Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pitfalls of the Unreached People Groups (UPGs) Bandwagon

Sitting in a classroom full of missionaries and pastors in a Doctoral class on Missions Theology, I could not believe what was unfolding before me.  The pastor of a large church was boasting about how his churches missions dollars were only going to support missionaries working in Unreached People Groups (UPG) areas of the world.  The impassioned logical appeal of the professor had prompted this response from him.  The idea was being presented that all missions funds need to be channeled towards this purpose.  This was the final frontier of the church. Suddenly, I felt my ministry was being re-classified as unnecessary, or at best, of secondary importance.  The ramifications of this type of thinking could adversely affect the support of thousands of missionaries.

UPGs, or Unreached People Groups represent 1/3 of the world's population today. Most of these 4000 plus ethnic or language groups are located in areas (100 countries) where traditional Christian missionaries are not even allowed.   See, BIMI World Magazine Online, Volume 1, 2000

The validity of my ministry, and the ministry of any missionary working in nations where more than two percent of the population was considered Christian, was being questioned. The two percent mark has been decided by organizations dedicated to "frontier missions" as the point when a missionary could say that their nation or people group had been reached.  (See )   In other words, once the 2% was reached, the national church itself could go on and evangelize the rest of the nation, and the foreign missionaries work was no longer needed there.

This creates some serious discussion. Should missions dollars be withdrawn from all ministries not directly related to reaching UPGs, as proposed by the pastor mentioned above?  Since UPGs were considered to be the final and ultimate unfinished task of the church, how important could anything else be? This was the implication.  The country I work in was reported by Operation World as being  9.1 % evangelized/evangelical.  I work with a great team of missionaries involved in helping to fill church needs, and to train local Christians to evangelize their own nation.  We help in Bible Institutes, since very few of the pastors have advanced degrees in Theology.  We help provide training for Christian teachers and administrators in Christian schools, and have been instrumental at starting Christian schools in different areas of the country.  We help churches to train their own leaders and develop discipleship programs for their adolescents and youth.  We are on the ground floor in fostering the sending out of Dominican missionaries to the needy areas of the world.  Together we are contributing to the acceleration of the growth of the church in the Dominican Republic.  And we do it because God has called us here, and not to a specific Unreached People Group.  I respect and highly admire those who have indeed responded to a call to reach out to the UPGs, but our real value as missionaries is not based on where we go, but rather on our obedience to our call wherever the Lord might lead.
Spending charts show very little missions funds are currently being spent on reaching UPG groups.  Is this a sign of the need for a drastic shift in missions funding to these areas? Also, there were pie charts showing how few missionaries are working in the less than 2% evangelized area of the world, represented by the UPGs. This would seemingly support the great need for finances and man-power to these areas.  However these figures can be misleading as the vast majority of the UPG's are actually in nations that are closed to traditional full-time missionaries. This would certainly contribute to the picture of a great financial chasm between the two.  Since there are so many nations that do not allow traditional missionaries and their projects, it would be normal for less money to go towards support of on-going efforts into those countries. The fact that traditional missionaries are not allowed, can also explain why there are fewer missionaries working in these areas. Again I must
The red area (where most UPGs are located) is largely  where traditional missionaries face closed doors.
reiterate, that I certainly want to encourage support of UPG missions efforts, however not at the expense of the good work being done in the rest of the world by dedicated traditional Christian missionaries.

That missionaries have successfully crossed the 2% number barrier and are still working effectively and fruitfully in their respective nations seemed to have been overlooked in class that day.  The vast majority of these missionaries feel that God has asked them to work where they are, this call factor seems to have been forgotten in the discussion.  I want you to understand that as a missionary and a missions teacher, I am committed to present the plight of the UPG's and to challenge young people to go, but not at the expense of the valuable work being done by traditional missionaries. When I travel

and raise funds and speak in churches, it is my duty to speak of the great challenges to the church today, but I at the same time cannot disqualify the value of what God has asked me and others to do.

Is my response perhaps an over-reaction?  What if I tell you, that in fact, there are churches that are responding just as the pastor in my class above responded?  What if I tell you that there are missions boards that have decided to direct all their missions goals also to reaching the UPGs, and are  insistent that all others do likewise.  They want to channel all funds towards the stated goal of reaching Unreached People Groups.  They have abandoned any mission work being done in the "reached areas".  By their definition, that is any area that has more than a 2% Christian population. They have recalled their missionaries from "reached areas" and asked them instead to start over in a new region, culture, and language, where the unreached live. They are moving missionaries as chess pieces on a board, removing them from places of effectiveness, to places where they may feel unsuited, unprepared, or not even called. According to their thinking, there is no need for missionaries in Latin America, no need for missionaries in sub-sahara Africa, no need in Europe, or areas evangelized in Southeast Asia. Infant mortality rates are still high, human trafficking, immorality, and violence are rampant.  HIV, and urban social ills are destroying the fabric of society in many of the  "reached areas", but these nations are past the 2% mark and no longer need the outside help of missionaries.  University campuses in the majority world (or third world) are untouched by the church at-large. Inner cities with their poor shanty towns, and massive poverty and moral dilemmas, struggle for solutions.  Where are the workers that are needed? How long will it take to prepare them?  How many will continue to suffer?  Is it possible God could send help from other well organized and "reached" missions sending nations.  Let me make a clear statement, traditional missionaries are still having a tremendous impact, and their help is being well received as they partner and join with national churches in tackling these gigantic needs. Please, do not stop your support of these effective servants of God.  

Our nation the Dominican Republic is 9.1% evangelized or evangelical according to the Operation World database, yet there are over 3000 towns and villages in our country with no church.  In a recent sectional gathering of 40 or so pastors, I asked how many owned vehicles.  Two pastors had cars and two had motorcycles.  How will the poor rural areas be reached?  We have planted six churches here, we work with two Haitian schools, and with after-school remedial programs for Dominican children. We have taught at three different Bible Institutes and a University. In fact, I am currently teaching. We have pioneered the first Christian School (that is not Catholic) in this city of 220,000 people. But perhaps we should never have come here to this "reached" nation.  But it is the Lord of the harvest that we must obey. Where he wants us is where we will be most effective for the Kingdom of God.  And blessed is he, who is not offended by our obedience. We may be elsewhere tomorrow, but today this is where we are supposed to be.


  1. Hot topic indeed! I agree with you 100% Mitch. This is not a new issue: my first and primary missionary mentor, David Legters jr., recently passed away in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico. I had the privilege of knowing him since I was about 3 yrs old, living with them for about a year in Merida in 1980, and more recently visiting them in Oct. 2011 in Merida. Anyway, my point is relating to him and his father, who was David Brainerd Legters (named for a famous pioneer missionary, David Brainerd from the 1700s) who went to the Yucatan of Mexico in the early 1930s, being a graduate of one of the very first classes of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (my home town), and also being one of the very first missionaries sent out by Wycliffe Bible Translators, of which his father, L.L. Legters, was co-founder along with Cameron Townsend. Anyway, after about 30 yrs of work, D.B. Legters had translated the NT and portions of the OT into the Mayan language, which was, and still is, spoken by nearly 1 million people. The Wycliffe organization told him, ok, you're done here now, we're going to send you somewhere else. But Legters said, no, wait, this translation is only the first step! This people group now needs training, church development, education, etc. So he had to resign from Wycliffe in order to stay and he did, for 25 more years and served along with national church leaders as well as his son, David jr. and had a huge impact on an entire region and people group. This example, which I know personally and very close to my heart, is one in which the value of long-term, on-going, in-depth, and broadly based ministry is validated.

  2. I completely agree with you Mitch. It is important to reach the unreached people groups of the world, but at the same time we cannot cut back on our efforts to reach the world. The last time I checked Jesus said, " Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" , not preach the word to 2% and then leave. You will always recieve our support. Keep up the good work.