If the Seventh-day Adventist Church continues reaching new language groups at the same rate it has since 1975, the church will take more than 600 years to reach the remaining unreached language groups. In 1975, the church printed publications and conducted oral work in 559 languages. In 2010, that number was 921. At this rate, yes—it will take more than 600 years.
Imagine this scenario: Jesus suddenly appeared to you and said, “I am very eager to return. I want you to reach the remaining unreached language groups in the next 20 years.” If you followed His appeal, what would you do?
Could you do it without knowing the parameters of the task? Or without knowing who the unreached are, where they are, and how many there are? It is not that without this information you cannot find people to evangelize. However, if you are setting out to reach the remaining unreached in the next 20 years (or 50 or 100), you must plan strategically and execute well.
Leo Babauta, in his book The Power of Less, argues in favor of simplicity to become more productive. He identifies two steps as summing up the creation of simplicity:
- Identify the essential
- Eliminate the rest1
From his six guiding principles,2 the following three are especially helpful in our discussion:
- Choose the essential
Let’s explore these points briefly.
Choose the essential
Make the main thing your first priority. The church has a mandate, typically called the gospel commission. The Matthew version of this mandate reads, “ ‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ ” (Matt. 28:19, 20).3 A mandate is just that, a mandate describing what you are supposed to do. It tells you the main thing, the most important thing, the essential thing. The one imperative in this gospel mandate focuses on “making disciples of all nations.” All the other action words (“go” better translated as “having gone,” “baptizing,” “teaching”) are participles, and reveal how the one imperative must be carried out.
There are many good things the church can do. But what essential thing is the church called to do? What is the main thing that, if not done, means total failure? Surely, it must be our mandate to “make disciples.” All that we do as a church and individual believers should contribute to that mandate. Every institution, program, and activity should be evaluated in terms of how successfully it contributes to fulfilling our mandate. This does not rule out everything except direct evangelism. Far from it. All the gifts of the Spirit are needed. However, we must be absolutely clear on defining our mandate and be unbending in taking up or laying down activities based on their contribution and effectiveness in achieving our mandate.
The next step, directly tied to the first, is to eliminate the nonessential. The church has a large variety of institutions, programs, and activities. As previously stated, all of these must be evaluated by how successfully they contribute to our mandate. Anything that does not contribute, or inadequately contributes, should be changed or eliminated. Otherwise, the church ends up doing nonessential things with the result that it has inadequate time and energy to do what it is called to do.
Once we commit to our principal mandate, we must focus on it like a laser beam. All kinds of opportunities to do good things will arise. Calls to take up many activities will be frequent and loud. If such things survive the sieve of clearly contributing to fulfilling our mandate, they might be adopted; if not, no matter how appealing or loud the call or strong the pressure, we must leave them aside. We have one main job to do. We must keep our eye single to this task. Babauta writes, “[F]ocus is your most important tool. Focus on less to become more effective. Focus on One Goal in order to achieve it.”4
With this in mind, what is the status of Adventist work among language groups around the world? Nearly 7,000 languages are spoken worldwide.5 That’s distinct languages, not dialects. Interestingly enough, we do not know exactly how many of these could be considered “reached”6 by Seventh-day Adventists. Global Frontiers International (dba GFI Consulting) is working with divisions of the church that desire to know how many and which language groups are unreached in their territory. In the process, we also determine how many groups are reached. From GFI Consulting’s research, we now have information for two of these divisions (East Central-Africa and Southern Asia-Pacific) and partial information for two more.
As a percentage of total language groups in its territory, 85 percent of the language groups in the Southern Asia-Pacific Division (SSD) are unreached/least reached, which means there are few or no churches and Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) members. In the other division completed so far, East-Central Africa Division (ECD), 76 percent of the language groups are in the unreached/ least reached category.
(See PDF for figure)
If we total the population of all the language groups in ECD, we find that nearly 100 million people are found in the unreached/least reached category; in SSD the population is even greater with nearly 270 million people in unreached/least reached category language groups.7
In just these two divisions, the population of the unreached/ least reached category of language groups approaches half a billion people. We estimate the number and percentages of reached and unreached language groups are as shown in Figure 1 with the estimated total population of the unreached language groups to be about 2.5 billion. Except for the two divisions in which research is completed (marked with an asterisk), the figures for the other divisions8 are estimates only, and we do not know which language groups are reached or unreached.
However, for the divisions in which research has been done, we now know precisely which language groups are unreached. As an example, Figure 2 is a color-coded map indicating the detailed status of Adventist work among each language group throughout the East-Central Africa Division.9
Now, you can begin to get serious about developing a master plan to reach the remaining unreached in the next 20 years or whatever target time frame you choose. You know just which language groups are unreached, how many such groups there are, where they are found, and their population. Beyond these basic facts, much more information is available (though not depicted here) to further enable you to engage in meaningful strategic planning.
While we cannot know when the world has been reached in God’s eyes, we can know whether there is a witness to the everlasting gospel among a language group or not. This is knowable information for us.
Making it practical
Whatever level of church responsibility you carry, the clarity of your task is essential. Whether it is identifying unreached language groups in a union in Asia or in a metropolitan area in Europe, you need to know the parameters of your task. Whether it is identifying geographic regions that are beyond the current reach of the church in South America or a district pastor obtaining greater clarity about what parts of the district are not penetrated, knowing the parameters of your task enables you to plan meaningfully and strategically.
As a church pastor or other leader, you have many demands vying for your time and attention. Simplify these by eliminating what is not truly essential and focus on the most essential—carrying out our Lord’s mandate.
1. Leo Babauta, The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential . . . in Business and in Life (New York: Hyperion, 2009), ix.
2. Ibid., xii.
3. All Bible quotations are from the New International Version.
4. Babauta, 25.
5. M. Paul Lewis, ed., Ethnologue: Languages of the World, 16th ed. (Dallas: SIL International, 2009), August 31, 2011, http://www.ethnologue.com/web.asp.
6. In this article, “reached” means there is at least one organized Seventh-day Adventist church (or its equivalent) that has a majority of its members from the language group under consideration, and at least 1 percent of the language group population, or 250 people or more, are baptized members. More Adventist churches and members may be present, but this is the minimum to qualify as “reached” in our discussion.
7. These assessments were done before the organizational restructuring made by the 2011 Annual Council. Both of these divisions now have even more unreached language groups with the addition of South Sudan to the East-Central Africa Division and Pakistan to the Southern Asia-Pacific Division.
8. Due to its size and population, we have included the new Greater Middle East Union in this chart. The Greater Middle East Union has a larger population than most divisions of the church.
9. On union-level maps, each language group is labeled by name.