4 Reasons the Unreached/Unengaged Are Overlooked in Missions

Less than five percent of Christian resources goes toward reaching those with no gospel access—a crisis caused by how unreached people groups are understood.

Recently I attended a gathering of pastors and missions pastors that pressed into the area of needs around the world, specifically in church planting.

After hearing a few talks regarding the paucity of work among unreached/unengaged language groups (language groups where no gospel witness, no disciples, and no church exist) and how we can more strategically use the church’s resources around the world, the final speaker gave his address. He proceeded to make the case that virtually all church planting endeavors are to be classified as missions, and viewing the unreached/unengaged as unique, or worthy of prioritization, was unhelpful. Poorly reached (think prosperity gospel heavy), once-reached (think most of western Europe and the East Coast of the US today), and a variety of other groups were to be seen in the same light as entire language groups with no gospel witness, no disciples, and no church. And, just like that, any form of Great Commission strategy left the building.

The challenge today is not distance, information, or any other tool needed; the challenge is in how unreached language groups are talked about and understood.

The challenge of the Great Commission today is not what it was in previous generations. While William Carey scoured the diaries of Captain Cook for scraps of information, we have the greatest collection of gathered people group information ever in history. When John Calvin saw 18 members of the church in Geneva off to Brazil, the path to get there was measured in months, not in hours. The challenge today is not distance, information, or any other tool needed; the challenge is in how unreached language groups are talked about and understood.

Most Christians are largely unaware of the shockingly low amount of money and missionaries that go toward reaching unreached/unengaged language groups (UULGs). It is hard to get exact numbers, but the best efforts for tabulating those working among UULGs usually range from 2.7–3.31 of the entire missionary enterprise. No one thinks it exceeds 5 percent. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate the amount of money that goes that direction, considering the number of workers. 1.7 percent is the most I have found.

How have we found ourselves nearly 2,000 years removed from the Great Commission and only a drop of the church’s efforts and funding is going towards those who have not a ray of gospel light among them? Here are four general reasons I have observed the last three years.

1. The Fear of Bad Eschatology

When Bible people (those who take their hermeneutics seriously) hear conference titles like “Finish the Task” and “All Nations, to the Ends,” it rightly signals a cautionary note. Matthew 24:14 used as a “finish line” text is quite common: “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.” The problem is that only the Father knows the day and the hour of Christ’s return, and no missions formula or method of man will bring about what only the sovereign God has decreed.

What is more and more common, though, is that those with the burden of the unreached and unengaged are tacitly, or overtly, painted with this eschatological brush. Missions conference titles should be chosen with more wisdom, and a carefulness should be exhibited when speaking of “completion” or “fulfillment” of the Great Commission. But to diminish the task of seeing a strong New Testament church planted among every tribe, language, people, and nation because of the poor eschatology of some is unhelpful in the extreme. We all know of dysfunctional marriages that reflect poorly on the institution of marriage. But those bad examples shouldn’t lead to the jettisoning of the institution. The same grace should be given to those burdened for UULGs.

2. Complicated Terminology that Rarely Reaches the Front

The problem is that the definition of “unreached” is so nebulous that the term has become largely meaningless.

I have yet to find a sending agency that does not claim to work with the unreached. Most missions conferences, seminaries, and missionaries speak of “reaching the unreached.” Millions of dollars a year are raised to “go to the unreached.” The problem is that the definition of “unreached” is so nebulous that the term has become largely meaningless. The unreached are everywhere, they speak every language on earth, they know no boundaries, and will exist till Christ returns. Most money raised and missionary efforts go towards “unreached people.”

UULGs, on the other hand, are pretty specific but rarely talked about because of the huge challenges they present. They are harder to get to, harder to work with, live in countries that are hostile to the gospel, and will take decades to see healthy churches planted among them. After all, they are the last ones for a reason. When most Christians, churches, donors, and potential missionaries hear “unreached,” they don’t know the differentiation in terminology and therefore end up supporting a wide range of things, but rarely UULGs.

Because the verbiage of “unreached” is ubiquitous, it is a common assumption that most missionary efforts are going towards those groups that have no gospel, no disciples, and no church. The truth is quite the opposite.

3. Men Speak of What They Know

Earlier this year Nina and I had the great privilege of going to Dubai to participate in the 50-year anniversary of Evangelical Christian Church of Dubai (previously named United Christian Church of Dubai). Up to that point in my life, I had never witnessed a healthy international church anywhere in the world. To be fair, I had only seen nine of them. My experience is that international churches are typically ruled by the lowest common theological denominator, so they end up being a watered-down mess. ECCD was one of the most enjoyable shocks I have ever experienced. They cared about how the Bible was taught, they sang songs with good lyrics, they had meaningful membership practices, and the church bubbled with vibrant biblical life. It was an incredible highlight of a week.

I now openly endorse a handful of international churches (there were others there that ECCD vouched for and we got to meet) that I would have been unsure of just a few months ago. The one good experience didn’t wipe away the nine others, but now I have a model in mind for what an international church can be, and I zealously promote it to anyone going down that path.

Remember, less than five percent of missionaries are working among UULGs, so there are not a lot of models out there. Couple this with the fact that most work being done among UULGs employs some version of movement methodology. This isn’t an article about the movement methodology2, but the dangers are numerous and serious. With all that in mind, the number of missionaries working with the unreached/unengaged in a biblically historic way is very few. Those few are largely unknown to the evangelical world. The “nine bad churches” are all that most will ever hear of; very few will ever encounter good examples of work with UULGs apart from historic figures like Adoniram Judson3 and John Paton.4 This inherently puts UULG work at a representational disadvantage and contributes to the lack of workers heading in that direction.

4. If you Promote UULGs You Don’t Care About Other Work

The point is often made that Paul didn’t just care about unreached groups, he also cared about the churches he planted. This is a true and right statement. Paul spent years teaching and raising up elders in the Ephesian and Corinthian churches, returning to his home church in Antioch, and delivering gifts to Jerusalem to strengthen and encourage the church there. Paul loved the church universal and many local congregations that he helped plant and water.

Often, though, this case is pushed to where Paul tacitly had no such “ambition/aim to preach where Christ has not been named” (Romans 15:20). The argument is made that if Paul loved all churches, then there was surely no prioritization in his ministry; it was all the same. The love Paul had for the planted churches ends up smothering the ambition of his ministry.

This same logic then is used for those who are burdened for UULGs. If Paul had no driving ambition—if there was nothing that he held more prominently in his mind—then once-reached people groups, poorly reached people groups, and any other people groups of need are all to be viewed in the same light. But that view of Paul’s words leaves out a certain primacy that has not always been the case.

Matthew Henry would say this of Paul’s ambition: “He principally sought the good of those that sat in darkness.”5

John Calvin would summarize it this way:

It is absurd for anyone to attempt to apply what is here said to the pastoral office; for we know that in Churches rightly formed, where the truth of the gospel has been already received, Christ’s name must be constantly preached. Paul then was a preacher of Christ, yet unknown to foreign nations, for this end,—that after his departure the same doctrine should be daily proclaimed in every place by the mouth of the pastors.6

John MacArthur says it this way:

Even a superficial reading of the book of Acts reveals that Paul was a pioneer missionary, evangelist, and church planter. He preached the gospel where no one else had ministered, where Christ was not already named. Judging from the New Testament record, Paul ministered in more previously unevangelized areas than any other apostle or preacher. More than any other, he reached the unreached, because his calling and his desire were to not build upon another man’s foundation. Such is surely the primary function of a New Testament evangelist.

Paul (and those burdened for UULGs) can love existing churches, care deeply for areas that are in need, and still see the task of getting to those UULGS as primary. Is it for everyone? By no means. Timothy and Titus, as far as we can see in Scripture, didn’t carry the same emphasis of building where no foundation has been laid. Thousands of Christians around the world will have different emphases than UULGs, and we should heartily endorse and encourage them. But that should not diminish the primacy that Paul gave to getting to those who have never been told of the King. This was the obvious primary function, ambition, aim, and principal work of the apostle Paul.

The tendency to read Paul in this flattened manner has sifted out the distinctives in missions today. As Neil Stephens has said, “If everything the Church does is to be classified as ‘mission’, we shall have to find another term for the Church’s particular responsibility for ‘the heathen’, those who have never heard the name of Christ.” Or more to the point: “When everything is mission, nothing is missions.”7 8 If every cluster of poorly reached people reaches the same level of priority as those who have no gospel witness whatsoever, all strategic emphasis is lost. The unreached/unengaged will continue to languish at less than five percent of all missions efforts. After all, if every people group is the same in priority, who in their right mind would go to the countries that have languages that will take years to learn, governments that specifically hunt Christians, and climates that are hard to live in? Choosing the path that will be less painful and likely produce faster fruit is the clear and obvious choice.

The Panta Ta Ethne9 of the world still exist in large numbers. Someday the King will return and there will be those from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation gathered before him. Until that day, may we work with diligence and wisdom till all who are appointed to eternal life are gathered in.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Radius International on October 26, 2022. Used with permission.

1. https://blog.eastwest.org/what-is-an-unreached-people-group

2. This link gives an excellent set of resources on movement methodology.

3. Maybe the most powerful missionary biography ever written, except for John Paton

4. Read this one for the man’s own words, read this one for a good overview and key takeaways

5. https://bibleapps.com/mhc/romans/15.htm

6. Calvin, J., & Owen, J. (2010). Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (p. 532). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.

7. Neil, Stephens. Creative Tension. London: Edinburgh house 1959, pg 81

8. Ellison and Spitters have made this point more clearly and recently in their book When Everything is Missions

9. See John Piper’s Chapter 5 of Let the Nations be Glad for a masterful exegesis of this phrase in Matthew 28:19