A Question That Must Be Asked

It was estimated to be 6000 in 2001 and 6645 in 2010. Now it is 7402! (joshuaproject.net)

Missionaries, mission agencies and churches have been focusing their efforts on bringing this number down for the past forty years.

Why is the number of Unreached People Groups (UPGs) not declining? Worse yet, in spite of all the attention for forty plus years, it is increasing! Here are some of my thoughts on possible explanations for the lack of progress.

  • Is the People Group framework appropriate to our task? For those utilizing the people group framework the goal has been to establish a viable church planting movement in all 17.000 or so people groups of the world. Is this the best way to make disciples of all nations in the 21st Century? Just because the Bible states that the ultimate outcome will be people from every nation, tribe, people, and language in heaven (Revelation 7:9), must that framework be the basis of our foundational strategy in missions? Several factors might cause us to question the viability of this strategic framework. To name a few…the fluid nature of people groups, the minute size of some listed groups, blurred boundaries between people groups, and the barriers to direct cross-cultural ministry among the groups.
  • If the strategic framework is appropriate, are we aligning our ministry activities and allocating our ministry resources with this strategic perspective? As an example of poor alignment every year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to send tens of thousands well intentioned short term “missionaries” to the “field”. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these groups do not go to UPGs. Even if they did, it is highly unlikely that they could effectively disciple these groups since they do not understand their language and culture. Numerous other examples of misalignment could be given as well.
  • Is the number of UPGs going down in reality but the true progress is not evident because of inadequate research? Was the number of UPGs underestimated in years past? I have a poster titled “Unreached Peoples of the World 1985” that estimates the number of UPGs as 17000 out of 24000 total people groups (obviously vague guesstimates). On the other hand, could there be “lag time” between groups becoming reached and our research revealing that fact? 
  • Do we want the number of UPGs to continue to appear to be high?  Much of the educational information about missions focuses on the need to reach UPGs. This framework is also a widely used recruiting tool for missionaries. Do we have a vested interest in continuing to promoted inflated numbers of UPGs?

In addition to my original question, an even more concerning question to me is, “Why do I not hear anyone asking why the number of UPGs is not going down?”

My conclusion is simple…we fear the answer to that original question. We do not wish to be held accountable for continuing to promote an unproductive framework for discipleship. Our bias toward “action” precludes us from taking the time and expending the effort to reexamine our disciple making strategies. We fear having to redesign our strategies for doing missions and discipleship. 

After nearly 50 years the time has come for us to do some serious evaluation. Is the Unreached People Group framework producing fruit? Is it leading to disciples being made of all nations? Honest, relevant, and timely research is needed along with thoughtful reflection and discussion. The task is too important for us to ignore this question. We cannot afford to hold on to strategies and frameworks that do not bring about the desired result! 

What do you think?  Why is the number of UPGs increasing in spite of all the attention and effort?  What are the alternatives to this framework?

It Struck Me This Morning

The last few days I have been feeling down…a little depressed. It has been hard to motivate myself to do anything. This morning I realized what is going on. I was experiencing cultural fatigue. 

Cultural fatigue is an emotion that is felt when a person grows weary of not comprehending the cultural cues surrounding them. 

A typical tricycle – Not quite at full capacity

I experienced cultural fatigue most severely when I first moved to the Philippines. Nearly everything was new. I was lost in a world that seemed very strange to me. I didn’t know when to smile and when to keep a straight face. I had no idea how to call a tricycle and I definitely did not know how to safely get on one once I flagged it down. I was disoriented, day after day, and it wore me down. 

My experience with cultural fatigue (or culture shock) is not unique. It happens, eventually, to everyone who enters a new culture. We rely on the cultural maps that our society forms in our minds.  Entering a new culture is like trying to use a map of San Francisco to find one’s way around Los Angeles.

It struck me this morning…living during the Covid-19 crisis is very much like entering a foreign land…only worse. Our way of life (culture) us has been blown up. We no longer know how to handle ourselves in social situations. How do we greet each other? Can I pass you in the aisle at the grocery store? 

My method of relaxing, watching sports on TV, is virtually non-existent.  Will there ever be something to watch beside Korean baseball? Will the joy of hearing a crowd cheer at a live sporting event ever happen again?

Knowing how to live in a Covid-19 world is more difficult than entering a foreign land. The people in a foreign land have a cultural map that they all understand. That system can be learned by participating, observing, and talking with insiders. 

The change has been so sudden with Covid-19 that we have no map. We have not agreed on a set of cultural expectations. 

Our struggles go deeper than just how to behave.  Culture includes so much more than just actions.  It also includes the beliefs and values that give rise to those actions. Is it more important to avoid health risks or economic hardship?  Can the church be The Church without face-to-face contact?

My brain hurts when I think about such questions.  I don’t know how much longer I can handle this uncertainty and keep functioning!

I felt the same way during my first few months in the Philippines, but I eventually overcame cultural fatigue and joyfully engaged with Filipino society for many years. 

How did I get to the point where I could function effectively? With God’s help, I did not give up. I pushed myself to keep engaging in life. I observed everyday life, trying to learn the ways of the people around me without judging them. I made friends and asked about their beliefs and values.  Slowing, I learned to (partially) understand and love their way of life. 

Today, the instant and drastic cultural change brought on by Covid-19 has made the situation very challenging. 

We must recognize our shared disorientation and be patient with one another as we all adapt. We must listen to one another’s concerns without judgement. We must seek to understand more than to be understood.

With God’s guidance we will figure it out. One day the disorientation will fade. Like the map that slowly emerges when your Internet connection is weak, an evolving cultural map will materialize. 

I hope that one day I’ll say, like I did in the Philippines, “Wow, life sure is different than it was before, but I love it (most of the time)! Thank you Lord for bringing me through the cultural fatigue and giving me this wonderful new home.”

The Rocking Chair

Glued together and in our new home

My adult daughter taught me a very important lesson today. One that I wish that I had learned 33 years ago before I first lived in a foreign country. 

In a Facebook post she shared, “…lately I have been enjoying the fantasy of establishing/making a house my own. One my children will grow up in and never move. One that will hold all our memories.” 

I can understand her desire, since she and her two sisters moved a great deal as missionary kids.    Her mom, who also grew up as a missionary kid, has always had a similar desire to “nest”. 

As our children were growing up we lived in 14 different houses…some as short as two months and some for as long as seven years. They have no concept of a single home where all their cherished memories were made.

Given the realities of missionary life including changes of ministry and times of home service, their situation is not unusual. 

What does this have to do with a lesson that I learned and a rocking chair? Let me tell you. 

While we did not “nest” in one house for a long period of time, my wife did her best to make each house we lived in a home.  Each of my children have shared with me how significant this was to them. 

How did she do it? 

She did it through the things we had in the home.  She made sure that with each move we brought along key items that stirred up heartfelt memories for her and our children. 

I often resisted…foolishly and futilely. 

For example, we have been lugging around this old beat up rocking chair for years. I am literally afraid to sit in it because I fear it will collapse under me. 

With every move I tried to convince her to throw it away. I never succeeded. To her that rocking chair is a non-negotiable resident of our home. 

It was her mom’s rocking chair.  In it my wife’s mom rocked each of our children and their cousins when they were babies. 

Later, it became our chair and we have rocked our grandchildren in it.  It is a key twig in my wife’s “nest”. 

Another twig involves hanging pictures as soon as possible after every move. After moving refrigerators and couches the last thing I wanted to do was hang pictures.  

“I want to rest. I’ll get to the pictures in a few days when I feel better”, I would tell her. 

She knew, however, that it was the pictures on the walls, not the refrigerator in the kitchen, that made our house a home. 

What did I learn today that I wish I had known 33 years ago? 

Even though we do not have a house that we can look to as our “nest” where all our memories are held.  We still have many “artifacts” around us that remind of the best moments in our lives. 

Instead of looking at everything from a practical standpoint, I should have been more supportive of her efforts to nest though the “rocking chairs” of our life.  I no longer complain (very badly) when I carry the rocking chair through the front door of a new home.