tantalizing, mysterious carrot for us: Matthew 24:14 can be read to indicate when the task is done, Jesus comes back. (Maybe.)
We know what Scripture records of how Jesus did things, but even Scripture tells us the record isn’t complete. (End of John.) And we don’t want to get “too locked in” to things we shouldn’t be locked in on. Jesus didn’t do Twitter – but then Twitter wasn’t around in those days. Would he have done Twitter if it had been? Eh…
Here’s an analogy: it’s as if I headed out the door, and as I headed out the door, I told my kids to do the dishes before I got back. (Rough analogy.) I didn’t tell them precisely HOW to do the dishes. So, what do they have to judge whether the task I have given them is complete? They have basically how I’ve done the dishes in the past (my example) and how I’ve shown them to do the dishes in the past.
When I said “do the dishes” did I mean just the ones in the sink? Did I mean to scour the house for every last dish? Did I mean to re-wash all the dishes in the cupboard? It’s only obvious if you know me – and even then, there can be some ambiguity.
When we define “closure” and “unreached” and “unevangelized” and “the 10/40 Window” and “non-Christian” and all these terms… we are getting into messy and murky waters. It’s not that we shouldn’t try and define the task – definition precedes doing and measuring. But we should realize that in many ways we are making up our own measures to try and describe “the things we have seen and heard.”
(Really, we’re describing the things we see and hear as recorded in Scripture…)
People will quarrel and argue and fight over these definitions when maybe we should hold them very loosely.
My general rule of thumb is: let’s take a definition and do it. And if Jesus doesn’t come back, let’s just take another, deeper, definition, and do that. And let’s allow for mystery and muddiness and murkiness in the waters while we do, and be humble and charitable about our work.
The nuances of the unreached definition
At a recent discussion forum around the definition of the unreached, I was reminded of some of the complexities and nuances involved.
The term unreached has a long history (read a great review article in the latest issue of IJFM). Concisely: “An unreached or least-reached people is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without outside assistance” (Joshua Project).
To know whether a people group is unreached requires us to ask five questions, some of which are easy and some of which are less so:
Is there a church among the people? On the surface, this is easy to answer. Part of the issue becomes what expressions of Christianity we count.
Is the church an indigenous expression? This is far harder. It can be explore through the data in the World Christian Encyclopedia and other sources. It is made complex by the fact that every country has multiple denominations or groups of churches. Each of these can be “more or less” an indigenous expression, and may span multiple people groups.
Might it evangelize this people group? This is one of the hardest questions to answer; in many cases there will be no answer that everyone (or even most) agree on. I generally interpret this to mean “all of the people group.” The “might” question is exceptionally difficult to answer because it’s qualitative. How do we judge whether a church might be able to evangelize a group? Is it a size question, or the type of strategy it uses, or the type of worship forms, or… This is the question that we grapple with.
Is it working on evangelizing the people group? This is far easier to answer. Plans and strategies will generally be visible. I think it’s easier to look for those who “are working on” instead of those who “might be able to.”
Is it evangelizing all? In some instances, church communities are already in a position to reach everybody, and are mostly doing this. In which case, the question is answered.
The challenging, “gray” zone is when a people group has a church (or multiple churches) that are indigenous expressions, and which outsiders believe might evangelize the group but they clearly are not engaged in doing so. Is the group then unreached? The operating definition of “unreached” is “has a church that can do it.” If the local church can do it, it needs revival.
But this is not to say there isn’t a role for outsiders. Sometimes, expats need to go where locals will not, because time is ticking away.
Unreached, non-Christians and friendship
I am traveling and a bit jet lagged. I have been tossing and turning for a few hours, and my mind has settled on this thought.
We have a lot of lists and talk about the Unreached, the unevangelized, the Unengaged. Different ways of prioritizing who we send workers to.
But remember these two realities.
1. Something like 80-90% (can’t know precisely) of all ministry effort is focused on believers. Pastoral, youth, training, discipleship, buildings, programs, etc.
2. Of the balance, something like 90% is spent reaching people who are connected to believers. Family members we pray for, friends and neighbors we invite to events and special services, the needy we know.
3. 80 to 90% (varies by region) of those who would call themselves non-Christians (Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, etc) do not personally know a believer.
They may have access to the Gospel in the sense that there are Christian resources they can avail themselves of (church on the corner etc) but no personal engagement.
So if we want to impact the Unreached it’s really a simple starting point: how do we get beyond the 90% we normally minister to and the 90% we know and consider “mission” to the rest we never see, hear or cross paths with–whether nearby or far away?
And most importantly what will motivate us to do the hard work of doing that?
Why the Unreached are Unreached: not just because people don't care
It’s important to remember one of the reasons the unreached are unreached is: they are difficult to reach. Access is a challenge.
As an example, many people I know who work in one particularly populous South Asian nation have noted an increasing difficulty to get in: the country in question has begun denying long-term visas. They can get in fairly easily as a tourist, but they can’t get multi-year, multi-entry visa or even a long-term visas that would allow them to reside in country. Taxation issues are changing too, making the finances of staying difficult.
Church planting movements take years to start. If you can’t be present (or even get access) for years, it makes work among the unreached particularly difficult.
This is why many say a local partner is important–and it is–but local workers aren’t the solution to every problem in missions. Many unreached peoples are unreached either because local believers don’t go to them, or find it difficult to.
In one conversation I had recently, the interviewee noted the urban poor in many situations across the 10/40 Window were hard to access: partly because working among them incarnationally required sacrifices on the part of the workers (sanitation, children’s education, safety, lifestyle issues)
but also because the platforms required to live long-term locally were jobs, and most of the jobs available were middle-class positions which made accessing the urban poor culturally and logistically difficult.
Caring about the unreached is a challenge, but let us not forget that solving the problems of long-term access can be just as big a challenge! The 2-axis graph below illustrates this: to reach the biggest sections of the unreached, we have to solve both challenges (awareness and access).
Solving these requires intentional planning, long-term commitment, a willingness to experiment (fail, try again, fail, try again, learn, finally find success), an ability to sustain losses and setbacks, and the resources to be able to endure (time, talent, treasure).
One missionary leader, recently to me: much of the success in the unreached peoples movement in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s represented the “low hanging fruit.” We’ve gotten a lot of that. What’s left is the harder-to-access, harder-to-harvest fields.
Q. Should Churches send only to the unreached
Last Thursday I wrote that if you’re called to Italy you should Go to Italy. This was largely in response to an article on Upstream Collective about the dangers of focusing only on the unreached, as well as a personal interaction at a Perspectives lesson.
I couldn’t think of anyone who would say we should go “only” to the unreached, so I asked Caleb Crider (also with Upstream as well as with IMB, a long-time Twitter friend whom I’ve genteelly sparred with over some issues from time to time) if he knew anyone where that was the case. He mentioned that several churches he worked with “sent only to the unreached.”
On Thursday in the comments I answered Tony Sheng, saying I thought it was a good idea for agencies to be specialists (e.g. going to unreached, going to Muslims, doing Bible translations, what-have-you), but churches to be more generalists (helping people discover callings and sending them through appropriate agency channels). So, what to make of this idea of a church only sending people to the unreached?
On the one hand, there is a huge imbalance in missionaries sent to the unreached. The comments on the Upstream Collective article notwithstanding, many, many agencies send workers to many places I would think of as reached. Greater Europe Mission is just such an example: I like what they do (in terms of disciple-making), and I promote their work on Twitter, but I consider Europe to be technically ‘reached.’ (I know there are those who disagree with me, of course.) ActBeyond generally doesn’t send workers there, so I mention GEM from time to time when the subject of Europe comes up. They aren’t the only ones, of course: YWAM, WEC, OM, Pioneers, NTM, SIM, Wycliffe, etc., are all in many places I’d consider largely reached (as are denominational boards like IMB, WorldVenture, DFM, etc).
So many churches send many people through traditional channels (denominational boards and parachurch agencies), and much of the work goes to largely evangelized (and often heavily Christianized) places. So on the one hand, having a few churches that send workers “only to the unreached” helps to tip the scales a bit in their favor.
On the other hand, I don’t know which churches we’re talking about. Based on the 80/20 rule I suspect 20% of the churches send 80% of the workers, and if many of these churches “only send to the unreached” it could be problematic. I suspect this is not the case, as there is no particular “surge” of workers into unreached areas that I’m aware of – and it would certainly show up if there were.
Still, on purely theoretical grounds, I really don’t like the idea of a church sending only to one spot. For one thing, what does that say to the people in the church who might feel a calling to some place else? It can make them feel like their call is somehow invalid and less-than.
Our own church has what I would call a “strong emphasis” on a program in Tanzania yet supports other things locally and abroad as well. I like that particular mix. The strong emphasis allows them to develop a specialization, but the “other things” allows them to acknowledge the callings of various people in the church.
The unreached are still underengaged, and I think we need to intentionally be challenging people to consider whether they are being called by God to do something about them. A calling to the unreached is difficult and we are tempted to shuck it off. I think the church needs to speak prophetically on behalf of those who have no voice at our tables.
That said, I think we also need to honor and help people whose callings may not be to the unreached. Obeying Christ wherever he commands us to go must trump everything else.
How is your church helping people to identify their callings? Why not share what you’re doing in the comments section below? Let’s spur one another on to good works!
Go to Italy: or, the dangers of focusing only on the unreached
Yesterday, two things happened. And as a result I’m breaking my recent personal don’t-post-more-than-once-a-day rule.
The first was this post, “The dangers of focusing only on the unreached.” I commented on the post, and Rodney Calfee responded to my reply. He notes, in part:
I think you’ve missed the point of the article, brother. You’ve argued for an approach to mission that emphasizes where those in the missions world see deficiency. Zach has argued for an approach to mission that listens primarily for where God is actively sending his people, and he’s left room for those two approaches to overlap and run in parallel. There is a qualifier you’ve overlooked that is rampant throughout the article—”only.” This post is meant to address the growing tide of belief that UPG-focused mission is the only mission. Many in that stream are trumpeting the idea that mission to the so-called “easy” places is somehow lesser—or worse, that it is not really mission at all, which is fundamentally and categorically untrue.
That focus in mind, there is nothing “straw-man” about any of his points. People tied exclusively to UPG focus absolutely do promote a skewed eschatological tie to mission, and it’s not merely the fringe. It is commonly held and promoted by big names/organizations in the missions world, and Zach was doing exactly what you said—calling them on it. The rest of your points, again, miss the fact that he is addressing those with an “only” UPG perspective. In the steadily-growing echoes of the “UPG!” war cry, people are being told that God’s call to people and places not on the UPG map is false. “God is only sending to the UPGs and UUPGs,” they hear. Zach’s analysis is spot-on where this is concerned.
This comment is rather disturbing to me. Not because Calfee disagrees with me, mind you, but because apparently some do promote a flawed missiology that says (1) our work determines when Christ will return [interpretation of Matthew 24:14], and (2) we should send only to the unreached.
I’ve addressed the closure argument before in Finishing the Task will not bring Jesus back. I’ve addressed the “send only to the unreached” in part in Why should missionaries be sent to Europe? But, for my part, I’m going to re-address it here.
The second thing happened last night, as I was teaching Lesson 9 of Perspectives, which is all about the unreached, and the current status of world evangelization. Afterward a young lady came up to me, and told me the story of how she felt about the big push toward the unreached. Her passion was for Italy, but she wasn’t sure if it was the right thing given all the talk about the unreached.
I looked her straight in the eye and tell her what I would tell anyone: “You go to Italy.”
The directive and command and calling of the Lord trumps every statistic. It trumps every situation. If she didn’t go to Italy, I told her–if she went somewhere else–she might find herself eaten by a big fish. It’s a little funny, but it speaks to the greater reality.
What we need is a balance between sending to the unreached and sending to the mostly-reached. No one should be calling for 100% to the unreached. The current situation (90% to the more-reached, 10% to the less-reached, or thereabouts) is a big red flag, telling us there are obviously challenges in discovering one’s calling to hard places, and acting on it, and sustaining it. We need to help people overcome those challenges, and we need to do so intentionally.
But this does not mean we tell people called to Italy to go to Indonesia. That’s a very bad idea.
Now, our organization–and others–do limit where we send. We at ActBeyond only send to unreached areas. But that’s an organizational-specific limiter, not intended to be a church-wide limiter. Other organizations go to other places.
I personally don’t know of people saying this, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. If you hear of someone saying “we should be sending only to the unreached,” call them on it. Or, send me a link, and I will call them on it. Mobilizers shouldn’t be telling people where they out to be going–we should be helping people listen to God for direction.
Life among the Unreached, 11
1. A picturesque village near Sana’a, Yemen, a country devastated by war.
2. Churches in Aceh burned, 1 killed.
3. Hope in Hard Places: Afghanistan. World Vision.
4. Syria: everything you need to know about how we got here. CNN.
5. India’s Hindu Fundamentalists: Al Jazeera’s People & Power investigates them and their influence on the country’s government
6. Video from Russia operated drone shows devastation in Syria war.