Defining Missions – What is Pioneer Missions?

In the last few posts I made a distinction between foreign and domestic missions. I have tried to argue that the two have more in common than we usually think. Whether you define preaching the Gospel in Mexico missions or not, really depends on whether you are from Mexico or another country. If you are an American pastoring a church in Mexico City you would be colloquially referred to as a missionary working on the mission field. On the other hand if you were born and raised in Mexico you would simply be called a pastor. I contend that in either case you would be involved in the Great Commission and could be biblically classed as a missionary. Since you are working to fulfill the mission given to us by the Lord, you are a missionary.

In this post I would like to introduce a few new terms. In addition to domestic missions and foreign missions there is a third category of missions, pioneer missions. All three have one thing in common, the mission. Anyone involved in any of the three fields of labor will be involved in fulfilling the Great Commission. The distinction between the first and second category is simply a matter of location and origin. That is to say, in which country is the laborer ministering and from which country does he come? The third category of missions is not simply a matter of location but is also related to the condition of the people being reached. In particular, whether or not they have heard, or are in a culture where they have access to the Gospel. In domestic and foreign missions the target audience has heard or has relatively easy access to the Good News. But pioneer missions are carried out among people that have no chance to hear the Word of God until the missionary comes. In order to be involved in pioneer missions one must be part of bringing the Gospel to a people group, or groups, that have not heard and are not likely to hear the message of the Cross. In other words, pioneer missions is bringing the Gospel to unreached groups of people.


It should be noted that in every society there are people that somehow have little contact with the Gospel. In Dallas a Catholic might not hear that he must be born again. Nevertheless, he grows up knowing that Jesus died on the Cross and that he must follow Him. A Chinese Buddhist in Los Angeles might not have any Christian friends, but he has some notion of Christianity from passing comments he hears on TV and radio. I myself didn’t grow up in church and was an atheist at the time of my conversion, but as a kid I knew the basic Gospel message. Though I didn’t know exactly what the Gospel had to do with my life, I could have easily gotten more information if I so desired. This is not the case with the groups of people termed, unreached.

A person that does not believe the Gospel is not unreached, they are just unbelievers. They have been reached with the Gospel, but they have not accepted what has come to them. The seed of the Gospel has come to them or reached them, but they have not welcomed it. A person that has never heard the Good News of Jesus Christ is unreached, but that doesn’t mean that he belongs to an unreached people group.

As I said, a person might be in a culture, region or group of people that has access to the Gospel, though that individual has never heard the message. I will use the Chinese Buddhist from Los Angeles mentioned above, as an example. Though he has never clearly heard the Gospel, and how it applies to his life, surely someone in the Chinese community in Los Angeles has. There are plenty of Chinese Christians in Los Angeles. Many of them come from a Buddhist background and speak the same Chinese dialect as our imaginary Buddhist friend. So even though he is unreached, the group of people that he is closely connected with through language, location and culture, is not. That cultural group (i.e. Chinese community in Los Angeles) has members that are believers in Christ. They worship, pray and read the Bible in the language of our imaginary friend. They live in the same city and share the same cultural background as he does. And so it is not possible to say that the group as a whole is unreached. He is simply an unreached member of a cultural community that is at least partially reached. He is unreached, but has access to the Gospel without leaving his neighborhood, learning a new language or adapting to a new culture. So though he is unreached in the sense that he has not heard the Gospel, he is not unreached in the sense that he couldn’t hear the Gospel clearly if he so desired.

People Groups

A people group is a group of people who share the same cultural, linguistic (i.e. language) and religious background and live together in a certain region of the world. The biblical term for people group is nation. We commonly equate nation with the word country, but it refers more to a group of people than it does to a location. The nation of Israel has existed for thousands of years, though for much of that time they have not had a land to call their own. I am from Oklahoma, and I grew up hearing about the Cherokee and Choctaw nations (or tribes). These weren’t countries, but groups of people that share the same cultural and linguistic background. There are relatively few countries in the world today, but there are thousands of people groups. Each group is distinct from the others. It has a certain dialect that only people from that group can speak and understand. Each group has a distinct set of values, traditions and customs that link the members together. Often these groups have a particular brand of one religion or another and are known to live in a particular region of the world.

America is considered a melting pot where people come from all over and live together. But in order for that to happen they have to adopt the English language to some degree, and more or less accept basic American values. Because of this, we are not accustomed to hearing different languages spoken each time we pass a state line while on a cross country road trip. Not every part of the world finds itself in the same situation as America. If I take a one hour flight from the Chinese province (i.e. state) of Guangdong in almost any direction, I will find the language spoken is completely different from the place I just left. Even in Guangdong province there are several different dialects that are not mutually understood. Most of the world is like this, with groups of people that are completely isolated from those around them because of their cultural, linguistic and religious differences. Even groups that share the same country and government often have little else in common.

Unreached People Groups

We have looked at the terms unreached and people groups. Now let’s try to clarify the phrase, unreached people group. Basically, an unreached people group is a people group that is unreached! Well, defining that wasn’t so tough! An unreached people group is a group of people that shares the same language, culture and region of the world, and does not have access to the Gospel without leaving their region, or learning a new culture and language. They are a “nation” that has little or no witness of the Gospel from among their own people.

Picture a fish farm. That might be hard to do if you have never seen one, or think I am pulling your leg by suggesting there is such a thing! A fish farm looks like a lot of pools all collected together in the same area. All the pools are filled with water, and different kinds of fish are placed in each pool to breed. Though the pools are close to each other, the different kinds of fish don’t mix together. Each pool is divided from the others by a few feet of cement. Though it is only a few feet, it might as well be a world away for the bass that wants to intermingle with the perch. There is an impasse that separates the various kinds of fish. In this case the impasse is the wall of the pool that goes higher than the surface of the water.

If we were talking about people groups, the impasse would be the linguistic and cultural concepts of the various groups. If I preach the Gospel to a Tibetan in English it will be useless unless the Tibetan speaks English or the day of Pentecost is re-enacted! Again, if an American woman in a mini-skirt and a t-shirt shares the Gospel with an old Muslim man while he is on pilgrimage to Mecca, due to the differing cultural expectations, the result will be as useless as if speaking a foreign language. Unless someone intentionally makes the effort to jump over the impasse of language and culture, neither the Tibetan nor the Muslim will have the chance to hear and understand the Gospel. The Tibetan will have to learn the language of a people group that has the Gospel, or a believer will have to learn the Tibetan language to bridge the gap. The Muslim pilgrim will have to abandon all his most deeply held cultural mores’ or the woman will have to dress more conservatively in hopes of gaining his ear. There is an impasse to be overcome and until it is bridged, the unreached people group is shut off from the life giving truth of the Gospel. Bridging this gap is the work of the pioneer missionary.

Imagine if all the Hispanics in Los Angeles could not speak English and that they were the only group in the world that could speak Spanish. Further imagine that no African-, Anglo- or Oriental-Americans in Los Angeles have ever bothered to learn Spanish. Now think how unreached they would be if only 400-500 Hispanics in Los Angeles had ever heard the Gospel, and so far only 30-40 of them had believed. Let’s take it a step further and say that because the Hispanics in Los Angeles are all Muslim the converts are afraid to confess that they believe in Jesus. They know they will be disowned by their families or worse if they openly confess their faith. How likely do you think it would be that a large portion of the millions of Hispanics in Los Angeles would hear, much less believe, the Gospel in our generation? Not very! The only hope for the Hispanics in that imaginary situation would be if Great Commission Christians took the Lord’s burden on themselves and decided to jump over the cultural and linguistic barriers and bring the Gospel to that unreached people group! Though this is not the actual condition of the Hispanics in Los Angeles, it is the situation of thousands of people groups throughout the world today. This is what we mean when we talk about unreached people groups. Going to these groups with the Gospel is what we mean by pioneer missions.

A Distinct Urgency

We have talked about three categories of missions; domestic, foreign and pioneer missions. As long as someone is fulfilling the Great Commission, I believe they are involved in missions. And each category has its own honor and importance. For example, if we win Sweden (foreign missions) and Afghanistan (pioneer missions) to Christ but let the churches in America (domestic missions) stray from the truth of the Gospel, our children will have to rise up to re-win America in their generation. Each of these categories is necessary and important. Each has an honor in the eyes of God and should have honor in the eyes of the Church. None of them should be left undone.

Having made it clear that all forms of missions are important, let me say what needs to be said; pioneer missions have an URGENCYthe others do not! What I mean is that those people that live in the regions that fall under domestic or foreign missions have a chance to access the Gospel. With that they have the chance to receive the grace of God and the eternal life that comes with it. But those that belong to unreached people groups and live in the unreached regions of the world don’t have a chance to hear the Gospel, much less accept it! This is the great divide between the first two categories of missions and the third. We must make it our aim to fulfill the Great Commission on all three fronts, but the third must have a special urgency in our hearts. Paul expresses this urgency in Romans 15:20-21 by saying, “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the Gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written, ‘those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand’.”



Terms Defined:

Domestic Missions: Fulfilling the Great Commission in our home country.

Foreign Missions: Fulfilling the Great Commission in a foreign country.

Pioneer Missions: Fulfilling the Great Commission among unreached people groups.

Unreached: Those who have not heard the Gospel.

People Group: A group of people who share the same language, culture or region of the world and are distinct from any other group on the planet.

Unreached People Group: A people group that has not heard the Gospel as a whole and has little or no witness of the Gospel at present within their group.


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