Are Unreached People Groups Biblical?

It was the “Introduction to Mission” module at a local Bible College, and I was lecturing there for the first time. A bit out of my depth, in a room full of people who had far more experience of mission than I did, I sometimes (rightly or wrongly) resorted to my favourite topics, tangents or strong points, to fall back on familiar territory.

Nearing the end of day 2, I went off briefly on one of those excursions into a short bit about “Unreached People Groups” as I’ve written about here before. As I turned back round to the class, I noticed a blank face or two and a voice spoke up:

“But where is that in the Bible, Sir?”

And it was at this point, I admitted that indeed the exact definition and outworkings of Unreached People Groups, as defined by the Joshua Project, International Mission Board (of the Southern Baptists) or other major organisations, are not in the Bible. That’s why this was only a passing mention in a far fuller Biblical course. Something I hold lightly to, though perhaps for the number of times I mention it, you wouldn’t think so!

Yes, we’d seen aplenty that God’s heart was for all nations, right from Genesis onwards. Even as we read prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus, around Christmas, many of them have this “all nations” scope.

“His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth”

Micah 5:4
(speaking of what the eternal God would do, being born in “little” Bethlehem)

“My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people – a light for revelation to the Gentiles…” 

Luke 2:30-32
(Simeon realises the significance of this birth is far more than just for his own people)

And we could go on…(instead, why not get your hands on Chris Wright’s “Mission and the People of God” or Chester’s “Mission Matters”?)

But despite these constant mentions of the nations or all peoples, it still doesn’t help us define what that looks like. And that’s where this article on The Gospel Coalition (and this one too) strikes back at current tendencies in missiology.

And what the authors mention is certainly true. Three things struck me from 10 years taking trips to more unreached, unengaged parts of the world:

  1. The “Unengaged” world (as defined here) has comparatively few resources (it used to be around 1% of all evangelical mission giving), and few seem to care enough to shape their church mission policies and individual lives, to sacrificially prioritise these peoples. There are great needs that brought about the wave of thinking about “unreached people groups”, that still exist. Let’s not shy away from this area, thinking it is the “sexy” topic of the time.
  2. We cannot zap Jesus back by completing the great commission, as soon as the last tribe hears the last word of our good news presentation in their language. Mission is about far more than gospel presentations, Discipleship (Seeker) Bible Studies or responses. The great commission speaks of teaching people to obey all that Christ has commanded, and the New Testament develops the idea of God’s people – now, the Church.
  3. If we do not take a stronger emphasis on what the Bible emphasizes in discipleship (that discipleship is messy and growing Godly character is never quick), in local church (that a meeting of 3 people looking at the scriptures is not necessarily a church), in evangelism (that pragmatics of hunting “people of peace” and other such strategies cannot define us), then we will not have healthy churches that will survive long-term. We may have exciting stories of dozens of “church” plants. But we may simply be inoculating the culture against Christianity (by making them think they’re Christian), rather than seeing genuine conversion.

So let’s not take our foot off the gas/pedal. There are great needs. But may we steep ourselves first and foremost in the scriptures, to know what to grasp as first importance, and what human principles may be useful but not essential. May we tie our seminaries to our mission-fields and see that it is Godly, equipped people we are sending to plant sustainable, indigenous churches.

How our going to church is destroying the church

How can going to church, be destroying the church? Isn’t it the people who aren’t going to church that we should be worried about?

Let’s take a step back and come with me to the area I have just moved into in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For security reasons, I’ve made my location slightly unclear, but otherwise this map gives you an accurate picture of my area.

Within 1 mile of my house, we have:

  • 2 Presbyterian Churches (with 2 more just outside the mile walk)
  • 2 Roman Catholic (with another 2 just outside the mile)
  • 2 Church of Ireland congregations (with another just outside the mile)
  • 1 Independent Methodist (with 1 denominational Methodist just outside the mile)
  • 1 Congregational church
  • 1 Baptist
  • 1 independent evangelical church
  • 1 pentecostal church
  • 1 Brethren Gospel Hall (with another just outside the mile)

Without visiting them all, I could fairly confidently say that within a mile of me, at least 7 of these churches would hold to historic evangelical doctrine. 2 would be reformed in their understanding of doctrine and practice.

I go to none of them.

Instead, I choose to drive 6 miles into the city, to a church which has its membership on average commuting similar distances.

What difference does this make to church life?

Dr Carl Trueman in his (free) lectures on the Reformation, famously said that the greatest impact on the church post-reformation, was the invention of the motor car. In our cars, we become the arbiters of churches.

In our cars we can get to churches miles away in minutes (I travel to mine in 12 minutes on a Sunday).

In our cars, we can be tempted to go elsewhere. Many of those who I’ve sat beside in church recently (deliberately sitting beside new-comers where I can), said they’re just popping in to visit from their home church – miles away.

In our cars, church discipline (in the positive sense of the term), no longer is effective, as we can jump in our cars and drive to the next church, where the elders know nothing about our character or actions.

In our cars, we no longer see each other as much, as we all live so far from each other. Scripture has 52 “one-another” actions which the church community are called to practice. Can we do them from distance? Debatable.

In our cars, if we were to do these “one-another” practices, we would spend a good chunk of our time driving, and thus dwindle our time with non-Christian friends (who are unlikely to see the need to drive the same number of miles, past perhaps past 50 other churches, in order to go to one which meets our theological niche or stylistic preference).

Is geographical proximity necessitated by New Testament Church principles?

Of course not! You don’t find Paul stating that the main problem in the church was their lack of geographical proximity. But you do find the New Testament authors giving 52 “one-another” practices they see the Church ought to be fulfilling, whilst living as a missional community together. I could imagine geographical proximity was never a problem in NT times, apart from, for example, Ethiopian Eunuchs passing by, who might need to go and plant their own church amongst their own servants and people.

Take a look at this next picture, in the same city (Belfast) that I live in:

Lots of churches still here, but now the breakdown might be more like:

  • 3 Roman Catholic Churches (with another just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 evangelical church
  • 1 brethren Gospel Hall (just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 Church of Ireland hall (1 Church of Ireland just outside the mile walk)

Here, for a similar density of population, in a Irish Nationalist community, we have only one evangelical church (that I’m aware of). I could imagine some places in West Belfast where there would not even be this.

Is it really a problem?

In some ways, no. Middle class people, due to cars/transport, are not geographically bound anymore, particularly in the cities. Our friends are not our nieghbours (often). Consider 3 scenarios:

  1. If I was to live in London, the people I see most during the week are my colleagues in central London, or my friends I meet with after work. Not as many are bound by the area they live in. Many travel on the Underground 30 minutes to meet for coffee or a pint.
  2. If I was to live in Ballingeary or Goleen in rural West Cork, it would take me over 30 minutes to drive to an Evangelical Church. But many farmers, although tightly knit to their communities, drive this distance to the shops or for other things.
  3. If I was to live in Khemisset, in central Morocco, with a population of over 130,000, I might have to drive well over 1 hour to find an accessible underground church community (given as a local I may be not allowed to attend a foreign-led one). This may be an advantage to me, as I may not want to be seen going to a local fellowship.

But really, is there not a problem?

Could I suggest there are several problems here, which are destroying the church, because of travel. We can come back to each in due course.

  1. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in “one-another”ing, each other (discipleship)
  2. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in evangelism because we turn it into an individualistic burden instead of living out authentic community: “that they might know that you are my disciples by your love for one another”
  3. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we refuse to keep the main thing, the main thing. We divide over secondary issues and often form our identity round them (great as they may be). In this, we fail to prioritise the most unreached areas, instead prefering our own style or theological nuance.
  4. By traveling miles to church, we are telling some communities (whether linguistic, geographical or cultural) that they must become “other” in order to believe. The trouble is, this “other” isn’t often commanded by scripture.

Now all this I say with two caveats. (1) I am part of the problem and (2) I have no intention of moving house or church right now. I would like to think I’m a bit of a unique case (don’t we all??) but lest I get caught up in justifying myself, I’ll refrain from telling you all about it, and allow my elders and church family to ask those questions, my neighbours and friends to decide how effectively I’m living for Jesus amongst them, and my friends of other denominations to see whether I’m dividing us all by placing too much weight on secondary things or not.


You can read more about these specific issues numbered above, here:

Travelling for weddings

My wedding calendar:
May: London, UK
June: County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
July: County Wicklow, Ireland
August: London, UK
September: Marrakesh, Morocco

And I could go on…

From chatting to other young graduates in the Christian scene, I don’t think I’m unique in getting wedding invitations for each month of the year (though perhaps I am a social creature!). It’s a wonderful thing in many ways, that young people still believe in such radical, counter-cultural principles such as love being a choice that one commits to for life. Love is truly the most liberating freedom loss of all time (even if many of us as millenials doubt it, and struggle to commit – either to God or to a person).

But in other ways, the way the west has individualised and internationalised life and society, means that the way we do weddings baffles me, and our habits of thinking of attending many weddings as a good “Christian” thing to do, also makes me ponder.

I have previously written that in Christian mission, the “good” is often the thing that gets in the way of the “best”, and I want in some ways to say that applies here too regarding weddings in two ways.

Photo Copyright and taken by the amazing www.kristianlevenphotography.co.uk

Firstly, if you’re like me and are always on the road to weddings, and each month are forsaking your home community to do so, there’ll be an impact. You’ll be potentially a quarter less effective or useful in your home church, and it’ll impact your finances. For me who is then away on annual leave, or preaching or visiting family some other weekend of the month, it means I’m not in Sunday church for half the month. (Not a worry to you? Here’s some other posts I’ve written.) But for want of sounding stingey and rather heavy-handed in my implications of community life, let me move onto something that has me thinking more.

Secondly, what is the purpose of attending a wedding?

  1. Because you have to? – yes, sometimes you’re a relative, and relatives culturally often feel they can’t say no.
  2. Because they’re an old friend? – often its being invited to someone who was an influence in your life, or whom you influenced in life in the past.
  3. Because they’re a current friend? – most often we don’t need to travel far to our current friends’ weddings, but sometimes we do still.

So which of these would I consider not going to?

Well, no hard and fast rules can be drawn up, nor should they be, but the vows at one wedding caught my attention:

“Do you as a congregation, before God, promise to uphold and support this wedded couple, in any way you can in the years ahead?”

“We do” came the chant back from everyone enthusiastically.

But did I?

For this couple (a generic, hypothetical couple), they were people of my past life – deep friends from years ago. A couple who were unlikely to ever live in my country, nor to contact me apart from social media. Perhaps if we crossed paths in a city again, we might say hello, but ultimately, I knew things weren’t going to be the same again.

So was I realisitically, before God, going to promise to support them in the years ahead?

a. By prayer? There’s only a certain number of couples, missionaries, individuals and friends I could ever say I pray regularly and meaningfully for. “God bless all marriages” doesn’t quite cut it for me.

b. By contact? Once I’ve prioritised my home church community, my family, and perhaps then my inner circle of friends (non-Christian friends as well, of course), it doesn’t leave a huge lot of time to invest in others in life. I’d want to think twice before promising to God that I’d support a marriage.

c. By not doing anything unhelpful? Well, one could take a very hands-off approach and say that (depending on wording of the vow) that I would be supporting them, as long as I’m not negatively influencing them! But I’m not sure we’d want to be so scrouge with our words as to only allow for this.

Ultimately, I would conclude that weddings that have these vows for the congregation, bring the wedding back to The Church, and ground it in a living community that is geographically located. In some ways, this is very helpful. A wedding is not just a gathering of “people like us” but is a full spectrum of the diversity of Christ’s body, united by Him.

Should I have been there?

Well, again, I don’t think there are hard and fast rules. Christianity is not about creating rules, but our heart response to The Groom (Jesus) as His bride (The Church). These were great friends from my past. But perhaps if I can’t honestly say I’ll support the couple that are getting married, it’s one reason I might consider to not attend, if I’ve a list of 12 weddings in a year!

So could the best Christian thing, be not attending a wedding of a friend?

I would suggest the answer could well be “Yes”! So that it means more for you when you do attend them, so that current church communities thrive without people always being away, and so that it means more to the couple who are having people who honestly support them.

In the big picture of our relationship with Jesus, how important is this discussion? Relatively unimportant! But I hope it helps us think again – it’s often the “good” that crowds out the “best” and hinders our Christian walk.