Friday, February 13, 2015

More Thoughts on 40 'Unreached' Places

Missions researcher Justin Long recently produced a list of the 40 global districts that are the most 'unreached'. I posted some thoughts on this list already. Here are some more.

4. Social Organization

Dense populations give rise to complex social organizations. This is so of necessity as so many people living in close proximity need to structure their relations tightly to make life liveable and enable society to function. The people in these 40 provinces, then, highly value the group as opposed to the individual. They are collectivist places, where few make a decision without looking sideways to see what their significant others think. Individuals are often not even in a position to make decisions for themselves anyway. A parent (even for an adult), a brother or a husband may be the decision-maker. There is no question of making up one's own mind for such people. Issues of ultimate allegiance can be perceived very strongly as constituting a threat to the very existence of the group, or even society as a whole, making the consideration of such a change a very serious thing indeed. Paul Hiebert and his daughter Eloise Hiebert Meneses consider social organization to be of such importance that they structured an entire book on church planting around social categories.

Serious study of social organization is absolutely essential to understanding the host communities among whom one is working. And it is important on a strategic level too. I have written an article ("Recasting Evangelization Ethnicity, Kinship, Religion and Territory: Identifying Communities in South Asia") which challenges the way the Joshua Project (and other such lists) handles the phenomenon of caste. The caste system (which is the social structure of South Asia and thereby of many of these provinces) is exceedingly complex and the sociological interpretation of caste highly contentious. Suffice it to say that in my article I argue that single castes groups such as Potters do not constitute a community and therefore should not be considered the strategically significant entity.

5. Cities

One might be forgiven for thinking that the great cities found in many of the 40 provinces, such as Delhi, Kolkata, Karachi, Dhaka and Beijing, are the product of recent modernization. But this would be far from the truth, although modernization and globalization have massively increased their size. These cities are the product of centuries of development that would not be possible were it not for the four phenomena I have outlined above. Cities are the cultural product of societies that have an excess of food to requirement, which can be traded and taxed and used to support large numbers of people who are not directly involved in food production. These are therefore free to innovate, organize others, create art, explore science, and develop systems of ideas, myths and rituals to make sense of it all.

Furthermore, the biggest migration in human history is going on right now in the massive move to the cities as the world's emerging economies like India and China increasingly become major players in the global market place. The cities in these provinces, then, have become places of enormous human suffering as well as amazing openness to the gospel. Sadly, however, missions have often been slow to adjust to this momentous shift. Today's gospel messengers must focus on the cities, and be serious to address the multiple needs of the urban poor who have flocked to form their great bastis and shanty towns. The quiet rural life, for most of this century's gospel messengers, is not an option.

6. Religion and Culture

These provinces are most significant, then, as the cradles of the great global systems we call the 'world religions'. Though Islam was birthed in the desert a very high percentage of the world's Muslims are found in these 40 places. Likewise for Hindus and Buddhists. These places, then, are the great bastions of the three great religious systems that have traditionally been perceived by Christian missions as massive obstacles for their message. Moreover, efforts to differentiate between culture and religion in these places, in the hope that one might accept the one while rejecting the other, prove exceedingly complex and ultimately unsatisfying as so often the one turns out to be the flip side of the other.

As in the need to learn the host community's history the importance of in-depth understanding of their religion and culture cannot be overstated. It is only as the religious and cultural context is understood that careful contextualization of the gospel can be possible. This will inevitably lead to conflict as many Christians are not interested in such knowledge, preferring what they call the 'simple gospel'. Although I rejoice that such people are serious about sharing the Good News of Christ, I cannot but be deeply concerned for the long term health of any movement to Christ that emerges from such ministry.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Some Thoughts on 40 'Unreached' Places

Missions researcher Justin Long recently produced a list of the 40 global districts with the most 'unreached' people. These 40 places - districts or provinces or states depending on what the relevant country calls them - have together 1.87 billion people among them who make no claim to being in Christ. Most of them are Hindu, Muslim or Buddhist. The proportion of those who identify with Christianity is under 5%, meaning that many of those people, probably the vast majority due to the social realities of communalism, have no personal interaction with followers of Christ.

Justin Long believes that 'engaging these places is incredibly important to the remaining task' of world evangelization. I agree and here are a few thoughts on this list for those who think strategically or are considering their role in bringing the Good News here.

1. Latitude

Nearly all of the places on the top 40 list are located within tropical or sub-tropical climate zones. Because they are in low latitudes more than one staple crop can be grown, enabling a relatively small area to support a large population, with major consequences for the rise of civilization (see below). These places are hot. Anyone seriously considering relocating to one of these places from more temperate climes must count the cost. Perhaps air-conditioning will be available if your budget can handle that. But how is the creation of artificial climates in our homes (with the doors and windows closed all the time) going to enable you to build relationships with you neighbours, especially those for whom such luxuries are unimaginable? Missionary lifestyle has always been a hot issue (excuse the pun): our rights as the Lord's servants are not to be held on to at all costs. Rather, we have the opportunity to give up our rights in order not to be a stumbling block to others.

2. Rivers and mountains

Nearly all of the top 40 are dependent on the Asian monsoons, the annual rainy season, during which nearly all of the year's precipitation is dropped, and around which the agricultural cycle revolves. Furthermore, the majority are located on or near a major river system, such as the Ganges/Brahmaputra complex (Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Dhaka, Haryana, Rajshahi, Delhi, Rangpur, Khulna, Uttarakhand), the Indus and its tributaries (Punjab - in both India and Pakistan, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir), the Yellow (Shandong, Gansu), and the Yangtze (Sichuan, Hunan, Hubei). The mighty Himalayan mountain range stores up much of the precipitation in the form of snow to be released slowly over the course of the year as it melts. All the above rivers (and several others that are nearly as important, such as the Irrawaddy, Mekong, Salween) flow from the Tibetan Plateau.

The Himalayas themselves do not constitute a watershed so major tributaries of the Ganges, for instance, arise on the north side of the mountains, swing south and cut through the range creating the deepest gorges on Earth. The significance of this is that, given the monsoon climate, crops have to be irrigated. Without these rivers agricultural production would be much lower than it is. Historically, then, these regions could not have supported such a dense population and would not have developed the rich civilizations that they have. What effect will climate change have on these places? It seems incontrovertible to me that anthropogenic global warming is already having drastic effects on these provinces. Photos of the Himalayas taken decades apart dramatically demonstrate that the waters flooding down off the 'roof of the world' are not just fed by last year's snow. Mission in these provinces must be forward looking and consider how to respond to possible great upheaval.

3. The Eurasian continent

All the provinces in the top 40 list are located in the great Eurasian landmass. (Only one is not wholly in Asia - Istanbul which is mostly located on the European side of the Bosphorus waterway - but I don't think this is significant. Eurasia is not usually seen as a single continent because the Ancient Greeks decided that Europe should be delimited by the watershed divides of the Ural and Caucasus Mountains, the Ural River, the Caspian and Black Seas and the waterways connecting the Black and Aegean Seas, but in fact Europe is really the westernmost peninsula of Eurasia.) The great significance of this is that Eurasia is the only continent on the globe that enjoys a predominant east-west axis. That, as Jared Diamond points out in Guns, Germs and Steel: A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years meant that innovations, such as the domestication of grains and livestock, could diffuse easily across the wide landmass, in spite of desert and mountains barriers. The people of Eurasia, then, were in the right place to develop complex civilizations.

I have been aghast on occasion at the wanton ignorance of some missionaries toward their host country's history. Anyone who seeks to engage the peoples of these top 40 provinces must place a high priority on learning the history of their host community. Only such people will deserve and receive a careful hearing as they share the message of Christ. I am reminded of the western missionary whom Narayan Vaman Tilak met on a train who was able to engage him deeply on his own turf and the tremendous impression it had on him. That ability doesn't come overnight but is the result of time-consuming and costly learning. Anything less than this is to short change our hosts. Not all are able to study in depth but those who can must make it a priority and all must do what they can. Ignorance does not adorn the gospel.

More thoughts here.