Sudhir Isaiah, Ph.D.
70 percent of the world’s unevangelized people are not going to be reached with our conventional methods. I may share some controversial things as part of my presentation but I would like you to bear with me. I may be touching upon some sacred cows in this paper, but it is not my intention to do that on purpose, but would like us to think beyond our boxes that we have been so used to.
I believe a time has come when we ought to step out into the deep waters, even as our Lord Jesus had said, “Launch out into the deep.”
It also seems to me as a missionary trainer, that for many years we have been paddling safely along the shores. And so much so, to our shock, more than half of the world still remains unreached. This may sound shocking to some of you.
In fact, about 15 years ago, when an analysis was done, it was discovered that about half of the world’s population was unreached or least unevangelized. But today, 15 years later, we discover that more than half of the unreached or least evangelized number has grown to be more than half. How do we explain this?
Some people say more workers are going out in the harvest field, I believe that. Some people say that more people are being trained today to become missionaries. I do not disagree with that. But my acid test question is, how do we explain the increasing number of the unreached and the least evangelized peoples today? That is our acid test question among the world conferences that we may have or we may hold in future.
New Wine and the Old Wineskins!
Ultimately, I believe, we have to wrestle with this issue, I am sure you agree with me on that. So, I am coming back to the words of our Lord Jesus, when He says that the new wine cannot be put in the old wineskins. A disaster takes place. Therefore, by implication, what Jesus is saying is that new wine can only be put in the new wineskins. But, unfortunately to my sadness, I discovered that we are continuing to use the new wine into the old wineskins, and that is the reason why we are not able to penetrate large sections of the human society today. Therefore, our growing numbers in the unreached and least evangelized peoples.
The 21st century rapidly is a changing world. The challenges call for relevance.
1. Political Dimensions and Globalization and Trade
Coca Cola and the Gospel!
The fact that we are able to communicate with the world even through our text messages while sitting in this conference proves the fact that we are in a rapidly changing world. And in this rapidly changing world, somehow it seems that we need to keep catching up with what the world is doing.
In fact you’ll be amazed that Coca Cola has gone to places where the Gospel has never gone. Are you surprised? But Coca Cola has done it for commercial purposes, which is why William Carrey in his great treatise he says, “Well, as far as these commercial companies are concerned, they have gone out into the world for the sake of money.” So he raises a very valid question in his thesis: “So, what stops the church from doing that?” I think this is something for us to think about. So, we are living in a time of political changes, globalization, and the world trade.
A Terror World- 9/11 Factor
Some of the dynamics of these have changed because we live in a terror world today. I am sure we all have to put up with the inconveniences of travel. You cannot bring even your own toothpaste into the plane anymore. Is not that terrible? I am sure we wouldn’t wish that, but we have to put up with that because we are living in a changed world, a rapidly changing world, where it seems that the security that we once used to enjoy is no more there. And therefore, we are in a rapidly changing world.
You know, some people have some secret information which is not published, but they say that if these nuclear reactors are activated, it will not take very long for the world to become a heap of ash. Very soon we will be gone. In fact, all the reactors around the world, if they start activating each other, this world will be no more. That is how close we are to annihilation. And we will be gone.
2. Economic Dimensions – Human Poverty and the World’s Slums
There seems to be a wide gap between the haves and the have-nots. Few years ago, my wife Vasanthi and I led a team to East Africa, where we ministered to the second largest slum in the world located in Nairobi, Kenya. And your eyes begin to open to see that here is a real world, a world of poverty, increasing poverty. And that is the real world: the Slums around the world, the social dimensions, the challenges of modernity and post-modernity.
3. Social Dimensions and Religious Dimensions
Some of the things that we are still doing today in the postmodern world were done in the modern world. Modernistic philosophy was a baby that came out in the early 18th century, where even the evangelical theology was shaped during those times. It was during that time we started experiencing the waves that we have: the Traditional wave, the Pentecostal wave, and the Charismatic wave, and the Third wave. And so, Peter Wagner writes in his book, Watch out, the Pentecostals are coming. Now that speaks of a wave that has been spreading out into the world.
4. Evangelical Theology under Critical Evaluation
Look at the Bible school curricula, look at the curricula of some of the missionary training schools. You will see, to your own amazement, that we are continuing to do things in a postmodern world that were done in the modern world.
As a result, we are training people that do not fit the job. Many of them go and become misfits. That is why in one of the conferences, a question was asked, “After all these things are being done, can your candidate go and plant a church?” And the answer given by the plenary speaker was, “Yes, we do show them some models of some churches.” But the question was asked again, “Can your candidate plant a church?” The answer was silence.
It is not so much to do about planting churches, we all realize that, but I believe it is bringing the good news of the Gospel to the unreached and least evangelized of the world. And we are committed to that.
The Direction of Our Curriculum
Therefore, I am calling into question our curriculum. Is our curriculum for the present time, a time when we are living in a postmodern world, Who shapes and who designs the curriculum? What are the desired outcomes that come out of that? And where are the candidates going?
In Bethany International University, we prayerfully sit down and re-examine to see whether our curriculum is on the cutting edge or not. We would not want to do things that have been done yesterday, and that is found today useless. We do not want to run a school for the sake of running a school per se, because we want to be able to send people with a love of God to reach out into this world in contextually and culturally relevant ways.
This is the challenge before us. And I am asking you all today to be able to open our eyes to the contextual realities of the world around us and critically evaluate our own theology, colonialism, paternalism, the giftings, the charisma, the signs and wonders, and the healings. I would like us to examine ourselves.
Charismatic and Pneumatic Hermeneutics
This is what it is called the charismatic hermeneutics, pneumatic hermeneutics. This is done by those messengers of the gospel, who are sent out to the mission field, where under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, they are able to do cultural and pneumatic hermeneutics, only so that people in that given culture may be able to receive the gospel in understandable ways.
Ethnocentric Ways of Evangelism
We know Donald McGavran has said this long time ago that “men would like to become believers without crossing social or racial barriers”, and it is not right on our part to create any kind of those social or racial barriers as such, because we will be held accountable to them. The sacred cow, if I may say so, has been to propagate and to promote a brand of Christianity that we think in our ethnocentric ways as the best one. I call that into question now.
I plead with you to shed behind much of our ethnocentrism so that we may be able to open ourselves and become vulnerable even as our Lord Jesus said, “I send you like sheep among the wolves,” and be able to see the reality of what the Holy Spirit is doing in different cultures of the world.
The Urgent Need for Apostolic Beachhead
What do we mean by an Apostolic beachhead? I would like us to look at Romans 15:19-20. In this passage, there’s something that Paul makes very clear to us. He says, “in the power of signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit, so far as Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ and thus I aspire to preach the gospel not where Christ was already named, that I might not build up another man’s foundation, but as it is written they who had no news of him shall see, and they who have not heard shall understand.”
This is a very profound statement that Paul makes writing to the church at Rome. These are some things that come out of this passage.
i. Paul says firstly, “I have fully proclaimed the gospel.”
ii. Secondly he says, “I do not build on someone else’s foundation.” And I do not think Paul was saying this arrogantly. I do not think Paul was saying this ethnocentrically either. But what he was trying to say is, here are groups and groups of people who have not yet heard the good news of the gospel, and to them the gospel must be preached, rather than going to those places where the gospel has been preached and someone else is coming and building on those foundations. Not that it is wrong, but that is not a priority. If we continue to do that, I believe much of our world is going to remain unreached for the next hundred years. And we may have to explain for that.
iii. Thirdly he says, “There is no further place for me in these regions.”
iv. And fourthly, “those who have not heard will understand.” And I am going to (Spain?).
I would like us to appreciate Paul’s thoughts in this small passage. What deeply impresses me is Paul’s vision to the people who have not even heard the name of Jesus once.
I have a bunch of other statistics, which I would not be showing you here, to demonstrate that much of our missionary force is actually going to places where there is a work. And, to shock you further, some of our analysis has found out that only 1%, only 1% of our financial resources are being actually used for reaching the unreached. Now this should be shocking enough for us.
The question before us is, “Where is the 99% of the money going?” It is going actually to build up aquariums. Now, you know what I mean by that. I am not totally against that, but I believe, if you look at Paul’s vision he says that there are still so many more who have not heard. And how are we going to reach out to these people?
Where are the Least Evangelized and Unreached Peoples Located?
So the question before us is, “Where are the least evangelized and the unreached peoples located?” I am tempted to think that we are living in the twilight years of missionary work when the grand finale will be seen. I am tempted to think, although I do not want to be presumptuous, that we are at the final assault as it were, where we will have to deal with these strongholds before us. And the Greater 10/40 window world is that hard bed, where these are located. These giants, as we would call them to be, are still holding strong. I believe we are called to go and dismantle them.
Rediscovering The Apostolic Missiological Dimension
This is what I call the radical way forward. There are six significant criteria.
1. Biblical Theology Must Recover The Dynamic.
Now, what I mean by that is biblical theology or revelation as has been presented by different speakers this morning, must seek to retain the dynamic element of revelation.
We all know by now that the Bible contains at least three cultures: the Hebrew, the Aramaic, and the Greek. And it is in this box as it were, the revelation of God was given. The people then understood it, they received it, they developed an ownership of that, and then they passed it on to the subsequent generations. But we need to remove or extract the revelation from this box or this capsule, and be able to present that revelation in contextually and culturally relevant forms that are available within a receptive culture.
What Kind of a Cup We are Carrying?
Going back to the words of Sadhu Sunder Singh, who said, “Give the Water of Life to an Indian in an Indian cup.” What did he mean by that? He was a great Indian missiologist, who made a very profound statement that still means a lot to many. Why did he say that? Because he said those things against a time when there was an imperialism of theology and ecclesiology, and it was at that time he said that we need to break forth from these forms that do not seem to penetrate the hearts and minds of these thousands and millions of people. So where do we go into the world today friends, what kind of a cup are we carrying with us? Are we giving the water of life to a culture in a different cup?
Re-orient Our Ways of Evangelizing
I am calling into question even some of our Bible translations. Some of our Bible translations need to radically change. Some of the methods we have been using to preach the gospel have to be changed. Some of them may look heretical. Some of them may look cultic. But that is a judgment we are making because of our own ethnocentrism, because we have our own box and brand of Christianity. If God were to think like that, He would never come down to this earth. Because God chose to incarnate Himself, our theologies, our methodologies need to be incarnational. That is the reason why we see an increasing number of least evangelized unreached peoples today.
The bishop in Iran said several years ago, “If these people have to be brought to Christ, it is not by your theology but by the life the Christians live.” We understand we are human beings. We are culturally conditioned human beings. We are theologically conditioned human beings. Therefore, we would naturally go into new culture and we would like to preach our brand of Christianity.
But friends, if you and I are very serious about reaching an unreached world, I believe we need to rethink our theologies, our methodologies. Biblical revelation must retain its dynamic if the same God has to reveal Himself dynamically to any given culture.
2. The Covenantal Dimension
We need to hold on to the covenantal dimension which will underscore the fact that divine truth, when communicated in contextually and culturally relevant ways, radically transforms cultures. I am slowly beginning to see some signs of hope from writers, from Asia and Africa and other places, who are beginning to talk about how to transform cultures.
Cultures are not going to be transformed by the advocates. By advocates, I mean an outsider missionary. Cultures are going to be transformed by the innovators of the culture, the people who are within. Because when the changes have some effects in the worldview level, I believe that such changes are going to be translated. Therefore, cultures are not going to necessarily replace the religion block of their cultures, but they are going to transform their society, because Christ becomes the transformer of the culture.
This is what our aim is. When we train a missionary and then send him, we tell them that ‘you have a limited role to play.’ Expression of theology, your methodologies will all be dictated by the innovators within a culture. The covenantal dimension demands that.
Our theology must be culture-specific. I do not want you to misunderstand me. Please, I am not exonerating cultures or not elevating cultures as such. But as a missiologist, I do take cultures very seriously, because it is in these cultures that the divine revelation was made. Therefore, I cannot undermine the significance of cultures, because God deals with human beings in their societies. So our theology must be culture specific in recognition of the receptor oriented character of divine revelation.
As much as God Himself made himself as an incarnation, so also the truth of the Gospel must be made incarnational likewise. Therefore, it must be culture specific.
We need to take the forms and symbols that are available within a culture. We need to take into serious consideration the redemptive analogies that are available to us within a culture. God has placed eye openers within every culture. And which is why I say that 70% of our methods today, if they are going to be practiced the way they are, we are not going to reach the world with the good news of the gospel. I am not saying that Jesus gave us a task per se. Evangelisms and missions cannot be a task, it cannot be a program, it cannot be an activity. It is an ongoing lifestyle of the church where we make disciples of all nations. And one of the ways to do that is through church planting, because churches are a visible demonstration of the tangibility of the good news that has been proclaimed.
4. Theology as Recapturing the Apostolic Mandate.
In the process of doing theology, we seek to recapture the apostolic mandate and evangelistic task of theology, which means, if we were to look at the book of Acts chapter 2 verses 42 to 47, we will discover the apostolic mandate there, where the apostles went from house to house, the broken bread, the doctrine, and the fellowship that constituted the apostolic mandate. We need to recapture that.
I am not against mega churches, friends, but I am against mega churches at the expense of preaching the good news of the gospel. If our theology does not allow us to bring people in the kingdom, we have failed. What good is theology anyway if it does not bring any light and hope of redemption to the peoples? What good is our theology anyway? We sometimes get so hung up in our own theological interpretations. And these theological interpretations have really divided the church to a great degree. We have formed camps, we get polarized. And in the whole process, the suffering segment is the unreached and least evangelized peoples of the world. To me, that is a great tragedy. Do not get hung up on our own theologies and our own interpretations. After all, we may be wrong.
Contextualization is the Key
It is not wrong to begin with a presupposition that perhaps, my theology could be wrong. I have not been given a monopoly over theology. I could make every attempt to interpret that, but by no means must I claim that to be absolute interpretation. If you do, we have run the risk and danger of dividing the body of Christ. That is why contextualization is the key as part of the apostolic mandate to reach the unreached peoples.
And so, what is contextualization? It is preaching the good news or the unchanging word to a changing world, relevant to the culture and faithful to the revelation of the scripture. When I say faithful to the scripture, I mean it literally: the scripture, the revelation, not the biblical cultures that have wrapped themselves around those revelations.
5. Apostolic Theologies – Calling Needs To Be Prophetic
How can it function to confront the human agendas of cultures and challenge the social cultural ideologies and the world’s societies? These are the challenges we face today: terrorism, religious fanaticism, nuclear threats, ecological changes, homosexuality, same sex marriage, etc., etc., etc. There are a host of other issues that we are confronted with.
And I believe that apostolic mandate is to be a prophetic people, to be able to speak into those nations, to be able to speak on these issues with boldness and courage. To be a prophetic nation means to be able to speak with boldness and courage on these issues, because that is part of our apostolic mandate and I believe that God calls us to do that.
6. The Goal: Signs and Sign Of The End
When is the mandate fulfilled? Whether you put these two together or not, the Matthews mandate and the Marks mandate together, the question will be: when will these be fulfilled? When do we consider the Great Commission to be fulfilled? Or when is it finished? Are we supposed to finish it, by the way? Do you find anywhere in Jesus’ words that we need to finish it?
I believe that God has placed us in this world for a period of time. To some it is 70 years, 90 years, hundred years, 120 years, or whatever that may be. God has placed us in this world and he would like to see as to what kind of stewards we are going to be with this kind of a timeframe with us. And yet, Jesus says in Matthew 28, “Make disciples of all nations.” Mark says, preach the Gospel. But Matthew also goes on to say in 24:14, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the peoples and then shall the end come.”
What kind of an end are we talking about? Does it mean that Jesus is going to return? Does that mean that is the end? But, somehow we must keep that as a goal in mind and work towards that. Because this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to all the nations of the world and then shall the end come.
Going back even further to the book of Genesis, chapter 12 and verses 2 and 3, I see this great statement, this great promise, that God makes with Abraham, “I am going to bless you so that you will be a blessing in this world” to be a very important statement. What kind of a blessing was God talking about when He told Abraham? I believe it was a whole package. It was a spiritual, mental, emotional, psychological, physical, etc. It was a total package of a blessing that I believe God was referring to when He spoke to Abraham.
Then again we find that Paul is making a bold statement in Galatians chapter 2 verses 8 and 9. In this passage Paul says, “For he who effectually worked for Peter and his apostleship to the circumcised, effectually worked for me also to the Gentiles, and recognizing the grace that has been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me Barnabas’ right hand of fellowship that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.”
There are two classes of people that Paul talks about here, and that is the Gentiles and the circumcised. This, I believe, groups the entire world. We can keep that as our goal in mind. Where is God calling, where is God calling us to be?
The third one is a little bit of a statistics here. Amongst the 13, 000 odd people groups that were located a long time ago, it seems by now we have been able to reach by the year 2000 about 12, 000 people groups. We do not quite exactly know the exact number, but some kind of a rough figure we have. And these people groups are in the population of 10,000 and over, and they could be 35 million people, too. There’s one such people group of 35 million people in Indonesia. But we have, it seems that we are left with the thousand odd large, unreached people groups that are yet to be reached with the good news of the Gospel.
What is the Current Progress?
Today, slightly more than half of the world’s population still lives in this unreached and unevangelized world. There is no access, or little access. Many of them are not able to do without outside help. Some of them are beginning to do with some help. In fact in one large people group, that I will not mention the name, Christianity has been preached among them for more than hundred years, and yet they are considered to be least evangelized. They are not able to evangelize the rest of the people group without outside help. That says something for over a hundred years of work in this world.
I believe that we need to dispel the myth that unreached is all rural, It is not right. Because the most unreached peoples may be located in the most urbanized parts of the world today. We need to look for them.
The question is, where are they located? There used to be a time when we thought that unreached peoples are all in the jungles. Not true. There are some, but not all. They could be in the most urbanized society, like Japan, or elsewhere. We need to look for them, because all unreached is not all rural.
We need to establish a beachhead. Apostolic beachhead means awareness of new wineskins. Please, please, and again, please, do not use the old wineskins for the new wine. It will burst. And when it bursts, it results in increasing unreached peoples today. We must establish a beachhead in every people group. That is the true witness of the Gospel.
Let me finish off by reading these two passages, and then shall the end come. Is not it really appropriate? “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals for you were slaughtered and by your blood ransom for God’s saints for every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priest serving our God and they will reign on earth. After this I looked and there was a great multitude that no one could count. From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in whit with palm branches in their hands, they cried out in a loud voice saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb.”‘
Friends, the vision of Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 with blood-washed persons from every nation, every people, every tribe and language comes closer to fulfillment each time a new church is planted among the unreached people groups. And I believe, this is the way forward to us. God bless you.
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Sudhir Isaiah, Ph.D.
Bethany International University