creation careFor decades, missionaries did not consider a people group “reached” until 20 percent of the population was considered “evangelical.” Today, the statistical benchmark is 2 percent.

What brought about this change of definition? And how has it impacted missions strategies?

A Course-Correction

Dr. Robin Hadaway, professor of missions at Midwestern Seminary recently wrote an essay for the Southwestern Journal of Theology, in which he recommends a “course-correction” away from the two-percent threshold and back to something like 10 or 20 percent. Hadaway relies on extensive missionary experience as he considers this question; he has been involved in a variety of mission efforts on three continents, and he is a fluent speaker of Arabic, Swahili, and Portuguese.

Hadaway shows how, for decades, missionaries went to geographic countries in order to assess the needs and then plan a course of action. They built clinics and orphanages, staffed hospitals and started schools alongside their church planting efforts.

In the 1950’s, Donald MacGavran’s work led to the rise of “individualized strategies for particular ethnic groups.” C. Peter Wagner and Edward Dayton applied MacGavran’s ethnic focus differently, with a shift away from the most receptive groups (the “Harvest” mentality) toward church planting among the “hidden” and resistant groups.

Over time, the threshold of considering a people group “reached” dropped from 20% evangelical to 2% (this is the statistic of the Joshua Project and Operation World). But Hadaway considers the 2% threshold to be too low, and he cites sociologist Boeslaw Szymanski to make this point:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.”

Adopting Additional Criteria

Mission agencies must constantly weigh various factors as they decide how to best steward personnel and resources. The needs of unreached peoples to hear the gospel must remain an important factor in making these decisions, and yet Hadaway believes other criteria should be considered, including the receptivity of a people. “Rather than looking to receptive places to place missionaries, most mission groups are sending their personnel to resistant places,” he writes, and then wonders if mission activity may be making some of these places more resistant to the gospel.

Hadaway also worries that the discipleship dimension of the Great Commission can be neglected or lost if mission efforts are viewed almost exclusively as a pioneering enterprise. Is it wise to turn over all evangelism, church planting, and discipleship work to such a small group of believers (2%)?

Hadaway concludes by recommending mission societies “broaden their definition of missions to include not only reaching the last frontier, but also reaping the receptive in the harvest fields and teaching and discipling the new converts from both.” This would mean deploying new missionaries to the most receptive places, increasing discipleship by utilizing professors and trainers worldwide, and balancing efforts to minister among the Unreached and the Harvest.

Some Thoughts on Hadaway’s Proposal

This essay from Dr. Hadaway is full of insights worth considering, and since the International Mission Board has recently come under new leadership (David Platt), it is likely that these kinds of questions and recommendations will arise as the IMB considers the best strategies for the future. In the interest of furthering this discussion, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

The Tension of “Unreached” and “Harvest”

As a former missionary to Romania, I resonate with some of Hadaway’s ideas. The evangelical population there is only 5%, and there are a handful of people groups considered “hidden” or “unreached.” But the smallness of their numbers makes it difficult to imagine major resources being devoted to any of these groups. Instead, I’d imagine a mission agency targeting these people groups in countries where they are more numerous, with the future intent of those people eventually reaching into Romania and other countries. All that to say, I have felt and still feel the tension of “unreached” and “harvest” missions, and I am not sure that this is a tension we should try to resolve in exclusively one direction or the other.

The Goal of Locals Reaching Locals

Moving forward, it will be important for those supporting missionaries with the International Mission Board to understand how ministry among resistant and unreached peoples takes place. Although mission strategies have shifted from Harvest to Unreached, the mentality of many people in our churches remains Harvest, such that we expect the number of baptisms directly attributed to missionaries to be ever-growing. But the goal in both Harvest and Unreached missions is not the greatest number of people possible that a single missionary family can reach, but the greatest number of people reached by that family’s initial converts. In other words, we want to see locals reaching locals, independent of the missionary’s presence, and for this to take place, our measurements must be willing to allow flexibility as missionaries fan the flames of the spark they have started. If church planting is a key measurement, we would assume that as more churches are planted, we would have less baptisms attributable “directly to our missionaries” than in the era when evangelism and social ministry were always connected to the individual missionary.

The Danger of an Arbitrary Percentage

I have misgivings about setting an arbitrary percentage for “reachedness,” whether high or low. Every country or people group is different, with various needs and histories.

It may be that the sociologists Hadaway quotes are right: 10% is the threshold for a group of people to make a significant impact on their society. But should we assume that missionaries are responsible for seeing that number reach 10%? At what point does a missionary step back and leave the next wave of mission work in indigenous hands?

Perhaps in some cases, depending on the amount of influence or status the converts have in their society, the missionary will leave earlier. Perhaps in other cases, the new converts need more time and attention as they approach the 10% threshold.

Leaving too early should be cause for concern, but so should leaving too late. After all, a missionary who stays in a country and continues to lead when there are emerging national leaders is only impeding the process, introducing the pathogens of our own cultural Christianity into a foreign context.

The point is, we should take care not to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to determining the best use of our resources. It is difficult to argue for extensive contextualization in our mission strategies among unreached peoples if we are unwilling to subject our statistical surmising to contextual factors “on the ground” so to speak.

Roland Allen’s influential work on Paul’s missionary methods is still relevant to this discussion. Though Allen saw little use in persisting in mission among a group that proves resistant, he wanted missionaries to understand the temporary nature of their task and then work with an eye to succession and replacement. Following Paul’s example, Allen encouraged missionaries to entrust new converts to the Holy Spirit and stop seeing themselves as essential in the ongoing discipleship process.

Allen’s “course-corrective” from a hundred years ago was to point us to the Apostle Paul, and it’s in Paul’s example where we can avoid “either-ors.” Though his ministry was generally brief in most locations, we do note how Paul stayed in different places for different amounts of time, considering the needs of each church or the circumstances of his own ministry.

Here are some of the questions a missionary and mission agency should ask:

  • Has God raised up capable, willing people to lead the movement?
  • Is there enough access to doctrinal and missional resources in the language of the people?
  • How antagonistic is the host culture to Western involvement?
  • If there is persecution present, how severe and debilitating is it?
  • Are institutions in place that train and replicate leaders?
  • Is our presence and our money creating any sense of dependency by national church leaders that keeps them from looking to God’s plan for their own resources?


In the coming months and years, I will be praying for Spirit to give wisdom and discernment to our missionaries and our agencies as they carefully consider the best way forward. The harvest is ripe, and the Spirit is on the move, bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth and using us to get it there.