The world had never laid eyes on them before. Yet, there they were, in plain sight, for all to see.
As photographers in helicopters took pictures of the previously uncontacted or lost tribes of the Amazon rainforest, the fear, amazement, and uncertainty in their faces was unforgettable. Spears were in hand and fingers were pointed upwards. I stared at the picture and contemplated a people and tribe that had lived in isolation from globalization and technological advancement for much of the last two hundred years.
For the first time in my life, I looked into the eyes of a people that had most likely never heard (or had a chance to hear) of a Savior named Jesus. They were not unbelieving because they had said no to Jesus, but because they had never had an opportunity to do so. I came to understand these peoples were referred to as “unreached.” They were in existence despite my ignorance.
I came to find out this ignorance was shared by the majority of Christians worldwide. Surprisingly, almost seven out of every ten Christians are unaware of God’s vision for the evangelization of the world, especially among the world’s unreached peoples.
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Elissa Finds A Home
For almost half of my Christian life, I was one of these seven who was unaware of the approximately 8,000 peoples in existence who have never been evangelized. It was not until a cold day in Minneapolis, during a Perspectives on the World Christian Movement class, that I viewed a picture of one of these 8,000 that spoke a thousand words and confronted me with real faces of faithless peoples in need of forgiveness and freedom.
Unengaged, Unsent, Unreached
That picture showed me a lot about a world I did not know. I had never heard the title “Bibleless peoples” either. I knew people who choose not to read a Bible, but I had never heard of the 210 million who might have a desire to read God’s word, but could not, because one did not exist in their language.
And the “unengaged”? I knew of unbelievers, but I had no awareness of the groups in the world who are silently wasting away, waiting to hear about their sin and Savior. Presently, they have no church, agency, or Christian with a plan to get the gospel of Jesus Christ to them.
I had never thought about the “unsent” either. I knew Christ commissioned his people as “sent ones” (John 17:18), but surely he meant something or someone else. I did not know how starved the world is for missionaries and yet how large, and largely unsent, the evangelical church remains. I did not know my future involved only two choices — send or be sent.
But for those believers who do know of these peoples, we must ask a penetrating question, “Is it that you can’t do something, or that you won’t?” Most are unaware, but heaven forbid that the others are unmoved.
Follow the Sent Savior
Jesus was not unaware. He was not unmoved. And he was certainly not unsent. He died to open eyes, jumpstart hearts, and make ready feet for the world.
Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” (Matthew 9:35–38)
Jesus knew there were many unknown peoples who were unknowledgeable of a God worth knowing. He knew two things: humanity was harassed spiritually, emotionally, and physically and helpless to do anything about it. But he knew something they did not. He was a saving shepherd who would lay down his life for them (John 10:10–11). He was unknown to them, but they were known by him.
Scour sites like Joshua Project, tear into books like Operation World, and watch Prayercast videos. You don’t have to stay uninformed. If you knew that 141,000 new unbelievers enter the world’s global cities every day but that 80% of them will never meet a Christian, or that for every unreached people group there are 78,000 evangelical believers that will hardly ever reach or even notice them, how would it affect you? As David Bryant said, “God cannot lead you on the basis of facts you do not know.”
Harassed, Helpless, Forgotten
Jesus knew his world and “he had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36). Jesus’s heart broke for the shepherdless sheep, and all too often ours does not. Instead of focusing on whether the proverbial man on the desert island will go to hell if he has never heard the gospel, Christ’s commissioned church is more concerned with who will go to him. We grieve that many who hear do not go to him, and that many do not go to him because they never had the chance to hear.
Jesus’s compassion came as a result of the people’s lostness coupled with the lack of laborers to find them. When only 1 out of every 5,000 professing Christians goes overseas (a mere 0.02%), when there are over three billion harassed and helpless unreached souls at large, we must constantly “pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Matthew 9:38). Buy a map. Open it. Pore in prayer over its people and places. Many have done so only to find their hearts opened in the process. Let us pray too, with Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, “Let me be broken with the things that break God’s heart.”
Our self-sent God in Christ is the foremost of all missionaries and mobilizers. He was sent to save, and he sends all he saves. Someway, somehow, and somewhere he commissions you and all the Christians around you. When only $1.66 of every $100,000 of Christian income is given to the unreached and only 0.05% of Christian income goes to international missions at all, it’s not too hard to see why more can’t be sent. In fact, it becomes unclear if we are sending at all given such low numbers.
Jesus Was Not Joyless
Despite all sin, suffering, and the sorrowful state of the world, Jesus was driven by the joy of completed mission (Hebrews 12:2). Despite harassed and helpless sheep, and a desperate shortage of laborers, Jesus promised a plentiful harvest full of the redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Revelation 5:9). This is the joy Jesus saw. He is not just God, but a God over his people — many of whom are largely unknown and do not know him yet.
If Jesus was joyous against all odds, so shall we his people. Let us fix our eyes on him and pray, give, go, and send in joyful anticipation that there is no greater joy than to have throngs of largely unknown peoples known by our heavenly Father. As John states, there is “no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 4). Let us walk in such a way that our heavenly joyfulness will one day include today’s unknown and unreached peoples.
Robert Savage said, “The command has been to ʻgo,ʼ but we have stayed — in body, gifts, prayer, and influence. He has asked us to be witnesses unto the uttermost parts of the earth. But 99% of Christians have kept puttering around in the homeland.” May we not be added to them, but may we boldly risk for the sake of the nations. We can rest assured that no one will ever enter heaven saying, “I wish I had done less for the nations.”