The missionary task is not for the faint of heart. Even with the innovations of modern technology and the prevalence of spoken English around the world, making disciples in unreached places is hard work. Establishing a church where the name of Christ has never been heard doesn’t just happen overnight. Missions work is a marathon, not a sprint.
Any church prayerfully considering how to engage unreached people with the gospel needs to do so from a realistic perspective. Not to be pessimistic, but there are some serious barriers to global mission work. In the most difficult places, there are not only the typical cultural, religious, geographic, and linguistic barriers that are almost always present in mission work; there are also a number of less obvious but notable challenges that churches need to be aware of as they pray and explore potential partnerships with workers on the field. Those challenges primarily revolve around three categories: time, investment, and risk.
“Establishing a church where the name of Christ has never been heard doesn’t just happen overnight. Missions work is a marathon, not a sprint.”
When local churches resolve to engage unreached peoples with the gospel, they would be wise to acknowledge the significant time commitment required. We live in an age of instant gratification. Pastors and church leaders are often results-oriented. Congregation members want to see immediate fruit from their labor and investment. But, generally speaking, missionary work among the unreached rarely yields results that can be called immediate or quick.
It is far better for a church to think in terms of decades rather than in days. A commitment to engage an unreached people with the gospel needs to be a long-term commitment. Evangelizing unreached people and planting healthy churches among them often takes generations. It takes decades. (Read that again because it’s important.)
More churches need to realize that casually entering into a partnership for a year or two and then jumping to the “next best thing” does a disservice to their church, to the missionary team, and to the national brothers and sisters they encounter. A serious partnership to support healthy and sustainable work among unreached peoples is a long-term commitment.
Engaging unreached peoples with the gospel calls for significant investment from local churches. The investment related to this type of work generally comes in three forms: money, time, and people. International flights, passports, visas, lodging, food, transport, ministry projects, and a host of other things take money, meaning churches need to be prepared to exercise intentional financial stewardship to cover those expenses.
Another form of investment is what I call relational energy. Simply put, local churches must be willing and prepared to open their hearts to care for people whom they’ve never met before. Sadly, this is more of a barrier to missions engagement than many might realize. Our lives are often jam-packed with so other things that we have no margin whatsoever for anything new that God may want us to do. Relational energy is needed for effective ongoing missionary care, relationship maintenance, partner support, and—most importantly—prayer. Thankfully, God’s resources are never lacking. He can give us the ability to serve in the strength that he supplies (1 Pet. 4:11).
The third form of investment for churches to consider relates more to people. Sometimes when a local church develops a deep and lasting partnership among the unreached, people from the congregation will begin exploring the possibility of going and living there long-term as missionaries. This is a wonderful thing—God raising up and equipping people in the context of the local church to join directly in what he is doing around the world. Those who choose to go are often key people in a church, however. And when they choose to leave, they vacate key leadership roles in the sending church. While scenarios like this certainly provide opportunities for others to grow and fill their roles, pastors and church leaders need to be ready and willing to send their best to engage strategically in the work of global missions.
It is no secret that work among the unreached is a risky and often dangerous endeavor. The level of risk varies from place to place, and there are a variety of factors that contribute, but there is a very real sense of risk involved in work among the unreached. Uncertainty related to governments, wars, environments, natural disasters, religious groups, and health-related struggles are all issues that persist in work among the unreached. In other words, local churches cannot be guaranteed safety as they engage in Great Commission work. There are risks at every level. Danger, insecurity, and uncertainty regarding your life and the lives of those you lead must be taken into account.
Reminder and Reward
Engaging the unreached with the gospel does not involve a casual and cavalier level of commitment. Rather, it involves sacrificial investment. The risk is great, but the reward much greater. James tells us that our lives on this earth are but a mist and a vapor (James 4:14). But the apostle John tells us that in eternity, there will be people from every tribe, language, people, and nation dwelling with Christ in the new creation (Rev. 7:9). All the risks that are present today pale in comparison to the reward of living with Christ and enjoying his new creation with the redeemed of all the ages.
“Time, investment, and risk at varying levels are realities that churches must recognize and contemplate as they explore and pursue partnerships and work among the unreached.”
Time, investment, and risk at varying levels are realities that churches must recognize and contemplate as they explore and pursue partnerships and work among the unreached. At the same time, this all serves as a great reminder that sacrifice is at the heart of the Christian life. Christians and churches are never promised immediate results, cost-free partnerships, and sanitized and safe environments. The call of Christ is a call to radical discipleship. Christians and churches are to wisely and shrewdly take risks for Christ for the advancement of the gospel to the nations.
Pastors and church leaders, as you shepherd and lead your churches in this way, know that you do so with the presence of Christ. He promised that he will be with us “to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20 ESV).
Dr. Paul Akin is the team leader of assessment and deployment at the IMB. He can be found on Twitter @Pakin33.