How (Not) to Engage Unreached People and Places

Missionaries don’t always have to be the tip of the spear, blazing trails into the heart of lostness.

Whenever missionaries make disciples among unreached peoples, the missionary task includes starting a new church.

That’s the implicit logic of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20) with its call to baptize new believers. (Baptize them into what? A church!)

Furthermore, planting churches is commonly cited as being the most effective way to advance the gospel in the unreached world. Simply put: church planting and engaging the unreached go hand in hand.

But who are the unreached, exactly?

Reaching for a Better Definition

The “unreached” have traditionally been defined as “a people group… [with] no indigenous community of believing Christians able to engage this people group with church planting. Technically speaking, the percentage of evangelical Christians in this people group is less than 2 percent.”

However, one missiologist recently argued that we should consider a more biblically faithful and strategically helpful definition. The alternative definition states, “Unreached peoples and places are those among whom Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help.”

This definition removes the rather arbitrary two-percent threshold often used to determine whether a people group is reached or not. Yet the real strength of the proposal is not in what it removes; it’s what he adds that can positively influence our approach to missions.

Unreached Peoples… and Places

The refined definition joins the IMB in adding two vitally important words: and places.

Since Ralph Winter’s landmark speech at Lausanne 1974, missions strategies have sought to identify and target socioculturally distinct peoples around the world in an attempt to highlight those who have not heard the gospel. This very good impulse has had both positive and negative effects.

On one hand, Winter’s challenge awakened the world of missiology to the multitude of barriers to evangelism that exist between peoples who share the same nation-states. On the other hand, this focus on peoples has sometimes produced such a myopic approach to missions. In such cases, missionaries have ignored Bible-believing national churches in search of unreached peoples who live in the shadow of their steeples.

The Shape of Outside Help

In view of all this, the new definition of “unreached people group” highlights the role of outside help. Specifically, the inclusion of outside help implies that in places where a national church exists, a foreign missionary team may be given the task of assisting the national church as they evangelize the unreached in their midst.

“Missionaries don’t always have to be the tip of the spear, blazing trails into the heart of lostness.”

Though partnering with national churches might appear to be an obvious strategy, in practice this is not always the case. As a carryover from the colonialist tendencies of some missionaries of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, national churches that begin through missionary efforts have sometimes remained in the shadow of missionary control.

These churches have responded in a number of ways. Some rebelled against the paternalism of certain missionary organizations that maintained control. Others allowed external influences to shape much of the ministry in the church. Neither response is amenable to fruitful kingdom partnership.

As a result, contemporary missions strategies that focus too heavily on individual unreached peoples tend to bypass partnership with local churches. This especially happens whenever such a partnership would require months or even years of addressing the damage done by the previously mentioned historical missteps.

Swapping Paul for Barnabas

This new vision for “unreached people and places” has the potential to encourage a helpful reevaluation of missions around the world. It frees us from assuming that outside missionaries can only play the role of Paul. That is, missionaries don’t always have to be the tip of the spear, blazing trails into the heart of lostness. Of course, there is certainly a need to engage in such ventures in cases where people are totally isolated from any Bible-believing communities. We must send pioneer missionaries to places that are truly pioneer fields.

“Whenever missionaries make disciples among unreached peoples, the missionary task includes starting a new church.”

But what about places where national, Bible-believing churches exist in the midst of various unreached peoples? There we are wise to consider what it might look like to play the role of Barnabas. We must learn to come alongside the Pauls of the national churches, encouraging, partnering, sending, and allowing them to lead in mission aimed at the unreached near them.

The Global ‘We’ of Church Planting

Practically, our national brothers and sisters are far better equipped to engage with the unreached people groups in their midst. From a theological angle, however, partnership with national churches acknowledges a central fact that some of our methods have denied in practice, if not in principle. These partners are real churches. And together with us, they comprise the bride of Christ, the temple of the Spirit, and the people of God.

As missionaries partnering with churches in such places, then, our job might be to follow the national believers’ lead. Much of our role might be behind the scenes as we work to train, equip, cast vision, and encourage these churches to undertake their part in the Great Commission.

We must retain the priority of engaging the unreached as we make disciples of every tribe, tongue, and people. However, we also must remember the global “we” to whom the disciple-making task is entrusted.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by IMB on March 29, 2019. Used by permission.