The Danger of Focusing Only on Unreached People Groups, Part Two

THE FOLLOWING IS A GUEST POST FROM JOSH BAYLOR (@JOSHBAYLOR). JOSH SERVES AS A CHURCH PLANTER IN DÜSSELDORF, GERMANY.

A perennial question in missions is how much investment should be made to bring the gospel to places it’s already been. It’s been a while since the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and not so long since the summer games of Athens 2004, but what remains of them is unsettling. The luge is overgrown with vines and tree roots canvassed with graffiti. The diving pool is empty with cracks and broken stadium seating. Places, once filled with grandeur, cheer, and celebration, are now empty and desolate. Once, they were playgrounds, where the most amazing athletes in the world competed, and now they’re modern-day ruins. No flame. Olympic Village without all the people. Just forgotten. 

When we talk of mission and reaching the world, do we not also have forgotten places? At one time, Jesus was proclaimed the victor, celebrated, and people’s lives were changed in Europe. Maybe not pervasively, but the gospel was heralded and people trusted in Jesus. Sadly, in many places in Europe, they have forgotten the gospel and have been forgotten by the church. Vaughn Roberts once referred to Europe as a “cut-flower” society. It has the look of beauty in its steeples and church calendar traditions, but it has no roots in Jesus. Also, no flame. Buildings without all the people. Just forgotten.

Our mindset is something similar to “they already had their chance, so let’s give others a chance instead.” Might we have a slight disdain because underneath all our purest motives to reach the unreached, we feel they’ve squandered Christ’s riches? When we look at all the reached places and decide strategically to move on, we might have a case of missiological amnesia. Thankfully, God, in his faithfulness, never forgets. 

My following points are to show the faithfulness of God’s missionary heart towards all people everywhere, not merely the unreached.

History of Redemption, the Remnant, and Remembering Jesus (or Biblical and Historical Precedent)

When we trace the storyline of the Bible, we see the repetition and progression of God’s covenants with his people, from Eden to the New Jerusalem. Right after Adam and Eve mess it all up, God comes back to them with the greatest promise of all time, the protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15). Noah listened well, saved all of life with a boat, saw the first rainbow, and forgot it all. How many times did Abraham get it wrong? Moses? God’s covenants include indistinct and innumerable peoples through hundreds of centuries. God is who he is because he’s constantly reminding his people of his work. Over and over, God speaks and enacts his covenants with his people, and ultimately, Jesus is the fulfillment of all of these covenants. He never forgets.

We’re familiar with the language and cycle of God’s people as a “remnant”. From Noah and the ark to ol’ Simeon in the temple holding baby Jesus, God always keeps a remnant. It’s a motley few, who’ve stayed behind to rig together some kind of hope for renewal and restoration. We can see the cycle really well in Judges and Kings. His people rebel and reject him. Then, they remember, repent, return, and we’ve got ourselves a genuine family reunion with renewal. Sometimes it’s short-lived and at other times it’s a long while coming. All the same, God always rescues his people. He never forgets.

Then, we can take stock of church history from Jerusalem to today. You can’t help but notice his name and renown keeps coming back around. The two ordinances of the church, baptism (our entrance ID) and the Lord’s Supper (our ID check), serve to remind the church of God’s faithfulness. Every time we baptize a new believer, we’re participating in the heralding of the good news to mostly church members. It’s a watery reminder. Whether weekly or less frequently, we participate in Jesus’s work on the cross, his body and blood, through eating a meal together. A yummy reminder. Both of these joyous practices infer a progressive transformation from life to death to life in the ebb and flow of the local church until Christ returns. Missionaries, martyrs, and movements spark, burn hot, and die. The church grows, and God keeps her. He never forgets.

His Name and His Renown…To Everyone, Everywhere! (or Revising Our Reach Metrics)

We want to follow hard after Jesus and his message going to the ends of the earth. We want all people to hear the good news, but that doesn’t mean everyone doing everything everywhere. God uses unique persons in specific ways for distinct purposes. For instance, God may call and equip an individual or a local church to reach an unreached people group through a special entry point or timely platform. But, as was already pointed out (see Part One), the “unreached-reached” dichotomy is usually unnecessary and unhelpful (possibly damaging) for general missiology. We need not pit them so strongly against each other. 

Yeah, we’ve created some boxes here with unreached people and forgotten places. Boxes are good and necessary for strategic planning and mission-minded follow-through. Sometimes our strategies (boxes) become stepping stones for our own man-sized visions, which, in world history, doesn’t have a lot to show in respect to eternity and God’s plan. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make them but that we should keep them in their proper place, which is secondary to the strategy of the cross for the sake of God’s vision. Yes. Great. But how? Based on our unique and distinct gifting and Spirit-led gospel ambition, let’s tear up our little stepping stones and boxes and form strategy for reaching people within God’s view: the whole world.

Yes, let’s focus on the unreached and be ready to receive them for the help they bring in gospel-forsaken lands or for the hearing they give to gospel-renewed lands. Even before the refugee crisis in Europe, the high potential to reach the rest of the world through Europe already existed. It’s part of the reason we came. God gave us a burden for the remnant and otherwise dark continent of Europe (Africa is not the only dark place). The whole world is dark and in desperate need of light from Jesus’s face. It may be that we can reach Europe better by reaching the unreached refugees coming here. Perhaps the most prominent and effective missionaries to reach Americans in the 21st Century will be refugees, immigrants, and families of Europe. The gospel is so powerful that it can reach those who are forgetful, as well as those who rejected it the first go-round.

No, we weren't commanded to only pursue unengaged or unreached people, but like God, our goal is all nations, all people everywhere. Let’s look at God’s way and seek to align ourselves with him. Our anthropological target is all people (Matthew 28:18-20). Our geographical extent is progressively everywhere (Acts 1:8). It follows then, perhaps we ought to revise our reach metrics. Each of us can develop well-intended complex and exhaustive strategies all for God’s glory throughout the world. 

Think with me for a moment. What if we measured our reach by the quantity of all people everywhere and by the quality of faithfulness and fruit-bearing? Sounds a bit too simple, but it also comes across bold and brash, doesn’t it? Thankfully, God’s mission is simple and he, more than anyone else, can afford to be bold and brash. He can handle it. He has for all eternity. Should we go there? Well, are there people there? Is it within the geographical boundaries of everywhere? Okay, sounds good. There’s always going to be non-believers everywhere. Most Christians live in reached places. One entity may designate a group/region reached because a church was started in a particular neighborhood or biblical leadership was developed in churches throughout the area. Then, another may see more possibility for extending the reach by leveraging the common resources of several churches or developing multicultural leadership in one of the churches. How long should we stay? What is success? What have we reached them with? Western Christianity? Moralism? Theism? Syncretism? Has God established a healthy church that’s making disciples and looking outward to plant more churches in the area?

Lots of people where I’m from, as well as people where I live, scratch their heads over what we’re doing here and why. Here we are in central Europe, the birthplace of the Reformation five hundred years ago. Do we need more churches? In Germany, the state provides for the needs of everyone (via high taxation). People don’t need much. Religion is taught wide and thin in public schools. Kids grow up learning about Christianity and the Bible, along with other religions and naturalistic ethics. Most large school functions take place in the nearby Catholic church or the state church (Lutheran). When the local catholic referent was teaching in my son’s 5th grade class about the miracles of Jesus, she asked the class how Jesus was able to perform all these miracles. Blank stares. My son raised his hand, and she called on him. He answered, “Because Jesus is God.” She responded laughing, and with mockery in her voice, “That’s ridiculous! It’s just because he was a magical man.” The rest of the class followed in suite. Now, don’t feel sorry for my son. He had it coming to him. Praise God! In four simple words, the good news was proclaimed to a group of people, who seconds before, never knew anyone that actually believed that Jesus is God. We could go on and on about similar instances all over the world. Even in the land of Luther, there are people, who need to hear the gospel and see what difference it makes. 

We want to exalt his name and his renown throughout the whole earth to all peoples (Isaiah 26:8). Until when? Until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord and Savior. But that’s exhausting! Of course it is. When we think of reaching the whole world, it is in one sense exhaustive because there is a limited amount of space to cover and in another sense exhausting because the world’s population isn’t static. So long as people are dying and being born into the world without the gospel, we don’t stop. Thankfully, God supplies what we need and doesn’t grow tired. It’s why I can easily get behind the International Mission Board’s call for an “endless, borderless, limitless spread of the gospel”, because Jesus and his work are all those things for us. We don’t, nor can we, make an end, contain, or limit his reach in his world. He never forgets.

 

Photo credit: Epoch Times