by Glenn Kendall
Eleven years ago my wife and I moved in among the unreached. We surveyed our area and found no believers, not one. They were unresponsive, too. I still remember planning and praying for our first event.
Eleven years ago my wife and I moved in among the unreached. We surveyed our area and found no believers, not one. They were unresponsive, too. I still remember planning and praying for our first event. My wife made homemade donuts and hot cider. Our home smelled so good, so inviting. And we waited, and waited, and no one came.
I can’t count the number of times we were told No or, worse, simply ignored. And it was years before we saw our first converts. But now more than 20 have found Christ, and other believers have moved in among these formerly unreached. We are not yet to the people movement stage, but God is definitely at work.
Many missiologists would say we were good missionaries, except for one thing. Although we targeted the unreached, we prayed, we worked, and God blessed, we weren’t good missionaries because we were in Wheaton, Illinois.
I don’t know any missiologist who would say Wheaton, Illinois, should be the target of missions. We have several large and many smaller churches. Wheaton College, Moody Bible Institute, and Christian radio and TV reach us. A large John’s Christian Store is now within walking distance of our neighborhood. Plus, there are many, many other Christian outreaches around us. Even the EMQ office is nearby.
Yet our survey 11 years ago revealed no known believers in the 24 homes around us. We were among the unreached.
VOID FOR VAGUENESS
We have used the term "unreached" so much that the term now is vague. "’Reached’ is an ambiguous term that can mean everything or nothing," James Montgomery noted ("What does ‘reached’ mean? An EMQ survey," July 1990, p. 321). In fact, in that same survey mission leaders range over a broad spectrum. Bill Bright says the reached are not only saved but reproducing. On the other end, Ron Cline says reached means having the opportunity to hear the gospel.
The "unreached" have become, for some, any people anywhere who are not yet believers. For others, they are those who have never heard the gospel. With those definitions, and missions wanting to reach the unreached, missions becomes any Christian outreach.
But any Christian outreach is the responsibility of the church, not of missions. Therefore, missions should not target the unreached. It is the church that targets the unreached. My unreached neighborhood should not be the responsibility of missions, but of the church. And, in fact, without missionaries, the neighborhood is approaching 20 percent believers.
Many missiologists say that missions is going across political, ethnic, or geographic boundaries to peoples who are not yet believers, the unreached. But again, the term "unreached" confuses the issue. So if the goal of missions is not the unreached, what should the goal be? A look at history helps.
A LOOK AT HISTORY
In the early 19th century the goal was the Pacific islands and predominately coastal towns. For decades, people went to the unreached peoples who were then in the islands and growing port cities of the world.
But missiologists eventually realized that the world was bigger than coastal towns and trading centers. They looked beyond the gateway cities and found masses of people who had never heard the gospel. They were in the interior. It was hard to get to them.
But our predecessors went, often at great personal discomfort and even loss of life and health. This was the era of the inland mission. China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, Africa Inland Mission, and others were followed by the post-World War II explosion of missions, many of which were interior missions. They were not called inland missions, but their goal was the remote. Some missions would not even consider candidates who would not go to the interior, often alone, to pioneer a new work. (Greater Europe Mission was formed to create a means for frustrated GIs who wanted to go back toEurope; traditional missions would not take them because they were not headed toward the rugged interior of some remoteland.)
Once again, God was faithful. People turned to Christ, and many unreached were no longer so. Once again missiologists said, "What are we doing? Where are we going?" And they found that now the burgeoning cities and whole people groups were still without the gospel. But in 1989, Eastern Europe cracked and the race was on. Missions were fighting over themselves trying to prove that they were there first, they knew the most, or that they had the best "opportunities." And we thank God for what the flood of missionaries is doing and will continue to do there. People are coming to Christ, leaders are being equipped, and the church is growing.
CONFUSING THE ISSUE
But where does that bring us today? Has this all been a series of fads, or are there biblical principles running through the last 200 years?
The coastal missions of the early 19th century attempted to take the gospel to people who were unreached and had never heard. The inland missions of the late 19th and 20th the centuries attempted to take the gospel to people who were unreached and had never heard. The focus on the large cities of the world was an attempt to take the gospel to those who had never heard in those concentrated masses. However, the rush into Eastern Europe attempted to take the gospel to perceived responsive peoples, peoples who had been too long denied the right to hear, believe, and grow in Christ.
What has driven missions the last 200 years is the desire, even the obedience to Christ’s commission, to take the gospel to those who do not have it. Today, as we prepare for the 21st century, many again want to take the story of Christ to those who have never heard. At least that is where many young adults want to go.
But our terminology is confusing us. The word "unreached" is a hindrance. Those who began using the term were well meaning. They wanted to take the gospel to those who did not have an opportunity to respond to the gospel. But when the definition is expanded to include those who do not yet know the saving love of Christ personally in their lives, the unreached appear almost everywhere.
Now some people say we must concentrate missions on such places as the United States because there are so many "unreached" here. True, the majority of Americans are not born again, but does that make the U.S.A. a mission field? With the limited resources at hand, should missionaries be flooding into Wheaton, Illinois, and other locations with a similar percentage of believers? Isn’t this going to derail us from the goal of letting every tribe and nation hear? How can the U.S.A. be a missions priority when there are whole peoples elsewhere who have yet to hear?
Rather than focusing on the "unreached," we must focus on those who do not have access to the gospel, those who can’t hear because even if they wanted to find Christ, short of God’s divine intervention, they will not be able to hear the gospel. It is only remotely possible that they would ever get a Bible, meet a believer, attend a church, or even hear the gospel through the media. These are the people on which missions of the past focused, and on which we should focus today. They are the "least evangelized" because they have limited access to the gospel. But what about Eastern Europe? Was that race a mistake? No, not at all. Donald McGavran’s principle of going to the responsive and open is also valid.
For over two years CBInternational has used the term "least evangelized peoples" to mean groups where less than 1 percent of the population would call itself Christian, and where less than 50 percent has any reasonable opportunity to hear the gospel. This definition has clarified discussion and focused CBI’s frontier missions on those who have the least opportunity to hear the gospel.
This definition means we don’t have to measure thepercentage of believers in a population. We don’t even use the imprecise terms "reached" or "unreached." This allowsus to clearly focus on the least evangelized. However, it does not mean that we consider other work unworthy.
The task of the church is to reach the unreached. Missions sent from the church thus becomes sending people to that subset of the unreached with limited or no access to the gospel. Using access as the driving force allows for the chart on the below to clarify the mission target.
David Barrett and Todd Johnson in Our Globe and How to Reach It define World C as countries where more than 60 percent of the people call themselves Christian, World B countries less than 60 percent Christian and less than 50 percent evangelized, and World A less than 50 percent evangelized. Barrett and Johnson also say:
• 90.9 percent of the world foreign missionary force works in World C
• 8.1 percent of the world foreign missionary force works in World B
• 1.0 percent of the world foreign missionary force works in World A.
Clearly we are out of balance even if we allow for some improvement since Barrett and Johnson wrote in 1990. The focus must be rebalanced. We must send more of the harvesters to World A so that those peoples may have access to the gospel.
"Access" can clarify our discussions. Using access to describe where we should go will clarify our discussions. For example, in "Some thoughts on the meaning of ‘all nations"’ (EMQ, October, 1997), Frank Severn notes a frontier conference speaker who implied, "Once the gospel has been preached within a people, it is no longer to be considered unreached." Using the access definition of the task, it would be fair to say that the people group would have access to the gospel only as long as the preacher was among it.
Severn further notes that the speaker implied, "Any nation that has sizable numbers of its society who are members of a church within Christendom is considered part of the reached world." Again, "access" helps. No longer can we list this people as reached just because it calls itself Christian. Now we have to ask, Does this people have access to the gospel, to saving faith? And they may well have access. They may have a Bible, Christian radio, missionaries, even some evangelical believers. The truly seeking person might be able to find the truth. That becomes the question.
Severn continues, "My concern is that ‘people group’ theology so dominates mission thinking in North American churches that ‘true and valid’ mission only occurs when we focus on the unrelated people groups that have no ‘significant missiological breakthrough’ (no Bible, no church, no missionaries). The rest of the world is considered ‘reached,’ even though the church may be very small and many towns, villages, and even large urban areas have no gospel witness." Again, an access definition solves the problem. The Bible may be translated but not distributed. There may or may not be a church or missionaries.
However, the goal in using the term "access" is for a more equitable distribution of resources. The groups that have no access to the gospel would be favored for new ministry over those that have limited or much access.
Severn is very close to the access definition by the end of his article when he says, "It would be good if every church would focus some of its mission resources on a people group ‘which has no church, no Bible, and no believers.’" But this group might have an abundance of gospel on the radio in the local language. Access again clarifies and helps define.
I believe using "access" will help the discussion and lead to a more equitable distribution of resources. The church targets the unreached. Missions, a specialized arm of the church, targets those unreached with little access to the good news.
PEOPLE GROUP CLASSIFICATIONS
WORLD A — Least Evangelized People Groups (LEPS)
— People groups with very limited access to the gospel
— Less than 1% who call themselves Christian and less than 50% evangelized
— Almost no way, short of a miracle, that the person diligently seeking the truth could find Christ
— Probably inappropriate culturally to join a Christian fellowship
WORLD B — People Groups with Some Access to the Gospel
— The pereson diligently seeking the truth might be able to find the truth about Christ
— The Bible is probably in the language
— There has been a long-term Christian presence (churches, missionaries, possibly a few Christian institutions)
WORLD C — People Groups with Access to the Gospel
— Most people have multiple opportunities to hear the gospel even daily
— There are multiple Christians, churches, Christian bookstores, Christian institutions within an hour of most people; media presentations of the gospel are available
— The diligent seeker of the truth would have easy access to finding Christ
— It would be culturally appropriate to join fellowships of believers
Glenn R. Kendall is Africa ministries director of CBInternational. This article is a sequel to his article "Missionaries Should Not Plant Churches," which appeared in the July, 1988 issue of EMQ.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 2, pp. 180-187. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.