David Sills serves as professor of missions and cultural anthropology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and is president of Reaching & Teaching International Ministries.
Jesus gave the Great Commission to his church almost 2,000 years ago. He clearly instructed us to make disciples in every people group, to baptize them, and to teach them to obey everything he has commanded. After all these years, more than half of the world’s people groups remain unreached, representing more than one-third of the world’s population. The challenge to reach every people group as quickly as possible resonates in our hearts and prayers, and reverberates in missions conferences. We must reach the unreached because no one can be saved without the gospel.
But subsequent questions easily divide and distract us in our efforts to obey the Great Commission. What does it mean to reach the unreached? What does a reached group look like? And does a people group need any more missionaries once they are reached? Should I feel guilty or mistaken if I believe God is calling me to a group that some consider reached? Discussions about such questions often become more emotional than missiological.
The definition that missiologists often use to describe the term “unreached” is something along the lines of those ethnolinguistic people groups whose population is less than 2 percent evangelical, or those groups without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help. This percentage metric was devised by missiologists simply to have a commonly embraced benchmark to assist them in talking about levels of evangelical Christianity in various missions contexts. However, it was quickly adopted more broadly as a useful way of discerning which groups had the least presence of Christianity and therefore priority targets for missionaries. Indeed, some even used it to decide where missionaries should go to serve, and when others should leave ministries and redeploy elsewhere.
Certainly those groups with populations that are less than 2 percent evangelical must hear the gospel, and we should use all haste to reach them. Carl F. H. Henry said that the gospel is only good news if it gets there in time. Sadly, for about 50,000 people in unreached people groups every day, it does not.
Crucial Questions and Answers
Still, many questions remain unanswered. If a group is more than 2 percent evangelical, that is if it is not unreached, may we call it “reached”? Does reached mean that missionaries should not be there, that the work is considered complete and should be handed off to nationals? What about people groups that have been saturated in animism or some false world religion for centuries that subsequently embrace a gospel presentation? Haiti comes to mind—though the majority claim to be believers, a greater majority still practice voodoo. One thinks of Rwanda that had more than 90 percent baptized Christians when the worst genocide our age has known broke out; almost 1 million were slaughtered by other “reached” Christians. The lifelong task of discipleship should indeed be handed off to the national church, but only after they have been discipled.
Certainly most would agree that faithful obedience to the Great Commission and reaching the unreached is more than a matter of speaking the gospel message and moving on. But how much more? Jesus answered that question. He said to teach them to obey all he has commanded. That statement must not be abbreviated. The task of the Great Commission cannot be compared to running through a large darkened building, flipping on a few switches and announcing that they now have light even though thousands of other rooms leave most people in darkness. If that is all one understands reaching the unreached to mean, then we must agree that the great tragedy of the world today is not that it is unreached, but that it is undiscipled.
We have unintentionally created the erroneous perception that missions equals reaching the unreached. If one’s efforts consist of flipping on light switches and then hurrying to the next darkened room, that is not the Great Commission; it’s only half of what we have been commanded to do. Jesus said we are to teach them to observe all that he has commanded.
What, then, is missions all about? We are to strive to know God and to make him known. We are to reach the unreached and teach the disciples. The role of the Western missionary is often seen to be simply reaching the unreached, flipping on light switches, then leaving the discipling and teaching task to the national church. However, when the national church has not received deep discipleship, theological education, or pastoral training, the teaching cannot be handed off to them. The 1 Timothy 3 admonition that a pastor should be apt to teach does not just mean that he knows how to teach, it also means that he knows what to teach.
Teach Them Sound Doctrine
God has greatly blessed the churches of the West with centuries of Christian reflection on revealed truth. Western theologians and biblical scholars stand on the shoulders of all those who came before them, incorporating the insights revealed and lessons learned from schisms and heresies. All that God has providentially allowed or sent, and the ways that he has sovereignly guided the Western church, has resulted in what we Western believers understand evangelical Christianity to be. Wise stewardship must not treat this heritage lightly but should seek to share it in ways that are biblically faithful and culturally appropriate so that others may know. The core principle of discipleship is that the one who knows teaches the one who does not know (1 Tim. 2:2).
Every people group must have the Bible in a language they can understand. They should have biblically qualified and trained pastors. They should have their own theologians and authors who are well-equipped to reflect on the Scriptures in the context of their people’s worldview and write in their heart language. But this ideal world will not exist until we obey our commission to disciple disciplers, train trainers, and teach teachers. Nationals will one day be the best teachers, theologians, authors, and preachers for their national church—but only after they have been prepared. The background developed through generations of being steeped in pagan worldviews and false religions does not evaporate on praying a prayer of salvation. This is why Christ commanded us to disciple them.
Unchanging Truth in a Changing Culture
My grandfather taught my dad much about life, and my dad embraced this teaching, improved upon some of it, and then adapted it to the new methodologies of his generation before teaching me. Likewise, I learned their values and primary lessons but made adjustments to the world I live in to practice their wisdom faithfully. Many of the missionaries who brought the gospel to Europe had studied the writings of the early church fathers and learned from previous generations, but they made adjustments to embrace new languages and worldviews without changing the gospel. Music and liturgies the missionaries had learned in their past were often ineffective on newer mission fields. The Christianity that came to the New World continued to adapt and morph, but it has remained faithful to the original Word once for all delivered to the saints.
When missionaries share translated books, sermons, and lessons with peoples who have yet to prepare their own, they are not theological imperialists or imposing their particular beliefs on others. They are faithfully sharing truth they have learned with the full knowledge that their hearers will do the same. Reaching the unreached is a lifelong process. The pioneer missionary may begin the process and then change his approach to meet the evolving needs for the rest of his life, or he may plant a church and invite others to come behind him to do the deep discipleship and pastoral training. Teaching those we reach is not an optional component of missions. When Jesus said to teach them all he has commanded, he is saying, “Tell them all that I told you.”
Lost people of the world must hear the gospel to be saved. That is true whether they are in an unreached people group or not. Lost people in reached people groups are still lost, and everyone who dies in a lost condition will go to hell for eternity. Their only hope is to hear the gospel and repent. The task of missions is not simply to reach the unreached, allowing every missionary to define what that means for himself; it is reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.
This article appeared on The Gospel Coalition website on October 23, 2014.