Before ascending into heaven, Jesus gave the church a command to evangelize. In what became known as the Great Commission Jesus told His disciples that all authority had been given to Him and they were to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20 ESV)
Clearly one of the main responsibilities of the church is to share the gospel. Since each individual congregation has limited resources, they have to make decisions about how best to fulfill this commission to preach and teach. Recently, I have had a number of conversations about missionary outreach and I am surprised by how often I heard a particular opinion that I would like to address. In at least three of these conversations, well-intentioned believers have told me that they think that their churches should focus on doing missionary work in their local communities. In each of these cases, it was pointed out that there were many needs and many “unreached” people within a few miles of where their church met. These brothers and sisters would prefer that the missionary resources of their church be focused on those local needs rather than sent to the other side of the world.
The desire to see those near us turn to Christ is certainly God honoring. It is also a good thing for us to wish to help meet the needs of those in our own communities, particularly when the needs (both spiritual and physical) in those communities are so great as they are in American cities. The idea that we should focus our attention on the “unreached” people in our own communities, however, fails to make an important distinction. It is true that there are many unconverted people in our communities but it is generally not true that they are unreached. We have to be careful that we do not fail to understand the difference between those that are unconverted and those who are unreached.
In most places in the United States, there are plenty of opportunities for anyone who is interested to find a church, attend a Bible study, or get a Bible of their own. While many people in our country reject the gospel it is typically not because they lack access to people or resources where they can learn about it. In many places in the world, this is not the case. According to The JoshuaProject, there are still an estimated 2.8 billion people that are completely unreached. This means that they live in places where they do not have any access to Bibles, there are no indigenous believers, and they are likely to die without ever hearing the gospel even once.
The local mission of the church is of great importance. We should have a burden for those around us to accept the Gospel and be saved. The spiritual needs in our communities are very great and I do not want to minimize that. Even so, we have to avoid a provincial attitude where we retreat into our own communities and ignore our responsibility to the broader mission of the Church. There remain places where there is no translation of the Bible to read, no preacher to hear, and no believers to share their hope. We must not be indifferent to these needs, Jesus commands otherwise.
If you are interested in thinking about this further, I suggest you listen to the following sermon delivered by Pastor David Platt earlier this year at the T4G conference. Pastor Platt explains how a belief in God’s sovereignty fuels a death defying passion for missions. He highlights the distinction between the unconverted and the unreached and gives a memorable exhortation to the Church to share the gospel with the unreached.