Unreached People Groups: Proximity Theology

A generational, geographical and relational perspective of the Great Commission

Jesus’ command is clear, unmistakable and biblically sound. In Matthew 28:19, He instructs the Church—which includes every believer—to make disciples of “all nations.” The original Greek renders “all nations” as “panta ta ethne.” This is a direct and obvious reference to ethnic groups, people groups with their own language and culture.

The word “proximity” carries the thought of being near to a particular place, specific time or certain relationship. Proximity theology looks at the Great Commission through the lenses of generational, geographical and relational views to gain a fresh perspective in providing an adequate witness to all people groups.

Generational Proximity

Were Christ’s commands given and a response expected only from those who were privileged to sit under His ministry? Or do they apply to believers throughout the ages? The Protestant Reformers led by Martin Luther were slow to launch a missions program. Perhaps the main contributing factor was their theology. The Reformers taught that the Great Commission pertained only to the original apostles. The apostles fulfilled the Great Commission by taking the gospel to the then-known world; therefore, the church in later ages had neither the authority nor the responsibility to actively engage in the task of proclaiming the gospel to all peoples.

What about our generation? Are we accountable to the command of Christ to go and make disciples of all nations? Many of the nations considered unreached today received the gospel through the apostle Paul’s ministry. Paul stated in Romans 15:19: “So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.” Illyricum includes modern-day Jordan, Syria and Turkey. As a result of Paul’s ministry, believers from all of those areas are worshipping around the throne of God in heaven today. Is the 21st-century church obligated to make contemporary disciples to see God’s objective achieved and His command fulfilled?

North Africa is inhabited primarily by Arab Muslims. However, this was not always the case. The territory was once dominated by Berbers, a non-Arab people who were at one time mostly Christians. Beginning in the seventh century, Islam gradually changed the society as Arab invasions slowly displaced the Berbers. By the 15th century, the Berber people embraced Islam. Since Berber believers from centuries past will be in heaven, is it necessary for believers today to take the risk, even to laying down their lives, to reach today’s Berbers and bring closure to the Great Commission?

The answer is not debatable! Why? Because it is embedded within the Great Commission itself: “Teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Our generation has a command to obey, an obligation to fulfill. Until the rapture of the Church, each generation must assess the need of unreached people groups, develop a strategy and move forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring closure to the Great Commission.

Geographical Proximity

Many missions groups today define reaching unreached people groups with the gospel as simply entering another culture. The distance between two cultures is measured by cultural differences rather than kilometers. Missiologists generally consider a people group to be reached when an indigenous church emerges with sufficient personnel and resources to proclaim the gospel to the rest of their people living nearby. Once this has been achieved, the missions-sending church can withdraw and focus on another unreached people group.

But Scripture is clear that geography also plays a role in fulfilling the Great Commission. Jesus’ command in Mark 16:15 to “Go into all the world” certainly emphasizes geography. Everyone in every place is to hear the good news. For example, the Afar people of East Africa are Islamic, but several of them have become Christians. However, those believers primarily reside in Ethiopia. What about the Afar of Eritrea and Djibouti? What about the Afar diaspora scattered throughout the world?

A golden opportunity is afforded to Christians in Kenya to establish churches among immigrants from various unreached people groups. Currently, many Somalis live in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city. They are primarily Islamic and the Somalia government permits no overt expression of the Christian faith. But, believers in Kenya have no restrictions on evangelism. Suppose hundreds of Somalis in Kenya accepted Christ, and many strong churches were established within their community. Could we then say that the Somalis are now a reached people group? What about the country of Somalia and the large Somali communities in Ethiopia and Djibouti? What about the more than 500,000 Somalis resident in northeast Kenya and the 50,000 displaced Somalis that have entered Kenya’s refugee camps during 2009? What about the worldwide Somali diaspora?

Nigeria Assemblies of God church leaders recently researched around 70 people groups within their country. These groups have no Assemblies of God church among them, although some had access to other Protestant churches. The Nigerian AG leaders asked representative of those churches: “How many new churches have you started among these groups in the last two years, and how many people have come into a personal relationship with Christ in recent months?” If the churches had seen only limited to no success, they considered the people group to be unreached. They carried their research to every city, town and village among the targeted groups. In places where no forward thrust of the gospel was evident and no adequate witness was being given, they considered the group unreached and in need of aggressive cross-cultural evangelism.

Clearly, a people group can be considered reached in one area but unreached in other places. Therefore, geographical proximity must be given consideration and added to our missions strategy. Unreached people groups are reached when a strong indigenous church engages people in every country, city, town and village where they located.

Relational Proximity 

Passages in Matthew and Mark state that the first action of the Great Commission is “go.” A few synonyms for “go” are “leave, travel, depart and move out.” The emphasis is on making personal contact with a specific people group. It is good to read books about the group, gather information and statistics from Joshua Project, and spend quality time in intercession for the people. However, the primary thrust of Jesus’ command is to contact and connect with the group.

While doing field research in Africa among a number of coastal Islamic people groups, I was accompanied for two weeks by a national church missions director. We were both deeply touched by the absence of any gospel witness among several groups. Making contact with the villagers; visiting in their homes; touring their schools, clinics and mosques; and eating with them in their local restaurants provided a basis for friendship. We built relational bridges for future presentations of the gospel. The missions director said, “I have traveled on the main road through this area at various times, but this time I met the people.”

In 1995 I was living in Malawi. My wife and I had enjoyed seven years of fruitful ministry there. Then I made a trip to Eritrea to do research among the Beja people. Two colleagues and two Eritrean church leaders traveled with me in search of Beja living near the Sudan border. We located them, and the commissioner gave us a six-hour tour. We met briefly with several Beja chiefs, visited a “men’s only” market, walked through a Beja village and asked a lot of questions. It was my first contact with the Beja, and my spirit connected with them and their lack of any overt presentation of the gospel.

Upon returning to Malawi, my heart was burdened for the Beja. I awakened in the night remembering the Beja chiefs and the desperate spiritual need of the people. After about a week, I shared my growing concern for this unreached peoples group with my wife. Together, we decided to leave Malawi and transfer to Eritrea to work among the Beja. Relational proximity moved us to action. A contact had been made, our hearts and spirits connected with the need, and we had the privilege to forcefully advance the Kingdom among the Beja.

A Key Component 

Proximity theology is a key component in Great Commission strategy development. All people groups must be reached with the gospel, and converts must be discipled and churches planted. Jesus commanded that each people group receive an adequate witness of salvation through His atoning work on the Cross. May our generation respond enthusiastically, contact people groups wherever they are located and build a relational bond through which Jesus can be introduced as their Savior.