March 2011

Recently, I had the opportunity to do field research in Senegal. The research team was comprised of myself, two missionary colleagues and the chairman of the national church.Our targeted people group was the Tukulor. This group numbers close to a million people, and its homeland is a 20-kilometer swath of fertile land along the Senegal River that marks the Senegal/Mauritania border.

St Louis, Senegal's second-largest city, sits at the mouth of the Senegal River. From there we drove upriver to Roso, a border crossing into Mauritania and the beginning of Tukulor territory. Continuing east on a paved road running parallel with the river, we traveled for three hours. The road passed through a village or town about every 15 kilometers, and each one had busy markets filled with people and horse- or donkey-drawn wagons slowing down traffic.

We counted more than 50 communities along the river or main road that were large enough to merit placement on a map. Each center had a mosque with two tall minarets at the front and two shorter ones at the rear. The high-quality construction indicated foreign investment. No known churches or believers exist among the Senegalese Tukulor, and it was evident they are exclusively Islamic.

We spent the night at a hotel centrally located within the Tukulor homeland. The next morning I shared with the research team a devotional taken from a class lecture at Fuller Seminary that had radically changed the course of my missionary career. The instructor, Arthur Glasser, had drawn students’ attention to the "ta ethne" focus of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (panta ta ethne)."

Glasser then led us to Acts 2:5: "Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation (pantos ethnous) under heaven.” The word “nation” is clearly referring to a linguistic group as highlighted by the context described in the following verses: "Each one heard them speaking in his own language...each of us hears them in his own native language...declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues" (Acts 2:6-12). Add to these Scriptures the observation that several of those "nations" came from the same geographical region and one must conclude that (ethnous/ethne) means "a group of people speaking its own distinct language."

I saw it! What Jesus was really saying in Matthew 28:19 was "make disciples of all linguistic groups." I was a Bible school graduate. I had pastored in the United States for three years and served as a missionary for 13 years. I knew my Bible well, but I had never identified the linguistic people group focus of the Great Commission. Grasping this truth transformed my missiology.

The research team listened intently during my devotional talk. Then I spread out a map of Senegal on a table and we viewed the area through which we had traveled the day before. The impact was powerful. The Tukulor people group was the focal point of the Great Commission!

I "got the message" when the "ta ethne" concept of nations being linguistic groups was presented to me as biblical truth. It was then that I opened my mind to Donald McGavaran's "Bridges of God"; Ralph Winter's "E1, E2, E3 Evangelism"; John Piper's "Let the Nations Be Glad"; Don Richardson's "Eternity in Their Hearts"; John York's "Missio Dei"; and later, Alan Johnson's "Apostolic Function."

Once a person locks into a biblical understanding of "peoples" as the primary emphasis of the Great Commission and the focal point of God's sovereign purpose, it becomes a guiding star in fulfilling the mission of God. He sees it throughout the Scriptures, incorporates the dynamic in his prayers and adjusts his missions strategy to always keep its truth in focus.

We are introduced to the word "peoples" in Genesis 12:3. The term is used throughout the Old and New Testaments, always in reference to linguistic groups—the purest biblical definition of the word.

Missiologists today have expanded the meaning to include cultural groups or sociological sub-groups, such as children, teachers, policemen, etc. The "groups" approach has biblical support as seen in the apostle Paul's reference to Greeks, the wise and the foolish (Romans 1:14-16). This expansion is often helpful in strategy development, and "peoples" evangelism principles certainly apply. However, I find the linguistic definition of "peoples" not only biblical, but also the easiest way to manage the concept and keep one's focus.

Coming to terms with the "peoples" focus of the Great Commission is usually a pilgrimage. Often one grapples with the truth, processes it and finally gets the point. It takes a work of the Holy Spirit for the truth to burst forth in one's soul. This is what happened to Jesus' disciples in Luke 24:45-47: "Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures...repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (panta ta ethne)."
People are unreached until a strong church emerges from within their linguistic group. A group becomes a church, according to Martin Luther, when they experience the bonds of fellowship ("koinonia”), proclaim all the Scriptures, practice the ordinances of water baptism and Communion, and establish biblical discipline. Later evangelicals/Pentecostals added Holy Spirit-empowered evangelism to his definition.

Based on Pauline methodology, Melvin Hodges led the Assemblies of God in developing self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating indigenous churches. Both of these models have a strong biblical foundation. Until a robust, healthy church is functioning, a people group is unreached.

The tenor of the Great Commission clearly establishes the formation of a church within each people group as its primary objective.  "Make disciples...baptizing them...teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20) and “you will be my the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) sounds like the ministry of a church. I suggest that engagement, ministry platforms, friendship evangelism, storytelling, completed projects, Bible studies and fellowships that are an end in themselves fall way short of Jesus' objective.  Biblically, fulfilling the Great Commission and discipling nations (peoples) can only be measured by the existence of an indigenous church. 

A national church that has come to terms with this understanding of "unreached" is the Nigeria Assemblies of God. Recently its missions department researched more than 70 people groups within the country. Most of them are Islamic and have no Assemblies of God church among them, although some have access to other Protestant churches.

The Nigerian Assemblies of God leaders asked representatives of churches in the area: "How many new churches have you started among these groups in the last two years, and how many people have come into a personal relationship with Christ in recent months?" If the churches had seen only limited to no success, they considered the people group to be unreached. Their research covered every city, town and village among the targeted groups. In places where no forward thrust of the gospel was evident or adequate witness given, they considered the group unreached and in need of aggressive cross-cultural evangelism.

If linguistic groups are the focus of the Great Commission and those groups are unreached until they have their own indigenous churches, how does one go about reaching them? The dictionary gives a very clear and simple answer. The word "reach" means “to arrive at, to succeed in touching or seizing, to establish communications.” This definition can be summed up in three words: go, touch and communicate. The word "reaching" implies implementation of these actions.

During my "ta ethne" journey, I have learned a few lessons along the way. After the Lord opened my understanding and I got the message, I began experimenting with the concept during a term of missionary service in Liberia. I then dealt with the peoples perspective academically for seven years while serving as chairman of the cross-cultural major at North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Returning to field ministry in Malawi, I focused on the Yao, a people group that numbered more than a million and was 85 percent Islamic. I learned the language, contextualized the gospel presentation, prepared evangelism materials and established a Yao church that birthed three branch churches. Seven years slipped by during this great learning experience.

In 1995, I made a trip to Eritrea to do research among the Beja people. Two colleagues and two Eritrean church leaders traveled with me in search of Beja living near the Sudan border. We located them, and the commissioner gave us a six-hour tour. We met briefly with several Beja chiefs, visited a "men's only" market, walked through a Beja village and asked a lot of questions. During my first contact with the Beja, my spirit connected with them and their lack of any overt presentation of the gospel.  

Upon returning to Malawi, my heart was burdened for the Beja. I awakened in the night remembering the Beja chiefs and the desperate spiritual need of the people. After about a week, I shared my growing concern for this unreached people group with my wife. Together, we decided to leave Malawi and transfer to Eritrea to work among the Beja. A contact had been made, our hearts and spirits connected with the need, and we had the privilege of communicating the gospel to the Beja.

Before retiring from missionary service in 2001, I set aside three months to do field research among the nine people groups of Eritrea. I have continued to return to Africa periodically for on-site research among 26 linguistic groups whose homelands touch the continent’s shoreline.

Why this passion? What motivates and drives me to invest money, time and energy in this research adventure? It is my theology. I believe the focus of the Great Commission is peoples, that obedience to Jesus Christ's command is an obligation, and that apart from the saving grace of the Lord Jesus every individual is condemned to an eternity in hell.

It has been said in the theological arena: "One only believes that which motivates him to action." One may accept certain facts as truth, but he doesn't really believe it until he is inspired to act—to respond in a productive manner.

Beautiful People
Behind the anthropological profiles and statistics are beautiful people. Photographs and first-person accounts of visits among them help to personalize the data. But to really become acquainted with them, one must personally visit them, meet their families, experience their hospitality, tour their communities and establish a flow of communications. Going, touching and communicating will personalize a people's profile information and statistical graph and allow a glimpse of ordinary fellow human beings.

Jesus commands us to make disciples of beautiful people who need to know Him as their personal Savior. Jesus will save, transform and make a person into a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). It is people, made in God's image, for whom Christ died. It is their life that will be redeemed, not the religion to which they adhere. Jesus said, "Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest" (John 4:35). He was talking about fields of people,  beautiful people who need to be brought into the Kingdom.

Meaningful Interaction
When making contact with a people group, I try to set aside one day for an urban visit and another day for an outing to a village. A three- to five-hour visit is ideal and involves first contacting the chief or political leader to gain permission to move among the people and take a few pictures; drink tea in one of their restaurants; interview one of the elders concerning the history of their people; go on a guided tour of schools, clinics, mosques, businesses and, if possible, a home visit. If accommodations are available, an overnight stay in the community is very enlightening.

I have developed a few basic techniques that work well in any setting. First, I always get out of my vehicle and walk among the people. Some individuals roll down their vehicle window a couple of inches and call out, expecting the local person to come to them. But by getting out of the vehicle, a person shows openness toward the residents and immediately begins bonding with them.

It is important to immediately establish the reason for your visit. My approach to the community leader involves saying something like this: "I have read about your people in books, but today I have come to see your faces—to really get to know you." Then I usually ask about the leader's family. Often he will call them and introduce me to his wife or wives and children. At that time, I tell about my family and bring out pictures that are passed around for all to see. After this kind of warm, people-oriented introduction I ask for a tour and the privilege of talking to the people and taking pictures. Permission has always been granted and someone assigned to accompany me.

The rule of thumb is "Enjoy the people!" Take time to receive their hospitality, eat their food, answer their questions, play with their kids, listen to their history, identify with their needs, and genuinely take pleasure in making new friends. Meet them as fellow human beings; drop all barriers or previous prejudice; open your heart to them and they will open theirs to you. Productive research has occurred when you walk away from the encounter having built a relational bridge.

Access to a community is gained by being flexible and open to the unexpected. Trust the Lord for serendipitous experiences—making discoveries that were not on your agenda. Every setting is different and every group has its own personality. This requires a willingness to go with the ebb and flow of each visit.

Once the missions director for the Tanzania Assemblies of God and I selected a Mwera village for research. It was located about 20 kilometers off the main road so we drove carefully over a trail, intent on arriving by mid-morning. Along the way we met several entrepreneurs headed toward the city of Lindi on the main road, their bicycles loaded with three or four bags of charcoal. The Mwera are "slash and burn" farmers and use fallen trees to make charcoal to generate cash.

Several other villagers were returning from delivering their goods to Lindi. One old man waved for us to stop. As we drove past him, I looked into his eyes and noted his fatigue. He was desperate and my heart went out to him. We stopped, strapped down his bicycle on the roof rack and gave him a ride.

The man, more than 80 years old, was exhausted and grateful for the kindness we showed to him. He had ridden to Lindi for a business appointment and was now rushing back to attend a funeral. We discovered that he was the chief of a village near where we had planned to visit. Recognizing that this connection was a "divine appointment," our plans were adjusted and we were led to the chief's village.

When we arrived, we parked our vehicle under a large tree at the front of the chief's house. A village restaurant was located nearby, and several village elders were relaxing in the tree’s shade. The chief introduced us and we were given a warm, open welcome and a tour of the village. God had arranged everything, and it turned out to be one of my most productive on-site visits.

I try to approach people as a learner and anticipate being taught by them. It gives them pleasure to minister to a visitor's needs by leading you to the chief, teaching you how to play  local games, giving directions to the next town or village, etc. A great example of this occurred on my first contact with the Rashaida.

A field trip with 20 Tigrinya students afforded me this experience. On the way to a Rashaida village, our bus got stuck in the sand. We dug and pushed, and an hour later the driver had the vehicle back on a solid surface. By this time our water was depleted, and we were exhausted.

A Rashaida trader in his pickup truck approached, stopped and recognized our need. He offered water and a visit to his village. Nine students climbed in the back of his truck and were driven to meet his four wives. The rest of us went to a nearby family’s yard and drank tea with them. It was a meaningful display of Rashaida openness to strangers. 

I never make an overt Christian witness on my first visit, and I am never defensive about my faith or my country. I never act shocked by what I observe or what is shared with me, and I always find something about which to compliment them. I endeavor to be inquisitive and pursue more detail with additional questions. It is amazing how much information people share with me when I show a genuine interest.

Information enlightens a person's understanding of a people group. My primary sources of library data are Joshua Project, Global Mapping International, the Google search engine and news reports. Viewing language maps, reading historical reviews and gathering contemporary statistics are used by the Holy Spirit to burden a person's heart and stimulate intercessory prayer. 

A team of three functions best in most settings. Ideally a team should consist of a researcher, a national church representative and a local missionary. It is helpful if the team members carry a significant leadership role. I always refuse to do field research alone because then I am the only one who sees, feels and develops a relational bond.

This time frame is adequate for a preliminary on-site visit and gives an opportunity for both an urban and rural visit and an overnight stay in the area.

Traveling offers lots of time to discuss theological and cultural issues with members of the research team. They observe how you go about gathering information and relating to people. They see and feel your passion for reaching unreached people groups. A first-term missionary accompanied a national brother and me for one week of research. Later when he was asked what he enjoyed most about the trip, he responded, "Watching these brethren handle themselves in Muslim villages." He learned what cannot be taught in a classroom.

An African pastor traveled with me to visit a village where the Orma and Somali people live. We were graciously received and spent perhaps an hour with each group. That night in a nearby trading center where we found lodging, I asked him, "If you were to start a new church in this trading center, how would you begin?"

He responded, "I would do drama in an attempt to attract the youth." When I asked  what language he would  use, he answered, "The national language."

"Would you in some way target the Orma and Somali people we just visited?" I asked.  He looked puzzled and shrugged his shoulders.  

The next day, we returned to the African pastor's home—a coastal town with a flourishing tourist industry. He explained to me that people in his congregation were primarily from the inland areas and worked at large tourist lodges. One people group, the Maasai, numbered about 300 in his community. The Maasai are famous for being fierce warriors so they serve as guards at the beach hotels. He shared how in the past few years more than 100 Maasai had become born-again believers, with 25 of them attending his church.

We drove into the church compound and found 22 Maasai men and one woman gathering for an afternoon worship service. Since they are employed as night guards, they are free at that time of day. Soon they began to sing in their own language, jumping in true Maasai fashion as they culturally expressed their love for the Lord. I looked at the pastor and said, "This is what the Lord desires for the Orma and the Somalis." The comparison spoke volumes and he began to grasp a truth that will transform his ministry. People groups were coming into focus.

A “Cornelius” is a person whom the Lord has prepared to cross your path. He did it for Peter in Acts 10 and He will do it for you. Sometimes it is a person who is very open to the outside world; sometimes it is an individual who is frustrated with his religion. Once when meeting with a chief and several village elders, an elder stood and stated emphatically, "Islam has failed us!" I recognized him as a potential Cornelius.

Following a research trip, I write a summary report for national church and missions leadership. I offer observations and reflections but leave strategy development to those who will need to implement an outreach to the people group. I also prepare brief vignettes and photographs to post on a website targeting the national churches of the region and for video presentations with an intercessory prayer emphasis.

Before my departure from a country where I have done research, I always endeavor to give an oral report to the national church. One of the most meaningful was at a gathering of Maasai in Kenya. 

I was invited to address a group of Maasai men who had gathered to worship in their own language. Dressed in cultural attire, they joined in traditional dancing and music–a vibrant expression of praise to the Lord!

The Maasai are nomadic cattlemen. When they learned I had grown up in a farm setting in the United States and had ridden horses and herded cattle, an immediate bond was established. I shared with them about my Maasai friend who was a pastor and how he had led me to a Makonde village for a visit. Along the way he mentioned that the Makonde are noted for eating rat soup and I should be prepared to eat with them.

He said that when he visited the Makonde for the first time, they offered him rat soup. As a Maasai who had only eaten beef, sheep or goat, he refused their hospitality. On the return trip to his home, the Lord spoke to him, saying: "These are My people, made in My image. I expect you to love them even as I do." In his heart, the pastor said, "The next time I visit the Makonde, I will eat with them."

About a month later, the pastor returned to the Makonde village for ministry and was served a generous portion of rat soup. Everything in him that was Maasai rebelled against it, but on that day he suppressed his Maasai culture and fellowshipped with them around a bowl of rat soup.

The group of Maasai men to whom I was speaking got the point. They felt the impact of a Maasai brother's commitment to spread the good news of the gospel. Then I said, "Yesterday we stood in a Somali village among cattlemen just like you. You are the ones who can best present the gospel to them." They began shouting and applauding in agreement. I continued, "Next week I will visit the Somali in the country of Djibouti. Will you carry the gospel to the Somali of Djibouti?" They stood to their feet clapping, shouting and declaring their willingness to go.

The Bottom Line
The Lord made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 12:3: "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." What a wonderful promise, but it was a promise that needed to be claimed and activated. The next verse is significant: "So Abram left, as the Lord had told him" (Genesis 12:4).

Jesus gave a command and a promise to His disciples just before He ascended to the right hand of God: "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation" (Mark 16:15). Their response is significant: "Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere" (Mark 16:20).

This brief presentation is an attempt to press your missions "refresh button." May these thoughts and our discussion clarify the "ta ethne" focus of the Great Commission and God's objective "that all nations might believe and obey him" (Romans 16:26).

What will your role be in "reaching unreached peoples”? Remember, the believer who goes and touches and communicates will experience what the early disciples did in Mark 16:20: "And the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it."