by John Sherwood
Both theologically and pragmatically, at least five priorities or questions should be kept in mind when choosing new target areas.
Unicycle riders astound me. Tottering on one wheel, hands flailing, they look amazingly unsteady. With only a single support, they can fall in any direction. But add just one wheel and stability doubles. Adding more wheels assures stability in forward motion.
Likewise, missiologists and mission organizations sometimes have been guilty of “unicycle reductionism” in determining the focus of world mission. Tribal and pioneer work drove missions for decades in launching “inland” and “interior” organizations. During the 1960s and into the 1970s, Donald McGavran’s call to facilitate people movements among responsive peoples rang loudly with many mission leaders.1 In recent years, the focus has been almost exclusively on unreached people groups (UPGs) and the 10/40 Window (Johnstone and Mandryk 2001).2
But unicycle reductionism is a precarious ministry strategy. In striving to correct past imbalances, might we be oversimplifying?
How should a church or mission group talk about fresh entry spots? How might prospective missionaries choose the destination that fits them? Both theologically and pragmatically, at least five priorities or questions should be kept in mind when choosing new target areas.
PRIORITY #1: People with little access to the gospel. OR, we could ask, “How accessible is the gospel to this people?”
Here is the classic “unreached” or “unevangelized” wheel.3 Jesus uncovered the heart of God when he commanded, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matt 9:38). God wants more workers where there are few. The message must gain access because “faith comes from hearing the message” (Rom. 10:17). Faith must be tied to a set of truths or, better yet, to a person with a set of claims that demand response. No messengers, no evangelism, no salvation! This demand drove Paul in a world where unreached was the norm. Imitating Paul, we must prioritize peoples and nations that are highly “unmessaged” (Rom. 15:20-21; 2 Cor. 10:14-16).
With this first wheel, we are not yet asking if people are open to the message. “Strictly, it [the term ‘reached’] should be a measure of the exposure of a people group to the gospel and not a measure of the response,” Patrick Johnstone and Jason Mandryk wrote (2001, 758). Thus the term “unreached” usually refers to specific people groups or areas with little or no exposure to the gospel. Not only are these people unchurched, they could not go to a church meaningful to them if they wanted.
This wheel has stressed the 10/40 Window where 3.2 billion people live-—nearly two-thirds of the world’s people. Ninety-seven percent of people in the world’s least evangelized countries live in this Window, and 95 percent of them have not yet heard the gospel.
Moreover, though demanding many more messengers than currently exist, the 10/40 Window is not the only place deserving attention. Missiologists also are recognizing many UPGs in the United States and Europe. Proximity of the message does not equal availability when language and cultural barriers make it inaccessible.
Application to organizations. The high priority of reaching the unreached begs the attention of any mission aiming at starting churches. The vision of pursuing church-planting movements among the unreached spurs our own mission. Of the five criteria, we have chosen this one as our highest priority. Unreached, however, does not encompass all of God’s priorities. While it remains our highest priority, it is not our only one.
Application to individuals. Many entering missions also hold this as their highest priority. Captured by concern for those who have not heard and cannot hear, they are ready to tackle dense cities or remote villages. Yet even with these focused individuals, other criteria usually come into play in their final destinations.
PRIORITY #2: People with a very small percentage of believers or church presence. OR, “How Christian is this people?”
We must not imply that ministry in so-called “reached” areas that have few believers is less valid than ministry in unreached areas. Like unstable unicycles, we do not want to stress, in the name of current missiology, one of Scripture’s priorities without the rest. Many peoples have the gospel available in an understandable form but remain resistant to its call. Some churches today are shortsightedly confining their mission efforts to UPGs. We must not turn good things into the only thing.
Our ministry’s goal is more than mere exposure or access to the gospel. Scripture mandates (Matt. 28:18-19) and models (Acts and the Epistles) a whole process that will leave behind disciples and self-propagating clusters of churches. As long as no indigenous, sizeable and reproducing body of believers is worshiping God in an area or people (Ps. 67:3, 5), our work continues. Even with all the fruit from the end-of-the-millennium “reach the world in our generation” movements, one unfortunate by-product has been emphasizing conversions as an end, rather than merely the beginning of the disciple-making process (Engel 2001, 5).4
Application to organizations. A few years ago, one prominent mission researcher challenged all foreign missionaries to leave Europe—where our organization has about 100 missionaries—because it is “reached.” Riding on the “unreached” wheel, he overlooked the extremely high percentages of non-Christians in most European nations.5 Countries and peoples who do not know Christ or his church merit our attention no matter where they are. God desires end-product thinking, namely church movements that spawn more church movements. Until that is accomplished, we have work to do.
Application to individuals. Not everyone should go to the unreached. With many areas and peoples highly unevangelized, workers are still needed for slow harvest fields. Gifts of discipling and teaching especially are needed to equip and mobilize small churches. Some of these peoples have had access to the gospel for centuries and even have experienced church movements, but have since sunk into apathetic hardness. Diligent workers are required to plow rock until God softens the soil.
PRIORITY #3: People with a greater responsiveness to the gospel. OR, “How responsive is this people?”
When Jesus describes the harvest as plentiful in Matthew 9:37-38 and ripe in John 4:35, he breathes urgency for people ready to change. Ripened harvest left unpicked may rot. To avoid hurling spiritual pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6), we must discern where God is at work in the world. We must take advantage of times of spiritual openness while the Lord is near (Isa. 49:8; 55:6). As God’s fellow workers (1 Cor. 3:9), we are among key tools God harnesses for his harvest. Are we following in harmony with what he has initiated?
Application to organizations. Priority #3 warrants making more workers available quickly to responsive areas of a mission’s work. God has blessed our mission with times of rich harvest in Brazil, Haiti, Congo, Guyana and Indonesia. At points when people have ears to hear and the indigenous church is yet small, such areas deserved many messengers because people could quickly move to the point of salvation and even mobilization.
Taken together, the first three priorities suggest that in areas where the gospel is not available or where believers are few, but where the people are not yet responsive, we should at least establish a presence, making the gospel available so that a time of responsiveness can come. This gives the means for the Holy Spirit to begin opening doors. When our family arrived for ministry in the Philippines in 1985, it was called the third most responsive nation in the world; however, that was only because many missionaries had labored for decades on a much more resistant field, preparing for the breeze of God’s Spirit.
Application to individuals. While we lay our lives before God to serve in any environment he chooses, different individuals are naturally designed for different challenges. God expects us to consider those designs. On some God has laid an irrepressible burden for the truly unreached. Others relish the thought of laboring in a hard field, ready to “break clods” for years of persevering work. But many do not. Not all are prepared to go to UPGs who live in tight security areas of limited access. God will move some especially to target a highly responsive people or area. God will use our various priorities to connect Christians to those he wants reached.
PRIORITY #4: People who are keys for gospel expansion. OR, “How strategic is this people?”
With guidance from God, Paul concentrated his work in key cities of the ancient Near East. As centers of communication and transportation, he knew that these urban areas would be gateways for gospel expansion. This same strategic priority might guide us to focus on a key location or influential group of people, such as intellectuals or community leaders, who could open access to many others.
Application to organizations. With resources limited and reproducing church movements our goal, organizations are wise to enter areas likely to lead to reaching other areas. For example, with three-quarters of the world’s population expected to be urban by 2010, a strong case can be made to target only cities.
As another example, in a China briefing several years ago, an evangelical correspondent who had covered China for years for a popular news magazine challenged us to view China with these strategic eyes. Rapid economic growth coupled with a maturing church and an almost diaspora-like presence in the world, especially of Han Chinese, has positioned China to reach the world. As Western mission numbers wane, China may be God’s answer to continue his task of proclaiming his name. Mission organizations must take seriously the challenge to be part of equipping China for that task.
Application to individuals. On an individual level, workers can look for those key influencers, “power leaders,” who may give access to many others. On this micro scale, the social sciences can help inform us who the gateway individuals are in a particular culture or society, looking for clues to show whether they work in official positions or with unofficial power.
PRIORITY #5: People who are more available to us. OR, “How poised are we to reach this people?”
Not all doors are equally open to all. As stewards of God’s resources, we must be as effective as possible in fulfilling God’s commands. Those whom God has prepared to be more effective in an area because of history, relationships, experience, opportunities or resources should take swift advantage. Some are more available, accessible or convenient. For Paul, the presence of Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth and the income opportunity they offered to someone with his skill were initial reasons for Paul’s staying there (Acts 18:3), which God later confirmed by direct message.
When my wife and I first visited our mission while still in seminary about twenty years ago, our hearts were leaning to ministry in Irian Jaya. To our surprise, a director of our future board dashed our dreams with one question: “Do you guys like to go camping?” He already had guessed that we were not the frontier type and suggested that we consider somewhere else. We were ready to go anywhere for Christ, so the common sense to match who we are with where we were going had never pierced our passion. It’s okay to think that way.
Considering how a people group or area may fit a person’s personality is the way of wisdom.6 That total wisdom package includes how God may have prepared us, seemingly spontaneous opportunities that arise, what a particular ministry requires, relationships and partnerships that may be open to us, etc.
Application to organizations. At any given time, God positions some ministries to gain unique access to certain peoples or areas. We should be sensitive to those avenues as gifts from God. Thus, priority #5 introduces a pragmatic question: Where can we be most effective? We cannot let our own strategic priorities blind us to the apparently serendipitous openings God may bring.
Application to individuals. Isaiah describes the noble person as one who makes wise plans that benefit others rather than taking advantage (Isa. 32:8, note the context). It is wise to be sensitive both to special openings God may lay before us and how poised we are to effectively seize them.
Some questions to entertain when considering whether a particular ministry is a good fit:
• Are others there with whom I would love to work?
• Does something in my background prepare me to fit into that culture? One of our women from a Mennonite background had no difficulty with “dress codes” expected of women in the people she chose.
• Does this ministry or people have a particular need that my skills can address?
• Do I naturally enjoy the activities common in that culture?
Certainly it is legitimate for an organization or person to specialize in at least one of these priorities.7 Nevertheless, for God’s church, where the buck stops for whole-world evangelization, all these factors should find room on the table as we make plans. While a strange-looking vehicle, all five wheels are important as we determine God’s priorities for a church movement among every people who do not know him.
1. Actually introduced by McGavran (1955), which effectively launched the church growth movement.
2. They wrote, “The [10/40 Window] concept became almost too successful—sometimes applied to invalidate any mission activity outside the Window!”
3. A finer distinction often is drawn between unreached and unevangelized, but I have brought them together for simplification. Creators of our mission agency’s original name, Unevangelized Fields Mission, had both in mind.
4. Engel wrote, “There is widespread agreement that the Western-driven agenda of the last fifty years to ‘finish the task’ of world evangelization has tragically missed the mark in its narrow focus only on conversion. As I have often said, the Great Commission has become a ‘great commotion’ of proclamation in virtual disregard of spiritual formation (doing the business of making disciples) and social transformation (righteousness and justice).”
5. See Johnstone and Mandryk (2001).
6. For an excellent guide for anchoring our decisions on wisdom rather than a pursuit to know God’s will for us, see James Petty (1999).
7. In fact, any or all of these together may add up to the wisdom God will give us for guidance. While we would prefer for God to guide us through direct revelation or at least through some incontrovertible pointer that leaves us without doubt, it requires much more faith to trust God to guide us through the complexities of multiple factors processed by our finite minds.
Engel, Jim. 2001. “Rebuilding the Kingdom.” In Development Associates International 4, no. 2 (August), 5.
Johnstone, Patrick and Jason Mandryk. 2001. Operation World (CD-ROM). Carlisle, Cumbria, United Kingdom: Paternoster Lifestyle.
McGavran, Donald. 1955. Bridges of God. London: World Dominion Press.
Petty, James. 1999. Step by Step: Divine Guidance for Ordinary Christians. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing.
John Sherwood is vice president for International Ministries of UFM International. He and his wife, Rachel, have two children and live in Havertown, Pennsylvania.
EMQ, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 440-446. Copyright © 2004 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.