I wear a blue band on my left wrist that is quite meaningful to me. The words “Reaching the Unreached” are facing me, constantly reminding me of the goal that I desire will shape everything I do. These words guide and challenge me as I set both my daily schedule and my long-term ministry priorities/strategies. I show this slogan to other Christians when they wonder why I choose to tackle some projects and not others.
This phrase raises two questions. First, “Who are the unreached?” One concept is of people living in geographical locations where there are few, if any, Christians and churches. Based on this thinking, the Church of the Lutheran Brethren first sent missionaries to Taiwan in the 1950s, and also currently has missionaries in Chad and Japan. Another understanding of the unreached is ethnic/social/linguistic/cultural groups with very few members identifying as “Christian.” Based on this, our Lutheran Brethren International Mission team in Taiwan focused ministry solely on the Hakka Chinese for a period of time (1981-2011). In the same vein, LBIM missionaries are currently focusing their efforts on unreached people groups in Chad, and the Japanese have also been identified as an unreached people group.
A second question: “What does ‘reaching’ the unreached look like?” When taking up this task in a particular context, Christians will call, equip, send, and then support people from their midst to go and make disciples. The sent ones relocate to those contexts, learning local languages to share the gospel and make disciples. The senders continue to pray, give, and engage to make these efforts possible.
While the above answers are helpful, they can be nuanced to better guide ministry to the unreached in today’s complex globalized world.
Who Are The Unreached?
Regarding the unreached in our context of Taiwan, we don’t focus as much as we have in the past on: 1) whether unbelievers have Christians and/or churches located in their proximity; or 2) if they belong to certain unreached people groups (e.g., Hakka).
Why not? First, while the lack of a Christian witness in one’s community is a huge barrier, a witness close-at-hand often encounters different barriers that are just as restricting and even harder to isolate/understand/remove. Second, while treating individual non-Christians as members of a “people group” can be useful, such reasoning often leads to assumptions about them that unhelpfully shape ministry efforts to reach them.
Instead, when strategizing outreach in our context, we focus on dealing with barriers to the flow of the gospel. A barrier prevents something from spreading naturally from one point to another. One example of a typical barrier is an existing understanding/belief that keeps an intended recipient from engaging something new. For example, an email from an unknown sender with the subject line “Important Information for You!” may be deleted without opening because the recipient assumes the message to be spam. This assumption is a barrier that keeps the intended receiver from interacting with the email, even if it contains truly critical knowledge.
In addition, we differentiate between “accessible” and “unreached” unbelievers.
Accessible unbelievers are those who live behind barriers to the gospel that can be undermined or removed using existing resources, understandings, and methods of outreach. In this vein, email users located behind the “deleting spam” barrier (above) are accessible (rather than unreached) because the barrier blocking messages from getting through to them has already been isolated and understood, and helpful tools/strategies for dealing with this way of thinking (e.g., changing the subject line) are available. It is important to keep in mind though, that just because an email user is accessible, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all important messages sent her way will be received. The developed tools/strategies still need to be activated to breach this barrier so messages can get through.
Unreached unbelievers are those who live behind barriers that have not yet been adequately identified and understood, and/or there is a lack of strategies/tools for weakening/removing them.
One such barrier in Taiwan is the perception that conversion to Christianity means committing social suicide. A convert may be viewed by family/peers as disloyal or shameful, someone to be avoided or cut off. This fear leads many to keep anything connected to Christianity at a distance. Barriers like this prevent the Bible’s powerful words of challenge and of comfort from engaging and shaping the hearts of these unreached.
What Does “Reaching” The Unreached Look Like?
The Holy Spirit uses the Word to help people recognize their sin and come to him. So our primary goal is giving the unreached person opportunities to interact with God’s Word. We work to embed ourselves in communities in Taiwan, where voices speaking for God are weak, unclear, or non-existent and where unaddressed barriers are evident. We live and speak in these contexts in ways that build trust and credibility, and articulate and embody God’s Word.
Planting ourselves in these communities enables us to be more than just armchair evangelists who, despite good intentions, speak in ways that do not connect with unbelievers. Intentionally experiencing life with neighbors in these communities, we seek to learn what the world feels like for them and their strategies for surviving and thriving. We endeavor to build relationships, credibility, and understandings that will enable us to relevantly share God’s perspective within these contexts. When barriers surface, we use the strategies, tools, methods, and understandings we possess to chip away at them.
As we interact with non-Christians, we keep alert for barriers that have gone under the radar. What is causing the person to be unengaged with or unthinkingly critical of our message, even when that message is very well-informed? We work to better understand these barriers and then proactively develop ways to weaken or remove them so that God’s Word can truly get a hearing.
I have been working to better understand this barrier of “conversion to Christianity equals social suicide.” People have said that Christianity in Taiwan is perceived to have rules that make social relationships too complicated or even impossible. So I’ve been exploring these “rules” and their cultural and biblical contexts. As insights emerge, I share them with others. For example, I recently initiated a conversation among Christians in my circles by preaching a sermon challenging the rule held by some of them that food that has been offered to idols can never be eaten. I have also had discussions on this topic with several unreached friends who live behind the social suicide barrier.
Is God calling you to be more intimately involved in reaching the unreached living around you and at the ends of the earth? Understanding that the voices speaking for God in communities in Chad, Japan, and Taiwan are critically weak and that unaddressed barriers to the gospel are sadly numerous, LBIM is choosing to focus its efforts on reaching the unreached in these places. More voices are urgently needed! Please continue to pray for and join us in this important endeavor.
Dr. Ethan Christofferson Ph.D. and his wife, Sandy, are LBIM missionaries in Taiwan. During his Ph.D. studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Ethan’s understanding of “reaching the unreached” changed significantly. Ethan and Sandy speak both Mandarin and Hakka Chinese and work in the outreach ministries of a local church close to their home in Qionglin. Ethan also works as a researcher in the Research Center for Traditional Chinese Religions & New Religious Movements at China Lutheran Seminary in Hsinchu. He can be contacted at: [email protected]