Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven over 2,000 years ago. Before he left, he empowered his disciples and asked them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). Yet, from that time to the present, the ends of the earth are still unreached, and the task unfinished.
When considering a renewed vision for global missions, we must start by asking, why are there still so many unreached people? Why have so many still not heard the good news of the Kingdom?
Before trying to answer this question, let’s consider what progress has been made. According to current statistics, 12% of the world’s population are genuine disciples of Christ living in allegiance to Him. Another 20% identify as Christians but are so in name only and need to be “re-evangelized” with an authentic gospel. About 40% live in areas with direct access to a church and the gospel message.
That leaves almost 30% of the world, or over 2 billion people, still unreached and unaware that God’s Kingdom has arrived. These 2 billion people represent over 6,000 different ethnic people groups. Missiologists consider a people unreached when there are no indigenous Christians or foreign missionaries able to engage them with effective evangelism.
“Missiologists consider a people unreached when there are no indigenous Christians or foreign missionaries able to engage them with effective evangelism.”
Now, let’s look at where missionaries are currently working. Recent research shows that over 90% of all Christian ministries work to reach or minister among their own people. That means less than 10% of all Christian workers leave their homes and go out in obedience to Jesus’ command.
Of those who go out,
- 80% are serving in regions that are already Christian
- 17% focus on people groups that already have access to the gospel through some other source
- Less than 3% are focused on the 30% of the world still unreached without any access to the gospel
In light of what Jesus originally asked His followers to do in Matthew 28:19-20, these figures are appalling. We should be asking, what has the Church been doing with all her time, energy and money for the last 1,700 years? A casual trip through Europe, America and most of the Christian world will quickly reveal a significant part of the answer. Much of the wealth amassed within Christendom has been spent establishing organizations, buying up real estate and erecting the often-elaborate buildings Christians thought necessary to practice and propagate their faith. Meanwhile, as the collective Church was investing billions of dollars and countless hours in these temporal ministry projects, generations of lost people groups in many parts of the world continued in complete darkness without a viable witness to the truth.
Can we pause here and ask, is this the outcome Jesus intended? At the very least, I hope we can agree that this crisis reflects extremely poor stewardship of God’s precious resources.
“Generations of lost people groups in many parts of the world continued in complete darkness without a viable witness to the truth.”
Now, please be assured that my goal is not to criticize the Church or the efforts of previous missionaries but to look squarely at the reality of the present situation. Without an accurate assessment of the Church’s mission work, we will not find the clarity, courage and resources to change what needs to be changed and move forward. Recognizing our past sins, failures and misguided mistakes is one thing. It is quite another to know what needs to be done and have the will to correct our errors, thereby removing the barriers to spreading the gospel and the Church coming to full maturity.
However, there is good news. Today, there is a growing awareness among church and mission leaders that this matter requires serious thought and action. Something must be done. The question is, what? So, let’s focus on what stands in the way of the church’s effective witness to those who have never heard. Over the last thirty years, I have discovered five main reasons there are still so many unreached people throughout the world.
1) Few churches have this vision, and few people are willing to go.
The gospel will not be fruitful if churches do not send and Christians do not go. Research shows that over 80% of all Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus alive today do not personally know even one committed follower of Jesus. This is because there simply are not any in their community to meet. Addressing this point, Paul asked,
“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent?” (Rom 10:14-15)
2) Lack of finances.
Of all the money raised for supporting mission work,
- 87% goes for work among those who are already Christian
- 12% goes for work among those who already have access to the gospel
- less than 1% goes to support work among unevangelized and unreached people
That last statistic bears repeating: less than 1 cent out of every dollar given for all missionary activities worldwide goes to finance work among the unreached.
“Less than 1 cent out of every dollar given for all missionary activities worldwide goes to finance work among the unreached.”
3) Confusion about what the gospel really is.
Many have gone out but took a message that did not accurately convey the truth of Jesus’ teaching. It was called the “gospel” but was, in fact, only a series of spiritual propositions constructed from denominational doctrines and beliefs. Many have learned the tenets of these evangelism programs. But simply accepting these abstract beliefs is not what truly saves. Also, the content of these presentations is often incomprehensible and inaccessible to people holding a contradictory worldview from those who developed it.
4) Lack of biblical and culturally appropriate evangelism strategies.
Even among those who go with the true gospel of the Kingdom, traditional missionary methods are proving ineffective and unfruitful in today’s world due to outdated or culturally ineffective means of communication. Open preaching, distributing tracts, and apologetic or polemic approaches are utterly unsuited for the local cultural and political context in many unreached areas.
5) The remaining unreached live in the world’s most restricted and difficult areas.
Simply stated, the missionaries who have gone out have already reached the more accessible places. The remaining people and places demand a deeper understanding of what God is doing, innovative approaches, and just plain long and difficult work preparing hard soil, wise planting and faithful reaping.
These five barriers are deeply entrenched and, for many, have effectively thwarted fruitful mission outcomes. But be assured, the Father will succeed at calling out and preparing a worthy inheritance for His Son from among all nations, tribes, languages and peoples (Psalm 2:8, Revelation 7:9). Yet, only as the Church reconsiders its vision, goals and approach to missions can God’s grand purpose to redeem these nations be accomplished.
*In the following chapters of the book this is excerpted from (For the Fame of His Name), we address these challenges and propose a workable and biblical pathway so that those whom God calls can be fruitful in their partnership with Him.
 For the latest figures, see Joshua Project, https://joshuaproject.net/global_statistics.  See About Missions, https://www.aboutmissions.org/statistics.html.  See “Presentations” at Joshua Project, https://joshuaproject.net/resources/presentations, and Warrick Farah, “Emerging Missiological Themes in MBB Conversion Factors, at http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/30_1_PDFs/IJFM_30_1-Farah.pdf.  See “Christianity in its Global Context, 1970-2020: Society, Religion, and Mission,” June 2013, Center for the Study of Global Christianity, https://www.gordonconwell.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2019/04/2ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf.  See “Missions Stats: The Current State of the World,” Nov. 2021, The Traveling Team, https://www.thetravelingteam.org/stats/.
Excerpted from G. W. Steel, For the Fame of His Name: Rethinking Church and Missions for the 21st Century (2022). Used with permission.