Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Never Heard of Him. You?

Shoot, this is the stuff that makes all of us look bad. The popular Christian music group Sonicflood worked with the Southern Baptist's International Mission Board to record a music video used with the annual Lottie Moon Christmas offering - an offering which will fund much of the Board's excellent work around the world in the year to come. It was filmed in and around Damascus, Syria, including the road where Saul had the remarkable conversion some 2000 years ago that did so much to further God's mission to the Gentiles. Yes, people like you and me.

But whoever produced the video threw in some bumper-sticker mission motivators that just don't stand up to what we know about the world. I don't want to single them out unduly. You see statistics abused and used to misinform in lots of places. But how sad to see the Board educate their congregations with misleading information.

"There are 6,426 unreached people groups who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ" it proclaimed. And yes, with the nature of the medium, they said it without any source information or explanation of that statistic. "We know who these people groups are, what they are called, their dominant faith, their culture," it continued.

Too bad they didn't "know" that - even and maybe especially in the places around the Middle East where this video was shot - it's quite difficult to find people, much less whole "peoples," who have not heard the name of Jesus.

What is it about that phrase "never heard the name of Jesus" that evangelical preachers and mission mobilizers cannot resist? The fact is, Jesus has very high name recognition. Many who are part of these unreached groups have not only heard about the name of Jesus, but also know more about Jesus and those who follow him than most of us know about them. That doesn't mean what they've heard is accurate, that they know Jesus, or that they even have personal relationships with Christians - in most cases they do not. Yet most have heard the name and probably hear it often.

"Are We There Yet?" raises a missiological question. I guess four minutes isn't long enough to unpack it. But there's a world of difference between knowing the name of Jesus and knowing him.

Another missiological question for the Baptists - and all of us who believe that human beings were made to know God and make him known - might be, "do we care yet?"

Note: Yes, readers, I know that several of you wouldn't agree with me about the uniqueness of Jesus or the claim that human beings were made to know God and make him known... If you'd like to talk about that, let me know. But I think this probably isn't the best forum for that conversation.


Scott said...

I'm completely confused . . . how in the world did they come up so authoritatively with such a specific number? And while we're on it--how exactly could you hope to learn about this gap of knowledge without accidentally informing those you're surveying about the very thing they're apparently ignorant about?

What I mean is this: how could you go to any one of these groups and ask them if they've ever heard about Jesus . . . and get a "no" in response? By asking the question, you've tipped your hand as far as the name goes. Of course, if it's such a serious problem, why not go ahead and proclaim it to everyone who says "no?" Just get it over with, y'know?

I don't mean to sound snarky here. I'm just far more out-of-sorts with the logistics of the information than with the information itself. Seems like a pretty suspect statistic to me. (But I'm a suspicious person. For example . . . I'm waiting for someone to jump on the fact that if you add the 4 and the 2 together, the number in question becomes the mark of the beast. Maybe the statistic is symbolic. Hmmm. . . .)

- Scott

Scott Fields said...

For the record: I'm kidding about that last part. I'm also suspicious enough to recognize there are those who'll think I'm serious. . . .

- Scott

Marti said...

I avoid numbers when I can, but since I know people who have spent years on the science of "missiometrics" (e.g., these guys, let me be serious for a bit, crack my knuckles, and summarize at least some of the issues involved.

The 6,426 list is an attempt to identify the most meaningful ethnic and linguistic groups with fewer than 2% professing to be "born again" Christians. Hard to measure, but they often just count those who are baptized in evangelical churches/ministries - as if all baptized evangelicals were real Christians, and all non-Evangelicals were non-Christians. If that figure is below 2%, it's believed that there hasn't been a missiological breakthrough. Well, probably there hasn't. Few people are aware of the Christians and it's likely that becoming a follower of Jesus would require responding to a cross-cultural witness and imply leaving your culture to join another.

That is then summarized as meaning these people groups haven't heard the gospel, a further stretch. And an even bigger leap, in my mind, is when "haven't heard the gospel" is extended to "haven't heard the name of Jesus" which is pretty ridiculous when you're talking about people like my high-caste Hindu friends who send their kids to Catholic school or folks in the Middle East who wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for the Christian hospitals. They may not have sat through the altar call but they've probably heard something about Lord Jesus/Prophet Jesus!

While I stay away from numbers, I've pretty much committed my life to calling and equipping people to see church-planting movements established among the least-reached peoples. So, I'm really on the same team as these Baptist guys, even if I'd like to see them (and others) be more careful how they throw around numbers and ideas about who is a Christian and who is not.

Strangely enough, you'll often see stats like this one in conjunction with figures that come from very different measurements, e.g., those that count all professing Christians as part of the Christian world. Because what was true a century ago is still true today, that the world is roughly a third Christian, a third "reached" (having had that missiological breakthrough and a third "unreached" (no missiological breakthrough).

Most Christian mission efforts serve people within the first third (e.g., we set up parachurch ministries within our own communities or send missionaries to do projects among quite-reached peoples in places like Haiti or Kenya), and very few are within the third that have the lowest number of Christians among them (whether you describe them as being in 6,426 groups or slice them up quite differently). Only a small percentage of those who would consider themselves missionaries are working to make disciples within the least-reached third of the world's population.

I continue to value and support work among reached peoples, and want to see everybody serve wherever and however God leads. But there remains a great imbalance.

I don't think statistics like this one about the number of unreached people groups would bother me as much if, on each use, the total number of people groups or the number of reached people groups (using the same methods) was also included. That context seems essential for these numbers to be meaningful.

Scott Fields said...

Hah! Made you blog again, and on my account!

Very informative, and very interesting. This makes a good subject for discussion, I think. We might have to toss it out there on a Sunday morning for a wrestling session. . . .

- Scott