By Justin Long
Over many decades, missionary researchers have developed terms which describe the Gospel need of the various people groups.
We know the ultimate goal is for people to become reproducing disciples of Christ. But in order for that to happen, people need to hear the Gospel to begin with (Romans 10:14). Two terms have been used to measure this: “unreached” and “unevangelized.”
- “Unevangelized” means that the individual person has no access to the Gospel.
- “Unreached” means that the people group as a whole does not have a church within it that can evangelize the whole of the group without cross-cultural assistance.
Within any single people group, there can be people who are Christians, and people who are not yet Christians but have heard of Christianity, and people who have never heard of Christianity at all. It’s rarer to find people in this last condition (unevangelized) in people groups that are heavily Christian, but in people groups that are “in the middle” it’s possible. For example, consider the 800 million Han Chinese. There are perhaps 100 million Christians among them – but there is still the very real prospect of finding Han Chinese (especially in Western China) that do not know a Christian and have never heard of Christianity.
“Unreached,” on the other hand, is a sort of on/off measurement for people groups. The group, as a whole, either is or is not reached.
A group that is “reached” may have Christians in it. It may have people who are not Christians, but who nevertheless know Christians or have access to the Gospel. Many Iranians, for example, know Christians or have heard the Gospel at least once – but the Persian cluster is still “unreached.” The definition has nothing to do with whether everyone has heard the Gospel. The definition of “unreached” is all about whether there are same-culture evangelists.
In other words, are there “insider” or “local” or “same-culture” Christians who can witness to their neighbors? A local witness is always more effective than a cross-cultural one, because the local witness understand the language and the culture, having grown up in it. How many locals are required to call a group “reached” is a matter of some debate, but generally researchers and practitioners agree it is somewhere around the 2 to 5% Christian mark.
There is a sound strategic reason for focusing on the idea of “unreached” rather than “unevangelized” or “non-Christian”: within any people group, the population is constantly growing. There are babies being born every minute. Today’s workers can’t reach the children who will be born two or three or four decades from now. Instead, to reach the unevangelized of today and tomorrow we focus on “reaching the group” – by planting a church that will endure, and will reach this generation and all of the future generations that will be born.
Once that church has been planted and nurtured to the point where it can care for the people group without missionary assistance, then it’s time for the limited missionary resources to be largely redirected to other groups that are not yet reached.
That can happen even before every last “unevangelized” soul has been evangelized. The end of the cross-cultural missionary task is not when all have heard the Gospel, but rather when the task of evangelization no longer need be cross-cultural.