Evangelical overreach in missionizing the “unreached”?

It has been over 40 years since evangelical missionary strategists set out to evangelize what are called “unreached people groups” (UPGs) having no exposure to Christianity, but no discernable progress has been made among more than half of the current UPG population, according to an analysis in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology (35:4). UPGs were first estimated to have comprised some 17,000 population groups having no exposure to mission efforts in their own mother-tongue languages, no Bible translations, and no indigenous worshipping communities. Reaching these UPGs became a common goal among most evangelical bodies over the next four decades, an effort led and strategized by Ralph Winter of Fuller Seminary. R. W. Lewis writes that significant progress was made, with Christian movements being started among a number of these people groups, even some that are still counted as UPGs today, following the definition of having a population that is less than two percent evangelical. But she argues that much of the difficulty in reaching the rest lies in the way these groups have been defined and counted, ignoring the difference “between the UPGs which now have movements established among them and those that still have no movements at all.”

A re-estimation of these populations by a missiology research group known as the Joshua Project distinguished “frontier people groups” (FPGs) as a subset of UPGs showing no sign of movements, on the basis of whether their populations were less than or equal to 0.1 percent Christian. They found that close to 85 percent of all such FPGs were either Muslim or Hindu, while Buddhist groups made up under five percent of the total and all other religions comprised only 11 percent. Even as FPGs account for more than 55 percent of the total population living in UPGs, Lewis notes that about 30 times as many global missionaries currently go to “reached” people groups “to work with existing churches in training and outreach, as go to the unreached people groups (including the FPGs).” She writes that, besides the lack of demographic clarity regarding which groups have and have not been reached by missionaries, the failure to carry out much of the original goal has been due to a move from pioneering to partnering missions and a shift from career missionaries to short-term teams who usually don’t learn the languages to reach UPGs and also tend to partner with already existing churches.

The evangelical vision of reaching unreached people has also been shaken with the recent murder of American missionary John Allen Chau who was attempting to evangelize an unreached and hostile tribe on an Indian island. The New York Times (December 2) reports that Chau was “surrounded by like-minded people who believed he was on a divine mission, called by God to minister to uncontacted people. The group that trained Mr. Chau for his mission and others have defended his actions and even hailed him as a martyr.” Evangelical missions specialists argue that Chau’s method of abruptly approaching the tribe without much preparation and knowledge of the tribe’s language and culture was naïve and reckless. Chau was a short-term missionary, but the All Nations mission agency that trained him asserts that he was linguistically prepared and knew the dangers of his plan to reach the tribe. The article reports that the incident has opened up divisions in the evangelical community over the emergence of “risk-taking” missionaries, who are viewed as potential martyrs for their dreams of reaching unreached people with Christianity.

(International Journal of Frontier Missiology, https://www.ijfm.org/)