More than 2 billion people have never heard the name of Jesus. This is a tremendous challenge.
“We’re not giving enough money to unreached missions,” many preachers say. “We’re spending it on ourselves.” The statistics have been laid out popularly by Traveling Team and others. While their numbers don’t always line up due to quoting multiple sources, the basics go something like this:
- Christians make $42 trillion per year.
- Christians give 6 percent of their income to Christian causes.
- Of that 6 percent, roughly 15 percent goes to missions.
- 21 percent of missions giving goes to the unevangelized world.
- 1 percent of missions giving goes toward work with unreached peoples.
So for every $100,000 Christians make, they spend just $1 on reaching people who’ve never heard the name of Jesus.
Here’s another statistic to illustrate the same issue: out of an estimated 5.5 million Christian workers in the world, only 20,500 work toward reaching the unreached. That’s 0.37 percent of all Christian workers.
Obviously the need is significant. Nevertheless, impassioned appeals and numbers don’t always correspond with reality. Mission organizations can at times stretch the truth. We need accuracy.
What Do the Numbers Really Say?
Statistics can help, but they can also mislead. They can prove a point; they can also exaggerate a claim or provide a simplistic talking point. We rejoice, for example, that 50,000 churches open a year. Yet how many close or arise from splits?
Now, is it true that 50,000 churches open each year? Roughly. But is this an accurate measure of worldwide church growth? No.
Do Christians only give 0.01% ($1 for every $100,000) of their income toward unreached peoples? Sort of.
Even the word “Christian” in this statement is fraught with unavoidable problems, as it encompasses many who identify as Christians but are not. This is muddled data.
Are We Not Giving Enough?
I want to suggest that the amount of giving toward unreached peoples isn’t as terrible as one might suggest.
Let’s begin with a simple premise: the amount of money you spend on something doesn’t necessarily reflect its importance. For example, if I spend $30 on a Bible and $30,000 on a minivan, which do I value more? Of course, I’d say the Bible. The comparison is unfair, since it doesn’t tell the whole story. Likewise, missions to unreached peoples often costs less than other things do.
Here are four things to remember when considering how Christians give.
1. Covert workers cost less than infrastructure does.
You can’t send hundreds of missionaries into an area of unreached peoples. One reason they’re unreached is they live in hard-to-reach places.
Consider also that 500 missionaries cost the same as one hospital. Frontier missionaries are inexpensive compared to schools, buildings, discipleship, Christian education, drug rehab, counseling, books, and translations. All these things are vital. And as people begin to convert, ministries form to address all sorts of issues—each of which costs money.
Plus, we tend to invest in things we’re most connected to. Wealthier believers tend to give large gifts to infrastructure projects. They’re not giving $5 million to frontier missionaries they don’t know; they’re giving it to projects they believe will jump-start larger growth: building drug rehab centers or schools where Christians are trained, for example. (Or consider the recent $75 million anonymous gift to Gordon College.)
2. The largest and most influential mission organizations in the United States focus on the unreached.
SIL International, International Mission Board (IMB), Frontiers, and Pioneers all focus on the unreached. Yet herein lies a tension: we’re told that giving toward the unreached peoples isn’t nearly sufficient, and yet the leading mission agencies in the West focus on unreached peoples.
Why? Again, missionaries don’t cost as much.
3. A popular new model involves funding ‘national’ leaders to reach areas to which Westerners have little access.
This strategy doesn’t cost nearly as much as sending one family from the West. You can probably fund 20 to 30 “national” leaders for the cost of one pioneering Western missionary family.
4. Many missions to unreached people groups is done through business as mission.
Most of these missionaries receive no donations. They’re running legitimate businesses—tour companies, restaurants, CrossFit gyms, coffee shops, and a host of other things. Some, but not all, receive partial support from the West.
So, is this a call to stop sending missionaries to people who’ve never heard Jesus’s name? No. A call to stop giving toward unreached peoples? No.
This is a plea for accuracy, to stop exaggerating, to leverage statistics honestly. The need is great enough; we don’t need to exaggerate the lack of giving.
How, though, we can give believers a vision for God that compels them to think about unreached peoples? Here are six brief suggestions.
1. Make a theological case.
The main reason churches don’t think about the nations is because their view of God is too small. There’s a reason Bethlehem Baptist Church under John Piper’s leadership spent more than 30 percent of its budget on missions, mostly to the unreached. There was a theological vision for God’s glory covering the earth (Hab. 2:14).
The main reason churches don’t think about the nations is because their view of God is too small.
Theology drives money decisions. Pray that the Spirit awakens your local church.
2. Lead with global missions.
Yes, there are many needs. But if you don’t prioritize foreign missions, you probably won’t do anything of value globally. Work with your local church to make a plan.
3. Look to the kids in Sunday school.
I once visited a church-planting conference in India. All the planters were former Sunday-school kids from one church.
Instill in kids a vision for the nations, so that they either go or send. In the meantime, disciple the parents to send them out.
4. Have a 30-year plan.
Make a plan as a church to reach into an area where the name of Jesus isn’t known, then work to send people, support projects, and plant churches. These fields are hard to plow, and it might take one year or 100 to see the seeds of gospel work flourish.
5. Encourage wealthy donors to underwrite a region.
If you’re friends with people with significant resources, challenge them to give not just to important building projects in the United States, but also to places of greater and more urgent need. Disciple high-capacity donors to have a theological vision for the nations.
6. Think beyond charitable giving.
You don’t need to be a supported worker in order to engage unreached people groups. Start a business in these areas. Hire employees. Share the gospel.
Accurate appeals are better than naïve urgency. Long-term plans are better than short-term burnouts.
We can cut a lot of evangelical missions fat, but that won’t happen with inaccurate appeals. It will come with preaching and prayer and discipleship that challenges the affections, which drive our mission decisions.