'Where the Church is not yet'

By Howard Culbertson
Thursday, April 27, 2017

ImageNazarene Global Mission Director Verne Ward often says we must fix our sights on places “where the Church is not yet.”  That phrase paints word pictures that should stir us to intercessory prayer, to sacrificial giving, to going and to mobilizing others.

Unengaged People Groups is another phrase coined recently to guide us toward Great Commission fulfillment. “People Groups” reflects the original Greek wording of Matthew 28:19 which, in most English translations, calls us to “make disciples of all nations.” Does that designate the political entities we call “nations”? Probably not. The original Greek word, ethne, is the origin of the English term “ethnic.” Therefore, it can be argued that Jesus’ call was to make disciples in every one of the world’s thousands of cultural groupings.

The 1970s Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism used the “ethnic groups” nuance from the Greek wording of Matthew 28:19 to emphasize that missionary strategy leaders must think in terms of the groups to which people feel attached because of a shared mixture of traits such as residency, ethnicity, language, traditions, religion and ancestry: cultural-ethno-linguistic groups.

A speaker at that congress, Ralph Winter, pointed to numerous “hidden” or “bypassed” people groups who were unevangelized even though they were in countries where Christianity was flourishing in other ethnic or cultural groups. Clearly, entire countries cannot be checked off as “evangelized” if entire blocs of a country’s population remain unreached.

The discussions on this issue evolved to the point that Unreached People Groups (or UPGs) became a way to describe the task yet to be done in Great Commission fulfillment. The criterion for labeling a people group “unreached” is its percentage of evangelical Christians. If less than 2 percent of a people group are evangelical believers, that group is classified an Unreached People Group.

MoImagere recently, missiologists began talking about Unengaged People Groups. By this, they mean those Unreached People Groups in which there are very few or even no known believers AND in which there is no active missionary presence. Thus, not only are those groups unreached, but there is no one actively working to evangelize them. These Unengaged People Groups have been called “the neediest of the needy.”  They are, as Verne Ward puts it, “where the church is not yet.” 

Such “unengaged” groups range in size from very small to huge. On the small end are groups like the 800 indigenous Bora people in Colombia. At the other extreme are groups such as the several million Khmer Kran in Vietnam.

Promoting outreach to the Unengaged People Groups is not an attempt to say these cultural-ethno-linguistic groups are the only people needing cross-cultural missionaries. Rather, it is a call to believers to remember that Jesus’ Great Commission calls us to “make disciples in all people groups.” These Unengaged People Groups are indeed “where the Church is not yet,” as Ward has said.  Don’t we need to work toward getting indigenous church planting movements started in those people groups?