'Finishing the task': Misconceptions about Christian missions to the unreached

by Samuel Smith, Christian Post Contributor |
Members of the Rumai Palaung ethnic minority are being baptized by a pastor in the Shan state of Myanmar in 2013. | PHOTO: PROVIDED

In the aftermath of American missionary John Chau's controversial death, mission agencies and scholars are refuting misconceptions that have emerged about the way the Gospel is being brought to the world's most unreached communities.

While Western missionaries are part of the effort to fulfill the Great Commission, the predominant manner in which unreached people groups and tribes worldwide are being presented with the Gospel is through people who have more culturally in common with them than your average foreign missionary.

To reach them, the Lord is using people like Greg Buckingham, a layperson who spearheaded a California megachurch's mission to bring the Good News to an ethnic minority group located in the mountainous terrain of Myanmar.

Buckingham is not a pastor or an evangelist with extensive biblical education who spent years in mission training to bring the Gospel to the lost. Rather, he's a businessman whose skills God used to bridge a gap between the biblically unengaged and unreached Rumai Palaung community in the Shan state with a local pastor hungry to show the predominantly Buddhist people group the love and grace of Jesus Christ.

A community that was once considered to be unengaged with Christianity, the Rumai Palaung in the Shan state now have their own vibrant church community thanks to the efforts of leaders and missionaries from Coast Hills Church in Aliso Viejo, California — an effort that began in 2008.

But the way in which Buckingham and the Coast Hills team went about bringing the Gospel to that community was not by going themselves to encounter the Rumai Palaung. Rather, it was centered on empowering the local Baptist church and pastor in that region to bring the Gospel to the ethnic community located in their own backyard.

Coast Hills' method was in line with the way most global mission work is being done today to fulfill the Great Commission.

"The one thing that Christian mission history has taught us is that the best evangelists are folks who belong to the same people as themselves," Arun Jones, the Dan and Lillian Hankey associate professor of world evangelism at Emory University's Candler School of Theology and a former Methodist missionary, told The Christian Post.

"John Allen Chau really is quite unique. That is not how things work, even in evangelical circles," Jones added, suggesting that the era of "solo-pioneer" missionaries from the West is just about over.

"The vast majority of evangelical groups are partnering with evangelicals around the world. It really needs to be a joint effort. Because there are resources we have that can be helpful but we do need the wisdom of the local people to help and guide us in terms of how we can work together to best proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

The historical narrative of missionaries being white colonialists in pith helmets is "anachronistic," according to Jones, and "it doesn't belong to the 21st century."

The way global missions is done today is different than the way it was done in the 19th or early 20th centuries as national churches in the undeveloped parts of the world have grown in strength over the last several decades and are now capable of leading their own efforts to reach the lost people groups in their regions.

'Finishing the Task'

Today, there are at least 343 people groups throughout the world with populations of 500 or more where there are no known church planting movements present. This is according to the nondenominational missionary coalition Finishing the Task.

Finishing the Task was first launched in the mid-2000s as a global network of churches, denominations, church planters and mission agencies that have committed to planting churches in communities that are considered to be "unengaged, unreached people groups" (UUPG).

Finishing the Task defines UUPGs as communities where no missionary agency or church has yet taken responsibility to start church planting efforts.

Although 343 UUPGs might seem like a lot, there were 4,000 people groups with no known Bible movements present over 13 years ago when Finishing the Task first began.

But since then, 382 churches, missionary agencies, and other organizations have committed to launching their own efforts to bring the Gospel to one or more of the groups highlighted on the network's UUPG list.

Finishing the Task Director Paul Eshleman told CP that the list was compiled by looking at research done by organizations like the Southern Baptist Convention's International Missions Board.

"We just decided to start with every people group over 100,000," Eshleman explained. "In 2005, there was about 639 groups with about 700 million population of the groups. We just began to challenge one another and have a meeting each year and everybody would report on which groups they got engaged. We try to work on common systems of measurement so that we were measuring the same thing."

The movement has grown rapidly in the decade-plus and has led to the placement of as many as 4,766 missionary teams (over 28,000 missionaries) worldwide, which have planted at least 136,556 churches in UUPG communities. As many as 2,800 people groups have been engaged with full-time workers.

"We wanted to always have a major list in front of people. So we lowered it after we got most of the 100,000-plus groups engaged," Eshleman said. "We lowered it to groups with 50,000 [population] then to 25,000, then to 10,000 and so we are down to 500 right now. We'll keep dropping as people sign up to go there."

According to Finishing the Task, 80 percent of the missionaries that are sent to directly evangelize with these groups are local missionaries or those who have a closer cultural upbringing to that of the target people group.

It was through Finishing the Task that Buckingham and Coast Hills found out about the need to bring the Gospel to the Rumai Palaung people in Myanmar, an impoverished farming community of over 100,000 where there was believed to be no known church planting movement present.

Today, there are hundreds of Rumai Palaung believers in Christ. There are also at least two house churches and one physical church building within the Rumai Palaung community in the Shan state, according to Buckingham. This would not have been possible if it weren't for the partnership Coast Hills had with Campus Crusade and the Wa Baptist Church in Lashio.

Read more from "'Finishing the task': Misconceptions about Christian missions to the unreached" on The Christian Post.