What we mean by "unreached," and the importance of reaching them
Although "unreached" has a technical definition, with complex nuances, sometimes when people use "unreached" they mean something very different. Exploring the different ways people can use "unreached" shows how easily we overlook or forget the people "unreached" is intended to help us remember.
"There are lost ___________ (insert favorite denominational group here) sitting in the pews, who are just as unreached as anyone else in the world. Maybe more so." Here, "unreached" is being used to refer to people whose spiritual condition is in need of
revival. They may claim to be Christian (e.g. "sitting in pews") but are showing little fruit (at least in the eyes of this observer). While not denying the need for revival amongst many Western churches, this is not what we mean by unreached.
"I was raised in a Christian home, and my parents took me to church on all the major holidays, but I never heard the Gospel until..." Here "unreached" is referring to the "hardened" or "semi-hardened" sinner who has not yet responded to the Gospel. Two variants of this abound: those who "never heard the Gospel" from their supposedly Christian culture, and the "I heard the Gospel frequently but it never made sense to me until ____[I heard it this way]____." Generally, people have more access to the Gospel than they think, but it often takes a number of Gospel-exposures for it to "stick." (In fact,
some studies suggest the ratio of Christian to non-Christian friends is perhaps the biggest key; if more non-Christian friends, it is less likely for any single exposure to stick.)
"All those atheists in Europe are just as unreached as all the groups that are getting so much attention." This example is essentially equating all non-Christians. It is true that
lost is lost, at least in terms of the net effect of eternal salvation or lostness. But the major point that unreached makes is:
reached non-Christians have had the Gospel brought to them, or will have it brought to them early in their lifetime. Virtually all Europeans know a Christian of some kind (many European non-Christians were once Christians themselves); many if not most know an evangelical Christian. And, for those who do not have a personal friendship with an evangelical, the fact is virtually all are within easy relational distance of evangelical Christians if they were so mobilized. (For example,
every place/person in France is within a 30 minute drive of an evangelical church.)
"This group has missionaries and they are engaged; we should go to the unengaged groups only." I appreciate what FTT and their friends have done for raising attention and focus on people groups that lack any work at all. But--and FTT themselves would say the same thing--unengaged is not the same thing as unreached. Engaging a group is the
first step on the road.
Reached means that missionaries are no longer needed; the indigenous church can do the job.
The point of "unreached" isn't that a person hasn't heard. The same thing could be said of any child under about 5 years of age. The unreached are important because they will not have a chance to hear in their lifetime. It isn't that the Gospel hasn't gotten to them yet or that it hasn't gotten to them in a way they can understand or that few of their friends are Christians. It's that the Gospel will likely not get to them at all, and there are few plans (or none at all) to change that. They are forgotten: left out of our minds and strategies, which are largely focused on the people above.