An Urgent Plea Concerning Undiscipled People Groups: A Thai Perspective
by Daniel D. Kim
The author proposes it is time to move from a singular focus on Unreached People Groups to developing a
high priority for Undiscipled People Groups.
Change of Focus
By serving at Chiang Mai Theological Seminary in Thailand, I have been able to ask influential Thai Christian leaders this question: “What do you personally see as the greatest need of Thai churches?” I assumed they would respond with something related to evangelism since less than 0.5% of the 65 million people in Thailand are Christian (Thai Christian Resources 2008).
However, the majority of the leaders vocalized apprehension concerning the Thai Church’s effectiveness in making active and mature disciples after evangelizing people. What has gone wrong in Thailand? I came to a preliminary conclusion that the emphasis on reaching Unreached People Groups (UPGs) has fortuitously been negating the aspect of discipling in the mission equation.
The term “Unreached People Groups” has been well embraced as the top headline of missions since 1974, when Ralph Winter presented “The Highest Priority: Cross-cultural Evangelism” at the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. He was a divine voice challenging the Church to reprioritize its mission toward UPGs around the world as the most urgent and highest task. The value of his ambitious emphasis for the church to re-direct its eyes to these people groups has been incalculable.
I propose, however, that today, thirty-five years later, the highest priority of the Church of Jesus Christ is discipling Undiscipled People Groups (UdPGs), not just reaching UPGs. The urgent task of discipling every people group has not changed since Christ’s command in Matthew 28:19-20.
Fulfilling the Great Commission is only a fantasy if the Church does not focus on making disciples as its highest priority. Mere numerical church growth without solid discipleship does not please God. While the evangelical growth around the world could be characterized as a mile wide, too often it is no more than an inch deep (Guthrie 2000, 147).
John Stott diagnosed this acute reality during an interview with Christianity Today a few years ago: “None of us wants to dispute the extraordinary growth of the Church. But it has been largely numerical and statistical growth. And there has not been sufficient growth in discipleship that is comparable to the growth in numbers” (2006, 11).
UdPGs exist in unreached, less-reached, and reached areas of the world. Signs of a lack of solid discipling are evident in recent church history.
Example 1: Nagaland, a state in Northeast India, has been at the center of a great revival through evangelism and church planting. In spite of over ninety percent of the people claiming to be Christian, Nagaland has become one of the most corrupt states in the Indian Union (Wright 2006, 321).
Younger generations are trapped in the chain of gambling and drugs. The Church needs to function as the agent of transformation in the community. However, in the case of churches in Nagaland, although Christians regularly participate in religious activities, churches here haven’t functioned effectively as healthy disciple-making churches.
Example 2: Rwanda, one of the most Christianized nations in the world and the birthplace of the East African Revival, is filled with reached people groups. Nevertheless, it became the poster child of intertribal hatred and violence, culminating in the genocide of 1994 (Wright 2006, 321). In spite of successful church-planting movements, a majority of the Christian population did not reflect God’s biblical values of equality, justice, love, and nonviolence.
The urgent cry for healthy disciple-making churches does not come from the Majority World only, but from Western churches as well. Howard E. Butt, an English Christian, echoed a dangerous warning to churches of America many years ago, saying:
Fifty years ago our English churches were full like your American churches are today. But we were satisfied with big congregations that focused on the pulpit, routine attendance in the pew….and our shallowness. Consequently, people became disillusioned by an ineffectual Church and indifferent to her message. And today our churches are empty.
Your American churches are crowded with people today, but there is no biblical or spiritual depth among your laymen. Religion is largely a sentimental Sunday affair which does not radically influence daily life. If something doesn’t change fifty years from now, your churches will be as empty as ours today. If I were an American minister, rather than concentrating on the people outside of the church, I would spend all my time seeking the conversion and deepening those who are already church members (Oak 2003, 38-39).
What about churches of America in 2010? After modeling a seeker-sensitive approach to church growth for three decades, several years ago Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois, one of the most prominent mega-churches in America, began to gear its weekend services toward mature believers seeking to grow in their faith. The change came on the heels of a four-year research effort first made public in late 2007 in Reveal: Where Are You?, a book co-authored by executive pastor Greg Hawkins. Hawkins said during an annual student ministries conference in April 2008 that Willow Creek would also replace its midweek services with classes on theology and the Bible (Branaugh 2008).
Scripture and Discipling UdPGs
What are the implications of UdPGs in twenty-first-century missions? Above all, they motivate the Church to clarify, articulate, and own a solid biblical theology of discipleship in relation to missions. Discipleship is inseparable from mission.
Matthew’s Gospel distinctly portrays Jesus as the disciple-making missionary. In his incarnation, Jesus was born to inaugurate the Kingdom of God through discipling his people. He was a local Galilean who committed his life to discipleship and to exhibiting the model of how to disciple people groups. His last and most heart-gripping command was to make disciples, not just converts who pray a prayer after raising their hands to accept Christ.
In John’s Gospel, the greatest mission story is revealed when God decided to tent (dwell) among his people. The New Testament vividly depicts that the eternal Word of God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14). In his incarnation, Jesus exegeted the Father to us. He was thoroughly immersed in his Jewish culture; he participated in its celebrations and traditions; he spoke Aramaic with a Galilean accent; he had distinctive physical features and personality traits (Flemming 2005, 20).
The mission of God was achieved by the incarnation of Jesus. Jesus, in turn, said to his disciples and to us, “As the Father has sent me into the world, I am sending you…” (John 20:21). The incarnation is the foundation of his global vision, envisioning every people group around the world being discipled thoroughly through the Church incarnating among the various people groups.
Suggestions for Discipling UdPGs
Below are three suggestions to help local churches seriously engage in discipling UdPGs.
1. Local churches should promote qualified long-term workers over short-term missionaries. Churches need to seriously focus on mobilizing more long-term workers. The trend during the last two decades to increase short-term missionaries creates a serious concern of poor performance in discipling UdPGs. Jesus never presented or functioned as a short-termer, visiting the earth for a few weeks and then returning to the heaven. He stayed. Since God entered Jewish culture in the person of Jesus, we must be willing to enter the culture of the people among whom we serve, to speak their language, to adjust our lifestyle to theirs.
Our son’s birth took nine months from conception to delivery, but rearing him has taken us more than eighteen years. Likewise, discipling a person generally takes much longer than leading a person to Christ. Because church nurturing through solid discipleship demands much more time and commitment than church planting through evangelism, very few are willing to engage in it.
Churches and mission organizations tend to focus more on visible and instant evangelistic results that appeal to their financial supporters. It seems easier to show the JESUS film and ask people to raise their hands, or to organize an evangelistic crusade for a few days. But if Jesus, the disciple-maker, spent three years discipling, how much more time does the Church need?
Churches ought to take special heed to what the host people on the field have to say. One African believer shared with a missionary, “Short-term missionaries do not really get to know us. We may love them as brothers and sisters, but they are still strangers to us. It is hard to be influenced by strangers. We need more long-term missionaries…” (Guthrie 2000, 88).
A respected Thai Christian leader once told me, “New missionaries are not like missionaries who came to Thailand thirty or forty years ago. They stayed for a lifetime, while new missionaries stay for three to four years and then return home. It is a great waste.” Respected Asia Christian leader Ajith Fernando once said, “Coming only for short terms, they live as foreigners in Sri Lanka—quite removed from the people and ignorant of their struggles” (1999, 442).
So what kind of long-termers should local churches send? Churches should vigilantly screen to select qualified missionary candidates, not just those who have a mission calling and a heart for cross-cultural missions. They need to send people who have already proved to be effective and fruitful in discipling those in their home churches who speak their own language.
After all, how can one plant and nurture churches in different cultures with different languages when he or she has never attempted church planting and nurturing in his or her own culture?
Mission naturally overflows from revivals at home. Historically, missionaries touched by revivals in their own sending countries became carriers of revival to foreign fields (Town and Porter 2000, 99). A great revival in the Antioch church (Acts 13) overflowed into foreign fields with two missionaries who successfully experienced discipling people in their own churches. C.T. Studd stated that the light that shines farthest shines brightest nearest home.
2. Local churches should promote “people-centered” mission over “project/program-driven” mission. People learn from people. People disciple people and people are discipled by people. Projects and programs have their proper role in missions, but they cannot function as agents of discipling people groups. Unlike westerners, people in the Majority World do not learn from manuals, seminars, programs, and projects. They learn from the people of the manuals, seminars, programs, and projects.
Many foreign projects and programs are transplanted into the field of UdPGs without suitable contextualization. People-centered mission allows the local context to determine how to disciple UdPGs, while project/program-driven mission insensitively prescribes a foreign context, resulting in ineffective discipling. People-centered mission requires long-termers; project/program-driven mission tends to promote short-termers.
I have witnessed mission organizations and missionaries attempting to promote their special projects and programs by using itinerant speakers from different countries. They hire local translators and open local offices. Can you imagine Jesus using a translator to communicate his message? Can you see Paul taking mega-funded projects and programs to plant churches with local translators? Can you see Jesus and Paul paying salaries to local workers to disciple people?
In our church planting and nurturing in Asia, we established a policy of not paying any salary to local workers. We invest our lives and resources in discipling and mentoring them so that they can disciple their own people. We eat with them, cry with them, play with them, pray with them, battle together, dream together, and celebrate together.
3. Local churches should promote young, mature people. In the West, a current call to change careers in the second half of life has promoted the Silver Mission (a trend of people over 40 changing careers to become missionaries) or the Gold Mission (a trend of retired seniors becoming cross-cultural missionaries). Perhaps this is a good sign for missions. But if the Church is going to fulfill the Great Commission of discipleship, this trend adds little to discipling UdPGs.
Some might disagree with me, but I believe that with few exceptions, once a person is over the age of 40, it is more of a challenge for him or her to learn a new language and to adjust well to a new culture. I fluently speak three completely different languages and am highly aware of the reality of learning foreign languages. There are missionaries who expect local people to speak English or their home language. This is what contributed to what Ralph Winter called the “amateurization of mission.” How can people engage in discipling people groups when the quality of their language is poor and they lack cultural understanding?
To my home and supporting churches, I firmly communicate, “Send young, mature people.” There is a special role for Silver/Gold Mission in missions, but it is not typically in the area of discipling UdPGs. Mission is for every believer regardless of his or her age, but being a cross-cultural missionary to UdPGs is not for everyone.
It is time for the Church of Jesus to re-evaluate the focus of its mission. The world is still full of UdPGs and is waiting for long-termers who are committed to discipleship, long term.
Branaugh, Matt. 2008. “Willow Creek’s ‘Huge Shift.’” Christianity Today 52(6). Accessed August 19, 2010 from christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/june/5.13.html.
Fernando, Ajith. 1999. “Some Thoughts on Missionary Burnout.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 35(4): 440-443.
Flemming, Dean. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Guthrie, Stan. 2000. Missions in the Third Millennium: 21 Key Trends for the 21st Century. Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press.
Oak, John. 2003. Healthy Christians Makes a Healthy Church. Scotland: Christian Focus Publications.
Stafford, Tim, interviewer. 2006. “Evangelism Plus.” Christianity Today 50(10). Accessed August 19, 2010 from christianitytoday.com/ct/2006/october/32.94.html
Thai Christian Resources. 2008. Accessed August 19, 2010 from thaicrc.com/gsdl/collect/MG/index/assoc/D4110.dir/ 4110.pdf
Town, Elmer and Douglas Porter. 2000. The Ten Greatest Revivals Ever: From Pentecost to Present. Ann Harbor, Mich.: Servant Publication.
Wright, Christopher J.H. 2006. The Mission of God—Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic.
Daniel Daesoon Kim is director of Chiang Mai Theological Seminary and a church planter with his wife, Song Kim. The two are missionaries with OMF International. Daniel is a graduate of UCLA and Talbot School of Theology.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 70-75. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.