By Julian D. Linnell
We sat cross-legged on the floor for dinner in the tribal leader’s Middle Eastern home. His tribe was Muslim, yet appeared open to Christianity. To my knowledge, there are fewer than ten Christian believers in his people group of over 1 million.
“What will you give me if our tribe converts to Christianity?” the leader asked me over dinner.
“Forgiveness of sins and eternal life: That’s it!” I said. “We don’t have any money or special privileges from the U.S. President.”
From the Bible and from history, we know God is on mission to bless all nations: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isa. 49:6). Anglican Frontier Missions (AFM), launched in the chapel of the Bishop of Virginia in 1993, works to multiply biblical, indigenous churches where the need is greatest: among the 25 largest, least evangelized people groups on earth.
These minorities have no Christian presence among them, or a minimal one. They may never have heard the gospel or connected with indigenous churches in their own culture. If there are believers, they are too under-resourced to evangelize their entire group. Using the World Christian Database’s research, AFM identified 25 large groups where more than 50 percent have no adequate opportunity to hear or respond to the gospel.
Unreached peoples seem distant from much parish life in North America. While we may find ourselves worrying about things as trivial as changes in service times, unreached people, sometimes numbering in the millions like the Beja Arabs of Sudan, do not have a church in their own language to attend. That’s equivalent to Louisville, Kentucky, without a single church, priest, or church planter.
1.6 Billion People
The late Rev. David B. Barrett, a British Anglican priest and mission researcher, estimated that 86 percent of all Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims do not know a Christian. That’s about 1.6 billion people who have not heard about Jesus’ first coming, let alone his second. The Anglican Communion is already poised to engage with these people. The map on this page shows populations above 1 million who are unreached and those that Anglican Frontier Missions has selected for ministry.
An Anglican church enjoys a historic presence in many such regions, but political and religious sensitivities mean that the church is not permitted to baptize or to evangelize some peoples from non-Christian backgrounds. While we cannot report publicly what Anglicans in these regions of the Anglican Communion are doing, we can say that many bishops and leaders earnestly pray for opportunities to make the light for the Gentiles shine brightly.
Note that the map reflects the huge populations of India and southeast Asia where most unreached peoples with populations over 1 million live, but it does not include the thousands of much smaller groups with populations less than 1 million. The gold stars show the 25 unreached people groups that AFM has focused on.
“That’s interesting, but irrelevant to my parish,” you might respond. “Why divert resources overseas when we have unreached people in my hometown?” It’s certainly true that people near your parish are just as broken as those in Turkey. The big difference is that those in the United States have access to churches, Bibles, and Christians. Others have minimal access, if any. Some may say, “We do missions in Haiti and that’s enough.” Ministering alongside the church in other countries is life-changing ministry, but this is not missions; it’s inter-church aid.
Church leaders in former generations such as Bishop Kemper (1789-1870) and Bishop Schereschewsky (1831-1906) would have understood this and pleaded with the church to make unreached peoples a priority today.
Anglican Frontier Missions recognizes that God desires to bless all ethnic groups through Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:1-3, Rev. 5:9). By identifying 25 of the largest groups, AFM has committed to going where the need is greatest. In response, AFM focuses on (1) mobilizing, (2) mentoring for mission, and (3) sending to assist the Church in serving unreached peoples today.
AFM mobilizes churches to serve on the frontiers. To help churches become involved, AFM offers a curriculum, 6 Ways to Reach God’s World; guest speakers for mission events; and consultation with mission committees for engaging in a strategic, long-term work in an area of need either overseas or in the United States.
Mentoring for mission undertakes what is necessary to help parishioners reach their goals, specifically for cross-cultural missions. Mentors join mission participants in pre-trip and post-trip courses. This equips participants as they pay attention to the gospel story that God is writing in their own life before, during, and after a short-term mission trip and focus on preparation, field-orientation, debriefing, and long-term follow-up.
Sending involves both long-term and short-term workers in areas of the world where the need is greatest. Some needs are in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, while others are in the United States. We list opportunities for short-term trips on our website, anglicanfrontiers.com.
One Specific Group
It’s tough to imagine the life of unreached peoples when all you’ve experienced is a homeless shelter downtown or a short-term trip to Mexico, so let’s think about life in one Muslim people group: Yemini Arabs. Like many groups where the need is greatest, the Yemeni face harsh environmental conditions. Water shortages and many other issues converge in this complex, ancient country. While media stereotypes prevail, it is difficult to grasp what ordinary life is like for the average Yemeni. One pervasive feature is the role of ritual. Your family name, religion, ethnicity, and local identity are accompanied by rituals. Some rituals like the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, occur once in a lifetime. Others, like Ramadan, are annual events. Yemenis understand rituals and, we might say, are closer to the world of the Bible than many in so-called Christian lands.
No one knows how many Yemeni followers of Christ there are, amid the more than 22 million Muslims in the nation. Before A.D. 700, the Church was quite established in Yemen. The Anglican church has had a presence for 150 years. But Anglican, Roman Catholic, and non-denominational missionaries all face a similar challenge: it’s slow going in Yemen.
What does Jesus look like in Yemeni clothing? That’s a task for Yemeni believers themselves. If foreigners have a role, it will reflect a respect for Yemeni rituals, culture, and history. Also, it will witness to Jesus (John 20:31), remain open to the Holy Spirit (1 Thess. 5:19), and show a humble concern that Yemenis glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:13-16).
If Yemeni Arabs seem remote to your parish, how can we make them accessible today? Here are a few simple steps to consider. Ensure that your priest and leadership have opportunities to explore going where the need is greatest. Once you identify a people group, your leaders will then discover that mission to the ends of the earth can have a trickle-down effect on mission closer to home. Naturally, there will be critics, but your parish community may start to grow in prayer, in financial support, and in volunteers.
Get informed: During Pentecost, use a practical curriculum such as 6 Ways to Reach God’s World to show that each person has a role.
Get praying: Include current topics from the internet or TV in your prayers of the people. Add photos and maps in the Sunday bulletin. Start a prayer team.
Get involved: Work with a missions agency and take a vision trip to explore opportunities with a people group.
Stay invested: Stick with it until you see new churches established within the people group.
As Christians in the Anglican Communion, we have strategic opportunities to engage with unreached people groups. Archbishop Justin Welby has said that the Communion’s credibility in the eyes of other religions depends on its commitment to evangelism. Let us explore that challenge this year.
The Rev. Julian D. Linnell is director of Anglican Frontier Missions in Richmond, Virginia.