Sometime in 1966, these words launched a television series that changed the science fiction world:
Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.1
Many, many years before this, sometime in A.D. 33, these words launched a missions movement that changed the world:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Since Jesus first spoke the imperatives to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8) and to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19-20), God’s people have faithfully obeyed his commands. Missionaries have advanced his gospel across countries, cultures, people groups, and language groups. Millions have placed their faith in Christ, identified with him in baptism, and gathered to establish local churches. Two thousand years later, the gospel continues to advance. But the missionary task remains unfinished.
According to the Joshua Project, a research initiative that seeks to highlight the ethnic groups with the fewest followers of Christ, there are over 17,000 people groups on the planet.2 But more than 7,000 of these groups are classified as unreached people groups (UPGs). That means they have no Bible, no church, and less than two percent of the population are Christians.3 This accounts for over three billion people who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ.
According to the book of Revelation, Jesus has, by his blood, ransomed people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (5:9-10). At the end of time, there will be a great multitude that no one will be able to number from every nation and from all tribes, peoples, and languages. They will stand before the throne and before the Lamb. They will cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10). Oh, what a day that will be!
But in the meantime—at the present time, in real time—three billion people need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ so they can be included in this beautiful picture that the book of Revelation describes.
Now, we won’t rewrite the words of Jesus, but we could rewrite the title sequence for the television series so that it reflects the current missionary task:
Missions: the final frontier, unreached people groups. These are the journeys of the local church. Its ongoing mission: to seek out new people groups and new language groups who have never heard the name of Jesus, to boldly go to the ends of the earth, where no missionary has gone before.
Overdramatic? Maybe—or maybe not. Eternity hangs in the balance. The current state of missions demonstrates the need for local churches to keep sending laborers into the harvest fields (Matthew 9:38). With over three billion people who have never heard the gospel, there is much work to be done. The task is not finished.
The numbers are overwhelming. However, the church’s mandate remains the same: to make disciples of all peoples. We currently live in the space between Matthew 28:19-20 and Revelation 7:9-10. We live in the time between the command and the consummation of that command. So, one of the missiological questions facing the contemporary church is this: How will we reach the UPGs with the gospel? What will be done to reach the people described in Revelation chapters five and seven?
These questions are too broad for this article. With over 7,000 UPGs, there are probably over 7,000 ways to reach them. However, to begin to answer these broader questions, we need to first answer a smaller, more specific question: how do we choose which unreached people group to reach? This too is a difficult question. The global church must take seriously our mission to reach all of these UPGs, but as individual believers serving Christ, we are usually limited to serving one UPG at a time. How do we choose one UPG if there are over 7,000 options? Here are a few action steps that can assist you in selecting a UPG.
1. PRAY ABOUT IT
This one seems obvious. However, prayer must be the starting point. Jesus modeled this throughout his ministry, especially as it related to his mission. Remember that immediately prior to giving the command to make disciples (Matthew 28), Jesus told his disciples that the fields were ready for harvest, but the laborers were few. He told them to pray to the Lord of the harvest that he would send laborers into the harvest fields (Matthew 9:38). Then, Jesus sent them out to make disciples. Jesus made prayer a priority in reaching the lost.
So, before choosing an UPG, request from the Lord his wisdom and guidance. Beg the Lord to send laborers into the harvest field. Ask him to show you what your role should be.
Remember also that prayer needs to be done in accordance with his Word and his will (1 John 5:14). That means a good study of Scripture needs to accompany our prayers.
2. STUDY THE SCRIPTURE
We believe the Bible is God’s Word. We believe the Bible is the way God speaks to us today. Scripture provides the ultimate authority for our lives and ministries. If we want God’s direction on where to do ministry or whom to do ministry with, we need to study his Word and know it.
We often think that the Bible is the basis for missions. There is a sense in which that is true. But there is also a sense in which “missions is the basis of the Bible.”4 God is the missionary God. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture reveals the story of a holy God on mission to redeem and restore his fallen creation that consciously and consistently rebels against him. The story of the Bible is the story of missions. We need to know and understand that story. We need to recognize our place in that story.
We need to study the Great Commission passages.5 We need to study Paul’s missionary journeys.6 We need to wrestle with what “the ends of the earth” means. We need to contemplate Paul’s words, “…I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’” (Romans 15:20-21).
Throughout our study of Scripture, we need to ask ourselves at least two questions: First, what will we do with what we’ve heard? And second, what is our role in making disciples of all the nations?
3. RESEARCH THE POSSIBILITIES
There are several good organizations who are working with and collecting data about UPGs. Go to their websites and download their resources. Read and absorb the information. This will help you move towards a decision on which UPG you would like to engage. Here are a few key organizations to get you started on your research:
As you consider the facts, the needs, and the opportunities, compare them to your giftedness and your interests. Some people groups might grab your heart or your attention more readily. Some groups may benefit more clearly from your skills and abilities. Lean into these. But also measure these opportunities against Scripture. Research is good. But let God’s Word drive your decision. It has the authority.
4. PRAY ABOUT IT
Did we mention this already? Prayer cannot be overemphasized. It cannot be overprioritized. It cannot be overstated or overdone. But prayer in our lives can be under-practiced and underdeveloped. Prayer should be the starting point. But it should also accompany every action step. Don’t forget to pray.
5. DIALOGUE WITH YOUR PASTOR AND MISSIONS COMMITTEE
As you consider choosing an UPG, talk with your pastor and missions committee. Sending missionaries is the job of the local church—not individual believers, not Christian colleges, and not missions agencies. Missions agencies are subservient to local churches. Their role is to assist churches in sending their missionaries to the harvest fields.
Find out where your church is currently involved in missions. Find out which UPGs your church has already identified. Find out which UPGs they would like to start reaching. Find out how your church is currently engaging with these groups. Also, find out who your church is partnering with. Once you have this information, ask your pastor what you can do to be part of reaching these groups and casting vision for it within your church.
6. NETWORK WITH OTHER CHURCHES
As mentioned previously, the number of UPGs and the many individuals within those groups is overwhelming. Irrespective of its size, no one church can adequately provide the resources to reach them all, or even to reach one of those groups. Discover what other churches are doing to reach UPGs. If your church isn’t currently engaged with UPGs, seek ways for you and your church to join forces with other like-minded churches who are engaged. Maximize the impact.
7. CONSIDER THE FACTORS
Choosing a UPG also requires the consideration of several additional factors. These factors center on practical considerations, including how feasible it would be to live among the people group and if this culture would be a good fit for your giftings. Consider some of these factors through the following questions:
- What is the dominant religion of the people group?
- Where do these people live? In urban, suburban, or rural settings?
- How accessible are these people?
- What government or societal restrictions are placed on getting into their regions?
- How has God gifted me and my church to serve these people?
Some believe that the only legitimate UPGs to serve are those living in rural areas, those geographically isolated from larger communities that may be more likely to encounter a Christian. But Paul’s missionary example in the New Testament prioritized urban centers for gospel proclamation and evangelism.7 This is helpful for current missions, especially considering that the Japanese are the second largest UPG with 120 million people. Tokyo is a major urban center with a population of almost 14 million. Evangelistic resources and efforts need to be sent to Japan. Even though the Japanese do not live in remote areas, but in major urban centers with vast technological resources, they remain unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
8. CONNECT WITH IMMIGRANTS FROM UPGS LIVING IN NORTH AMERICA
Because many UPGs are located in difficult, unstable regions of the world, many individuals from UPGs have left their home countries to seek refuge inside the borders of Canada. It can be difficult to determine the number of UPGs living in North America, as different organizations have posted different statistics. However, it is obvious that Canada has become a host nation for many UPGs. Cities across the country have large numbers of refugees. Choosing a UPG might be as simple as getting involved with some of these groups.
One way to connect with UPGs is through the Afghan Initiative. This ministry is a partnership between Every Ethne and Live Global, part of the ABWE global family of ministries. They have relocated several Afghan church leaders and their families to North America are working to connect them with unreached Afghan communities here so they can reach the lost for Christ. Getting connected to this ministry in Canada might be a good step towards choosing a UPG.
ABWE has worked to bring the gospel to UPGs for over 60 years. Sixteen percent of our missionary work force serves among some of these groups. But reaching three billion people requires more laborers. The missionary task remains unfinished.
Hopefully, the action steps in this article will be helpful as you consider which UPG the Lord might lead you to engage with and serve. We would love to help you in this process.
Reaching UPGs is hard. It is risky. It comes with a high cost and great sacrifice. But we must boldly go to the ends of the earth, where no missionary has gone before. Why? Because Jesus commanded us. But remember, he also promised to be with us: “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
Amen. Let’s go.
THE UNREACHED IN NUMBERS
- People Groups: 17,428
- Unreached Groups: 7,415
- % Unreached Groups: 42.5%
- World Population: 7.93 billion
- Population in Unreached Groups: 3.37 billion
- % World Population in Unreached Groups: 42.5% 8
3. Newell, Marvin, A Third of Us: What It Takes to Reach the Unreached, William Carey Library, 2021.
4. Dr. Ralph D. Winter, Missiologist
5. Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:21; Acts 1:8
6. Acts 13-14; 15:36-18:22; 18:23-20:38
7. This is a debatable point. Read Paul’s epistles and allow God’s Spirit to lead you to a conclusion. Then act on it.