Hello, and welcome back to our series on Spiritual Warfare and Missions (SWAM). If you missed the first couple of posts you really should click here to read them first. And be reminded that this series is based on the book by Jerry Rankin and Ed Stetzer called Spiritual Warfare and Missions.
Last week we talked about how Satan is trying to keep nations closed to the gospel and how God is bypassing those geo-political barriers to the good news and redeeming people. God is also using the situations caused by these barriers to create a hunger in lost people for the kind of peace that only the Prince of Peace can provide.
This week we are going to look at how Satan tries to keep the unreached people groups from our view. The old saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is true and the enemy is working hard to keep these people groups out of sight.
Missiologist Donald McGavran, with the School of World Missions at Fuller Theological Seminary in California, began to draw attention to the nature of the Great Commission in the context of sociological groups of ethnic peoples. In his landmark book, Bridges of God (1955), he highlighted the fact that evangelistic movements in India followed ethnicity. The gospel spread, often to the fringes of people of similar language and caste but did not bridge into other peoples, even though they might be intertwined geographically in the same area.
Ethnicity is what makes a distinction between “us” and “them”. If you are part of a homogeneous people who have the same language, culture, and ethnic origin, you would relate as “we” in contrast to others who have a different language and culture. Ethnicity often determines unspoken norms of marriage and communal relationship; it is also a factor in discrimination and strained relationships with other races and cultures. People groups tend to reside in common geographic areas, but even if they are widespread, their ethnicity represents stronger ties than relationships with other near neighbours. Even in large cities, which become a mashup of multiple people groups, those with similar backgrounds and kinship tend to live in ghettos and communities with their own kind of people.
Not surprisingly, the gospel tends to follow the lines of these relationships as well. In fact, the gospel may find a receptivity and permeate an entire people group and not even touch another ethnic or linguistic group living and interacting in the same vicinity. Though tens of thousands of people in India were coming to Christ, McGavran pointed out that it was exclusively among the Telugu. This is what has happened in other historic mission fields like Nigeria as the gospel spread among the Yoruba and in Indonesia as it spread among the Javanese. Missions strategists have simplified the definition in reference to our task of global evangelism by saying, “People groups are those of common ethnic identity and relationships through which the gospel can spread without encountering a barrier.” If a Christian witness must bridge to another language or cross from “us” to “them”, it normally distinguishes separate people groups.
The instruction of Jesus to His followers in Matthew 28:19 was to make disciples - to win to faith, bring into the kingdom, and teach to become obedient followers of Jesus - the panta ta ethne - of all the “ethnos” or peoples of distinct ethnic languages and cultures in the entire world. It is the same terminology used by Jesus in Matthew 24:14 when he spoke of the future reality of the gospel being proclaimed to all nations, literally “panta ta ethne” (all peoples). And it is the same terminology used to portray the ultimate fulfillment when “a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number” (Revelation 7:9) would be represented around the throne worshipping the Lamb of God.
Given this ‘people group’ thinking, it helps to think of the world as a waffle, and not a pancake. When you pour syrup onto a pancake it is reasonable to expect the syrup to flow all over the smooth round surface. Not so with the waffle. A waffle has a multitude of small squares separated by ridges. If you want your syrup to cover the whole waffle, you must be deliberate in the pouring of syrup into each square. The world is not made up of homogenous people who are alike and all speak the same language. The world is a vast matrix of more than eleven thousand distinct languages and cultures, separated by ethnic identity. If each one is to hear the gospel, mission efforts must be deliberate to pour the syrup of the gospel into each one in a culturally appropriate way and in a language people can understand.
Rankin reports it once was thought that sending a missionary to Yugoslavia was evangelizing the country of Yugoslavia. But with the fall of Communist control of eastern Europe and the splintering of the Soviet Union, it was discovered that there really wasn’t a Yugoslavia. That country, like so many others, was an artificial alignment of political borders. It had been made up of Serbs, Bosnians, Slovenian, Macedonian, Croats, and Kosovars, and it was evident all those peoples - some Catholic, some Orthodox, and others Muslim - did not like one another. There was ancestral enmity between them that went back for centuries. Evangelizing one of them did not facilitate the gospel spreading to other peoples with a different language and culture and antagonistic attitudes toward each other. Bosnians had no respect for Serbs and would not listen to them. Kosovars would have been unresponsive to efforts of Croats to influence them to consider the Gospel.
It is this blindness to people groups and the Biblical definition of nations that resulted in Ralph Winter characterizing the malady as people-blindness, blindness to the existence of separate peoples within countries. This prevents us from noticing the sub-groups within a country which are significant to the development of an effective evangelistic Strategy. Until we recover from this kind of blindness we may confuse the legitimate desire for church or national unity with the illegitimate goal of uniformity.
Did this just happen, or did the deceiver of the nations distort the thinking and perception of well-intended mission strategists? Could it be possible that the one who has the capacity to blind the hearts of the unbelieving lest they be saved could also blind our eyes to the nature of the task?
The authors state that a major aspect of Satan’s strategy is to convince us that the task of missions is to win as many souls to Christ as possible. Certainly God is not willing that any should perish but desires that all men come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth.
God has called us to the task of evangelism - proclaiming the gospel through any and every means; we are to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. And He is pleased and rejoices over every soul that repents and receives the salvation He provided on the cross. But populating heaven with as many believers as possible and snatching them from an eternity of torment in hell is not fulfilling God’s mission to reach the nations.
So, evangelism and missions are not the same tasks. Stetzer states that he fears what often drives churches to a singular focus on evangelism is an unawareness of God’s greater mission that reaches beyond our local community.
The knowledge of people group thinking and unreached people groups is available. Don’t let the enemy keep you blind. Let me encourage you to adopt an unreached people group, intercede on their behalf, and pray that the Lord of the harvest would send labourers to engage them with the gospel. For a listing of people groups and the levels of reachedness, go to www.joshuaproject.com and discover the truth.