What if God’s plan to save the nations was not focused on countries as we see them on the map? What if one of the most deceiving statistics in missions was regarding percentages of “evangelical” or “reached” people in a COUNTRY?
I recently came across a shocking statistic when interacting a leading missiologist – in the Americas there are 999 people groups and 2/3 of them are unreached (less than 2% evangelical) and 1/3 of those are unengaged (no active boots on the ground seeking to bring the gospel to them). That is in the AMERICAS!
Now, here is where our identifying countries as “reached” really deceives us. According to a popular website that tracks progress among unreached peoples, Mexico is stated to be 8% evangelical with only 3 unreached people groups and 94.8% Christian. This would put Mexico as a country as “reached”. Or take Peru as another example – 11% evangelical, 8 unreached people groups and 94.6% Christian. Time to move on then right? Or not quite move on but send a few missionaries to get those three remaining people groups. In other words, many are proned to think (but may never say it out loud), “sending missionaries and resources to these countries is a waste.Let’s only focus on the 10/40 window. After all, isn’t that where the ‘real’ unreached people are?” However, anyone who knows these countries knows that the statistics above are laughable – yes laughable and beyond that damaging to the cause of truly reaching the nations.
Here are nine problems that this surface level research presents:
- Jesus is not concerned with countries as we see them on the map. The great commission is not to reach nations meaning countries; rather it is aimed at the gospel going forth to and disciples being made of all ethnicities. The greek word used is ethne.
- Often times websites and resources like these, although helpful in many ways, classify Christians and evangelicals in unbiblical ways (i.e. Catholics, Mormons, JWs, cults, etc). This happens because people are allowed to self-identify, meaning that if a Mormon classifies himself as evangelical Christian, which the traditionally do, then that is how they are identified in the research. Often times other cults do the same thing. Beyond that, in most remote villages around the world where animism is practiced the villagers who are very leery of outsiders will not disclose their religious practices to outsiders and will give answers they believe the researchers want to hear out of a desire to be left alone.
- The number of evangelicals is usually disproportionately populated in major cities. Much of the lasting missions work in the countries mentioned above has taken place in the major cities. However, many of the remote places in many countries are almost untouched or have been left behind in an incomplete state. For example, in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico there are hundreds of unreached and unengaged villages throughout. Similarly, multiple missionaries as well as nationals on the ground in Peru tell me that there are “thousands” of villages in the jungles located off tributaries of the Amazon River that have no church, no Bibles and no active Christian witness.
- Points 2&3 cause us to neglect the fact the MOST of a country may remain unreached.
- We fail to recognize that many countries, like Peru and Mexico for example, have A LOT of remote places where the gospel is not going. Many countries are not like the US and Europe where the government has full control over every part of the country and every place in the country is fairly accessible.
- The number of unreached people groups is taken from a 10,000 foot view. This means that they are often categorized by major language groups. However, this does not paint an accurate picture on the ground. Within a major language group (i.e. Zapotec in Mexico or Quechua in Peru) there are dozens or even hundreds of people groups represented whose native language is some variation of the larger language group title. Moreover, even though they are classified in the same language group, often times they cannot understand other villages’ native languages so they will use the trade language to communicate. Thus, they are actually different people groups from a language and cultural perspective and must be approached as such.
- Even those who are “evangelicals” often times are doctrinally weak. There is much syncretism in their Christianity. In other words, they mix their old animistic beliefs and practices with Christian beliefs and practices. This is a result of not being properly discipled because missionaries may have left or moved on prematurely.
- Most of the pastors and leaders, especially those outside of the cities, have no theological training whatsoever. I do not just mean that they have never been to a seminary. I mean that these leaders have never been taught or trained in how to accurately interpret and apply the Bible. This leads to major error, heresy and what we may see as silliness. A few examples would include pastors preaching on their dreams or correctly understanding that when Jesus says, “I am the light of the world,” He is not saying that He is the sun or the sun god.
- Subsequently, the churches are very weak. Many times churches in remote areas have a handful (5-10) believers that really do not understand much beyond the very basics of the gospel, are illiterate and are lead by pastors who are in the same boat. These churches fall far short of the Great Commission call to, “make disciples…teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt 28:19,20).
I am really not trying to be the bearer of bad news or come across as negative or critical, but I am afraid that we in the West are largely misinformed about how far along we are in this Kingdom endeavor. I fear this may result in neglecting certain countries that still have a lot of work to be done. Furthermore, we would not accept the above here in the US so why are we so willing to accept it and applaud “our work” elsewhere because a website deems a country “reached”? Remember, the Great Commission is not to reach people, it is to make disciples – big difference.
Four Application Points:
- When it comes to mission we must stop focusing on the lines on our maps; rather we need to be thinking in terms of making disciples of people groups because that is what Jesus is focused on.
- If you really want to know about the needs and/or reality of gospel advance in a particular country try to talk to missionaries who have accurate, working, on-the-ground knowledge.
- There is great need all over the world and there are unreached people almost everywhere. So, pick a place, research the need, get trained and GO!!!
- OR…because there is great need all over the world and there are unreached people almost everywhere PRAY for, GIVE to, and ENCOURAGE those who GO!!!