The common definition of an "unreached people group" is an ethnic and cultural group in which 2% or less of the population professes a form of Christianity that would loosely be called "evangelical." Using this definition, we discover that there are somewhere between 242 and 361 unreached people groups living in the United States right now. There are between 132 and 180 unreached people groups in Canada and between 66 and 73 in the United Kingdom.1 The United States has the third-largest number of unreached people groups in any single country in the world. Canada comes in at number five.2 What's more, the countries with even higher numbers of unreached people groups (like India and China) and many other countries whose numbers are very high (like Indonesia and Sudan) are countries whose people immigrate to the West often and whose young men and women frequently study at American Universities.3 Even as we acknowledge that this definition of "unreached" is imperfect and any such numbers are approximations at best, this data is still powerful evidence that foreign missions are not so foreign anymore. While we still need people to go into distant jungles, lonely deserts, and hostile persecuting nations to reach those who have never heard, we also need people right here in the English-speaking West to reach out to the increasing numbers of unreached peoples in their own hometowns! It's not hyperbole or a trite Christian slogan when I say that you really can reach the unreached people groups of the world without leaving home. Today more than ever before, every Christian can be a missionary.
Migration and Local Missions
The modern era has facilitated one of the most extraordinary times of human migration in history. Millions of people from nations all over the world are uprooting their lives and leaving their ancestral homes to pursue new lives in other countries. For some, it is to escape hardship. For others, it is to pursue greater opportunity. Whatever the reasons, people are on the move, and many of them are moving to North America and Europe. Between 2000 and 2010, 8 million migrants relocated to the U.S.A., 1.6 million to Canada, and 1.7 million to the United Kingdom.4 Migrants comprise 14.2% of the population of North America and 10.4% of the population of the United Kingdom.5 Whatever else these numbers may mean politically, socially, or culturally, from the standpoint of Christian missions they tell us that the nations we are commanded to reach with the gospel have come to the English-speaking west in large numbers. While we still need to send missionaries into all the world, unreached people groups from every continent have come to us. Many of them have already learned or begun learning our language.
There are great financial costs and tremendous barriers of language, politics, and culture for us to send missionaries to reach the unreached peoples of, say, Yemen. But reaching the same unreached people group in the U.S. may require only the courage to start a conversation with the people at the table next to you at Starbucks. It must be emphasized that this is not a commentary on what position one should hold to politically on immigration policy. Christians can disagree politically and still agree on the urgent need to reach the lost and engage the unreached people groups that are in our midst. If policies changed and immigration slowed down or even stopped altogether, there would still be enough lost immigrant communities already in our midst to occupy missionary efforts for decades to come. The point is that God has called us to go to the lost nations, and most of us don't need to go very far.
While we have many beloved brothers and sisters among the various indigenous peoples of North America, there are also many Native American nations that are almost entirely unreached with the true biblical gospel. The Lakota, for example, are a people group residing primarily in South Dakota. Their largest reservation is home to the poorest counties in all of North America, with some locations reaching 90% unemployment and a male life expectancy of only 48 years.6 The Lakota primarily practice a traditional native spirituality, with some presence of Roman Catholicism and Mormonism.7 Yet, with all of this great need, both physical and spiritual, the Lakota are not only classified as unreached but unengaged! There is no known evangelical effort to reach them with the hope of Jesus Christ. Examples like this could be multiplied. There is a great need for missionary efforts among the native peoples of in the English speaking Western nations we live in like the United States, Canada, and Australia. There are also a number of distinct ethnoreligious communities who exist almost exclusively in western countries. The Hutterites, for example, are a radical offshoot of the Anabaptist movement in 16th-century Europe that fled to the New World to escape persecution and have uniquely thrived in the United States and Canada for hundreds of years. They live on isolated communal farmlands where they have developed their own distinctive culture and even their own language (though most also speak English). Their religion is a cultic, works-based offshoot of Christianity and the vast majority live and die without ever hearing the biblical gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone. While they may have come from Europe long ago, the Hutterite, along with the Amish, Old Order Mennonite, and other ethnoreligious "plain folk" communities, have become a distinctively North American phenomenon with only a tiny presence in other parts of the world. While some of these groups have a strong gospel influence among them, others like the Hutterite do not. With roughly 40,000 Hutterites living in the United States and Canada, there is certainly cause for prayerful concern over the eternity of so many souls. There is also cause for thoughtful effort by Christian churches nearby. These are just a few examples of the kind of unreached people groups often living in our own backyard, or at least close enough to be reached without the need for a passport or a translator.
The Under Reached Majority
Not only is there a serious opportunity to reach the people groups of the world without going far from home, mainstream Americans, Canadians, British, and other westerners are increasingly becoming under-reached people groups themselves. Sure, if you survey the whole country you'll come up with more than 2% evangelical, but the proportion of the population that has ever even heard a clear presentation and defense of the biblical gospel is rapidly decreasing every year. Take the United States for example. Those who are "religiously unaffiliated" make up 22.8%.8 While a relatively small portion of those are full-blown atheists or agnostics, one out of every five people in America holds to some kind of personal, secularized spirituality and rejects everything central to the Christian faith. Another 20% are Roman Catholic.9 Sure, some of those who identify as Roman Catholic believe the gospel, but many hold to the false gospel of Rome and many others are liberal and secularized themselves, holding to only a vague notion of their Catholic identity. Add to that the millions of Americans who are practicing Muslims, Mormons, Buddhists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and any number of other major and minor false religions, and the odds are pretty high that the next person you walk past at the store or who serves your table at a restaurant is an unbeliever. Indeed, even among professing evangelicals, a large and growing number of Americans deny central Christian doctrines and promote some form of religious pluralism that denies or diminishes the necessity of the gospel.10 The truth is, even among our peers, we are missionaries to a lost people.
What's more, this is only looking at the nation as a whole. There are specific places where the lostness is astronomical. Utah County, UT (the area around Provo, Utah, the home of BYU University) is only 0.49% Evangelical.11 Not even half of 1% of the population! Perhaps that is not surprising to you in the Mormon state of Utah, but Winneshiek County, Iowa isn't much better at only 2.37% evangelical,12 and that's in America's heartland! I have personally been to Iowa towns where there are no gospel-preaching churches within a drivable distance, and where no one I met had ever heard the biblical gospel before. Bear Lake County, Idaho is at 1.25%. Bristol Bay Borough, Alaska is only 0.6%. The northeast region of the U.S. is filled with counties that hover around 2-3% (sometimes much less).13 Even Chattahoochee County, Georgia is only at 3.31 percent,14 and that's right in the "Bible belt!" This is just a sampling, but I hope the point is clear. There are regions of our country filled with people just like you and me who have never heard the gospel and who probably never will hear it if we don't go talk to them.
Missionaries at Home
We have a charge from our Lord to bring the gospel to the nations. For some, that means leaving home and country to become a missionary abroad. I am deeply grateful for those who make this sacrifice for the kingdom. The rest of us, however, share in this work as well. We need to reach out to those around us, both to those who look like us and also to those who do not. We need to be aware of tight-knit cultural communities in our midst that may never hear the gospel if someone doesn't go out of their way to bring it to them. For some of us, it might mean using our vacation days to do short-term mission trips to Native American reservations, to large international communities like the Arabs of Dearborn, Michigan, or to one of the highly unreached regions of American culture. For others, it might mean intentionally engaging the lost at places like local Atheist events or regional Jehovah's Witness conventions. Some of you might start classes in English as a second language through your local church to create a chance to reach nearby immigrants while helping them integrate more effectively into our culture. Still others might move to a part of town or even transfer work to a region of the country most suited to reaching those who have never heard the gospel. For all of us, it means cultivating a greater burden for the people around us and remembering that most of the people you walk past and drive by every day are lost and without Christ. They desperately need the message of forgiveness in Jesus that you can bring them. If you are a Christian, you are called to be a missionary, even if your mission field is the unreached people groups at home here in the west.
- 1. J.D.Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigration, Migration, and Mission (IVP Books, 2012) 58-59
- 2. ibid, 63
- 3. ibid, 63-65
- 4. ibid, 39
- 5. ibid, 40
- 6. https://www.peoplegroups.info/site/PeopleGroupHighlight/id/259/name/Lakota (Accessed 10/27/16)
- 7. ibid
- 8. http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/ (Accessed 10/27/16)
- 9. ibid
- 10. http://thestateoftheology.com/ (accessed 10/27/16)
- 11. http://www.thearda.com/ql2010/QL_C_2010_1_27c.asp (Accessed 10/27/16)
- 12. ibid
- 13. ibid
- 14. ibid