Unreached is not unevangelized is not unengaged

01 Feb 2022

We use terms to quantify the “remaining task”—words like “unreached,” “unevangelized,” “unengaged,” and “least-reached.”

Often we use these words interchangeably. This can introduce serious misunderstandings, as they do not mean the same thing, and we may not be meaning the same thing when we use them.

“Unreached” was originally defined as “a people group lacking a church that can evangelize the group to its borders without cross-cultural assistance.” We should note it is not defined as a group that is Christian, or that has heard the Gospel. It is, instead, a measure of the local church’s ability to finish the job on its own. In fact, as originally defined, there was no statistical measure attached to the definition. It wasn’t “2% Christian” or “5% Christian”–it was a far more subjective evaluation of the local church. This “squishiness of definition” leaves significant flexibility: a church that could not have evangelized a large group in the 1970s might be able to do so now, thanks to the multiplying power of media, the Internet, etc.

“Unevangelized” was defined in the World Christian Encyclopedia (and World Christian Trends, its related work) as a mathematical method for estimating the number of people within a people group who would have access to the Gospel at least once in their life time.

“Unevangelized” is used by others with slightly different definitions, so it’s important to understand what is meant by “unevangelized” whenever it is used. Usually, when people refer to “2.3 billion unevangelized,” they are referring to the number in the Status of Global Mission, which is published annually by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, out of which comes the World Christian Encyclopedia and related publications. The methodology for calculating the number of unevangelized is based in part on how many people are Christians, and in part on the results of various ministries (like Bible distribution, film, media, personal witnessing, mass crusades and the like) aimed at the group.

It’s important to recognize a contrast between “unreached” and “unevangelized.” Unreached is a yes/no estimate–a group is either unreached or not, in which case the whole population of the group is counted toward the total global number of unreached. Unevangelized, on the other hand, is a quantification of the number of people inside the group who have access to the Gospel. A group can be, for example, 30% evangelized, which means that 30% are likely to hear the Gospel within a 20 year period (and 70% are likely to not hear).

An example helps to clarify this. Consider the 800 million or so Han Chinese. If this group were “unreached” and “50% unevangelized,” then the global number of unreached would be increased by 800 million while the global number of unevangelized would be increased by 400 million (50% of the group). Thus, while we can have similar numbers of unreached and unevangelized people groups, the population numbers can be very different on the basis of this alone.

“Unengaged” was created by Finishing the Task and is defined as a people group lacking a team with a church planting strategy. If a group of several million has a team of 2 or 3 that has “engaged it” with a church planting strategy, then it is “engaged” (but it may be “underserved” based on a ratio of 1 team per 50,000). The unengaged list is maintained by Finishing the Task and is a derivative of other lists.

“Least-reached” is a generic term used to refer to the core of the remaining task. It does not have a specific definition, and is often used when no specific definition is desired.

While these methods are fairly well defined, people unfortunately are often unfamiliar with the definitions–and sometimes, people who are familiar with them, disagree with them. Some will say “that groups is not really reached”–but this could either indicate a disagreement with the data (“they aren’t more than 5% Christian,” for example) or a disagreement with the methodology. So it’s important to have both an understanding of the terms and their meanings, and to be willing to ask questions about what a person means.