A Glimmer of Hope: Reaching the Unreached
The patient had been paralyzed four months earlier by a gunshot, leaving him unable to move or even talk. The young man’s wife had lovingly been providing complete care, hoping her husband would recover, but Dr. Judy knew there was no chance of improvement.
by Donald F. Thompson, MD, MPH&TM
The patient had been paralyzed four months earlier by a gunshot, leaving him unable to move or even talk. The young man’s wife had lovingly been providing complete care, hoping her husband would recover, but Dr. Judy knew there was no chance of improvement. The panic and fear of being a young widow in this culture was evident in her strained face, and she had been hoping beyond all hope Dr. Judy would be able to offer something for her to grasp.
But Dr. Judy wasn’t able to provide even a glimmer of hope for the paralyzed young man. She couldn’t think of any comforting words that would have been appropriate in such dismal circumstances; besides, the translator struggled with anything more than basic English. Judy didn’t think the translator was even a believer in Jesus Christ, and she felt awkward and embarrassed at the thought of asking him to translate her generic prayer for a healing she knew would never come.
Dr. Judy shed tears as she left the patient and slowly walked across the hot, dusty courtyard back to her dark examination room. As she walked, she watched the old tractor, with the paralyzed man lying in the dirty bed of the flat trailer, sputter out of the gate. What kind of life were they taking him back to? Her tears flowed as she thought of what lay ahead for both him and his wife. Not quite ready to go back to the clinic and face another patient, Dr. Judy slowed her walk, took out her bottle of water…and then completely fell apart.
Facing the Circumstances
Just like Dr. Judy’s patient and his wife, the people living in this area—which is the poorest province in one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia—struggle just to make it through each day. No industrial or commercial work is available for skilled or unskilled laborers, and the literacy rate is appalling. In a province of more than 21,000 people, only 40 are literate to a third grade level. No, not 40 percent, 40 people—total. School teachers come from the country’s large cities, but most don’t stay more than a few weeks, due to the isolation.
People groups in isolated locations like this are exactly those we seek to serve through Global Health Outreach’s short-term healthcare mission trips. But how do healthcare professionals, like Dr. Judy who are only able to stay in the area for days at a time maybe once or twice a year, make any sort of dent in the midst of the utter desolation and bleak circumstances these people face on a daily basis? Why should we put ourselves through the trouble, the anguish and the effort? What’s the point? The simple answer? Because God demands it: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14, NIV 2011).
The patient Dr. Judy saw on her recent trip to Southeast Asia is only one person among the billions of people around the world who currently don’t know Christ. According to the Joshua Project, approximately 42 percent of the world’s population is unreached. They cannot call on the Lord, they cannot depend on the Lord and they cannot glorify the Lord because they do not believe in Him.
The unreached are unreached due to a plethora of barriers. These barriers may be as obvious as geography, where rural, remote living may confine people far from any source of hearing the gospel. These barriers may be political. When war, political instability and corruption destroy a country’s infrastructure, standards of living and quality of life are degraded, leaving most people focusing on simply surviving. They may flee to refugee camps or turn to subsistence agriculture for their basic food needs.
Other complex barriers keep many unreached. Socioeconomic barriers seem to persist for generations for many people, where the setting they are born into confines them, keeping them on the margins of society. They are not able to get an education and are unlikely to encounter anyone who cares about them.
Today’s unreached may be geographically close, living in cities, but with huge socioeconomic, cultural and worldview barriers. And these barriers are the most challenging. Local religious traditions may function only to oppress people, frightening them against any attempt to consider any other religion. Cultures may be collective, where a village leader decides what is best for everyone in the community. Anyone who goes against the collective decisions risks being ostracized from their family and the entire community. A collective culture, in an animist worldview setting where fear and power are the predominant characteristics, has many barriers to the change called for by the gospel of Jesus.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover everything. In some cultures within the 10/40 Window, their religion has nothing to do with Jesus, and anyone who speaks against their god is persecuted or even killed. How do you convince people in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria to turn to Christ, when hundreds of believers have been killed by Islamic fundamentalists simply for professing Christ? For those who do want to believe, how can we begin to reach them in a language and context that makes sense to them? A woman in Southeast Asia was carrying a gospel tract around with her, but when we asked about her understanding of spiritual issues, she exclaimed, “How can I understand? I can’t read!” For those fortunate enough to be able to read a Bible in their own language, how can they understand concepts like sacrifice, forgiveness and redemption unless someone preaches and teaches at their level, answering their questions in a meaningful way?
Again, it begs the question, why should we bother when faced with such complex, extreme and even dangerous barriers? The answer—because God cares about each individual person. “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7, ESV). And because God cares about them, so should we.
Following God’s Plan
In Malachi 1:11, the Lord says, “For from the rising of the sun even to its setting, My name will be great among the nations…” (NASB). If this Scripture is so, then God must have a plan for reaching the unreached, and that plan includes each one of us.
“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15, NIV 2011).
So how do we follow God’s plan? First, we need to prepare and learn. To reach the unreached, we need to be prepared to travel farther than ever before. It could mean traveling halfway around the world to unreached people groups with great physical and spiritual needs in places like Southeast Asia. But missions is a summons to the frontiers of hostility, not necessarily just geographic frontiers. These frontiers of hostility may be in your own backyard with immigrant populations that have moved to your city. These groups may be easier to reach because they are close by, but harder to reach because of cultural barriers they have erected to protect themselves within your city.
To reach the unreached, we also need to be better prepared to actually reach them. We need to do our homework to understand the politics, the culture and the worldview of the people we are serving. We need to know the basics of their belief structure, if they even have a belief structure. While they may live in a Muslim or Buddhist culture, it’s possible they know absolutely nothing about the spiritual tenants of that faith. We also need to learn how to penetrate spiritual blindness with the truths of the gospel. Every believer should be able to defend their faith in a winsome, tactful fashion. You have plenty of chances to practice this at work, school and in your neighborhood, so take advantage of these opportunities.
That hostility we mentioned earlier? We need to learn how to penetrate it with the love of Christ, since the unreached are the people most hostile to the gospel. Don’t be bashful and don’t walk away when you face the first bit of hostility or apathy. Remember Luke 14:23, “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled’” (ESV).
Once you do the hard to work to prepare and earn the right to speak, then you simply need to speak, both literally and figuratively. You open doors by meeting physical, emotional and spiritual needs. One key to doing this is listening, and then listening some more. Four patients in Southeast Asia thanked me effusively for coming to their country to care for them. They said they could tell I cared because I listened to them and touched them, because their own doctors never listened beyond the first question and never examined them. What an easy door to open.
And once that door is open, you can present the truth of the Scripture in a context that makes sense to your audience. This is where your preparation from above comes into play. Don’t forget to commit to the long haul, though. The work does not end when you board the plane to head home. Learn how to build disciples, and then learn how to build disciple makers who will continue following God’s plan long after you are gone.
For example, thousands of people in Southeast Asia accepted Christ when the gospel was explained to them by one of their countrymen, using their language and concepts they understood. Yet, their understanding was at a most basic level. How could they learn to follow Jesus, learn to evangelize others and learn to become multiplying disciple makers without being taught? Pastor Alexi is another example. He had been a follower of Jesus Christ for five years and had been pastoring his small church for three years. His wife became a believer only two years ago. He had 30 faithful attendees at his church on Sundays, yet he did not know how to study the Bible or even share its message.
That is where short-term healthcare mission trips are so valuable. In difficult locations like Southeast Asia, it is exceedingly doubtful that doors would be open for us to enter the country simply to develop fruitful spiritual relationships and offer training to pastors like Alexi. Yet, when we bring a short-term healthcare mission team and offer compassionate, appropriate healthcare as a demonstration of the love and compassion of Christ, then we often see the doors for further ministry swing wide open. That’s why we use these short-term trips as a strategic platform, a platform by which to truly follow God’s plan and fulfill His mandate to “…make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:19, NIV 2011). This requires a different ministry focus, long-range commitment and planning, as well as the favor of the Lord.
One of our recent teams sponsored a three-day discipleship training conference for 70 local pastors, in conjunction with the medical clinics. The number of attendees grew each day as they were taught how to study the Bible and make disciples. It was apparent from their testimonies that some of these committed followers would eventually be martyred for their faith. At the end of the conference, one pastor reported that the town’s religious leaders knew they were followers of Christ and what they were doing. However, because they had come with a medical team that provided tender, compassionate care to the people, they were allowed to meet without any problems.
The Glimmer of Hope Grows
As Dr. Judy tried to regain her composure, she bared her soul and her deep sense of helplessness for the paralyzed man and his wife to Dr. George and Dr. Panin, two others serving on the same team. Dr. George asked, “Judy, how much time did you spend with that man and his wife?”
“About 45 minutes,” Judy replied cautiously.
Dr. Panin continued, “Dr. Judy, this lady and all the family members who watched your every move saw a doctor who came all the way from the United States spend 45 minutes showing compassion to that man. They know he is in bad shape, yet you took your valuable time to minister to them. You earned the right to speak into their lives because you met them where they were and helped them with their urgent needs.”
Judy said, “But I didn’t say anything about God or Jesus or salvation. I pretty much didn’t say anything, because I couldn’t talk to them!"
“Ah, but you did,” Dr. Panin gently responded. “Your gentle examination and even the limited care that you could provide shouted to them that there is hope.”
“How can that be?” Judy questioned.
Dr. Panin said, “The door to their house is now wide open. We will find the pastor who works in this area, and he will visit them this afternoon. He will share that he learned of their needs from you, and he will offer to help with some of their needs—for food, for medical supplies, for bandages. He will build a trusting relationship with them and will gently guide the conversation to spiritual areas when the Holy Spirit shows that it is the right time. You are enabling all of this to happen!”
Even though she didn’t know it at the time, the hope Dr. Judy shared with this one single patient is only the beginning of opening doors to the unreached. In the last seven years, Global Health Outreach teams have served in this particular province in Southeast Asia three separate times. The first year, the team leader said, “I feel like a blindfolded soldier at war randomly spraying bullets into the woods, hoping to pick off some of the enemy.” Three years later, the team was back in the same rural province. The mission was more established by then, but they still faced many challenges and difficulties. On their third visit to this province, a local pastor gave an amazing report of how the Lord had used their previous efforts. The pastor offered many details, rattling off the names of this village and that village where there had previously been no church. “Brother, your team pushed big boulders and softened the soil. Now these villages have house churches. And some of the villages where you ministered that had house churches now have daughter churches!”
The team leader sat back and quietly thanked the Lord. He knew how difficult, how crazy and how seemingly random those past trips were. But now God had given him a glimpse of the other side of the tapestry. The picture was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. It’s a picture of hope that proves following God’s call and God’s plan to reach the unreached is more important than ever before.
“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14, NIV 2011).
Are you preparing to answer that call and follow God’s plan? Prepare now to join a Global Health Outreach team to an unreached location like Southeast Asia, the Pacific, the Middle East and others by visiting www.cmda.org/gho.
Editor’s Note: All of the above examples are composites of actual people and incidents, but names and locations have been changed for safety and security purposes.