Who are the unreached? The Bible never uses the precise term, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a biblical concept. Consider, for example, Paul’s summary of his ministry at the end of his third missionary journey:
. . . from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written,
“Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
– Romans 15:19–21 (emphasis added)
Paul makes a distinction between people and places where Christ has been named and people and places where Christ has not been named. This distinction can help us define what we mean by unreached.
The Definition of Unreached
Here’s a proposed definition of the term unreached:
Unreached peoples and places are those among whom Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known to its broader population without outside help.
Tragically, over 3 billion people in over 7,000 people groups currently fit this definition. Consider two main factors used to identify people as unreached.
Unreached people groups don’t know the name of Christ.
Some of the unreached have never even heard of Jesus. Others may have heard the name mentioned, but they don’t know who Jesus is or what He did. They are like many Americans today when it comes to someone like Confucius. They may know the name and some general details, but that’s the extent of it.
Unreached people groups don’t have a church presence around them.
Unreached peoples do not have contact with a community of believing Christians. This separation may be due to geography, or there may simply be no church among a people group (or both things may be true). Regardless, unreached people groups lack access to a church that has sufficient resources to make Christ known among them. Someone from the outside must come and proclaim the good news to them. Otherwise, the unreached will likely die without gospel access.
These two factors used to identify the unreached should make it clear why the label unreached is different from the labels unsaved and lost. Lost people around you have access to you, as well as to other Christians and churches. Unreached people groups, on the other hand, have no way of hearing the good news. They are lost and they lack access to the only message that can save them.
Clarifying Terms and Concepts
To further clarify the definition of unreached above, consider the terms peoples and places.
When we talk about frontier peoples, we are talking about people groups. These are ethnolinguistic groups of people who share a common language and cultural characteristics and a common ethnicity. Scripture uses the term “nations,” so it is not wrong to speak of nations. However, most people think of nations as the approximately 200 recognized nations, or countries, in the world today.
When Jesus gave his initial command in the Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), the word used (ethne) refers to ethnic groups. Jesus was commanding his followers to make disciples among all ethnic groups, not merely among the Israelites. Jesus was, and is, Lord over all the peoples in the world (Romans 10:12).
All history is headed toward the day when every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—all the ethne of the world—will have been reached with the gospel. These people groups will gather around the throne and give glory to God and to the Lamb:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10, emphasis added)
Based on passages like this, we can use terms like peoples, people groups, ethnolinguistic groups, and even nations, interchangeably. To be clear, we are not ignoring individuals as we seek to reach people groups. After all, individuals comprise these spiritually needy unreached groups.
Another concern about our current definition of unreached is that it unnecessarily limits the “unreached” label to a particular people group. However, we must not ignore how the New Testament records the spread of the gospel. Biblical authors strongly focus on places, not only on peoples.
Consider, for example, Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys in the book of Acts.
Acts primarily records the spread of the gospel from city to city and region to region, not from people group to people group. In fact, the entire book of Acts records the geographic expansion of the church. The gospel spread from Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Likewise, in his letters, Paul expresses his desire to proclaim Christ “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum” (Romans 15:19). He then speaks of his desire to come to Rome on his way to Spain (Romans 15:24).
Biblical accounts do not neglect the mention (and even importance) of ethnic and cultural distinctions among Christian converts. However, the earliest missionaries seemed focused on spreading the gospel not only to unreached people groups but also (and often even more so) to unreached places. It is both biblical and helpful, then, to recognize the unreached in terms of both peoples and places. Both realities bear uniquely upon mission strategies.
This article is an adapted excerpt from Mission Precision and is an updated version of a previous article defining the unreached.