by Damian Efta
This and other questions must be faced by the proponents of the unreached peoples movement.
People who take the Great Commission seriously have to be concerned about unreached people. The logic that led my wife and me to become missionaries went something like this:
"We have so many opportunities to hear the gospel on television and radio, in books and magazines, and at many evangelical churches, but because so many other people have little or no exposure to the gospel, we should focus our efforts on those who may never hear it. Work in our country is certainly legitimate and pleasing to God, but we should put more emphasis on those in unreached areas."
This logic also influenced our decision about what country we wanted to serve in. We wanted to go to people who had never heard the gospel. Therefore, we also supported what has been called the unreached peoples movement. This movement pressures us to examine our efforts, to think about those who have not yet heard the gospel, and to target the whole world in our missionary strategies.
That’s all to the good, but I do have some concerns about the movement that fall into three areas: (1) the authority the movement seems to take to itself; (2) the trendy nature of the movement, or our inclination to follow missiological fads; (3) the movement’s silence about people we usually call nominal Christians.
Unreached people are first defined as belonging to a homogeneous group sharing some basic characteristics that link them and distinguish them from other groups. Second, they are defined as "a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without requiring outside (cross-cultural) assistance" (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization).
My first concern has to do with the movement’s authority. Instead of using the Bible to evaluate the movement, the movement is used as an exegetical grid for the Bible. We use the movement to interpret the Great Commission and its implications for our time. Instead, we should use the Great Commission and all of Scripture to determine the implications and validity of the movement. Very simply, we have placed a colored lens over the Great Commission and see only what that lens allows.
This process begins with the very term itself: "Unreached People Groups." It implies that all other groups are reached. If a specific group does not meet the established criteria, then it apparently is reached and no longer needs outside help. Whether the advocates of this movement mean to or not, they imply that cross-cultural ministry among a reached group is secondary and less significant than work among the unreached. By their definition, cross-cultural work in a reached group is not needed.
This brings us to the crucial matter of classifying groups as reached or unreached. If a group meets one of the following criteria, it is considered unreached:
1. It has not heard the gospel.
2. It has not responded to the gospel. Some mission agencies define this as one percent or less of the group are born-again Christians.
3. It does not have a church.
4. It does not have the Bible in its mother tongue.
5. It does not have the Bible readily available.
This list thus becomes the determining factor in carrying out the Great Commission. The problem with it is that it represents a purely human perspective. It was not given by God. It may not be unbiblical, but it certainly is extra-biblical.
The outcome is that the unreached label almost totally directs the missionary interest and work of donors, churches, missionaries, and mission agencies. The criteria above are not wrong, but we must be extremely cautious about how we use them. If not, they can easily become the major directional force for God’s work.
How does the movement’s list compare with Scripture? In the New Testament we find a different way of determining missionary effort. The apostle Paul didnot use arbitrary statistics to set his course, but he relied on the Holy Spirit. Of course, he had a plan (cf. Rom. 15:20), but his plan was never superimposed as a grid to determine the Spirit’s leading.
Is the unreached peoples movement subject to the Holy Spirit? To the Bible? Our research can be useful in planning, but we must view our plans through Scripture, not vice versa. Our plans should never be the determining principle in mission strategy. That place is reserved for God himself.
All of us like to follow the latest trends and fads. Our cultural history is littered with the relics of hot market items like leisure suits and eight-track tapes. We are trendy and we know it. Our mission planning does not escape certain fads.
For example, years ago mission boards used words like "inland" and "interior" to describe themselves, because it was popular and good to take the gospel from the coasts into the interior of various countries. Now, many of these same agencies use initials only, because even if they don’t stand for anything the market has determined that acronyms are the way to go.
More recently, a huge wave of interest has developed toward Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. While exciting to see, perhaps some other needs and opportunities in other places were put aside or even missed in our rush to Russia. That’s because we often take good things and turn them into the only thing, the hottest thing, or even the best thing.
The unreached peoples movement is no exception. For many people, it constitutes the only legitimate work. For others, it is the best ministry; anything else is second class. Mission agencies report the number of unreached groups they work with. Some agencies set up special fund-raising projects for unreached people.
Why is everyone getting on the band wagon? For some, of course, it’s because they wholeheartedly believe the movement is a sound one. But others, I fear, get into it because it’s the latest trend and we have to get on board if we are going to raise both recruits and money. They are not so much committed to the idea as they are to their own financial concerns. "If the donors-especially some churches with generous budgets-are for it, we’d better get with it."
Such logic falls far short of scriptural standards. Consider, for example, how Jesus commended John the Baptist for not following popular trends (Matt. 11:7-9). John was not a trendy person. Public opinion, trends, and the newest fads meant nothing to him.
SILENCE ABOUT OTHERS
Although the numbers vary from time to time, according to Mission Frontiers (July-August, 1991) this is a summary of what the unreached peoples movement claims is the current status of the unreached world:
1. Of the 5.5 billion people in the world, there are 24,000 distinct groups.
2. Of the 5.5 billion, 2.1 billion cannot hear the gospel. They make up the 11,000 unreached groups.
3. These groups are as follows: (a) 865 million Muslims in 3,800 groups; (b) 90 million tribals in 2,700 groups; (c) 546 Hindus in 1,800 groups; (d) 150 million Chinese in 900 groups; (e) 261 million Buddhists in 900 groups; (f) 188 million others in 900 other groups.
Let there be no mistake, these people are unreached with the gospel and they must be reached. However, are they the only unreached groups? Definitely not. What about the world’s 500 million Roman Catholics, the millions in various Orthodox communions, plus those in other Christian groups? Are they reached? Can they hear the gospel in their own groups?
What about Latin America, or Christian Europe? How many born-again believers are there among Spain’s Catholics, for example? Probably about one-third of one percent. Does that make Spain a reached country?
We have to ask the same question about Austria, Poland, Greece, Russia, Germany, and the Netherlands as well, to name a few countries, regardless if the country’s religion is Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant. These countries have state churches and largely monolithic religious systems.
Poland’s born-again population is estimated to be one-fifth of one percent. Is that reached or unreached? According to Greater Europe Mission, the evangelical population of Bulgaria is one-half of one percent; of former Yugoslavia, one-eighth of one percent. Bible Christian Union published these numbers: France, one-half of one percent evangelicals; Spain, one-third of one percent; Greece, one-eighth of one percent.
All of these countries fall well below the mark of one percent born-again believers. Certainly they do not have "an indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group without requiring outside (cross-cultural) assistance." Why then are they not included in the lists of unreached people?
We are well informed about Muslim and Hindu groups, but never Italian or Spanish. We read about Turkish Muslims in Austria, but not about the largest unreached group there, the Catholics. Why?
Is it because the movement started in America and we are afraid of offending some religious groups? Has the spirit of ecumenism and pluralism infected our evangelical churches? I do not know how we can label the followers of some false religions as unreached, but not others. Are we afraid to offend Christian groups that do not offer their people the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone?
Possible offense must not deter us from taking the gospel to all unbelievers, regardless of their religious affiliation. If we can name some groups that have less than one percent born-again Christians, why not name them all? Italian Catholics are just as unreached as Saudi Arabian Muslims, and both need outside assistance.
Much good has come from the unreached peoples movement. It has spurred renewed interest in mission work among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and tribals. Our evangelical missions movement needed this strong impetus.
But in the process we seem to have also produced an unintended consequence: the arbitrary and extra-biblical division of the world into two groups, reached and unreached, whereas God looks on the world of individuals and sees people as either saved or lost.
We are also in danger of making this judgment by groups into the sole criterion of the deployment of our missionaries and money. This in turn can lead to a lack of direction from the Holy Spirit.
Again, perhaps unintentionally, we have been silent about Christian groups that have not been touched by Christ’s saving power. For them, Christianity is part of culture and tradition and thus is a hindrance to the gospel. Christianity to them does not mean a changed life redeemed by the death of Jesus Christ and received by repentance and forgiveness of sins. They will find it extremely difficult to hear the gospel from within their own groups.
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