What unreached is not

In random conversations, emails, blog posts, and social media, I often hear the term “unreached” bandied about. You can actually see a cross section of some of the usages of “unreached” at the Oxford Dictionaries project here: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/unreached. It is fascinating to read.

However, “unreached” has a technical definition that researchers and mission strategists understand and use. This definition, put simply, is: “an unreached group lacks a church with the resources to evangelize the group to its borders without cross cultural assistance.”

So, some things reached/unreached is not:

  • “reached” doesn’t mean every individual has heard the Gospel; it means the indigenous church could bring the Gospel to every individual. (For one thing, babies have to grow up.)

  • “reached” doesn’t mean that every person is a Christian; some will hear the Gospel and not choose to follow.

  • “reached” doesn’t mean that every person has a Christian near them, as a witness.

A group is unreached if it doesn’t have an indigenous church that can do the job. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t mean the job is done. (Technically, the definition doesn’t even discuss whether the job will be done.) There’s a natural next question: how do we know if the indigenous church can do the job? And that’s a discussion that’s been had and debated for a very long time, and not one that I will solve in this post.

When someone says “we have to reach them with the Gospel” they usually aren’t using “reached” in the missiological “reached/unreached peoples” sense; they’re using it in the evangelistic sense. When we respond, we need to keep this in mind: we can hear passion, while understanding there’s a lot in that statement that would have to be unpacked from a strategic sense. “Who’s ‘we’? ‘Have to?’—who has to? what does it mean to ‘reach’? ‘with the Gospel’ can imply a very content-oriented approach…”

When I hear this on social media and other places, I try to just hear and encourage the passion, and leave the strategy and technical conversations for more appropriate venues.

Which populations will halve, and which will 10x between 2000 and 2100

The map below compares the 2000 and projected 2100 populations.

  • Darkest red will lose over half of their 2000 population by 2100 (Bulgaria, for example, is projected to fall from over 7 million to slightly over 3 million);

  • Lighter red will lose some to up to half of their 2000 population (Russia will fall from 146 million to 124 million).

  • What I would call a pale beige color are those countries that will gain some, but will not double in size by 2100 (USA will rise from 281 million to 447 million, a gain of 1.59x). These are countries whose populations are largely stabilizing.

  • The light green countries will more than double but less than 4x their population (Swaziland will move from 1 million to 2.5 million).

  • Medium green countries will more than 4x but less than 8x their population (Chad will grow from 8 million to 62 million).

  • Darkest green countries will more than 8x their population by 2100 (Niger, for example, will more than 10x, growing from 11 million to 192 million, then nearly half the population of the United States).

Population gains and losses between AD 2000 and AD 2100.

Population gains and losses between AD 2000 and AD 2100.

While considering these growth patterns, keep in mind the absolute populations. Both Russia and China will have population declines, but neither will change their ‘order of magnitude’ (Russia will still be over 100 million; China will still be over 1 billion). The following maps show countries by total population categories (millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions) for 2000 and 2100.

National Populations, AD 2000

Source: UN Population Prospects 2017. Light green = over 1 million; medium green = over 10 million; dark green = over 100 million. (Grey = under 1 million)

Source: UN Population Prospects 2017. Light green = over 1 million; medium green = over 10 million; dark green = over 100 million. (Grey = under 1 million)

National Populations, AD 2100

Same scale. Notice all the new “Over 100 million” countries, especially in Africa.

Same scale. Notice all the new “Over 100 million” countries, especially in Africa.

Some thoughts about these trends:

  • Global economic growth has been very dependent on global population growth. This will have to change. Many of the world’s most powerful economies will be seeing stagnation or even decline of population.

  • Stabilizing populations are largely due to a fall in fertility per woman, driven in large part by falling infant mortality and lengthening life spans. With fewer children per woman, women will have more time to devote to other pursuits, and this demographic change will thus impact social change. High-fertility countries with strong population growth will lack this demographic driver, and their family and gender dynamics, norms and expectations may vary from low-fertility areas for years to come. This could work itself out in religious differences between regions. What impact will Christian Africa, with some of these demographic norms, have on the rest of the world?

  • The fastest growing countries are in Africa. Some of these are large Muslim populations, but there are several significant Christian populations. By 2100, the five largest Christian populations seem likely to be: 1. Nigeria, 2. Congo-Kinshasa, 3. the USA, 4. Tanzania and 5. Uganda. Given the mix of large Muslim and Christian populations, continued religious tension seems likely. Africa is already home to significant religious violence in various forms, and this will probably continue. Environmental and economic stress will only aggravate existing tensions.

  • The interaction of China with the African continent is something to consider. As Africa’s economy develops and its ties with China increase, how much influence will African Christianity have on China?

Population decline, 2050-2100

In the red countries below, populations will not just be slowing in growth. Current projections estimate the total population of these countries will decline: that, in each, the 2100 population total will be less than the 2050 total. To take the two most significant examples: India will fall from 1.5 billion in 2050 to somewhere around 1.3 to 1.4 billion in 2100; China will fall from 1.3 billion to slightly over 1.0 billion.

Where 2100 population < 2050 population. Source: UN Population Prospects.

Where 2100 population < 2050 population. Source: UN Population Prospects.

These are very long-range projections. Much can happen between now and then. Recently, population projections were revised up because African countries grew faster than expected. But while the exact numbers might change, which populations are like to rise and which are likely to fall is pretty much understood: researchers might revise how much they rose or fell, but the rise/fall call is very rarely wrong.

Let’s take a moment and consider how these trends inform our strategies. Part of the issue that has driven me is the increase in population: we need strategies that grow faster than population growth. In China, India, Indonesia, Turkey, Bangladesh - some of the largest pools of unevangelized individuals - the data would seem to indicate population growth will become “less” of a factor.

We must keep in mind there are still very large populations in these areas. Even as growth slows, such large populations can add enormous numbers—far more than the much smaller church adds either through childbirth or conversion. This year, China’s birth rate dropped to its lowest since the 1940s: 15 million new babies. Back in 2000, when China had an estimated 60 million Christians, the World Christian Encyclopedia estimated Christianity was growing by ~2.4 million yearly: 1.7 million from conversion and the balance through babies born to Christian homes. We can estimate that double the number of Christians (now 120 million or more) should double the growth: to 3 million. This is one-fifth the national birth rate, and the gulf between the two seems very wide.

So while we are heading toward a world where the population will likely stabilize and growth will slow, we aren’t there yet, and we’re going to take the better part of 80 years to get there. We still need strategies that scale toward large populations and keep ahead of existing population growth.

Beyond that, we should consider the demographic realities driving these trends, and how they will impact the church and mission for the next several generations. In many of the “red” countries, we can expect to see age distribution pyramids change: the populations will “age.” We will need to consider strategies that engage older populations.

In some of the populations, special situations are driving the decrease of population. Russia and Libya are examples of this. Turkey and Iran are seeing plummeting birth rates due to the terrible internal economic and political situations, coupled with significant emigration. Engaging diasporas are not a silver bullet for world evangelization, but in some cases large pools of expatriates can make for strategy-shaping opportunities.

The reality is, there will always be children (though there will be fewer in some of these places in the future), and there will always be elderly, and there will always be people all along the stream in the middle. We in the church need to continually improve how we reach out to people, no matter where along the timeline and geography of their life they are.

Invite the church

I’m not saying it’s bad or wrong to invite people to church. But what would it take to say we are not going to invite people to church--we are going to invite the church to people?

To be the expression of the church to the people who are not part of the ekklesia?

To make disciples of people in our neighborhoods and then gather together as the church for times of worship, feasting, fasting and celebration?

Too high a cost to reach the unreached

If our strategy for reaching the peoples of the world moves too fast, goes for shallow-instead-of-depth, and cannot scale to reach the individual people within those people groups, the cost of the strategy is too high.

I believe "reaching the peoples" should be shorthand for "inculturating the Gospel into a people group so that it can grow, spread, and reach all the people within the group."

The way I've sometimes heard it described, the "end line" of "reaching the peoples" is the the "inculturation" (e.g. "moving into the neighborhood", to use the John 1 Message version). I believe "missiological breakthrough" is a critical step, but not the last one. The end line isn't reached until all the individuals have the chance to be made disciples, and the responsive ones are being discipled. This is the command outlined in Matthew 28.

The Big 5

Usually, at the end of each year, I take the last two weeks of the year as a combination of holiday and sabbatical/reflective time. I'm back in the office now. Usually I start the year with a review of the latest Status of Global Mission, but this year, I want to boil it down to what I am loosely calling "The Big 5."

I don't want to minimize the state of any particular population that lacks a Christian community. The unevangelized souls in Astara, Azerbaijan are just as lost as those anywhere else. Neither do I want to minimize the calling of people: you should obey God rather than men, and definitely rather than me.

At the same time, I feel it incumbent to point out the largest pool of non-Christians in the world: the (roughly) 625 million non-Christians found in the following five states:

  1. Uttar Pradesh, India
  2. Maharashtra, India
  3. Punjab, Pakistan
  4. Bihar, India
  5. Guangdong, China

Not only are these provinces "low-% Christian" areas, they are also heavily "unevangelized": which simply means that they are devoid of the resources needed for people to have a chance of hearing the Gospel in their lifetime.

I know there are significant efforts in some of these provinces: one, in particular, has significant Christward movements already. But these still represent a very small percentage of the overall population.

625 million is more than 10% of the world's non-Christians, and somewhere around a quarter of the world's "unevangelized." This makes these five provinces worthy of significant strategic focus. Change any one of these provinces, and world Christianity and world mission will be forever altered. But the cost of doing so will likely be very high.


  1. There are many fruitful Christians; they need continued shepherding.

  2. There are many people who call themselves Christians, but have no fruit or obedience; they need discipling.

  3. There are many people who once thought themselves Christians, but have since abandoned their faith; they need re-evangelizing and discipling.

  4. There are many people who are near Christians, know Christians, see Christians, but reject Christianity; they need faithful witness and an evangelization that bears fruit.

  5. There are many people who know no Christians at all, and have no encounter with the Gospel; they need an inculturation of the Gospel and their first exposure.

The problem I face: there is a lot of work around #1, and a moderate amount of work around #2, #3, #4. 

There is very little work around #5, among the unreached. 

My heart's cry is not to stop ministry among areas 1 to 4, but to have at least an 'appropriate' if not 'equal' effort around #5.

Peoples definitely needing Bible translations

How many people groups need Bible translations—and especially, how many frontier people groups?

This data is available on Joshua Project. For various reasons, the list isn't absolutely perfect: the question of 'how do we determine if a people group needs a translation' is a complex one that translators and their organizations are still grappling with. Nevertheless, for a global picture, a 'good enough' answer can be obtained and graphed.

I used Joshua Project’s "Definite Need" filter, and then aggregated by my Stage of % Christian levels based on the % Christian of the group. The results:


Stages: 0, <0.1% Christian; 1, 0.1% to 2%; 2, 2%to 8%; 3, 8% to 32%; 4, 32% to 90%; 5, 90% and higher. Stage 0 = Frontier; Stage 0+1+ "part of 2" = Unreached.

That 'definite translation need' at Stage 5 (>90% Christian) surprised me. But some hint as to the reason can be seen in the two graphs: there is a high count of groups, but a low population figure; this means that we're dealing with a lot of tiny groups. And if you look at the data set on the website, that's what you'll see.

If you have an interest in this subject, I suggest going and playing around with the filters and examining this aspect of the remaining task.

Release the tongues

At the recent Ethne 2019 conference, one of the things I enjoyed--I always enjoy--is worship and prayer in multiple languages.

For some of the worship songs, we seek various verses in different languages. For some, we take one verse, and each one sings it in their own heart language (all together). For some prayer times, we tell people to just pray in their heart language.

The struggle to understand another language - to sing words I don't really understand - helps me grapple with the idea that the world is bigger than me.

When we all sing the same song in multiple languages, or pray in multiple languages, the "cacaphony" of noise is incredible. I can't understand a thing of what is being said, beyond my own prayer.

But God can.

This is what struck me: this praise and worship isn't about me. It's about God. It doesn't matter if I understand everything: this is a living example of how God is greater than me, and understands everything being said, sung, and cried no matter what language it's in.

And, of course, this kind of worship represents Revelation 7:9, with every tribe, language and tongue before the throne.

This is the second thing that struck me, as it has before: why do we "think" we will all speak one language in heaven?

I often have this idea that I will miraculously be able to talk to everyone in heaven--from my mother to my mentors to people like C.S. Lewis to Bible saints like Peter, Paul, Mark...

What if you have to learn ancient languages to converse with ancient saints?

Why do you think you will understand Paul or even Martin Luther when you arrive?

In fact, one key way that "some will be last and some will be first": people who only know one language from “western” cultures may be “last in heaven," while people who had to learn multiple languages just to survive in poverty conditions now might be able to talk to more people right off the bat.

The value of marketing

In an airport on my way home, I saw a sign asking Chicagoans to adopt a pet. Every Halloween we spend money on pet costumes comparable to what we spend on missions to the unreached.

I hear people belabor this point, as if perhaps we should outlaw pet costumes and force people to fund missions.

The problem isn't that pet adoptions or costumes are bad and mission is good. It's not that easy. We spend a lot of money on things of the moment--things that give us a fleeting amount of happiness. God even allowed for this (for an interesting example see Deuteronomy 14, esp. vs 26).

The problem is that what we spend money on tells us a more compelling story than mission to the unreached largely does.

If we want to see more praying, giving, going perhaps the most straightforward solution is to tell more compelling stories.

Odd paradoxes in the Christian community

  1. We expect parents to disciple their children. We frequently reflect on how parents spend more time with their children than any pastor or youth group leader. Churches provide materials to support parents as they have spiritual conversations with their kids.

  2. We advocate for Christ-following men and women to serve as mentors for children--and even adults--who are in some ways less fortunate (e.g. kids who have lost one or both parents and who are at risk, or prison ministries).

  3. We urge people to join in various forms of evangelistic campaigns, ranging from "invite your neighbor to church" to "share the Gospel with your neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members."

  4. Some churches encourage peer-to-peer accountability groups, where two men will meet to share with each other about their week, perhaps read Scripture together, pray for each other, confess to each other.

  5. In fact, some churches go so far as to encourage people to host small groups, most often around subjects like whatever the pastor talked about on Sunday.

But for some reason, despite these facts, I run into person after person and church after church that flinches at the idea of the average person "discipling" another ‘average person’, or starting a group that would eventually itself become a church.

Discipleship, in this context, simply means a group of people who gather, pray for each other, read the Scriptures together, and ask (a) what they learn about God's character, (b) how can they obey the Scripture, and (c) who can they share the stories with.

How is this so very far off from any of the 5 cases outlined above?

If every parent is expected to have spiritual conversations with their children, and disciple them, why can’t we expect people to disciple "our children in the faith"?

When patriotism can kill the soul

Sitting in a foreign country, I am constantly reminded of some uncomfortable truths:

To some extent, it is okay to be proud of my country. But I probably don't have the right extent: some have too little, and some have too much.

Regardless, putting my nation and my people first over all others—whether "my" nation is America or the UK or India or China or any other—is never a Biblical act. God always desires that we as individuals—and therefore we as corporate individuals—put others above ourselves.

Nationalism and patriotism can be as soul killing an idol as materialism or lust or greed or pride.

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:37

Does this not apply just as much to love of country?

Christianity by world region, 1950-2050

Note the massive increase in Africa. By 2050, there will likely be over a billion Christians in Africa, due in large part to the increase in population there. Over half of those will likely be in East Africa.

Why? In AD 2000, Christianity in Africa was estimated at about 382 million, or 46% of the continent's population. Christianity is currently growing as a percentage—but at the same time, the population is growing too. By 2050, the population is likely to be 2.5 billion—and any % Christian north of 50% will well exceed a billion people.

Note also the relative size of North American Christianity to the other bars.

The implications are immense.

(Source: Status of Global Mission 2018, Operation World, World Christian Encyclopedia, etc)

Missionary martyrdom isn't unusual

Recently, John Chau's martyrdom has made the headlines, both in flattering and unflattering ways. Many people - even Christians - were shocked: partly that he went to a place where the language was less known, and partly because he went to a place that was openly hostile to Christians.

But missionaries go to these places all the time, and are occasionally killed--more often than mainstream news headlines let on. An instance of a martyred missionary is not unusual: nearly every year has at least one published case, and many years have more than one.

Some brief examples:

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They are what can easily be found with a few minutes of Google searches. Other agencies have had people martyred, but their names haven't made the headlines, and the agencies in question haven't pushed it into the press. I know several agencies have formal policies about what will happen if a person is kidnapped, or killed, that missionaries have to sign in agreement in advance.

Mission work is not always safe. Jesus didn't promise safety for his followers. The same Lord who offered healing and protection from scorpions and serpents (Luke 10:19) promised "when you are brought before rulers and courts" the Spirit would give us the words to say (Luke 12:11). Jesus said "if they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (John 15:20).

The point isn't for us to be safe. The point is for us to pick up our cross and follow him. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it..." (Matthew 16:25)

Are you a missionary?

While skimming some articles related to the Chau case, I came across this by TGC. It said in part:

Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.

I note in passing that this and several other related questions was cleared up by interviews given by All Nations, particularly this one with Christianity Today.

More curious was this statement:

Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries [emphasis added].

This suggests a belief that the thousands of new workers who are deployed to the field by all sorts of agencies are not "really missionaries" until they finish their time of language learning. Isn't learning the language part of the missionary task?

What about Wycliffe translators who have worked in people group A for years, and finished a translation, and now begin to work in people group B - were they once missionaries, but now not missionaries, because they have not yet learned the language?

Or, is it necessary to learn "the language of the target people group," or simply a language that they know? For example, if the people group is very small, is it sufficient to learn the major trade language they are fluent in?

What about missionary support staff - for example, myself. I am not communicating in the language of a target people group - should I no longer call myself (as some in my field of work do) a "missionary researcher"?

I suspect that a great many people in field and global leadership with major organizations still refer to themselves as "missionaries sent by..." even though they are not on the field speaking a local language.

I think the thrust of this point is that language learning is important. If the Gospel isn't communicated in ways that people can understand, whole people groups can be cut off from Gospel resources - and that is the heart and soul of unreached people thinking. We can certainly debate about whether it is more strategic to communicate in a specific language. And I applaud that idea.

But I think we need to be careful about filtering who is or is not a missionary, or who is performing a "missionary function," based on what specific (often Western) approach they have or have not yet done. Remember "the missionary function" is not clearly defined in the Bible. We infer a lot of it, but Jesus didn't send missionaries.

Chau: failure, martyr, or what?

The news of John Chau's death while attempting to bring the Gospel to a very remote, hostile, restricted-access region hit the mainstream news some days ago. Since then, there's been quite a lot of chatter about it, with lots of people trying to make sense of it. I am trying to hold myself back. My natural inclination is to write and tweet and talk, but I am reminding myself of this: we don't know the whole story. And we may never know it.

We, as people, want to "judge": either in the best or worst sense of the word. Our brains want to categorize, we want to put things in boxes, because that's how we make sense of it, how we understand it.

We could classify Chau as a martyr - a person who died, almost gloriously, for the sake of the cause. Similarities to Elliot are obvious.

We could classify Chau as a failure - a person who rushed headstrong into the situation without adequate training or preparation or effective strategy.

It would be easy to do either. But we don't know, and we don't have enough data to know.

Let's take a different example. What if someone trained and planned to be a Bible translator in, say, Africa. They prepared for years. They were expecting to spend decades on the field, working on learning language, translating Scriptures, etc. They arrive on the field, excited--and were killed two days later in a freak accident.

Knowing these additional details - the length of preparation, the length of time they planned to stay there, the scope of the work they envisioned, the nature of their death - how does this change our opinion of what happened? Were they martyrs? Were they failures? Or is this just a tragedy - a life cut short?

What if they were killed in a robbery gone wrong? Are they martyrs? What if you knew that in the midst of the robbery they were witnessing as best they could to the robbers? Would they then be martyrs, because they died in a situation of witness?

What if they were assassinated by radicals bent on killing Christian translators in the area? What if they knew the danger and yet went there any way, and were killed? Were they foolish?

There are many details we don't know, and likely never will this side of heaven. This much we can know:

  1. I think, hard as it is, that many times we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume personal failure. Many of the articles about the incident tend to color Chau's effort as a personal failure. Yes, Chau's first efforts to communicate weren't successful: one could say they "failed." I have failed many, many times. Chau just had the unfortunate situation of not being able to learn further (in this world, anyway) from the failures, while I've learned a lot. If Chau had had more time, what might he have done? He might have gone on to build relationships, share the Gospel, make disciples, and end up with an "Eetaow" story rather than an "Elliot" story. The failure of individual efforts is not the same as the failure of the overall project, and certainly not the same as a personal failure of character. I have failed, I am not a failure.
  2. We may need to forcibly remind ourselves that here was a man who earnestly believed in God's calling and to the best of his ability followed it, regardless of the cost. That willingness to obey is something that should be applauded.
  3. I think we need to be careful about establishing overall mission policy and strategy around a single event that is clearly an outlier. Several have used Chau's "example" (with what little is known) to articulate what they believe to be "good" or "bad" mission strategy. But few people go to these very very hard places, and it looks to me like most "good" mission strategies wouldn't send to them either. This is not the norm of mission experience, and I don't think we should judge policies or strategies based on "way-outside-the-normative-curve" events.

(For more, I recommend Ed Stetzer's excellent article posted yesterday after I drafted this. Link.)