The Challenge of the Unreached Peoples

by John Robb
Unreached Peoples Program Director, World Vision International

Leaning over a steaming cup of black Russian coffee in a Moscow hotel, I ask my bushy-haired, olive-skinned acquaintance whether he had ever heard of Jesus. "Oh, yes," he replies, instantly, "Wasn't he a Japanese?"

I was appalled that an educated man like Dr. M. could have so little knowledge of the greatest person in human history. But Dr. M. was a Muslim from the Caucasus, an area of the 10/40 Window where a multitude of unreached people groups live. Though surprising, it was understandable that he had not yet been exposed to the love and truth of Jesus. His people group had been cut off from this knowledge for centuries by religious, cultural, and political walls. There may be Christians living in his city, but there are few, if any, of his own people who are Christian.

This story has a happy ending! Later, after reading the New Testament, he not only came to a deep faith himself but led his brother, father, and grandfather to Christ as well, and wrote a tract describing biblical stories of healing and circulated it to his patients and friends back home. Still, most in the 10/40 Window have no opportunity to hear of the Person of persons.

What exactly is a people group? Often the members of a people group have their own language or dialect, and a different ethnicity from people around them. Sometimes we use the term "ethno-linguistic" peoples to reflect these differences. Sometimes, as in many parts of India, class or occupation barriers are more significant than language or ethnicity.

From the standpoint of evangelism, a people group is "the largest group within which the gospel can flow along natural lines without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance." This simply means that unless the gospel comes from someone within one's own people group, it is foreign. For members of an unreached people group to receive the gospel, it must be communicated across these cultural divides.

Dr. M's lack of knowledge of Christ is typical for unreached peoples and in much of the 10/40 Window. There are many reasons for this. One is the hostility of religious and political authorities who feel threatened, afraid that Christianity will diminish their power. In places like Iran and Sudan, authorities have tried to eradicate the Christian movement.

Spiritual oppression is another cause. The apostle Paul said "the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers so they will not believe in the gospel" (2 Corinthians 4:4). Jesus tells us that the spiritual "strongman" must be bound before his house can be plundered (Mark 3:27). The false gods, principalities, and powers working through false religious systems give non-believers the wrong idea about Christians. They blind whole peoples and keep them in the dark about Jesus.

Many of the 800 million people who are illiterate live in the 10/40 Window, unable to read the New Testament or any Christian literature. More than 80 percent of the world's poorest people live in the Window; for them daily life is a struggle for survival. Many are malnourished, have no access to health care of any kind, nor safe, clean water to drink. In the Window, often the lost are the poor and the poor are the lost. Of such people Mahatma Gandhi said, "There are some people so poor that God can only appear to them in the form of bread."

Among the unreached peoples the greatest reason for misunderstanding or not knowing of Jesus Christ is the absence of active Christians who speak their languages and can share the truth about Jesus in a culturally appropriate manner. For example, a Turkmen might find an example of a Russian church, but he or she has no example of a culturally Turkmen church.

Indeed this is the very definition of an unreached people: they are without an indigenous Christian movement in large enough numbers and with adequate resources to evangelise the rest of their group. Yet given the chance to hear, many will respond as Dr. M. did. They simply have not had a suitable opportunity to hear. A missionary friend of mine rode Pakistan's buses and trains every day for many years in order to share Jesus Christ with his fellow passengers. Only once in all those years did one of them acknowledge having heard the gospel before.

Five years ago, two churches in my home town "adopted" an unreached people in Central Asia. At that time there were only two known Christians in the people group, and no known mission efforts to reach the group. Some travelled to Central Asia through a sister-city program in order to build relationships. Cultural research assisted informed, focused prayer.

As the churches prayed, they got involved in other ways: providing medical equipment and participating in youth and musicians exchanges. God brought together a partnership now involving more than 20 agencies and churches. The New Testament has been translated and the indigenous church has now grown substantially, all in less than five years!

Accept the challenge from the Lord of the church to get involved personally with other believers in a network of churches and agencies. Choose a people group not likely to be chosen by others, find out all you can learn about them, and share it with your church.

As you pray for them, God will lead you to creative ways to make a difference. Consider sending a research or prayer team to visit and build relationships, raising financial support for local Christian workers, or meeting a tangible need like medical supplies.

The sky is the limit! As you pray, ask God to give you his perspective and his heart for this people. God's heart breaks over the lostness and suffering of whole peoples without the knowledge of his son. Tens of millions like Dr. M. from among the remaining unreached peoples are still waiting for someone to come to them.