by Nathan Rasmussen.
One view of our world sees only the violence, the terrorism, the conflict. A different view, however, sees a world ablaze with revival. In Latin America, the church is growing at three times the biological growth rate. In China, we’ve seen the church grow in the past 50 years from 1 million to over 100 million. In sub-Saharan Africa, where my family and I have the privilege of working, God is doing tremendous things. In Tanzania, the evangelical church grew by 40 percent in the 1990s. Next door in Burundi, we have gone from 30 churches to over 400 churches in just 12 years. And many of these churches are large- 800 or more, even in villages.
If you look at the world as a whole, its population grows at about 1.6 percent per year. Meanwhile, the evangelical church is growing three and a half times as fast (or 5.6 percent). The Pentecostal/charismatic churches are growing at four and a half times the population growth rate (or 7.2 percent).
How Far Have We Come?
Of the 6.3 billion people in the world, one third call themselves Christian. One third of that group, or 11 percent of the whole, are actually active, Bible-believing followers of Christ. Another way to say this is that one out of every nine people on the planet are living out their Christian faith.
Do you realize it took 1,400 years to get to the point of active Christians comprising just one out of a hundred? It took 1,900 years to reach one out of forty. And now just in the last century we’ve advanced to one out of nine. That is tremendous growth, real progress.
Another third of our world (actually, 36 percent) live within the reach of the gospel but have not yet responded to it. The gospel is available to them in their language, in their culture. They can readily hear about Christ at work, at school, in a nearby church, on the radio, on television, etc.
The last third of our world’s population are currently beyond the reach of the gospel, at least in terms they can comprehend.
Counting “People Groups”
Another way to look at our planet is to count the “people groups”-a term for a population that is distinct in terms of language and/or culture. A people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of acceptance or understanding. Once the gospel gets into a people group, it can spread quite easily. The challenge is to get it started, to establish a church that can reach its own people.
We can rejoice that 14,000 people groups so far are “reached.” I am not saying that everyone in these groups has had an adequate presentation of the gospel. But at least the message is available in their setting. There is a church in their language, their culture.
That leaves another 10,000 people groups who are “in the dark,” so to speak. These are the groups that represent the 2-plus billion truly unreached. The groups break down, in round numbers, as follows:
Across North Africa, there is but one pastor or missionary for every 2 million people. Apply that ratio to North America, and you would have just 155 Christian workers for the entire U.S. and Canada combined! There would be seven small, struggling congregations in all of North America.
Going for the Most Needy
Obviously, we need to prioritize our efforts on reaching these groups. This is not to say that other ministries are unimportant. But here are three reasons to give the unreached groups our first attention:
1. They are part of the world God gave his Son to die for. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world ….” In spite of all our successes in missions, these hidden groups have somehow been left out. It is disturbing that 66,000 individuals die every day never having heard the name of Jesus, not even once.
2. God has a heart for all nations. He said to Abram long ago, “I will bless you” and “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:1-3). This Scripture is what some call “the Old Testament Great Commission.” We have heard a lot of emphasis in the church on “being blessed” ourselves. Not so much has been said about being blessed to be a blessing, especially to all peoples of the earth. But that is what God has in mind. The New Testament Great Commission as well tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). The Greek word is ethne-“peoples.” That certainly includes the 10,000 groups still unreached today.
Nothing could be clearer than 2 Peter 3:9, which says, “The Lord is not slow…. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” This is the heart of God.
3. Finally, God’s plan for the nations includes full representation. The apostle John “looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb'” (Rev. 7:9-10). This is what heaven will be like! God said so.
One Way or Another
God’s work through history can be noted in 10 periods-five in the Old Testament, five since the coming of Jesus. They are:
1. The Patriarchs
2. Captivity in Egypt
3. The Judges
4. The Kings
5. Exile and After
6. The Romans
7. The Barbarians
8. The Vikings
9. The Crusades
10. To the ends of the earth
Let me focus on just numbers 6, 7, and 8. Christ came into a Roman world. By the time of the emperor Constantine in the 300s, the infant church of the book of Acts had become the state religion of the empire. But it did not reach out to the Barbarians north of them. Christians were no longer missions-minded. So God allowed the Barbarians to invade Rome and burn it down. But in the process, they encountered the gospel.
The Germanic and Celtic peoples became Christians. But they as well failed to reach out to the peoples north of them, the Vikings. History repeated itself. God allowed the Vikings to invade, burn down the churches, kill the saints-but also to get the gospel in the process. This, in fact, is how my ancestors, the Scandinavians, learned of the one true God.
The lesson is this: If we do not reach new people groups voluntarily, we will reach them involuntarily.
The same process can play out once again in our time between the Western and the Muslim worlds. They have attacked us (World Trade Center, Pentagon), and we have attacked them in our modern crusades of Afganistan and Iraq. God wants all peoples to hear the gospel. We as a church can ignore the unreached, but they will be reached. Why? Because God says so. God loves them. God sent his Son to die for them. God is going to reach them.
We as the church have a choice. We either reach out voluntarily to them, or we can stand by and watch them be reached another way. But they will be reached, because that is God’s plan.
An Action Plan
So what can we do? How do we obey the commission to “make disciples of all nations” (all peoples)? Where do we start?
We can focus more, as churches, on reaching the unreached. Churches currently spend 94.5 percent of all income on themselves. Five percent goes for evangelizing those in groups already reached. Only half a percent goes towards unreached people groups.
It would help a great deal if each of our churches were to adopt an unreached people group. This would bring great focus to our efforts.
1. For one thing, we’d bear down in prayer for them. We would cry out to God for people to come to Christ and for a church to be planted among that people group.
2. In the area of short-term mission trips, we would no longer just randomly go here one year and somewhere else the next. We would zero in on repeated trips to our selected people group.
3. We would start thinking about sending vocational missionaries. Our congregations are full of individuals with marketable skills needed by these people groups. Those who can teach English as a second language, those who know how to farm, those who know computers-these can gain entrance into places that professional missionaries can never penetrate. As they share their skills, they also share the Lord Jesus Christ.
4. Focusing on one people group brings to a church a sense of ownership. The vision becomes “ours,” not somebody else’s. Giving tends to rise as one result of this.
5. Adopting a people group also develops unique partnerships with other churches. For example, Smithtown Gospel Tabernacle on Long Island, New York, is currently partnering with a Lutheran church in Australia, a Chinese church in Singapore, a United Methodist church in a Houston suburb, a community church outside Seattle, a sister FCA church in St. Paul, Minnesota, and others to work together to reach the Bee people in Indonesia. This kind of partnership would never happen otherwise. Together these congregations are working to see a church established amongst this unreached people group.
Yes, 10,000 unreached people groups across the world sounds like a lot. But think about how many Christian congregations there are to reach them! The mathematics work out to 670 churches for every unreached group. That’s not so impossible, is it? Your church and 669 others could certainly see a “people movement” toward Christ in that one group.
I also believe that we missionaries need to prioritize our work in the direction of the unreached. I am sorry to report that 90 percent of our current efforts are focused in “reached” areas. Some of us need to redeploy to unreached groups-and to train Christian workers in the developing world to do the same. That is why my family and I have just returned to Africa with a new mandate after 20 years: To train the already reached to reach the unreached. Our efforts in the coming term are bent in this direction. We live in a time of great need-and great potential.
How to Adopt an Unreached People Group
You as a church can adopt an unreached people group. Learn more at any of these websites: www.adoptapeople.com; www.joshuaproject.net; www.uscwm.org; or www.antiochnetwork.org. If you are really serious about learning more, sign up for a Perspectives course online or in your area (www.perspectives.org).
It’s a big world out there, of course, with 10,000 people groups to choose from. Don’t start by just randomly choosing a people group you know nothing about. Start with concentrated prayer. Allow the Lord to guide you in the way you should go. One possibility is to look to missionaries you already know. Are any of them focusing on a specific unreached people group? If so, come alongside them. You can work together to see a people movement to Christ started in that group.
If none of your missionaries are focused on the unreached, find one who is. We are commanded by Christ to “make disciples of all peoples.” In Matthew 24:14, Jesus says, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations [peoples], and then the end will come.” Does that mean he’s not coming back until we get the job done? Maybe that messes with your end-times theology. We as a church are often preoccupied with singing and preaching about our heavenly reward. Maybe we should concentrate more of our efforts on completing the task.
Find a missionary who has prioritized reaching the unreached and partner with him/her. Better yet, let’s start teaching our congregations about our responsibility to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That scripture says we have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. That means we are called to be his witnesses everywhere. We have a responsibility to take the gospel to the unreached, to the ends of the earth. When we believe it, teach it, preach it, and practice it, missionaries from our own congregations will end up going to our adopted people group. This is the way the Great Commission will finally be completed.
Nathan Rasmussen and his family currently serve in Kigoma, Tanzania. Email Nathan: email@example.com