The Nations Are Coming to Us! Not Really – part 26

I have covered many concepts that you need to understand in order to be a missionary to remote unreached people groups. You don’t need money; you don’t need to ever go home. You don’t need a sending agency or permission to enter and preach the Gospel in closed places. You will have to be a servant/slave (see the section on Christian Leadership for Missions). And it almost goes without saying that you will need to know your New Testament thoroughly, be hard working, and sacrifice many personal desires of a normal life.

These are the fundamentals, and you might be able to make it without one or two of them; however, learning the local language is not one you can do without. This is the single most common area where most missionaries to remote unreached peoples wash out. Many go to the mission field unprepared and learn the fundamentals under the pressure of the situation they are in. They get humbled, they seek the face of the Lord and dig into their Bibles and because of the current situations learn the hard way the other fundamentals I cover in this blog.

So most, missionaries will return home or retreat out of the remote unreached areas to bigger cities where they can speak the national language. Remember that the local languages have no courses online to learn them before you go. You can only learn them by living among the people. We have the honor of having a 90 year old man as our Bible Translation Methods teacher in our training school. He says that you cannot learn the language well by taking people out of their village into your comfortable home to learn language from them. Many translators spend years learning language because their “language helpers” as traditional translators call them, are living in their homes in a bigger city where they have access to amenities of the modern world.

Most traditional Bible translators have special language learning training, which you can get before you go to the mission field. You do not need to spend thousands of dollars getting this training. You can get language learning courses in your country of origin and this is one of the things you can do while you are getting all the other things out of the way. To learn the language of a totally unreached remote people group, you are going to have to stay in the village for a long time. As I was saying, our Bible Translation Methods teacher teaches, you need to live in the village long term because there you are seeing and hearing the people in their context. You hear them when they are happy, sad, angry and when they are dealing with family and village matters. This is crucial for learning how to communicate the Gospel to them.

In the seminary I attended we had a semester of language learning using the L.A.M.P. method. It stands for Language Acquisition Made Practical. One of my teachers was also a Bible translator and told us to sit lower than your subject and look up into their mouth as they are speaking. This is an important instruction I never forgot. I used it when I was learning the local language spoken by my remote unreached people group. Do a search for “Lamp. Language Acquisition Made Practical. a Comprehensive “How-to” Book for Learning Any Language”.

So, retreating to somewhere the national language is spoken is very common when the missionary has not gotten proper language learning skills. In the middle of nowhere, the language is more difficult to learn and if you are really struggling with it, a big city with electricity and running water begins to look very appealing. The national language is easier to learn because it was designed that way, and because there are resources available such as teachers, books and audiovisual tutorials. There are even apps you can download. In the modern city, you can hire people to help you learn the national language as well. Unfortunately, national languages already have the Bible translated and, in most cases, a church of some sort. It might be small, but there is a church.

For this is what the Lord has commanded us: I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth. (NIV Acts 13:47)

Remote unreached people groups are “remote” in two ways. They are remote geographically and they are remote linguistically. Those are the two separations that God gave mankind in Genesis chapter eleven. (Genesis 11:7-8) The totally unreached people group could be living in a bigger city of twenty thousand or more with electricity and even Internet, but you will have a hard time finding them. You will have an even harder time learning their language. They are busy living city life and are trying to learn the regional national language themselves.

Few outsiders speak these local obscure languages. There are no books, no guides, no courses or downloadable apps. You have to learn a language that no one speaks but the locals. Their language makes them remote from the message of Christ and requires the missionary to cross this geographical and linguistic barrier in order to bring the message to them. The missionary must learn the local language living among the local people in their natural context. This concept alone is one of the principle reasons why it is not a good idea to return home every four years. It is also why trying to reach them in big cities has not worked well.

Our human nature tends to think that they are unreached because their languages are difficult but mainly it is because no missionary has made the sacrifice of going to them and learning their language. The 21st Century missionary movement is doing a lot to try to speed up the process of getting unreached people groups reached. Unfortunately, they are trying to bypass learning the local language. Why? Because language learning is a slow process, and this goes against any rapid method of reaching unreached peoples. It also goes against our desire to get the project over with so that we can get back to a normal life.

You may try to get a church planted rapidly, but it will be the appearance of a church. In our fast-food-drive-through world, learning language just takes too long and why so few missionaries are going there, or it is why they wash out. We invent other seemingly good ways to get people groups reached as fast as we can. We are in a hurry to get the job done. Jesus took three painstaking years to make disciples and he spoke their language. You will spend five to seven years just getting to the point to spend another three years making a small group of disciples.

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by missionary candidates is “How long will it take me to reach an unreached people group?” This question tells me a lot about their attitude. Most with this attitude wash out (or they give up and go back to a normal life). They are already thinking in terms of completing a project and not discipling people. If I haven’t mentioned it yet, I disdain calling Bible translation a project. These are people in need of a Savior who will rescue them from their sin.

Are we actually discipling the nations that are coming to us?

The enemy wants us to believe that the unreached people groups are learning the national language and are migrating to cities where the Gospel is found. It is true that some unreached peoples are migrating to the big cities, but are they finding the Gospel? Are we finding them? Are they learning enough of the national language? Are we truly discipling them if we can identify them? If we do, are we communicating the Gospel using the national language? I have serious doubts about it. I live in a large grouping of peoples where many are trying to disciple in the national language and have seen that it doesn’t bare much fruit. Many have tried to take people out of their context to train them in theology etc. and those who go out, learn to live in a comfortable environment and it becomes very hard for them to go back into their unreached villages.

A new term that was invented a few years ago is “Frontier Peoples”. The person who did the study of these remote totally unreached people groups says that we will only be able to find 1.5% of them in big cities. Read this article The 31 Largest Frontier People Groups Prayer Guide

You have to understand that most of the totally remote unreached people groups in the world are very small in population (under 25,000) and speak obscure languages. The article above covers extremely large people groups (over a million) with some believers and congregations. It is very difficult if not impossible to identify smaller totally unreached groups in large cities. I was in the conference in 2020 when the person who wrote the article said that only 1.5% of the Frontier people groups (totally remote unreached people groups) are migrating to the big cities.

If you were to try to reach them you would really have to know what you are doing. Even if you could identify them, you would still have to learn their language in order to communicate the Gospel effectively to them and then disciple the new Christians. So I do not agree with the idea that the nations are coming to us. I strongly disagree with the idea of sending missionaries to big cities will finish the great commission.

A few are coming to us, but most of them are not. This idea is just another excuse for us not to have to move out of our country of origin or farther away from the modern cities into the remote areas where they are able to be found. Jesus is a goer, and we are to be like Jesus. People from remote ethnic groups migrate to the big city and learn just enough of the national language to buy and sell and do simple tasks. Then they are too busy working to adjust to the cost of living to be disciples. These are the 1.5% you will be trying to reach. They will also be the groups over a million that already have some percentage of Christianity. Remember that in a group of a million or more, 2% is a large church and it may be all that ever come to Christ. The little amount language we could learn while they are busy working is usually not enough for us to do solid discipleship.

Photo of a similar group I am mentioning below.

Here is a hypothetical scenario. Let’s imagine that a young man from the northern Khampa people group in Tibet migrates to the big city. He speaks Tibetan Khams (see the Ethnologue dot org on this language “code khg”), which is a grouping of several languages, some of which are not classified yet. Basically, “not classified,” means that they do not appear on any language list such as the Ethnologue or the Linguasphere. The northern Khampa are a remote unreached people group (language cluster of many ethnic peoples). Back to our hypothetical scenario: This young man from the northern Khampa people speaking Tibetan Khams gets tired of the harsh lifestyle and moves to Chengdu to make a new life. Chengdu is a large city with electricity and Internet. There he learns a little of the Sichuan dialect or the Chengdu dialect. There are very few Christian missionaries in Chengdu who would be able to recognize the difference between northern Tibetan Khams and southern Tibetan Khams, much less any of the unclassified languages in this large people grouping of unclassified languages that he may belong to.

So, how are the missionaries going to evangelize and more importantly disciple him,, even in Changdu much less in Los Angeles? They aren’t. Let’s assume the young man gets enough money and decides to move further east, to Wuhan, to work in construction. There is a lot more access to the Gospel than in Chengdu; however, it is much more unlikely that anyone would recognize his language or be able to disciple him. The nations are coming to us, but we won’t ever find them, nor will we ever be able to recognize their language much less disciple them with it. Why? It is because we do not speak their local language.

Here is another scenario; this one is real. A friend of mine lives in the northwestern part of the United States and frequently eats at a family restaurant. The waiter at their restaurant is from Oaxaca, a state in southern Mexico where 170 classified languages are spoken. My friend grew up in Panama and speaks fluent Spanish, so he begins to witness to the waiter, assuming that his first language is Spanish. The waiter does speak some Spanish, but not much: just enough to get around. He also speaks some English. My friend might be able to win him to the Lord, but disciple him?

Once my friend found out that he migrated from the state of Oaxaca he began to do some research. Oaxaca is an extremely mountainous and geographically remote area that is home to hundreds of remote people groups, all speaking distinct languages. Many of these groups are unreached. It’s one of Satan’s best-kept secrets that the country right next to the United States has remote unreached people groups. This is why I am a missionary in Mexico and not China. I found out in 1997 that Mexico still had unreached people groups. At that time there were 224 classified languages, there are 296 today, according to the Ethnologue. There are still unclassified languages in Mexico in 2022.

My friend began to tell me about the waiter and asked me what to do. I told him to find out what municipality the man was from. He emailed back, saying that the man was from one of 189 municipalities of the Mixtec Indians, in which there are seventy-five known ethnic people groups and sixty known, or classified languages. It turns out that the waiter is from a remote unreached people group. They have their own culture, language, customs, and laws, and most speak very little if any Spanish. I have been to this people group. The photograph used on the cover of my book was taken in this remote area. If you look at it closely, you can see several mountain ranges compacted together and roads cutting across them leading to tiny houses. If you are a book reader, click the image of the book on the right or at the bottom of this article if you are viewing it on a cell phone. The geographical difficulty has much to do with the linguistic separations. You can see roofs on the other mountain range but it will take you four hours to get there.

Let’s assume that my friend who speaks fluent Spanish starts to disciple the waiter and he comes to the Lord. Now what does he do? Does he hope that the man returns to his people group with great passion, maturity, and a deep understanding of who Christ is, so that he can make more disciples? This is what most people think will happen. In only a handful of cases did an indigenous person return to their people in Mexico to disciple others. We mostly hear testimonies of this kind of thing happening in the 31 Frontier people groups, not the smaller groups.

Mexico is the closest country to the United States and has hundreds of people migrating yearly to where the Gospel is on every street corner. And yet, it still has totally remote unreached groups (smaller Frontier People Groups). Many peoples in the world are still unreached, because we have been taught that the unreached are migrating to us. We want this to be true, but the facts speak for themselves. We want to disciple the nations without having to go all the way out in the middle of nowhere and learn their language.

We might travel all the way to Oaxaca or even to Tibet short term, but we would prefer that they come to us. Even if we go with the intention of being extreme frontier missionaries, we usually wash out for lack of language learning training of some kind. We could take the time to learn their regional or local languages to do better discipleship, but we don’t. Discipling them using the national language is convenient for us. It is easier for us, but in most cases this will not make disciples. We might be able to know if the man from the Mixtec area is truly saved, but the real question here remains, is he being discipled? Jesus did not tell us to go into all the world and get people converted from all the nations. He told us to make disciples and to teach and obey everything he taught us. (Matthew 28:19-20)

Language learning is the one thing we cannot cut corners on when doing mission work. The current state of discipleship is in crisis all over the world because the missionaries do not want to spend the time and effort it takes to learn the first heart language of the people. If you ask any missiologist about contextualization, (the spiritual depth of the church), he will tell you that is it not very deep in many parts of the world. The church there is not very mature because the missionary is not discipling the converts using the local language.

So, you need to think of extreme pioneer mission work as, long term because you will have to learn the language. Much of communicating the Gospel message effectively depends on your knowledge of the culture and the language. I have been learning the Spanish language for over 25 years and can say that I did not speak it fluently until I lived in the culture. Learning language is learning the culture. Communicating and discipling well requires culture learning which also will be very hard in a big city where your disciples are living a fast paced life.

Quit trying to get people groups reached quickly in your country of origin and just go to them. Go, like Jesus tells us to do. The missiology of Christ is to go, not wait for them to come to us. Letting them come to us is not Biblical.

I don’t teach much about this but the disciples of Christ actually spoke the languages of several nations at Pentecost and they did not know what they were saying. If we had this level of faith, or Christ in us (the Holy Spirit in us) we might be able to disciple the nations coming to us. At least 1.5% of them.