I am convinced that the present generation is going to be more conscientious about answering God’s call to reach the unreached and Bibleless peoples of the world. There are several signs that such a thrust has already begun.
There has been an increase in the number of short-term mission experiences that have a component that introduces young, prospective missionaries to unreached people groups. Due to the security issues, these mission trips are not publicized widely.
The number of blogs discussing unreached peoples is swelling. They are written by a diverse band of Christians – from a church planter on Vegas Strip (vinceantonucci.com) to a Student Minister in Georgia (Our Generation). They all seem to have a common understanding stated clearly by Martin Tucker in his Mission To Mexico blog on January 28th, 2008. “While there may be a few believers, there is no established local church that can reach out to the rest of the group. Therefore, for the people group to come to know Jesus Christ, one of two things must happen. They must receive a divine revelation from God, like Paul on the road to Damascus, or believers elsewhere must bring Jesus to them.“
Who are these unreached people? There are a couple popular definitions with subtle, yet important, differences. David Barrett in his annual survey uses unreached to refer to only those who have never heard the gospel whether from a face to face encounter with an evangelist or through some form of mass evangelism (radio, television, or print). He has another category Evangelized Non-Christians for “persons who are not Christians in any recognized sense but who have become aware of Christianity, Christ, and the gospel and yet have not, or not yet, responded positively by accepting them.”
Barrett’s exposure approach seems to classify the unreached people on the activity of the evangelizing agent (missionary) and not the impact on the target community. Dayton and Fraser in the revised edition of Planning Strategies for World Evangelism differ with Barrett stating that they “consider a people as unreached until there are worshiping groups of Christians in sufficient numbers with enough resources to complete the task of evangelization within their own kind without outside help.”
The International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention adds another category: Last Frontier People Groups – this classifies the unreached as those people groups that are less than 2% evangelical with no active church planting in the past two years. According to the IMB, in their September 2008 report of the Status of Global Christianity, 50.5% of the world’s people groups (5,841), comprising 23% of the world’s population, fit into this category (this report comes with some great graphics locating the unreached and last frontier peoples). These definitions seem to even cover what I call stalled church growth movements. I consider this definition to be the most comprehensive and useful for planning and prayer for reaching the unreached.
No matter which definition you prefer, there are still thousands of people groups who are unreached and deserve attention.
Ethnologue is probably the best publicly available source for finding which language groups still do not have Bibles in their own language. As far as the numbers are concerned, current Bible agencies’ data shows that there are a little over 6,900 languages in the world (not to be confused with people groups). Only around 430 of them have entire Bibles and another 1,100 have New Testaments or scripture portions. That leaves more than 2,400 languages without any Christian scriptures.
Why is it important to translate scriptures in the vernaculars of the world? Roger E. Hedlund pointed out in a presentation titled THE WITNESS OF NEW CHRISTIAN MOVEMENTS IN INDIA at an IAMS conference in Malaysia in July of 2004, that there were three elements found in all expressions of growing Christian movements in the non-Western world: “(1) indigenous grassroots leadership, (2) embeddedness in local cultures, and (3) reliance on a vernacular Bible.”
Speaking directly to the African context, the late African theologian, Kwame Bediako of Ghana, believed that “It is to the undying credit of the modern missionary enterprise from the West, and to the lasting benefit of the newer churches which have resulted, that the value of the vernacular Bible for converts was generally recognized quite early. There is probably no more important single explanation for the massive presence of Christianity on the African continent than the availability of the Scripture in the many African languages. By rejecting the notion of sacred language for the Bible, Christianity makes every translation of its Scriptures substantially and equally the Word of God. Thus the existence of vernacular Bibles not only facilitates access to the particular communities speaking those languages, but also creates the likelihood that the hearers of the Word in their own languages will make their own response to it and on their own terms.”
Translating scripture into the vernaculars of the world is not enough. These scriptures have to be put to use. I have been part of discussions at Pioneer Bible Translators and the International Forum of Bible Agencies (IFOBA) over what is called variously scripture impact, scripture engagement, and scripture use. There is the understanding that translating scriptures is just the beginning. They must be introduced in ways that transforms lives and societies.
Understanding the terms unreached people groups, last frontier people groups, Bibleless peoples and scripture use, is an important step toward focusing our prayers. This generation of Christians is a praying generation. And, our God listens to his people, especially when our prayers coincide with his desires for the world. Set aside a time to pray each week for the unreached and Bibleless peoples of the world. Keep looking back here for more ideas to focus your prayers.
What do you think would help us focus our prayers on the unreached?
Any creative ideas of how to get other Christians to pray for the unreached and Bibleless people groups?