Charles Sheldon’s 1896 book, In His Steps, asked, “What would Jesus do?” It was a simple but profound question. The book has sold more than 30 million copies and is among the bestsellers of all time. What was the appeal? The book caused millions to get back to the basics of humbly living like Jesus. Perhaps it is time to ask another simple question: “What would Jesus think?” What would Jesus think about 3.19 billion unreached people? What would Jesus think about the 1,550 language groups, out of more than 7,000 languages worldwide, who do not have the Bible?
The upcoming decades will provide prime opportunities for the church to mobilize like never before. Isaiah prophesied, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (9:2). Jesus brought light into the world, but billions still remain unaware of his brilliance. Many people groups today still have no followers of Christ among them and no Scripture in their native language. The descriptions vary among mission leaders for how we refer to these groups. Some classify them as “unreached,” others “unengaged unreached people groups,” or “hidden peoples,” and some say, “frontier people groups.” Whatever descriptor we use it still boils down to the next generation of the church giving an opportunity for all 17,000 people groups worldwide to hear about Jesus.
So, let’s take a few moments and ask ourselves, “What would Jesus think?” What would he think about our level of knowledge about the lost people of today? The church used to have limited knowledge of the geography and locations of the hidden peoples of the world. As a young boy, I heard the plea for churches to send more missionaries, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that I started hearing that exact and concentrated locations of “unreached” people existed.
In 1974, Dr. Ralph Winter quietly shook up the church worldwide in a speech at the Lausanne Congress for World Evangelization. He challenged his listeners to know the facts about the millions of people living without a viable witness for Christ. In 1976, the U.S. Center for World Mission acquired a 15-acre campus in Pasadena. It became a serious research center, providing a united strategy to reach the unreached. Roberta Winter’s fascinating book titled I Will Do a New Thing recorded the excitement of those times. Dr. Winter, William Carey Library, Operation World, Global Mapping, Frontier Fellowship, and nearly 100 other mission research organizations worked together to inform the church of the staggering facts about the unreached and to suggest strategies for reaching them.
Largely, the information was made known but ignored by the average pastor, elder, and church member. However, we now live in an enlightened era in which we no longer can excuse ourselves or plead ignorance about mission needs. The research exists and needs to be read, understood, and acted upon. The church can no longer be content to send missionaries just anywhere without joining the larger cause—to reach the forgotten people groups of the world.
Paul told the Athenians that their times of ignorance were over (Acts 17:16-34). Insightful leaders of the church abhor ignorance of any kind and they know Satan uses ignorance as his best tool against unbelievers and believers alike. Today is the ripe time in history for the church to rid itself of missional ignorance and to unify all believers for the task of going to the byways and alleyways of the world, inviting the unreached to the great banquet prepared by Christ himself (Luke 14:23). The Joshua Project (joshuaproject.net) provides extensive data, and Team Expansion (teamexpansion.org) promotes prayer information for the church to engage. These are some of the many tools that can help the church recalibrate where it sends the next generation of intercultural workers. These organizations provide us with statistical data and people group lists by geography, ethnicity, religion, and language.
What would Jesus think about our motives for mission? Without motivation to reach the unreached, the data will be only an indictment against us. Without motivation, statistical research will likely remain on our hard drives or our filing cabinets. The unreached will remain without the gospel if data is not utilized for its intended purpose.
Jesus taught that one wandering sheep was so important that the shepherd would leave the 99 (Matthew 18:12-14) to rescue it. The point of the story is not abandonment of the 99 but the urgency of finding the lost one. The parable indicates that the 99 were left on a hill, not in a dangerous or vulnerable place. We don’t have to neglect our local communities and congregations to go to the lost sheep. Of course, there is always enough work to be done with the 99 sheep, but the idea of the story is that one lost sheep is one too many.
The Greek word for “gone astray” is planao. It conveys the idea of roaming about or wandering without direction. An inductive study of the New Testament reveals the common theme that those without Christ are lost and wandering, whether they know it or not. Christ’s solution? The church, sent and sending.
So why does the church of the 21st century still drag its feet in pursuing the unreached? Why are the urban centers, international university campuses, and deaf communities, to name a few, still largely forgotten by our mission efforts? Of the 4.19 million full-time Christian workers, 95 percent are working within the Christian world. Is it time to regain Christ’s focus and to embrace Christ’s thoughts more fully than ever before? No doubt, mission history has mixed reviews. Some missionaries have been heroic for sure, but others have participated in sins like slavery, genocide, and ethnocentrism. However, the past does not have to define our future.
As a professor at Boise Bible College, it is especially meaningful for me to see a new breed of young people delivering the gospel. It is always exciting to see students at ICOM (International Conference on Missions) who are inspired to take up the mantle and commit to going to the lost. Those who can’t go can come alongside them, cheer them on, and support them in every way possible to help them maintain their motivation for the gospel.
Mission efforts ebb when the church lacks motivation to go out with humility and Christ’s love. Unless we are willing to leave our places of safety and comfort, the lost sheep of God will remain lost. How do we acquire motivation to move Heaven and earth for the unreached? How do we find motivation to leave our comfort zones, learn language, study culture, and live incarnational lives of love in places so unfamiliar to us? How do we find motivation to sustain prayer vigils on behalf of the unreached? How do we find motivation to support those who are willing to “leave” (Matthew 19:29)? It may sound like a Sunday school answer, but love is still and will always be our motivation for mission. God so loved the world that he gave (John 3:16). It is invigorating to think of the church leaning into its rightful role as bringer of good news for the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:18).
What would Jesus think about our unity or lack thereof as we try to reach out to the unreached? Division in the body of Christ has plagued the mission of the church for centuries. We know that Jesus desires unity. It is time again for us to recapture the prayer of Jesus in John 17:20-25 for the sake of the world.
Each fall Pioneer Bible Translators, Wycliffe, United Bible Society, and 10 other Bible translation organizations link arms in the task of getting the Scriptures to every language group. Prayer and collaboration are more than buzzwords for them; they are strategies. Can we not all practice greater unity in the Christian community? Let’s support this next generation of cross-cultural workers with a passion for Christian unity. The world is waiting to see our love for one another. Community is not the millennial generation’s idea. It is coming from the heart of God. If the unreached find Jesus, it will be because the church, his bride, really loved one another despite our differences (John 13:35). We live in exciting times. The prayer of Jesus is becoming a reality as more multi-ethnic teams work in partnership and more harvest workers come from the global south and east.
Asking the question “What would Jesus do?” can be answered only when we ask first, “What would Jesus think?” When we think his thoughts, he changes our hearts, and because of changed hearts our feet go the right direction. Christ wants to change our hearts so that our feet go to the neighborhoods of the unreached no matter how difficult the task. There is an old Swahili saying, “If you pay attention to the head and heart, the feet will follow.” How wonderful to think that Isaiah’s prophesy can actually become a reality in our generation, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2).
Danny Harrod has been married to Traci for 37 years. They have four children and two grandkids. He has served in Kenya and Oregon and the last 12 years at Boise Bible College teaching Intercultural Studies.