Reaching unreached people groups

While there are only 213 nations and areas in the world, there are more than 20,000 people groups. How can the church proclaim the gospel to all these groups?

Borge Schantz, Ph.D., is lecturer in missiology at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

When missionary-minded leaders look at the world map and lay plans to "finish the work," they talk about unentered areas. And we Adventists reportwith some justified pridethat we have entered 184 of the 213 countries and areas in the world. This means that theoretically 86 percent of the world's population live in areas where they have access to the Advent message.

The people groups

But missiologists today look upon the world map in a different way. Jesus commanded us to "go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19, RSV). The Greek for "all nations" is panto, ta ethne. Ethne is the root for the English word "ethnic." Thus Jesus wants the gospel to go to all ethnic groups, peoples, tribes, cultures, and homogeneous units in the different countries. In other words, the Saviour was not just referring to the 200-plus political units (nations) in the Great Commission. He was really talking about people with distinct ethnic, religious, or linguistic backgrounds. In this setting, people means "a significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another."1 Missiologists refer to such a group as a people group.

As Adventists we can fully accept this extended understanding of the mission task. The book of Revelation on several occasions talks about mission as being directed to "every nation, tribe, language and people" (Rev. 14:6, NlV; cf. Rev. 5:9; 7:9; 11:9).

This understanding of the missionary task could have the effect of altering our awareness of the unreached people in the 213 nations and making these people groups the specific targets for Seventh-day Adventist missionary outreach.

Conservative missiologists estimate that there are at least 8,990 distinct people or culture groups in the world.2 Others put the figure at 25,000. 3 This means that we are not dealing with 213 nationalities, but probably 100 times that number of people groups.

To illustrate, consider Pakistan. It is part of the TransEuropean Division. In the 1987 Seventh-day Adventist statistical report Pakistan is listed as one nation with 99 million people. It was entered in 1914 by the Adventist Church. A closer look at the situation reveals that there are more than 60 people groups, communicating in about 50 languages, in Pakistan. It also reveals that 83 percent of all Christians in Pakistan come from the Punjabi people groups, and that among them it is the low-caste illiterate Punjabi Hindus who are winnable. The combined efforts of the different Christian denominations over the past 150 years have not been able to make any impression worth mentioning on the 97 percent of the Pakistanis who are Muslims. Seventh-day Adventists, with more than 6,200 baptized members, probably have touched only three language groups and a total of four or five people groups. This means that there are more than 50 cultural entities unreached by the third angel's message in Pakistan. 4 Thus there are many unreached people in Pakistan who in most cases cannot be reached with our present methods and programs.

Reasons why people are unreached

There are two chief reasons why certain people groups remain unreached. In many areas of the world are people groups that Seventh-day Adventist missionaries find it difficult to work with. Although the laws of most countries permit Christian denominations to function, various regulations curtail Christian witnessing. In some cases there are direct laws against proselytizing. Theoretically it is possible to baptize the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, Jews, and Communists in most countries of the world. In practice it is almost impossible in many areas because of religious, cultural, and government pressures.

Other peoples are unreached because the Christian message arid ways of approaching them are not meaningful to them. We have to "contextualize" the message into the cultural forms of the various people groups. Church buildings, forms of worship, leadership styles, sermons, lectures, and illustrations must be understood and be meaningful to the target people. An Orthodox Jew's perception of God is drastically different from a Lutheran Christian's. It is claimed "that 84 percent of all non-Christians are beyond the normal evangelistic range because [they are] outside of the cultural traditions of any national church anywhere in the world." 5

Where to look for unreached people

It would be impossible to make a complete list of all the unreached people in the world. They range from the royal families in Northern Europe to the Gypsies in Yugoslavia to the Druzes in Israel to the tribal groups in Africa. We can, however, list the larger categories in which the majority of the unreached groups can be found:

1. The secularized millions. This is no doubt the largest group.

2. The almost dechristianized working classes in most of the Western world.

3. Minority peoples in different nations, such as the Lapps in Scandinavia or the Indian tribes in the United States.

4. Non-Christian immigrants, such as Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe.

5. Non-Christian guest workers in foreign countries, including the Turks and Pakistanis in Scandinavia and Ger many.

6. Students from non-Christian countries in Western universities and institutions of higher learning.

7. Refugees from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa arriving in Western countries.

By conservative estimates, these unreached people may comprise 70 per cent of the world's population. And the percentage of people unreached by Adventists is greater yet. So it is misleading to speak of finishing the work by establishing work in 213 nations. If we are to be realistic we have to make plans for reaching more than 20,000 people groups.

Evangelism and mission

To missiqlogists, evangelism means witness to a near neighbor. But most non-Christians or unreached people in the world are not near neighbors to Christians in either a geographical or a cultural sense.

The task of reaching these people re quires a special method and a special message. What is needed is mission. And mission must be understood as witnessing to Jesus Christ in a cross-cultural situation. Let us briefly examine some ways of witnessing to or talking about Jesus in cross-cultural situations. These suggestions are for the church and her institutions in general. They will, of course, have to be applied on the local level to each situation.

1. Identify the unreached people group in the territory. Discover all we can about their culture and language and what unifies them as a group. How do they think? How do they live? What gives them dignity and identity?

2. Describe the force for evangelism. Which department or institution in the church will best be able to get results? Which members have the capacity to spread the good news to this particular people group?

3. Examine the means, method, and message to be utilized. Too often evangelism is conducted by people who have a solution and are looking for a problem to which to apply it! They have worked under the assumption that there is one evangelistic method and message that is appropriate for all cultures and classes. As a result only certain homogeneous units worldwide have become church members, because only certain people responded to the message and method. The church must be prepared to design unique methods geared to different cultures to reach particular kinds of people.

A caution must be taken in this connection. In our eagerness for quick results we often move too hastily to action without consideration of methods and cultural implications. We forget some times that Christ spent 30 years in a cross-cultural learning situation among the people He was going to teach and win before He actually started His ministry. Then when He spoke, people flocked to hear Him. He knew what was in people's hearts (see John 2:22) and He met their needs.

4. Define the approach. Now we can decide how we will reach our target people. The best method is to meet their felt needs.

First, we should discover their needs by trying to know them as God knows them* Second, we can attempt to meet their needs as they see them rather than as we perceive them. Much evangelistic work is hampered because the evangelist decides what people need. In other words, we scratch where it does not itch. We may decide that the people need a stop-smoking clinic, but they may feel a need to learn how to cope with unemployment. Finally, we must communicate the saving power of Jesus Christ in their language and the terms of their cultural understanding and in the position where they are.

The individual member's responsibility

The preceding figure points are directed to the church universal. These are strategies that missiologists who have the evangelization of the whole world in mind must apply. They are specially tailored to facilitate evangelizing unreached people who are geographically and culturally outside the reach of a local church.

But the task of bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Advent message to "every nation, tribe, language and people" also confronts individual church members with neighbors who belong to unreached people groups. As individual Adventist Christians it is our responsibility to reach out in witness to all peoples. One purpose of the local church is for the believers to be joined together for the worldwide proclamation of the gospel. The three angels' messages of Revelation 14:6-12 are an integral part of the unique Advent proclamation. And "every believer is called to have a personal part in this worldwide witness." 6

Through the individual believers we have the greatest potential for crosscultural witness to unreached people who are near neighbors. The laity in their personal lives and occupations en counter people of all races, classes, religions, and educational levels. And through the church members as dedicated witnesses we have on the local level the best bridge to an unreached people-group.

A practical example

Recently it was my privilege to preach on Sabbath morning in a church in Eastern Europe. Visiting the church that Sabbath was a young lady dressed differently from the rest of the congregation. It was obvious that she was not a part of the Adventist homogeneous unit. I found out she was a Gypsy and therefore belonged to an unreached group of people in that country. I wondered how meaningful my New Testament message was to her. And I also wondered what the church could do to bring the Gypsies to Christ. Upon inquiring among the leaders of the local church, I found that very little had been done for this particular people group. Some told me frankly they were unwinnable. A few days later I read in a church paper that seven Gypsies had recently been baptized in Spain, and that in Saragossa there were 80 Gypsies who were baptized Adventists. The article revealed that the initial contact with these people had been made 25 years earlier when a midwife who was a Seventh-day Adventist had the opportunity to witness to an influential Gypsy woman.

Here is revealed a simple, inexpensive, but efficient method of reaching the "unreached" on a local level. A Spanish midwife felt an urge to share her faith. She had love for members of other people groups, combined with a witnessing gift and an opportunity for cross-cultural witness. She met a felt need (by serving as a midwife), and her act of social concern made her testimony to her Saviour more acceptable. As a result a key person in the Gypsy community accepted the Advent message. The midwife served as a bridge between two cultures and established a foothold in the Gypsy community. This was accomplished by mission. The Gypsy lady who became a Christian now witnesses to her own homogeneous unit. Her work is called evangelism.

Adventists have the resources

As we look upon the complexity of the task we realize our own helplessness. How can we finish the work God has given us? While the idea of finishing the Lord's work by entering every nation may seem like a formidable but accomplish able assignment, the task of reaching 20,000 people groups in the world seems overwhelming.

Recognition of the magnitude of the task should bring us to our knees. We must acknowledge that only God, the Lord of the harvest, can make the reaching of the unreached possible. In evangelizing the world, we are His fellow workers. God loves all people. He understands their cultural backgrounds, and He will give His church witnesses and means to bridge the cultural gaps. As a world church we must be sensitive to the thousands of people to be reached outside the mainstream of our traditional evangelistic methods. And we should be concerned with the eternal welfare of all people within our geographic reach.

The magnitude and urgency of the task of bringing the Advent message to the whole world compels us to develop new strategies and enlarged patterns of interaction with all cultures. Seventh-day Adventist structures are varied and numerous, and we represent many widely scattered geographic areas. In the past our church has been able to cross the barriers of one culture after the other. We can still do it. But it demands ingenuity and new thinking.

May God grant us courage for these new and challenging adventures.

1 C. Peter Wagner and Edward R. Dayton, eds.,
"The People-Group Approach to Evangelization,"
Unreached Peoples 81 (Elgin, 111.: David C. Cook
Pub. Co., 1981), p. 23.

2 David B. Barrett, ed., World Christian
Encyclopedia (Nairobi, Kenya: Oxford University Press,
1982), pp. 9, 19.

3 Wagner and Dayton, p. 32.

4 World Christian Encyclopedia, pp. 542, 543;
Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds.,
"The New Macedonia: A Revolutionary New Era
in Mission Begins," Perspectives on the World Christian
Movement (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey
Library Pubs., 1981), p. 294.

5 Ralph D. Winner, in International Review of
Mission, July 1978, p. 351.

6 From Fundamental Beliefs of Seventh-day
Adventists, No. 12.

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Borge Schantz, Ph.D., is lecturer in missiology at Newbold College, Bracknell, Berkshire, England.

August 1989

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