Evaluating the barriers to reach the remaining unchurched groups in our changeble world
There is a Gonja proverb in Ghana which says, “the dogs of yesterday can not catch the rabbits of today”. Culturally this means that some new barriers in the tribal society can not be treated with old solutions. In the missiological point of view it may help us to remember that in our fast, changeble, globalized and post-modern world we need to pray for discernment to understand how to catch the new rabbits.
Evaluating the past we can not question the worldwide Evangelical Church advance that in 1999 reached 6.7 percent in terms of growth, this was the largest growth among the main world religions. We can not also minimize the progress of the Missions that traced, studied and classified the unreached helping us to know who, where and how many they are. The worldwide ethnography got a new map. We closed the millenium with the Word of God (Bibles or New Testaments) translated for over 2.200 languages and we also have more active missiologiists today than in the whole of Christian history.
We were also positively bombarded on these last three decades by the “Final Step” missiology where Ralph Winter and McGavran defended a mass approach in direction to the former list of 13.000 unreached people on earth. This was followed by worldwide movements like AD 2000 proposing ” a church for each people and the Gospel for each person by the year 2000 “. There were 10.000 groups without a church with at least 100 members initially listed. A few years ago missiologists such as Patrick Johnstone broke into fragments the whole picture identifying less than 4.000 ethnic groups completely unreached. Recently, research offices from different Missions have been estimating less than 2.000 groups without a church among them. This shows an incredible missionary progress on these last 20 years towards the unreached.
However, It is necessary to understand that, at the same time as old barriers were knocked down other new ones have been formed as we don”t live in a static world. It forces us to adopt a more flexible missiology today than we had 10 years ago. Also some old barriers have not being showing signs of changes. Allow me to mention three new borders which, I believe, we will be working with in these comming two or three decades.
1. Natural selection: The remaining unreached groups include the most resistant ones in modern history
It is interesting to see that most of the groups which were reached and are having a growing church among them in these past 20 years followed the rule of lower missionary resistance. In other words, in areas where there were three unreached groups, there was missionary penetration in the two that demonstrated less resistance, either geographical, political, religious, linguistical, cultural or spiritual. In simple language we could affirm that among the former list of 13.000 unreached groups, we made a natural selection according to their resistance to the Gospel. The remaining 2.000 unreached today are comprised of the most resistants, a kind of mission natural selection. Therefore, what we have on our hands in the beginning of this millennium, is not simply the other 2.000 unreached people but the 2.000 most resistant groups in the whole history of modern Christianity . Consequently, today we may need a deeper missiological, cultural and linguistic preparation than missionaries needed 50 years ago. We will also need fresh motivation and pioneer spirit once again, mixed with a new harvest of church planters and, above all: the vision of God for this time. And everything with prayer.
Let us take the tribes in Amazon forest as an example. If we look closely at the missionary progress in that area in the past 15 years, we will notice that more than 80% of the work was directed to the less resistant groups: closer to the towns, culturally approachable and with a lower sense of rejection to outsiders. Tribes like the Kotokolis in Africa, the Barbados in South America or the Zhuangs in Tibet, can still be considered unreached not because of any lack of basic knowlodge the missionary forces have about them, but because of the resistance they have been demonstrating all through the years. It is natural that the lower resistant groups assume priority in the missionary world because of our human limitations. In other words, we will need more divine grace, human energy, missionary force and ecclesiastical support, in trying to reach these next 2.000 unreached groups than we ever needed in the past.
2. Ethnical fragmentation: The tendency of cultural division among the isolated
Analyzing the profile of these remaining unreached groups reveals two other new borders: the potential fragmentation of the culturally unkown ethnic groups, and finally the inability of the local churches to evangelize their own nations.
The ethnical fragmentation was a theory among a few non Christian anthropologists and is proving now to be more than just a theory. It consists of the fact that most of these 2.000 ethnic groups were never anthropologically analyzed which raises a great possibility that we are dealing with much more than just 2.000 groups. Among isolated groups it has not been rare to find a cultural nation with several tribes speaking different dialects and dividing the same territory. For the ouside world they are one group of people but in a inside worldview it is a universe of distinct groups sharing some similarities. It happened with the Frafras in Africa that, after a missionary approach, another ethnic group was identified sharing the same territory which was named Kassena. This is also real among the Konkomba where 7 main dialects and 23 smaller dialects have been identified. To reach one does not mean to reach all. The Flecheiros in South America were believed to be one nation when it was descovered that at least 9 distinct groups live together. This phenomenon was identifed especially among isolated minority groups in the past 20 years and 70% of them could be fragmented into 2, 3 or 4 other groups. 10% into 7 or 8. It is possible therefore that our 2.000 unreached people”s groups become something around 3.000 to 6.000 ethnic groups.
This does not change the nature of our Mission: to reach the unreached. However, combining this possible cultural fragmentation with the principle of most resistance mentioned above, we have a picture that may demand special attention for some cultural pockets and it may once again be time to concentrate efforts in church planting and church planters training.
3. Inability for self-evangelism: The limitation of the local church to reach its own nation
Another new border with which we may work on these next two decades is the inability of the local churches to cover their own nation with the gospel of Jesus. There are more than 4.000 ethnic groups where the existing Church is not strong enough to reach its own people. It is necessary to review urgently these 4.000 groups for a new evaluation of church expanding progress. Otherwise, we may finish these next two decades with a large number of groups reached by the gospel although most of their population ignore the message of salvation. This means that we only reached a pocket in that culture and not the group itself.
It is also good to remember that some countries, although having a strong growing Church, are not having a great impact in their own unreached groups. Brazil with over 35 million Evangelicals co exist with 114 unreached tribes, most of it in the Amazon Forest. Ghana, with more than 50% of the population calling themselves Christian, and with strong Evangelical movments in the South, still walk slowly to fulfill the task of preaching the gospel among more than 30 tribes with less than 5% of Christians in the national territory.
The challenge that we have before us in pioneer church planting is basically some 2.000 unreached , or unchurched, groups which may be fragmented in a number up to two or three times higher. Also 3.000 languages without portions of the Word of God and some 4.000 ethnic groups without a church strong enough to reach their own nation, or without a vision for that. However the Church grows. It grew in Acts during political instability and religious persecution and it will continue to grow today in this new map with different borders because Jesus is the One building His Church on earth and He knows exactly what He is doing. We must ask what are the priorities of Heaven and what is our part to play in that. Let us walk with Him to the end, adjusting ourselves to the new borders, learning how to catch the new rabbits.