Thursday, April 02, 2015

Unreached People Groups May Be Closer Than You Think

We speak of unreached people groups as these strange people in far away lands that we need to send missionaries to. Some people have little apps on their webpage with the "unreached people group" of the day, always an exotic location with an unpronounceable name and a picture of someone wearing odd clothing with a note about what a small percentage of people are Christians in that area. In many ways this is a good and proper reminder of the importance of the work of evangelism, not primarily digging wells but sharing the Living Water of Christ that redeems from sin and rescues from hell. What I am concerned about with this notion of "unreached people groups" is that it almost always focuses on people who are far away in often unsettled or even dangerous areas.

This concerns me for two reasons. First, it gives the impression that the Great Commission is all about going "over there" and for the typical American Christian that is a daunting task, one made all the more daunting by the way we frame the preaching of the Gospel as the exclusive function of the clergy and professional missionary. A short-term mission trip might be OK as a photo op and a check mark on your religious bucket list but actual evangelistic mission trips are out of bounds. This is compounded by the general embrace of the futile chasing of the "American dream" by the majority of American churchgoers which leaves little money and even less time to devote much to the service of God outside of a hurried couple of hours on Sunday morning. The net result is that "unreached people group" is code for "people you don't have the time or training to evangelize so please make your check payable to....". The more we divide the people of God from the mission of God the weaker the church becomes. If you doubt that, please feel free to look around at the state of the church in America and the West in general.

The second issue is a problem of definition. Unreached people groups are not all or even mostly "over there". Many of the most unreached people around can be found sitting in pews on Sunday morning and therefore are quite reachable. Add to that the millions of people who have had some sort of non-regenerative religious event in their life but who have been told they are "saved" and the church in America ought to be plenty busy with getting the Gospel to our own unreached people groups. The church could send hundreds of missionaries to Utah and come into contact with millions of lost mormons and do so for a pittance. The same is true for most large American cities and, being honest, just about any decent sized town in the "Bible belt" or in  the heavily Roman Catholic communities of the upper Midwest. Of course doing that might necessitate offending some of our new best friends in the culture wars....

It is absolutely true that there huge numbers of people groups who have never heard the name of Christ and I am all in favor of equipping and supporting largely indigenous evangelists and missionaries to reach them but it is also just as true that there are huge numbers of people in the West with a tenuous religious linkage to our culture religion who are just as lost as a tribesman deep in the jungle somewhere. You don't get a pass on judgment because you were baptized as an infant or "made a decision" for Christ once in a fit of guilt. Rather than teaching the church that all of the lost people are in far away lands, unreachable by regular people, we should be equipping our churches to reach the millions of lost, largely unreached people right where we live. It is safer, easier and more accommodating to a passive religious life to evangelize by check writing but we do the church and the Gospel itself a disservice when we do. The reality of the mission field being both "there" and "here" demands a serious conversation and a major shift in how we think about, fund and carry out mission work. 

Unleash all of the church to reach all of the unreached, not just a little bit of the church to reach a few of the unreached groups. There is plenty of opportunity for evangelism and mission work to go around and most of it is within driving distance!

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