While I was on a recent panel discussion about the status of the unfinished task, one of the observers commented in the chat window: it’s hard to imagine, in this day and age, that someone has no access to the Gospel. They went on to describe how they had long had access to Christianity and the Scriptures before they became a believer.
This is the typical situation of the typical believer. Most believers come to faith young: of the (on average) 60 million additions to the church yearly, 45 million are children born into Christian homes. These might ‘come to faith’ (however they describe that—‘born again’ or baptism or membership in a church) in many different ways, but old or young they undoubtedly had access to the gospel for some period before the moment of faith.
Of the 15 million ‘adult’ converts per year, a large number are in situations where they long had access to the Gospel before they converted. This is how the church grows on the ‘edges’: adults convert, and then their children are born into Christian homes. Adult converts are mostly in places that have the Gospel, and an individual convert has probably had access for some time (so their questions can be answered); it usually takes more than just one offer of the Gospel for a response.
Since this is the typical situation, it’s hard for us to imagine a situation where people don’t have access to the Gospel—it’s just not part of our daily realities. Most Christians live in places where the majority of people are some form of Christian (‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘nominal’ or ‘true believer’): we don’t deal with people of other religions on a regular basis. For most of us, the non-Christians around us are lapsed Christians. Consider this chart from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity: look at the individual regions (East Africa, West Africa, etc) and note how the largest populations of Christians are in regions where Christians make up over 70% of the region.
Or, for another way to look at it, consider this from a recently released book on religious diversity:
The places where Christians live are, further, swamped with Christian ministry. The enormous numbers of Christians make a huge market. There are numerous church buildings (well attended or not)—I’ve been in one rural American town with a population of 1,336 and at least six churches (Assembly of God, Baptist, First Christian, Catholic, and Lutheran). There are Christian billboards on the highways, Christian radio stations in our cars, a plethora of Christian television programs (some good, some not so much, some whose goodness is debated), Christian films, Christian music, Christian bookstores, Christian websites, Christian events—the list goes on and on. As a graphic illustration of this, consider this screen shot of a Google Map for two cities—Dallas, where we live right now, and London. I simply searched for ‘church’, and this is the result.
I’m not making a qualitative statement about the forms of Christianity in these places. I’m simply showing us how for most Christians, too much Christianity (in a cultural sense) is the norm. We are so ‘stuffed with bread’ we cannot even imagine what hunger is like. (An analogous situation: when kids say ‘I’m starving,’ simply meaning that lunch is a half hour later than usual.)
Much of this readily available Christian culture is ‘mass’ content—radio, TV, books, films, music, websites, and so on. This stuff surrounds us rather like a ‘cloud’ (we even talk about ‘the cloud’ for storing and broadcasting and the like.) And we ‘know’ the ‘Internet’ and ‘radio’ and ‘TV’ is everywhere. The ‘Arab Spring’ revolution was ‘tweeted.’ We have Youtube videos from all over the world. We can meet people from other places on Facebook. We hear about satellite broadcasts into highly restricted places. So we think that in this day and age, everyone must have access to the Gospel.
But having a large mass of humanity with some level of access to global media doesn’t automatically correlate to everyone worldwide having access to global media--much less access to the Gospel. Here are just a few of the barriers.
1. Large portions of the Internet and Western media are blocked in many places. Although many labor to get around it, many more do not. In China, for example, much of Western and Christian media is inaccessible. Many countries in the Middle East and Western Asia control what is accessible to their citizens through control of DNS servers. This study of web blocking in Saudi Arabia is but one illustrative example.
2. Many unreached people with access to the Internet do not speak a Christian language, and so Christian media on the web is inaccessible to them. Much mass media is being done in non-Christian languages, but there's only so many broadcast hours and so many translators, so the larger languages are the ones targeted; smaller minority languages (where many are unreached) have nothing.
3. Many with access to the Internet have very limited access. Bandwidth is precious. People use the Internet for the things of daily life, and do it through limited screens. The idea that they have time or bandwidth to wander through the Internet over all the Christian sites just isn’t realistic.
4. Access to media in some places is dangerous. Some countries block Christian websites. Some monitor where their citizens go. If posts on Facebook could get you arrested and jailed for six years, ponder what watching or downloading Christian videos could do in some places. Fear is often pervasive.
5. Mass media does not translate into a personal witness. This is perhaps the most important point: that while someone might hear the Gospel through a tract or a Youtube video or a radio broadcast, it’s a very limited form. People will have unique questions that cannot be answered through a broadcast. Disciple-making is done person-to-person, life-on-life, with someone who demonstrates how the Christian life is lived.
I’m not saying mass media hasn’t led to millions hearing the Gospel for the first time. ‘Isolated radio churches’ were one of the discoveries of the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, and there are hundreds of thousands in Iran whose only contact with Christianity is satellite broadcasts. Mass media does enormous good—but it is far more effective when coupled with field networks of workers who do follow-up and offer the opportunity of discipleship and training to be disciple-makers.
Still, we should not conclude the ‘Christian cloud’ reaches everyone. There are millions across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, for example, who do not have Internet access, or televisions, and may not have radios. They do not personally know a Christian and have no access to the Gospel.
We in the Christian world can stuff ourselves on Christian thinking, debate, and entertainment day in and day out. We should not make the mistake of thinking everyone in the world has access to the same amount of Christian protein-and-cotton-candy. Much of the world is malnourished spiritually—and an estimated 2 billion are starving. We have to think about what their life is like.
Here's another Google map: this time, simply searching "churches" in northeast Africa. It's not a perfect map (it doesn't claim to be a pinpoint of all the churches), but it's accurate as a representation of the situation.