I recently read an article on The Gospel Coalition website by David Sills entitled, “Missions Doesn’t Stop When a Group Has Been Reached.” Sills begins by noting the standard definition of unreached peoples as “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.” As the title of the article suggests, he goes on to argue that the work of missions is not completed once a people group crosses the threshold from being “unreached” to “reached.”
Sills contends that since Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations and to teach them all that He has commanded (Matt 28:19-20), the work of missions involves not simply converting unbelievers but discipling them. He gives the examples of Haiti, where a majority of people claim to be Christian yet still practice voodoo, and Rwanda of 1994, where 90% of the people were baptized as Christians when the worst genocide of the modern era occurred. The implication is that although these people groups are considered “reached,” there is obviously more work to be done.
Sills then states,
“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 he means by “flipping on light switches” is preaching the gospel and converting people. So here he is saying that we cannot be satisfied with converting a people group, not discipling them, and then moving on to the next people group. Missions must involve not simply conversion but discipleship. He closes by saying,
“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.”
Several elements of this article seem problematic to me on both missiological and biblical grounds. Below I will focus on only two: imprecise terminology and removal of biblical-missiological strategy.
Sills seems to use “unreached” and “reached” terminology somewhat imprecisely. As mentioned above, he provides the standard and widely accepted definition for unreached people groups at the beginning of the article. According to Sills, this definition understands an “unreached” people group to be one “without a sufficiently strong presence of New Testament churches or numbers of Christians who could carry on the work without outside help” (typically measured numerically as 2% or less evangelical).
One thing Sills does not do at this point is define what “the work” is that cannot be carried on by such a people group without outside help. However, a well worn understanding of “the work” that unreached peoples cannot carry on is indigenous church planting. The 1982 Lausanne Unreached Peoples meeting defined a people group as “the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” Since church ministry includes both outreach and discipleship–both evangelism and edification–it follows that unreached peoples are those who cannot effectively convert and disciple their own without foreign assistance.
For this reason it seems to be a bit of a straw man to claim that an “unreached people group” focus in missions is like running through dark rooms, flipping on light switches, and calling the work complete. Rightly understood, an unreached people group focus is not against but inclusive of the ministries of discipleship and training. Since effective church planting cannot occur without such discipleship and training, a people group should not be considered reached until it has been so equipped.
If people groups claim to be Christian yet are steeped in voodoo or engaging in genocide, rather than classifying them as reached and then claiming that missions is not finished there,perhaps we should reevaluate whether or not they are truly in a position for an indigenous church planting movement to be successful. If they are not, then they should not be considered reached. The issue of importance would be how we classify people groups, not how we define missions.
Removal of Biblical-Missiological Strategy
In his closing paragraph Sills notes that people are lost in unreached and reached people groups alike, reminds us that unbelievers in both of these categories will go to hell if they don’t hear the gospel and repent, and asserts that the task of missions is “reaching the lost and teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded.” This statement, however, removes the guideposts for a biblically informed global strategy for world evangelization. If one were to accept Sills’ argument here–if “missions” is simply reaching “the lost” indiscriminate of where they are and teaching them to obey Jesus–why would anyone choose to cross cultures into unreached territory where such ministry is more difficult and even dangerous?
In addition to lacking support from broader biblical-theological concerns regarding God’s design for his kingship to be recognized and submitted to all across creation, such a definition of missions does not do justice to the Great Commission itself, from which it claims to derive. Jesus commanded his followers not simply to “reach the lost and teach them” but to make disciples of all nations (= ethne), baptize them, and teach them. Given this all-encompassing people group focus in Jesus’ command, it is simply unwise for us not to distinguish between people groups that can evangelize and disciple their own through indigenous church planting movements and people groups that cannot.
Definitions of missions that seek to restrict it to reaching unreached people groups are not opposed to engaging in holistic discipleship but are wisely attempting to preserve the Scripture’s preoccupation with people from every tribe and tongue submitting themselves to the Lamb who has been slain. In distinguishing unreached and reached peoples we are not claiming that no further ministry is needed in the latter; we are simply identifying those tribes and tongues where Jesus’ kingdom will not spread unless cross-cultural gospel workers go there.
To conclude, I believe it is not biblically warranted to lump all people groups into the same missiological category. I would argue that missions does indeed stop when a people group has been reached, but this does not mean that ministry stops. It is important to distinguish “missions” as an internationally expansionistic enterprise from other areas of gospel ministry. If we fail to do so, we will cease to be strategic toward reaching and teaching all nations, as Jesus has commanded us.