We must change our perspective on how “missions” is done in order effectively to reach the world with the Gospel, according to David Sills, associate dean of Christian missions at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and a former IMB missionary to Ecuador.
Full-time overseas missionaries by themselves will never disciple the nations for Christ.
They were never intended to.
“There are generally two types of responses people and churches have to the Great Commission,” Sills, who also seeks to equip laypersons to be effective missionaries through Reaching and Teaching International Ministries, said.
“The first response is they understand their church needs to be involved, but they defer to the International Mission Board (IMB) to do it.
“The second response is saying, ‘Yeah, we want to be involved but where can we go and what can we do?’” Sills said.
Noting that every Christ-follower has been commissioned by our Lord Jesus Christ to reach the nations with the Gospel, Sills wants to help Southern Baptists become involved in this world missions enterprise. He points to IMB’s Embrace strategy as a great opportunity for churches to play a hands-on role with reaching the world’s most Gospel-isolated people, those the IMB identifies as unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs).
Without such hands-on involvement by churches, there will not be enough missionaries to reach every group that doesn’t have access to the Gospel, he said. Missiologists predict that more than 1.8 billion people will die without ever hearing the name of Jesus Christ unless there is a drastic change in the approach to world evangelism.
As a vital first step, it is important to get every church to take an overseas mission trip, he said. “I can’t think of a single case where going overseas hasn’t changed a congregation in a positive way.”
IMB’s Embrace strategy recognizes there aren’t enough missionaries to get everywhere and encourages churches to take ownership of the calling to reach the world’s unengaged, unreached people groups, according to Sills.
Embrace is an initiative launched by the IMB in 2011, challenging local churches to embrace an unengaged, unreached people group in the world, with a goal of being the first evangelical body to engage their particular unreached people group with the Gospel. Many churches have already responded.
The order of words is important—there are almost 6,500 unreached people groups. Of these, more than 3,000 have not even been engaged with the Gospel by any believer in Jesus Christ. They are truly unengaged, unreached people living and dying without knowing Jesus Christ.
Sills offered several introductory ideas to help pastors and churches in their decision to adopt an unengaged, unreached people group.
1. Preach missions from the pulpit.
This should not be merely a special annual emphasis, but an ongoing process. Show God’s missionary heart throughout Scripture in sending Jesus to save unreached people.
2. Look around your church.
The best place to begin the UUPG search is in looking for natural connections to people groups within the church or in the area around the church. Can the bridge to overseas begin right in your own neighborhood?
3. Know the personality of your church.
Is it the type that would venture to the remotest parts of the uttermost, or is it more suited to work in an established urban setting?
4. Pray for direction.
It is obviously God’s heart that all people groups be reached with the Gospel. Churches should commit to praying for God to reveal the natural connections they may have with people around them and where they should connect overseas.
5. Investigate as much as possible.
Extensive information can be found on the Internet about the world’s people groups (see imb.org/globalresearch and imb.org/gettingthere). Books and magazines also offer insight into many of the world’s unreached cultures. As Christians pray, investigate, and consider the respective personalities of their churches, God will reveal opportunities.
6. Learn how to share the Gospel and disciple new believers in the culture your church selects.
For many, this will mean learning how to work in oral cultures. Seventy percent of the world can’t read, but 90 percent of all evangelism and discipleship materials are structured for literate learners. Training will prepare Christians to be effective witnesses in difficult contexts.
7. Attend an Embrace equipping conference.
The IMB has hosted several national Embrace conferences which have equipped scores of churches who have begun the process of engaging a previously unengaged, unreached people group. Two other conferences are scheduled for this fall in Graceville, Florida, and next spring in Louisville, Kentucky (see call2embrace.org).
8. Determine whether the church can sustain a relationship prior to committing.
Reaching UUPGs is difficult and probably won’t happen quickly. Churches must understand the long-term commitment. If they can’t sustain the effort, they should consider partnering with other churches or even their entire association.
9. Learn as much of your people group’s language as possible.
Even the most basic phrases allow for an early connection and immediate bridge building. Speaking someone’s language communicates humility and openness to learning about their culture.
10. Don’t underestimate the intensity of spiritual warfare.
Keep in mind that UUPGs have not been exposed to the light of Jesus Christ. Satan won’t give up territory easily. Bathe everything in prayer, beginning with the selection of a UUPG. The last thing you want is to spend time and money to travel to a remote place but have little impact for the Gospel. Recognize you are behind enemy lines.
Engaging a UUPG can be difficult and daunting, but take heart. The same Lord who said, I am with you always (Matthew 28:20), also promised there will be redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, and nation gathered around the throne of the Lamb (Revelation 5:9; 7:9). It may be your church He uses to usher those remote, lost, unreached, precious people into the brilliant light of His Kingdom.
Chris Turner is a freelance journalist living in Brentwood, Tennessee, and a member of Grace Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee.