Thoughts after Cape Town: Reaching the Unreached

As I listened to the several presentations made at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town about reaching unreached people groups, I found myself unmoved. In fact the more I heard, the more I found myself reacting somewhat negatively. It is not because I am not concerned about those who have never heard the gospel. I am. But when I heard the western evangelical leaders talking about a billion or more dollars that would need to be expended in order to finish the task as defined by their organizations (translations of the Scriptures into their languages and the initiation of evangelistic ministry in several forms), I couldn’t help but think there might be a better way to invest much of the time and many of the dollars it would require, for at least two reasons. The concept of unreached people groups (isolated groups of people that do not have the Scriptures in their own language and that theoretically have no witness of the gospel among them) is one that has captured the imagination of many churches here in the USA. It is at the very least a romantic notion that stirs the spirit. But is it really accurate to describe these groups as not having access to the Gospel?

The recently retired Presiding Bishop of the Church of England of South Africa doesn’t think so and has stated the same. One reason is that many of the people groups listed are already being significantly affected by globalization, often because individual members of many of these groups are moving into the cities and bringing back the message of the gospel when they return to visit their families. A second reason is that modern technology is invading even the most remote tribes or soon will. One of the statements made at the conference was that by 2015 there will be no dead zones anywhere on the face of the globe. That is, satellites are being put in place that will make it possible to enable mobile phone coverage everywhere, and not just phone coverage but access to the Internet. It will be physically possible to preach the gospel to every creature on earth. A third reason is that many of these groups do have people reaching out to them. Although they don’t have the Bible in their native language, many have or shortly will have access to the gospel through one of the major languages of the world.

One factor that goes against the idea is the reality that many of these groups are likely to vanish because many are streaming into the cities. But another is that, according to several accounts I heard, the agenda of the large evangelistic organizations that are driving the effort are not necessarily in concert with the nationals that are already working in the countries in which these groups are located.

While I don’t think it is ever wise to pit one ministry against another, or ministry in one place or situation against another (Gospel ministry is needed in every milieu and every kind of place), I do want to argue that we ought to putting great priority on urban ministry, if for no other reason than that that is where the people are and increasingly will be at least for the next forty years. And in many urban centers those who dwell in these places are among the least reached people in the world.