Unevangelized or Unreached: Why the Difference Matters
By Brian Zunigha, Director of Discipleship Ministries at California Baptist Univeristy
Unaware of the Unreached
Ignorance is bliss but it can also be deadly. One of the most dangerous misuses of Christian phrases I’ve heard recently is the overuse of the phrase, “unreached people group.” I’ve heard people use that phrase to talk about efforts to reach college campuses, friends, clubs, and neighborhoods. It is a term that has been used more and more in the Christian subculture to validate missional status quo rather than raise the alarm for people groups who are entirely cut off from the gospel.
We need to understand what a people group is and how to define what it means to be “reached” with the gospel. A people group is not a subculture, but the largest grouping of people within which messages can be exchanged without encountering major communication boundaries. Just because my seventy-year-old neighbor doesn’t have a smart phone or listen to Adele doesn’t put us in different people groups. Our slang may be different, but we both speak English and have no problems communicating. On the other hand, the family down the street who primarily speaks Spanish would be a part of a different people group because our ability to communicate is severely limited to their broken English and what I’ve learned from Dora.
A people group is considered “reached” or “unreached” based on the group’s public access to the gospel. By public access, I mean the presence of churches with the intention and ability to share the gospel with the rest of the people group. Just because there may be individuals within a specific people group who have not personally heard the gospel, it does not mean that group is unreached. There may be public access to the gospel (churches who are sharing the gospel), but not every individual has heard the message. Without public access to the gospel individuals will never personally hear the message. If we desire all people to personally hear the gospel, we should leverage our lives to plant churches among the people groups where there is currently no public access to the gospel. We can roughly separate people into three groups depending on the degree of personal hearing and public access to the gospel within the group.
Unevangelized People Group
Most people in an unevangelized people group have not personally heard the gospel but they do have public access to the message. Often they have friends or family members who are committed followers of Jesus. They have at least a vague understanding of God and Jesus and if they wanted to know more, they just need to show up at any of the dozens (or typically more) of churches in their community. They are like a person in need of medical help with a car and a smartphone. All they need to do is search for a hospital and drive there, or find the number for 911 and ask for help. They may have driven by a hospital building and not known what help is offered there, but there are people who are ready to help them. They need friends and family members to tell them about the hospital and ambulance that is available to them.
People in an unevangelized people group need the gospel. They urgently need to hear it for the first time from a friend, co-worker or family member who has been too timid to share with them. They need an explanation for the hope that they have seen in the lives of believers they live around. Again, there is always a need for more laborers but their greatest need is not for more believers in their community, it is to hear the gospel from the believers who are already there.
Unreached People Group
The vast majority of people in an unreached people group have not personally heard the gospel because there is extremely limited public access to the message. They have no church or Christians in their community adequately equipped to reach them. They may practice other religions or be atheist, but they typically have a very flawed or nonexistent understanding of Christianity. The vast majority of people in these groups will have never heard the gospel and will never hear the gospel until someone intentionally crosses cultural and linguistic borders to bring the gospel to these people. They are like a person in need of a medical help in a place with no access to a hospital. There may be some local doctors, but they typically operate in obscurity and it’s not widely known they are available to help. There is a slim chance they may meet someone who can help, but for 98% of the community anything that needs medical attention will go untreated because of lack of resources. They need a hospital.
People in an unreached people group need the gospel. Unless something changes, they have a slim chance of hearing it. They need to hear it for the first time from one of the few believers in their city or ethnic group, or from one of the few missionaries laboring among them. Because access to the gospel is an issue for them, they do need more laborers, because it is likely they will spend their entire life without interacting with any of the few believers in their community.
Unengaged People Group
No one in an unengaged people group currently has a chance of hearing the gospel because there is zero public access to the message. There are no churches or Christians in their community. They are like a person in need of medical help in a place with no access to hospitals or clinics, with no traveling doctors or nurses, with no one with any formal or informal training in first aid in their community. No one is planning or thinking about getting medical help to their community. There is absolutely no chance of them receiving the help they need. They need someone to go to them with medical help.
People in an unengaged people group need the gospel. But unless something changes, they have zero chance of hearing it. Unless something changes they will not hear it because no church or believers have intentionally begun the process of learning the language and culture so that they can explain the gospel in a way that people within this group will understand it. Access to the gospel is non-existent, so their greatest need is for believers to cross cultural, ethnic, geographical and linguistic boundaries to be the first people to share the gospel with individuals in their community.
The Need for Access
It’s not an issue of people’s need for the gospel; it’s an issue of people’s need for access to the gospel. Everyone has a need to hear the gospel, from the unengaged tribal person in Papua New Guinea to the pastor of five decades who needs to be reminded daily of what Christ has done for them. However, unless someone specifically relocates, the unengaged people of the world have zero chance of hearing it. In Revelation 7:9 John shares a glimpse into the eternal kingdom of God. It’s a beautiful mosaic of people from every tribe, tongue, nation and people worshiping Christ, the Lamb of God. Right now that picture is incomplete. There are tribes, tongues, nations and peoples who have no representatives present in the kingdom of God. Obedience to Christ’s commands mandates us to leverage our resources and lives to complete this picture. And on that beautiful day unreached peoples will cease to exist.