SYMPOSIUM: The Unengaged: An Engaging Strategy….Or Not?

by Ted Esler

Over the past year or two, there has been a big push by a number of missionary agencies to “engage the unengaged.” Partnerships have been created, lists have been drawn up, and the sense is that momentum must be built for this missiological concept.

 Over the past year or two, there has been a big push by a number of missionary agencies to “engage the unengaged.” Partnerships have been created, lists have been drawn up, and the sense is that momentum must be built for this missiological concept. The idea is simple and effective as a communication tool. Starting the work in a people group with no work is an obvious first step. These efforts are related to what has become known as “closure missiology,” which emphasizes the completion of the Great Commission via missionary strategies.1

For the uninitiated, let me share some background on the term “unengaged.” It cannot be defined without understanding the broader (and more widely accepted) phrase “unreached.” The IMB provides us with these definitions:

A people group is unreached when the number of Evangelical Christians is less than 2% of its population. It is further called unengaged when there is no church planting methodology consistent with Evangelical faith and practice under way. 

These definitions highlight church-planting methodologies. Of the handful of definitions that I have found, this one at least quantifies the task while pointing to necessary strategies for reaching the people group. Church planting encompasses evangelism and discipleship. It is a broad, yet focused strategy. 

The list of unengaged people groups on the Finishing the Task website ( contains people groups “which have no KNOWN workers engaging in full-time evangelism and church planting.” It rightly observes that there may be unknown workers, and as soon as they are known, they can be removed from the list. 

However, this definition emphasizes full-time workers, which is an inadequate idea at best. Often, people groups have been engaged not by full-time workers, but by tentmakers, returning prodigals, or through non-contextualized means. In other words, it is a messy business in which the Spirit of God shows little restraint. In defining unengaged, there is an unstated assumption that full-time missionaries are the only (or at least best) way to reaching the people group.

Currently, there are a couple of lists circulating that highlight the unengaged. These lists are “prone to wander,” which is revealed by the inconsistency between them. They represent missiologists’ best attempts to define and categorize people groups that are inherently difficult to define and categorize. I fault no one for pursuing the thankless job of developing these lists.

In defining unengaged, there is an unstated assumption that full-time
missionaries are the only (or at least best) way to reaching the people group.

Now, to be sure, nobody wants to pour cold water on a good thing. I am not in any way questioning the motivation of the folks involved in developing the unengaged paradigm. Some are my friends (at least they were before this article went to print!). However, we need robust missiological dialogue. It is in that spirit that I offer my thoughts on “the unengaged” (note: these are my thoughts, not those of my mission organization, Pioneers).

1. The unengaged paradigm is a mobilization tool, not a missiological goal. The definition of unengaged is woefully inadequate to explain or describe the reality of spiritual needs within a people group. Mere presence does not qualify for engagement, nor does the deployment of a particular missionary strategy. The concept of unreached peoples as a goal of missionary effort was already considered by some to be too narrow and nuanced. The term “unengaged” only adds further reduction to our understanding of mission.

The real value of the term has more to do with motivating Western Christians to participate in the Great Commission than it does with setting sound goals in reaching people groups with the gospel. Engagement is not the goal. The spread of God’s kingdom, as evidenced by churches coming into existence, is a much better yardstick.

When mission agency leaders, pastors, and authors highlight engagement, we are not really speaking about the missionary task. The missionary task (and this is the task of the Church) is to fulfill the Great Commission. The concept of engagement is a small slice of this task. It emphasizes the need to go (to engage) rather than the need to evangelize, baptize, and make disciples. The Great Commission is not about the presence of missionaries; it is about the presence of God’s kingdom within a culture.

2. The unengaged paradigm is reductionist. Past definitions of unreached people groups had some sort of a quantitative indicator for being reached. Most often used and quoted is two percent, which can be seen in the IMB definition above. Is two percent enough to be confident that the gospel message has been adequately absorbed in a culture? Is two percent enough for a people to be considered reached? 

These are difficult questions to answer. None of us would be satisfied with a church in our own culture that represented only two percent of the population. Yet, when we look at many of the unreached people groups in our world today, a church of two percent in each of them would be nothing short of miraculous. Perhaps that is why it is tempting to make the goal the deployment of workers to the unengaged. The larger goal (which is already rather reductionist) seems unattainable. Setting a lower goal makes our task easier.

An article in Christianity Today on Rick Warren’s current mission emphasis highlights this sort of reductionism. He states, “We are making sure that we get a church and a Bible, or at least part of the Scriptures, translated, and a Christian in every one of those 3,400 unengaged people groups.” Praise God for Pastor Rick’s passion and vision. If only more pastors had this kind of thinking! Yet, note the difference between his vision and the long-held two percent goal. It is quite a long way from where we started.

3. The unengaged paradigm is a stop along the way—it is the engagement, not the bride. By this time, many of my detractors are no doubt thinking, “Ted, relax, before we can get to the larger goal we need to start work in all of the unengaged groups.” I understand this is true. However, why then do we use names like “Finishing the Task” to describe these efforts. Why not call it what it really is: “Starting to Get Serious about Finishing the Task” or “Reducing the Task to Something We Think We Can Actually Do?”

I would suggest that the unengaged paradigm is tactical, not strategic. It defines a battle within the larger war. I challenge leaders to ask themselves this: When there is a missionary presence in all of the unengaged groups, will the task of the Great Commission then be complete? Certainly not! Let’s not move our eye off the ball. The long-term goal is not to be engaged, but to have a bride. We want to see the Bride of Christ maturing in all people groups. 

4. The unengaged paradigm creates a fog in the pew. A consultant I have met likes to repeat the phrase, “If there is a mist in the pulpit, there is a fog in the pew.” My sense is that few who stand behind our pulpits are clear on the missiological idea behind “unreached.” After thirty-plus years of Perspectives courses, books, agency focus, and many other efforts, we are just now getting to the point in which the average pastor knows what an unreached people group is. 

My sense is that few who stand behind our pulpits are
clear on the missiological idea behind ”unreached.“

Concepts like the 10/40 Window have been remarkably helpful in making this happen. Knowing these concepts and building on them to take action, however, are very different. We need to consolidate the gains, not move the markers.

The unengaged paradigm does highlight the reality of our collective inability to mobilize missionaries (either by sending our own or partnering with churches in cultures). Sometime in the next decade or two, I assume the list of unengaged groups will dwindle down to nothing. What then? Will our sense of accomplishment deflate our sense of urgency in the task?

As a frequent speaker in Perspectives courses, I often highlight that the deployment of missionaries globally reveals that most Christian workers continue to focus on people groups with some Christian exposure. While progress has been made, the same emphasis that was needed in 1978 is still relevant and still needed. Just as the unreached paradigm may be making critical gains, the unengaged paradigm seeks to displace it.

5. The unengaged paradigm is not a product of academic and international collaboration. My final concern is that the concept was not vetted or discussed globally within the broader Church. My first taste of this happened in a conversation with a mobilizer who works in the Spanish-speaking world. I was informed that the phrase “unengaged” might work well in English, but it is a disaster in Spanish. There is no equivalent phrase that resonates clearly in the Hispanic world.

Could it be that the unengaged concept is one more in a long list of American ideas that was not properly studied by missiologists and considered by the Global Church? I certainly hope not, because the Majority World Church represents the largest opportunity for kingdom expansion. The unengaged paradigm would be much stronger if it were coming from Majority Church leadership rather than told to them. Laying a foundation of collaboration should be the minimal effort we make before launching marketing campaigns.

Moving Forward

Unengaged is here to stay. Too many organizations and churches have already gotten on the bandwagon. My own organization is wrestling with how to respond to it. In light of this, what steps should missiologists, missionaries, and churches take to make sure that this new paradigm is maximized while doing as little harm as possible to longer term goals?

First, let’s define our terms and make sure that the members of our organizations and churches understand what we are talking about. Deploying missionaries to the unengaged is a tactical step along the way; it does not finish the task. Our people need to be aware of this and embrace the difference. One missiologist has recommended that agencies consider using the phrase “least engaged” as an alternate to unengaged. The advantage of that word “least” is that it represents a continuum rather than the “on/off” paradigm that unengaged represents.

Second, we need to raise missiological awareness regarding church planting. “Church planting” is a missiological phrase, not a term we find in the Bible. It is an overarching concept for all of the strategies and methodologies we utilize to obey the Great Commission. The Church and the multiplication of the Church make possible other strategies. Only church planting encompasses evangelism, baptism, discipleship, and makes Christian maturity possible. We should continue to wrestle with the qualitative nature of the Great Commission, not just the quantitative aspects. 

Third, we need to raise awareness about scripture translation. Many of these unengaged groups are oral and we must consider the type and quality of translation work we do in communicating with them. These concepts must be done in the context of the local culture, as well as in partnership with the broader, culturally-near church. Past the oral efforts we must then look to helping with translation efforts so churches can thrive.  

Finally, we need to take a page from Warren’s book and learn how to communicate like he does. He is a master in taking a complicated task and making it attainable. This reveals the primary benefit of the unengaged paradigm. Utilizing its effectiveness as a communication tool is important for us even as we simultaneously work to raise the bar, not lower it, in the Church’s understanding of the Great Commission mandate.

1. There are many theological assumptions behind closure missiology as well as ramifications about this emphasis on completing the Great Commission. For example, some who advocate closure missiology may quote Matthew 24:14: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” In doing so, they are making the case that they are hastening Christ’s return by their activities. This is a rather human-centric view of eschatology in which the actions of people determine God’s timing. Since believers in the first century were prepared for Christ’s return, it is likely best that we don’t consider our efforts as ushering in the new kingdom.


Ted Esler is executive vice president of Pioneers USA. Ted was a church planter in Bosnia Herzegovina during the 1990s and has a PhD in missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 2 pp. 134-139. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.



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