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3.4 billion unreached. Where do we start?

EDITORS’ NOTE: During the 2003 International Missions Emphasis, Nov. 30-Dec. 7, Southern Baptists focused on the theme, “That All Peoples May Know Him: Follow God’s Purpose.” The national goal for this year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering is $133 million, with a challenge goal of $150 million. The International Mission Board relies on the Lottie Moon offering for approximately 50 percent of its annual support. The Cooperative Program along with the Lottie Moon offering undergird Southern Baptists’ strategy for international missions, such as outreach to unreached people groups, highlighted below.

LAMPUNG PROVINCE, Sumatra, Indonesia (BP)–“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” Matthew 24:14 (NIV).

“Calvin Walters”* arrived in Southeast Asia with a vision for reaching Muslims for Christ.

Where to start? Indonesia’s nearly 220 million people make up the largest Muslim nation in the world. They inhabit 4,000 of the 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago — stretching 4,000 miles across the Indian Ocean.

“There are only so many things you can get your mind around,” Walters says. “I thought Indonesia was made up of Indonesians. Trying to think of evangelizing 220 million people — that’s overwhelming.

“I quickly learned of the spectrum of the country,” he says. “There are different people groups with different values and beliefs. You can’t learn about ‘Indonesian’ culture. What slice do you want to look at?

“As we learned and became more aware of unreached people groups, we knew we had to be among a group.”


Missions groups have always been about winning people to Christ, but until the last 20 years, they were “content to work only where missionaries were welcomed, while more than a third of the world remained isolated from access to the Gospel,” says IMB President Jerry Rankin.

In the last quarter-century, sociological research has shown the composition of the world not as manmade geopolitical nations, but as “a vast matrix of people groups, each with their own language, culture and ethnicity” — groups that can be looked at independently of the nations in which they reside, Rankin explains.

People groups refer to groups of individuals, families and clans who share a common language and ethnic identity.

An unreached people group (UPG), says Scott Holste, director of the IMB’s global research department, is a “people group in which the number of evangelical Christians totals less than 2 percent of the population.”

At first glance, the numbers are daunting: nearly 6,500 unreached people groups in the world today, with a combined population of approximately 3.4 billion.

Today, approximately one-third of personnel with the IMB are engaging “Last Frontier” people groups — unreached people groups with little or no access to the Gospel, and ones that have had no evangelical church starts in the past two years.


Walters realized a greater Kingdom impact could be made if he were to focus on an unreached people group that had no evangelical witness.

Today, Walters is committed to seeing a church planting movement among the Lampungese, an unreached people group of 2 million.

If Sumatra — the largest unevangelized island on earth — were a nation, writes Patrick Johnstone in Operation World, only nine other nations would have more unreached peoples. Sumatra is the home of 52 known unreached people groups consisting of 25 million people. Of the 52, 48 have no indigenous churches and 34 of them have no known Gospel workers.

“There was a time when we could mark initial progress in this task [of world evangelism] by keeping track of and learning about the countries in which we had missionaries,” Holste says.

“We have learned, however, that reality is much more complex than that,” he says. “Virtually every country in the world contains scores, if not hundreds, of diverse people groups. We can no longer be satisfied that we have made disciples and established the church in one or two people groups in a country.”

The motivations behind the IMB’s mission statement — “Making Christ known among all peoples” — is anchored in the instructions of Christ to “make disciples of all nations.”

“When Jesus gave us the Great Commission, the terminology he used was ‘panta ta ethne,’ which literally means all the peoples of the world,” Rankin says. “Every people group deserves the opportunity to hear, understand and respond to the Gospel in their own language and cultural context.

“They should not have to cross barriers of ethnicity and language to know Jesus.”


For several years, leadership of the International Mission Board has reiterated that the organization exists to serve as a launching pad for the church to be involved in reaching the world.

The Great Commission was not given to a missions organization to carry out on behalf of the churches, but was given to every church, every believer and every denominational entity, Rankin emphasizes. “The role of the IMB is to channel, enable and facilitate all Southern Baptists being obedient to the Great Commission.”

Still, many in the church hold to the view that “there is plenty of work and evangelism for me to do right here in my neighborhood and town.”

The church in America must realize the gravity of a lost and dying world. Ministering to unreached people groups means going to those places where the people have no opportunity to hear the Gospel at all — unlike the majority of neighborhoods in the United States.

It is not just spiritual blindness that is keeping the Lampungese from knowing Christ, Walters says. “The Lampungese are not Christian because they haven’t heard the Gospel,” he says. “What is keeping the rest of the Christian world out? We need more laborers for the harvest [but] it seems that just not enough people care.”

In recent years, a groundswell of collaboration between evangelical groups has resulted in essentially all the people groups of the world being adopted by a church or missions organization.

But thousands of groups still are not engaged with the Gospel.


For the IMB to complete this task — to have just one missionary assigned to every unreached people group — would require doubling the existing number of fulltime personnel. At a time when missionary appointments are being restricted because funding is not keeping up with the needs, the task seems overwhelming.

“We will eventually get there,” Rankin says, “but if the 42,000 churches, 1,200 local associations, 40 state conventions and 16 million Southern Baptists [of the Southern Baptist Convention] all became involved, suddenly the task is doable.”

The point of missions, Rankin notes, “is to eliminate lostness.” Unfortunately, he says, “many churches are forfeiting the very thing that would result in their growth and vitality by depriving their people of being involved in God’s mission.

“He has called us as the people of God to make Him known among all peoples. We must continue to be driven by the question: ‘By what criteria should any people be denied the opportunity to hear and respond to the Gospel?'”

“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to ends of the earth” Isaiah 49:6 (NIV).
*Name has been changed to protect ongoing ministry. (BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: DEEPENED OUTREACH and ONE SOUL.

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