According to Joshua Project, there are currently 7,410 unreached people groups in the world. Of course, that number can change depending on how you define what it means to be unreached and how many people groups you think there are. But regardless of your view on these matters, it’s undeniable that there are still many people groups in the world with little or no access to the gospel. If the church’s mission is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), then that should prompt us to ask, what barriers are there to gospel access?
To be clear, I’m not talking about the barriers that are unseen, including the spiritual forces at work in the world. Satan has “blinded the minds of unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and sin is the fundamental reason that all peoples do not know and glorify God. Rather, I’m referring to barriers that make it difficult for missionaries (and believers from nearby cultures) to make disciples and plant churches among unreached peoples and places. I’ve listed some of those barriers below, though the list is by no means exhaustive nor in any particular order. Nevertheless, identifying these barriers can help churches think wisely and strategically about reaching the hardest to reach places.
1. Persecution and Opposition
While it’s true that Christ has been building His church amid persecution and opposition for nearly two thousand years (see the book of Acts), that doesn’t mean persecution isn’t a significant barrier to gospel access. After all, extreme persecution has nearly wiped out the church in certain regions over long periods of time. It’s not a coincidence, then, that people groups experiencing extreme persecution on account of the gospel—whether from their family, friends, community, or from the government—often have little or no access to the gospel. People groups in Yemen, Afghanistan, and North Korea come to mind. Missionaries to these countries are forced to think of creative ways to enter the country and to share the gospel while keeping a low profile.
2. Geographical Isolation
Some peoples and places are hard to reach because they are geographically isolated. Deserts, mountain ranges, isolated islands, uninhabitable stretches of land, etc., stand between them and the nearest Christians. It takes a lot of time, effort, and, many times, discomfort just to get to these people. Attempts to share resources through radio, internet, or TV may also be difficult due to geographical isolation. Sadly, those people groups who are extremely isolated may simply remain unknown until someone puts a spotlight on their need.
3. War and Unrest
It should come as no surprise that warfare, violence, and political unrest make it difficult for missionaries to make disciples, or even live, in certain places. Of course, God may use a sobering reality like war to cause people to reflect on their mortality and to look to Him for hope. However, in the long-term, it’s more difficult to do the slow, steady work of making disciples and planting churches when you’re worried about bullets flying. Violence and instability in a region can be a significant barrier to flourishing, healthy churches.
4. Extreme Poverty
Physical hardships related to poverty also present significant barriers to the spread of the gospel. If a people group has difficulty surviving due to a lack of food, clean drinking water, basic medicine, etc., then missionaries, who have no family or in-person support system, will also find it difficult to minister in such a context. God’s power is not dependent on the church’s money, but hunger and disease can make it difficult for gospel work to thrive.
5. Lack of a Voice
Finally, due to one (or several) of the barriers listed above, most churches are unaware of disciple-making efforts that are already underway among the hardest to reach places. For example, missionaries in highly persecuted countries may be unable to make appeals for support due to government surveillance. Or, in places of extreme poverty, sending frequent newsletters to supporters and potential supporters may be a real challenge. For those who serve in areas that are geographically isolated, bringing a short-term team from your home church might be extremely difficult. In all these cases (and many more), missionaries are unable to highlight their work and make their needs known. As a result, fewer resources may be given and fewer workers may be sent.
This last barrier is one of the reasons for Urgent—Radical’s work among the unreached in which we “identify and come alongside indigenous believers who are making disciples and multiplying churches in ways that are biblically faithful and practically effective among the hardest to reach peoples and places in the world.” Urgent connects churches and individuals to this critical and often unknown gospel work.
After seeing all of the barriers listed above, it’s easy to get discouraged or to think that the challenges are just too great. That’s why we need to remind ourselves that God is the one who must ultimately overcome these barriers. He is sovereign over physical barriers every bit as much as spiritual barriers, for He has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [the nations’] dwelling place” (Acts 17:26).
We also need to remember that God has told us to expect physical hardships and suffering as the gospel is proclaimed. The apostle Paul said that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). And Christ Himself told His disciples, “. . . they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (Matthew 24:9). But Jesus has also promised to build His church, and no barriers to the gospel—not even the gates of hell—will stop Him (Matthew 16:18).
–To learn more about Urgent and Radical’s work in places where there are significant barriers to the gospel, go here.