SBC Life Articles

Southern Baptists Broaden Missions Perspective


Unity Baptist Church has been ministering in its "Jerusalem" for most of its ten-year history. Providing dinner for the Salvation Army Men's Shelter twice a month, volunteering at a pregnancy support center, sending supplies to Appalachia schoolchildren, and hosting Bible camps and sports camps are just a few of the church's ongoing ministries.

But in 2010, this small, Prince George, Virginia, church realized the Lord had something more for them to do.

Through Lottie Moon Christmas Offering materials, they became keenly aware of people groups across the globe that had never heard the Gospel. There are more than 6,700 unreached people groups— those who are less than 2 percent evangelical Christian. About 3,800 of them are unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) with no active church-planting strategy currently under way.

"That really sparked our passion for taking the Gospel to those people groups," said church missions leader Lezlie Ellis.

Unity's missions team invited an IMB missionary to speak to the church. The missionary encouraged the church to pray for an unreached people group and directed the church to IMB resources on how to find and connect with the group.

After a year-and-a-half of faithful prayer, Unity—which averages 225 on Sunday—sent three members to meet their adopted Muslim people group in sub-Saharan Africa. The team included Ellis, Pastor Chris Jenkins, and Tina Locklear, another member with a heart for missions.

"Our church had never done anything of this magnitude before," said Ellis. "For some of us, it was the first time outside the United States, but we knew that's what the Lord wanted us to do."

"Our journey to adopt a people group has sparked an urgency to keep missionaries on the field engaging the lost," said Jenkins. "We have seen members sell vehicles, put off vacations, and begin to establish their family budgets in order to support both the [Lottie Moon] offering and our partnership on the field."

Team members quickly learned to be flexible on the field. "We had just landed, and that evening we were completely wrapped from head to toe and sitting in a festival with people we'd just met," Ellis said.

Their new friends made it clear that Christians and Muslims can have a relationship. Back on US soil, team members started referring to their adopted people group as "their family." Other church members have since traveled there and continue to build the trust that's so important in any relationship.

"Due to security issues, we have not been able to get to the desert [where many of the people live], but that is our prayer," Ellis said after the first few visits. "So we are learning how to do urban missions right now since a few families live in the city. … We know this is going to take time, and our focus is on developing relationships with our people group. But we take any opportunity we can to share stories from God's Word."

Even on that first visit, God opened the door for the team to share Bible stories. Their people group asked to hear more about Jesus on the team's next visit.
As the church learned more about the people group, they discovered that there was only one known believer within the group. Since then, a group from the church visited that believer, who told them about leading a family member to the Lord and knew of a handful of other believers.

During the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, an Embrace initiative was launched to challenge churches to do "whatever it takes" to make Jesus' name known among a UUPG.

The Embrace initiative sets an ambitious goal for congregations: a lifetime commitment to a UUPG. The idea was born of a prayer-laden collaboration between IMB President Tom Elliff and SBC President Bryant Wright, who have challenged Southern Baptist churches to claim responsibility for all 3,800 UUPGs.

"This is not a sprint. It's a marathon, and we know it could take five years, ten years, longer than that—but we're committed, and we will continue to pray, make trips, and build relationships and … put all that in God's hands," said Ellis.

What Is An Unengaged, Unreached People Group (UUPG)?
Isolated by language, culture, and history—and unknown to most of the rest of the world—are nearly 400 unengaged, unreached indigenous people groups in South America. They live mostly in small clusters of fewer than 3,000 people scattered across the continent. They worship a creator-god and believe spirits inhabit their world.

Some can even be said to be uncontacted, unengaged, and unreached, as frequently new groups that have never had contact with the outside world are discovered.

They are among the 3,800 unengaged, unreached peoples (called UUPGs) across the globe with no access to the Gospel.

So how will they hear the Good News?

They are without hope unless they hear the Gospel. Southern Baptist churches are urged to accept the challenge to reach these isolated peoples for Christ.

At the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, churches, small groups, and individuals were challenged to commit to pray for an unreached people group. In 2011, IMB President Tom Elliff has taken this challenge one step further—asking churches to "embrace" an unengaged, unreached people group. Embracing a UUPG means making a lifetime commitment to learn about them and strategize how to reach them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as well as praying for them.

What is the difference between an unreached people group (UPG) and an unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG)?

A UPG has a population that is less than 2 percent evangelical; there are more than 6,700 UPGs around the world. A UUPG is a subset of UPGs. In addition to being a population that is less than 2 percent Christian, a UUPG has no active church-planting methodology being implemented.

A variety of barriers, ranging from geographic to political, prevent a people group from being reached. Some live in physically hard-to-reach areas, such as a secluded mountain village that takes days to reach on foot. Others live in areas with extreme climates or in poverty-stricken, overcrowded cities. Additional barriers include a lack of political freedom and government-restricted access to outside information or religion, or situations where leaders—government, community, or religious—do not welcome outsiders. Also, there are groups like the South American people groups mentioned above that have no resources to access the Gospel—there are no churches and no Bibles written in their language.

Elliff's vision is for approximately 3,800 Southern Baptist churches to accept the challenge to embrace each of these UUPGs.

If 3,800 churches commit to reaching these people groups, "that would go a long way toward seeing the Gospel preached to every language, people, tribe, and nation," Elliff says.

To learn how your church can embrace a UUPG, visit www.call2embrace.org.

State and Local Leaders Also Casting "Embrace" Vision
Southern Baptist state conventions and local associations are playing strategic roles in the Embrace challenge.

"State conventions and local associations are discovering that Embrace provides key opportunities for connecting churches with missions at every level," said Tom Elliff, president of the International Mission Board. "The call to 'embrace the ends of the earth' is a call to which every state convention, association, and church can respond, regardless of size. After all, it's not the size of the church, but the size of the heart in the church that makes the difference.

Embrace demonstrates "the strength and vitality that result from working together," Elliff said.

Since the Embrace emphasis was launched this past summer at the SBC annual meeting in Phoenix, "both state convention and associational leaders have been very encouraging, very supportive," said Terry W. Sharp, IMB director of state and association relations. "Many are doing everything they can to help churches be aware of Embrace."

State conventions and associations don't embrace unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs) themselves, but they play a crucial role in encouraging churches to get involved, Sharp said.

"Some churches don't go to the SBC annual meeting and may not be aware of the Embrace challenge," Sharp said. "Many state convention and associational leaders are not only encouraging churches to participate in an Embrace-equipping event, but they also are following through with churches that commit to be sure they get the training they need."

Several state convention executives signed Embrace commitment cards during the Phoenix meeting, Sharp noted. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina has challenged its congregations to embrace 250 UUPGs, while the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention has set a goal of 1,000 UUPGs before its churches. In their 2011 annual meeting, Florida Baptist Convention messengers voted to encourage their 3,000-plus churches to accept responsibility for specific unengaged people groups.

Associational directors of missions also are stepping into the Embrace challenge, utilizing the video and PowerPoint presentations available on the Embrace site, www.call2embrace.org, and conducting roundtable discussions, Sharp said.

"I recently spoke in Mississippi at a luncheon for DOMs (directors of missions) and their wives. They were eager to know more about how to encourage their churches to be involved," Sharp said. "I also shared with the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Directors of Missions during the SBC in Phoenix and have been invited to share at the Network of Baptist Associations meeting in January at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The national DOM fellowships are being sure their members are aware of the Embrace session that will be held in January at Southwestern."

The Embrace initiative sets an ambitious goal for congregations: a lifetime commitment to do "whatever it takes" to make Jesus' name known among one of the approximately 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups in which less than 2 percent of the people are evangelical Christians and no intentional church-planting strategy currently is under way.

To learn more about Embrace, visit www.call2embrace.org.

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