by John Allan
A newspaper in Ohio runs an advice column entitled “By George.” One question ran like this: “Dear George, I am looking for proof that Unidentified Flying Objects exit. Someone said you had information on this matter. Do Unidentified Flying Objects exist? And what, exactly, are they?”
A newspaper in Ohio runs an advice column entitled "By George." One question ran like this: "Dear George, I am looking for proof that Unidentified Flying Objects exit. Someone said you had information on this matter. Do Unidentified Flying Objects exist? And what, exactly, are they?"
George’s answer was terse. "Dear Student, Unidentified Flying Objects do exist. Obviously, if we knew what they were, they would no longer be Unidentified Flying Objects. They would be Identified Flying Objects. Think, man, think."
The problem with terms like "unidentified flying objects" is that they don’t explain anything; they simply conceal a mass of questions. The phrase covers a convenient area of ignorance, no more than that.
We have the same problem when we talk about "unreached young people." The term covers an extremely diverse range of phenomena. Unless we define the target part of the new unreached peoples emphasis, which identifies pockets of unevangelized people in unexpected places, it is essential to sharpen our focus properly and to define our terms correctly. Whom, exactly do we want to reach an how can we reach them?
To answer the fundamental questions, we have to ask six subsidiary questions.
1. How do we decide when a particular group has been sufficiently "reached"? Very few people have no contact at all with Christianity. David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia identifies 2,100 groups who are still "unevangelized" but then goes on to say:
These cultures are not however totally unreached by the gospel; many are found in largely Christianized countries…many have small but significant churches of their own people. Less than half of these are unreached peoples.
And so a group can be "reached" with the gospel – in the sense that it’s possible to convey the Christian message to them – but still not be "evangelized," because it is most unlikely that they would pay any attention to the gospel if they should chance to hear it. "The gospel is therefore effectively hidden from them," explains Barrett, "until outside influences can be brought to bear."1
Other thinkers complicate the picture even more, suggesting distinctions between "untouched" (absolutely no contact with Christianity); "unreached" (no indigenous, evangelizing church); "unevangelized" (where most people have no knowledge of the gospel, even if a church exists); "unincorporated" (exposed to the gospel but unconverted). These definitions apply to whole cultures and groups. When we start talking about young people, who aren’t a group by themselves, it’s even more difficult to assess their true position. But if we are going to direct our ministry to unreached youth, we must be able to tell when a group of kids has been reached. Is it when a certain percentage of them trust Christ? Or when a youth ministry of a certain size is achieved in their culture? Or when there are enough resources available in their culture to make the gospel potentially accessible to every teen? Whatever definition we arrive at, it’s bound to be a little artificial. But we need a definition of "reached," or we’ll be shooting in the dark.
2. When we describe teenagers as unreached, do we mean geographically unreached, as, for instance, young people in Stone Age tribes in the Amazon Basin; or mentally unreached, such as English punks who have sat through years of required religious education classes in school without dreaming for a second that it has anything to do with them; or socially unreached, such as the thousands of teenage "hospitality hostesses" in Manila whose manipulated, exploited lives leave them no time to consider the claims of Christ? There are lots of ways of being unreached.
This is an important question because, obviously, different strategies are needed to reach different kinds of unreached youth. We may find ourselves having to make heart-breaking decisions about priorities. Do we pour thousands of dollars, for example, into redirecting staff, resources and time toward geographically unreached youngsters in remote areas? Or do we invest it instead in developing specialized ministries at home to unreached ethnic minorities in our own societies, or youth subcultures like rockers and skinheads, or exploited groups such as the young party girls? These decisions won’t be easy however we make them.
3. When do we reach them, what will their responsiveness turn out to be? Are they likely to turn to Christ in large numbers, or are we in for a long, painful slog? Soviet Muslim youth and Singapore plaza kids are equally unreached. But one is far closer to Christian understanding than the other, it would seem. Or are we in for some surprises? Are some groups more ready to believe than we expect?
Answering this question is important because it may help us to determine our priorities; where most of our resources ought to be allocated; how long we expect to have to devote to making a breakthrough; what kind of evangelism is going to be most appropriate.
A key to answering is to ask ourselves how many barriers stand in the way of young people in a particular group becoming Christians. Are there just barriers of understanding, or are their cultural, social and moral barriers too? Kenneth Cragg has written that a person’s "convertability" will depend on at least three things: "the minds understanding," the ability of the person to make sense of the gospel in terms of how he understands the world; "the soul’s expression," the ability to live a life of Christian discipleship within his own culture, without being unnaturally cut off from it; and the "will’s discipleship," his readiness to accept the moral challenge of obedience to God’s decrees.2
It is important to realize that all these dimensions exist, because we evangelicals have an unfortunate habit of assuming that once the gospel is explained intelligibly to people, they will naturally turn to Christ (and if not, it’s because the devil has blinded their eyes).
4. Some cultures in which we have to ask, Does it make sense to talk of unreached youth as a separate group? If we try to reach the young, rather than the whole family unit which thinks, feels, acts and decides as one, are we not doing something unnatural? George Peters insists:
Only churches that are built out of basic social units have the true health and the potential of rapid growth and steady expansion. The decisive question in founding a church is not how many people are interested in the project, but rather how many families form the foundation of the church.3
Even in Britain today, research shows that "there is closer agreement on the really important issues between today’s teenagers and their parents than between the parents and their parents." Parents have again become "a primary source of advice about personal as well as more general problems."4
What this means is that if we tackle the problem of unreached youth without simultaneously asking questions about their parents, we are in for a hard time. Are the parents unreached, too? How decisive is their role in determining what their kids believe? Is there a crucial difference of perspective between the "progressive" young and the "reactionary" old, or do the generations identify closely with each other? Can we reasonably focus our attention on the unreached youth as a class by themselves, or does the way to them lie through evangelizing the adults in their community first?
5. Next we have to ask, "Is it our fault, or theirs, that they’re unreached? In other words, are they unreached because we haven’t noticed them, or because they have actively set up barriers against us? Both kinds of unreached youth exist – the "kids in the cracks," as Jay Kesler calls them, who remain invisible because we just don’t spot the fact that our style of ministry leaves them cold, and also those who have made a deliberate choice to keep themselves as far from Christian influence as they can. They may be American bikers or Polish Young Socialists, but they are unreached because they want to be. Reaching them will be far more costly, far more difficult, than reaching other unreached categories.
6. Finally, we have to ask, "Are they unreached by God or by us? What is the state of their religious understanding? It’s perilous to assume that unreached young people have absolutely no awareness of a God who, after all, "determined the times set for them and the exact places where they would live…so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him" (Acts 17:26, 27). Stephen Neill predicted, "The Christian may find the situation far more favorable to him than he has any right logically to expect. Young people refuse, as they always have done, to become just what their elders wish them to be…The Christian and the non-Christian may find that they have many more concerns in common than they had imagined."5
In any culture, in any subgroup of young people, there will be shared ideas and concepts that the Christian can use as a launching pad for explaining his faith. There are keys to understanding that can unlock the door of the mind for entrance of the gospel. It is important that we take time, in formulating our strategy for an unreached group, to consider what these keys are likely to be. They must shape our message and the way we deliver it. It would be ruinous to march into widely varying unreached communities bearing exactly the same prepackaged message. That would ignore what God has already been doing, through the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, before we got there.
WHY ARE THEY UNREACHED ANYWAY?
Why are there so many unreached youth? There are reasons in the church, in demographics and in culture.
1. Church factors. Millions of young people are unreached simply because the church has not yet completed the Great Commission. Researcher David Barrett counted nearly 1.3 billion unevangelized people in 1988 and projects that number will still be one billion by the y ear 2000. A vast number of them will be young people. Our own failure to work in the right places, and to react flexibly in changing situations, is creating the unreached youth problem.
But even where the church is working, the cultural approach taken has sometimes prevented the spread of the gospel among certain kinds of people. For example, Jim Peterson claims on the basis of a little research in the US that 90 percent of the church’s evangelism is conducted among 50 percent of the people with whom the church normally comes in contact. In other words, half of the people receive almost no evangelistic attention from the church at all.6
What does this say to us in youth ministry? That it is all too easy to adopt the comfortable strategy of ministering to the youth who are most like us. They will put the least strain on our over-burdened structures, out threadbare resources and our overtaxed creativity and ingenuity. Because they will respond comparatively quickly to the gospel, we have the emotional satisfaction of tangible rewards for our work, and we don’t have the added burden of having to convince your prayer partners that we are actually doing some good at all. But if we all take this soft option, we will be multiplying the middle-class, literate, westernized church around the world, and reinforcing the barriers that separate us from the others, not pushing them down.
2. Demographic factors. Changes in society have also contributed to the unreached youth problem. For one thing, there are far more young people in the world than there used to be; the proportion of teenagers in the total population increases annually, and most of them are being born in places where the church is weakest. Furthermore, world-wide migration movements have mixed up cultures and created ethnic minorities in many different countries. The effect of this is often that young people grow up stranded on a cultural island, as Chinese in America, Turks in Germany, or Indians in South Africa. They cling all the more desperately to their cultural identity because it appears to be threatened by the society they are struggling to survive within. That can create a distance from the gospel that is all but insuperable. A Hindu teenager in Birmingham can live next door to an outgoing evangelical church and yet be totally unreached.
Demographic factors are also creating avenues by which we can reach some of these unreached teenagers. For instance, in some cultures young people are finding a new independence, a freedom to make up their own minds about things without the traditional controls of ancestral wisdom and parental domination. Previously these adolescents weren’t freely choosing individuals; now they are. For example, Youth for Christ in the Middle East is receiving an unexpected flood of inquiries from Muslim young people, such as would have been inconceivable 10 years ago. Researchers have shown that when primal societies start to break away from tribal religion and to move toward Christianity, "a striking feature" is the extent to which women or young men have appeared as founders (of new religious quests) in societies that were traditionally dominated by the older men."7
One of the most crucial demographic changes today is the emergence of massive cities. If we win young people in the cities, we win an unusually influential group. Yet it is in the heart of the cities that evangelicals often are weakest.
3. Cultural factors. The third reason there are so many unreached youth is a group of cultural influences that push young people away from involvement with Christians and consideration of Christian claims. Here are some of the most important of those influences:
• Some young people live in a society where commitment to anything is not encouraged. In many Western, or westernized, societies, young people have become used to adults trying to sell them things. Everyone, it seems, is after something: your money, your vote, your soul. So the best way to cope and survive is to develop what Christopher Lasch has called "ironic detachment," a shrewd, slightly flippant cynicism toward the sales pitch of any organization that makes advances towards you.8 Belonging to anything means losing your objectivity; "commitment" equals "fanaticism." So the young person who becomes a Christian is very quickly made to feel slightly odd, not quite acceptable.
The result of it all is that some young people are unreached, not because they have no possibility of finding out about Christianity, but because it never occurs to them that conversion is even a remote possibility. It would be joining somebody else’s institution, and that is just not an option.
• Some young people live in a culture where youth "subcults" have drawn away from the mainstream culture. It’s possible to make too much of this: there are some London punks who spend all their time posing for photographs for Japanese tourists. Yet the "subcults" do exist, and, for a minority at least, they help to determine identity in a significant way.
• Some young people live in a culture where there is little chance of sustaining a Christian commitment. It may not be difficult to secure "decisions for Christ" from some young people in Indian villages, in African mission schools or in Polish film crusades, but it may be virtually impossible for that commitment to stand, because the young person concerned does not find the support and help he needs within his own culture to grow on to maturity. Adolescents are more influenced by their peers than any other age group, and when all of his peers are unreached by the claims of Christ, it is very hard for any teenager to become the first to make a profession of faith.
• Some young people live in a culture where rival philosophies are making determined efforts to deflect their interest in Christianity. Groups of unreached youth can be created by the strong influence of a persuasive philosophy in their culture, whether an official state policy of atheism, as in Albania; a local religious tradition, such as in Buddhist Southeast Asia; or a powerful lobby, such as homosexual or anarchist pressure groups in the West. To reach young people under such influences, we need to take into careful account the ideas that shape their thinking, not just so that we can find convincing answers (important though that is) but also so that we can analyze what is true in them and what common ground we already possess. Understanding their worldview sympathetically can give us invaluable insights into how to make contact with such unreached young people and how to speak the gospel to their concerns and dilemmas.
THE COST OF REACHING THE UNREACHED
What does all of this tell us? Just that if mission agencies are to attempt seriously to work with unreached youth, major changes will have to be made. We might expect change on at least five different fronts.
1. Change our methods of discipling. We need to look at how we bring people the Christian message and ask, "Are there hidden cultural assumptions in the way we do it? Are we using methods that quite innocently and unconsciously leave some people out? For example, in our literature strategies, we don’t plan to reach only the literate upper classes, but because so much of our communication takes place through print, that’s who we reach. In our evangelism we tend to stress certain ideas when we share the gospel. If we talk about its benefits in terms of a satisfied existence, personal fulfillment, achievement in life, and so on, we will naturally appeal to the ambitious, upwardly-mobile, intelligent young person. But we may not have very much attraction for the less individualist factory worker who is resigned to a repetitive job on the production line.
A "teen to teen" philosophy is likely to be more successful in some cultural groups than in others. Kids will bring to Christ others like themselves; to cross cultural barriers requires a different approach. The methods we use will determine the kind of people we get. Reaching those we haven’t reached yet demands a change in our methods.
2. Change our allocation of workers and resources. As we have seen, strategies to reach the unreached typically demand a heavier investment of time and patience than we are used to. One of the most difficult questions in formulating a strategy for the unreached is to work out how you can reach new targets without fatally diminishing the resources available for reaching existing ones. Most of us are over-committed already, and the evangelical individualism that makes us stubbornly determined to do it all by ourselves doesn’t help either.
We could well find areas where, in order to make a contribution, we need to act in partnership with other evangelical causes. Ministering to the unreached is liable to expose us to all sorts of strange new configurations and alliances, some of which may not yield us much glory. This is how Youth for Christ Europe has proceeded in Poland, where the existence of YFC as an organization is politically impossible. This spirit of servanthood is slowly forging for YFC an important role in Polish Christian affairs.
3. Change the emphasis of our message. The gospel is bigger than our traditional presentations of it. New audiences, with questions, need a new approach. Yet, Chris Sugden and Vinay Samuel complain that there often is a "reduced, inauthentic gospel proclamation of many mission agencies and organizations."
Such a gospel reflects the spirit of consumer society. The goal is to make the gospel as easily and as widely available as possible. It is essentially for individuals, and therefore careful studies are made of individual psychological needs. The gospel message is presented to meet those needs. It does not address the wider social context in which the individuals live. The goal and method is strikingly similar to the marketing of Coca Cola…The hearers of the gospel are not treated as individuals in their context, but only as impersonal universal man; Coca Coal is not interested in your cultural make-up, only in the fact that you get thirsty.9
We must not get caught in this trap. If we do, our message will be rejected as irrelevant by those of the unreached young people we take it to. And those who accept it will become clones of ourselves rather than genuine examples of Christ at work in their own cultures. For example, it is obviously attractive to import a quality youth music team from another country while ignoring the fact that their style is appropriate to only a select few among the teenage population to whom we expose them. But if in doing these things we smooth our message down to a handy-pack, easy-travel form, we may lose our relevance to the unreached and transform the gospel into a bland marketing strategy.
4. Change our expectations. Working with unreached youth is a risky business, because we don’t know quite what to expect. We all have certain expectations of our traditional audiences. If I go to lead a school mission in the normal comprehensive school in England, I can predict quite accurately in advance what questions the kids will ask, which of my routines are likely to go down best with them, how many are likely to turn up at lunch-time events, even what sort of response to the gospel I can normally look for. But transplant me to a different situation, say a youth club for the unemployed in East London, and all my experience is useless. For awhile, I won’t know what works and what doesn’t when I’m doing it right, and when I’m getting it wrong.
If we pose our traditional expectations on a new situation, we are liable to be disappointed. A new audience will respond in a different way, at a different speed. They may find new meanings in Bible stories that we think we already know, just because their priorities in life are different.
Then there is the question of what we expect of converts afterwards. The grace of God may manifest itself in their lives in ways other than we expect. They may attach more importance to some manifestations than to others. A working-class girl in England, who became a Christian, and who as a result had stopped going out every night and getting drunk, was asked by an older Christian what changes she had noticed in her life. The older Christian expected her to refer to her previous drinking habits. That never crossed her mind. "Well," she said slowly, "I think I’ve become a bit more patient with people."
This is not to say, of course, that the gospel makes no absolute moral demands; that there aren’t some things that for Christians must be unconditional non-negotiables. But we need to be very clear about exactly what they are, and not go beyond them.
5. Change our location. Working with unreached people means going where they are. In England, left-wing political groups understand this very well, which is why they have started to dominate the local councils of inner-city districts everywhere. Dedicated political activists, graduates of Oxford and Cambridge who could be living in style in suburbia, have set up homes in the cramped, dirty, terraced streets of the deprived inner city and made friends there. Meanwhile, the Christians congregate in middle-class suburbs and shake their heads over the radicalism of Brent and Hackney councils.
Often the churches have fled from the very areas where they are most needed. Or, more typically, they have stayed where they were, while the people who most need them have moved. It will always be easier for missions to flourish in wealthy, Christianized communities. But to do our job with faithfulness we may have to die to popularity, attention, and large numbers, and accept an unseen, lonely, caring role a few miles down the road.
In former times, missionaries who set sail for Africa or china knew that there was a fair chance that they would never return. If they did come home, it wouldn’t be for many years and after several adventures. Now that we can fly from London to the Far East in 15 hours, the globe has shrunk and missionary work has become less of a dramatic commitment. But to reach the unreahced we need to recover the sacrificial determination of those pioneers.
So that we can handle the complex network of relationships in modern society, we tend to live in close contact with the people we most need and ignore the others. We can live in comparative wealth in a major city and never come into contact with the human want and misery only a few yards down the street. Public transport whizzes us past the slums and favelas; massive freeway bridges soar over the hovels and red light hotels. Societal trends reinforce this separation of communities. So in setting out to reach the unreached, we are fighting the flow of society’s current. We will have to live in unpopular places, make decisions that our neighbors, families and even churches will not understand, and pay a price that is less dramatic — but no less real — than that paid by the missionary pioneers.
This article has focused mainly on the daunting demands of reaching the world’s youth. They represent an inordinate, unimaginable challenge, an assignment we dare not take on unthinkingly or casually. But it would be wrong to be discouraged by the difficulties. History is full of examples of undistinguished, unremarkable servants of God who have counted the cost of achieving the unprecedented, dared to believe that God could do it through them, and flung themselves heart and soul into a ministry that ultimately changed the shape of the world. William Carey, David Livingstone, Gladys Aylward—Who at the outset would have given much for their chances of success? But because they had the conviction that God was with them, and because they loved not their lives unto death, miracles happened. May we have the courage to follow in their footsteps.
1. David Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford, 1982), p. 19.
2. 2. Kenneth Cragg, "Conversion and Convertibility," Down to Earth: Studies in Christianity and Culture (London, 1981), p. 117.
3. George Peters, Saturation Evangelism (Grand Rapids, Mich. 1970), p. 155.
4. This research is well discussed by Mark Ashton, Christian Youth Work (Eastbourne, 1986), pp. 21ff.
5. Stephen Neill, Crises of Belief (London, 1984), p. 219.
6. Jim Petersen, Evangelism as a Lifestyle (Colorado Springs, Colo., 1980).
7. Harold W. Turner, "A Further Frontier for Missions: New Religious Movements in Primal Societies," Wheaton ’83 Consultation on the Nature and Mission of the Church.
8. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcicism (London, 1980), pp. 173-174.
9. Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden, "Agenda for Missions in the Eighties and Nineties," Wheaton ’83 Consultation on the Nature and Mission of the Church.
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