That's a great question!
I was recently visiting one of our Assemblies of God universities for a missions emphasis week. It's always exciting to see how God is forming the next generation of servant leaders for ministry. During an informal time of sharing with students a young man interjected: Why do we need missionaries in Latin America? They're Catholic, right? So, they're basically reached.
conclusions or Confusion?
The question is a good one, but the conclusion is confused. It always surprises me. Over time I've answered this in one way or another for both parishioners and pastors alike. But, neither a misguided understanding of what "reached" means, nor misinformation about who in Latin America Caribbean knows Jesus as their personal Savior, should stand in the way of Christ's gospel reaching every one of them.
What we believe about these things will impact our efforts to reach the lost.
So, is Latin America reached? Well, let's take a look at two important words: reached and Catholic. Then let's take a quick a tour of Latin America Caribbean to see what you think.
16 years and counting
What we think about "the lost" really is a matter of life or death, and none of us take the subject lightly. Personally, I spend a lot of time thinking, writing, studying, and praying about and for the lost. Our missionary service in Latin America over the last 16 years has significantly influenced my views on the lost and on what Jesus asks us to do about them. That's not as much time as some, and maybe a little more than others. I'm not sure it matters either way. After sixteen years of giving our blood, sweat, and tears to the lost of Latin America, I have some thoughts to share that I hope can be helpful. In Latin America Caribbean we are faced with the complex and multi-faceted task:
...bringing the gospel to the lost wherever they are, planting the church everywhere it is not, and preparing local leaders for global impact.
And wherever we can, we do all of this in partnership with the existing national church. So, I'd like to offer a perspective that I hope will add to a productive conversation about “lostness” and what it means to be “reached”.
Buzz words and Bible words
Let's keep this simple, because it really is - at least from a Biblical standpoint. You would think a word like reached really needs no explanation. But suddenly it does. Being "reached" has always involved people carrying the message of salvation through faith in Jesus alone (Rom. 10:15 - missionaries) to spiritually lost people (Rom. 10:14 - the lost) who hear the message and call on the name of the Lord (Rom. 10:13 - repentance), are born again of the Spirit (Jn. 3:3 - salvation), and are developed into followers of Jesus Christ (Matt. 28:19-20 - disciples). In Jesus' simple parable about leaving the 99 sheep to chase after the one that had become lost (Lk. 15:4) he laid out God's ageless case for reaching even the one.
Numero Uno: "Reached" doesn't mean Reached
Now, here is where it gets a little complicated - and it's not my fault. Some well known mission organizations with a broad web presence have redefined the word "reached" to describe people groups whose population is 2% or more "Christian". Some missions gurus have boldly recommended that gospel evangelization efforts be restricted to all but those people groups that are 2% or less Christian (at least 98% non-Christian). It's important that people in our American churches, and their pastors, understand that, used as a buzz word...
“reached” has nothing to do with Jesus' definition of being "lost" or "found".
To be clear, "reached" people are not people who have saving faith in Jesus Christ. The word is being used as a tactical expression of gospel saturation among any people group. Do more than 2% of them have access to a Bible? Are there “enough” (2%) Christians among them that the gospel can be expanded to the other 98% by those people. The issues surrounding global evangelization deserve serious attention, but marketing should never blur transparency in gospel matters. These organizations have stated that the decision to use "2%" as the threshold for "reached" is "arbitrary". Wait. What? I told you it's not my fault...
Jesus' Math OR OURS?
There is danger in the hasty consumption of neatly packaged, heavily marketed, instantly available, agenda-driven internet content without a Biblical framework. I am 100% in favor for getting the gospel to 100% of the people on earth. But this version of what it means to be reached, along with its arbitrary 2% threshold, can have a devastating impact on the way we engage the lost - both globally and locally. In fact it already has. On more than one occasion I have heard from a missionary colleague who has lost the support of a church or individual (while on the field!) because they have decided to no longer support missionary efforts among “reached” people. What?! How would they even know that the people a missionary serves among are "reached"?
We do well to practice discernment about what we read on the internet...
Jesus' parable (and his entire life) make me disagree. In Biblical terms - which are the ones we live and minister and strategize by - I can guarantee you that before we shared the gospel and prayed with Sucely, Kevin, Jasmine, and a thousand others, they were not reached. They were lost. They would have died and woken up in Hell. Yet I still get the occasional question... and the adios emails.
Number Two: "Christians" who are not Christ followers
The second part of my young college friend's comment was actually more disturbing than the first. As he pointed out, roughly 85% of Latin America Caribbean is Catholic. The same mission organizations, from whom my young friend received his missiological worldview, refuse to identify "Christians" as being "born again". It's hard to understand why Jesus' words seem to be so suspect to them. Instead they assert that...
2% "reached" includes "all forms of Christianity; anyone that would call themselves a Christian."
Well, that's a problem. Because a misguided understanding of what it means to be "reached", and misinformation about who is a Christ follower has had a negative impact on godly people like my college friend who no longer feels the burden to pray for, give to, or serve the spiritual needs of 650 million people in Latin America Caribbean. It might be better to allow the people who live and serve among the precious people of Latin America Caribbean attempt to describe their spiritual plight.
Let's take a Quick tour
There's no doubt that every one of the 650 million people who reside in Latin America Caribbean knows someone named Jesús. However, only...
1 out of 6 knows Jesus Christ as their personal Savior! We are called to The Other Five.
Let's take a quick tour. You decide which of the other five is lost and which is reached.
The Other Five worship a myriad of things besides Jesus Christ. They worship idols, pray to the dead, practice animism (attributing spiritual life to inanimate things), and engage in witchcraft, shamanism, and superstitions which, except for deep within the Amazon jungle, are melded with Catholic rituals and validated by local priests.
Santeria, Siete Potencias, Vodun (Voodoo), La Mesa Blanca, Egungun, Lucumi, Yoruba, Candomblé...
are all forms of spiritualism practiced in the Caribbean and along the northern and eastern coastal countries of South America. All of them, 100%, are syncretized (the melding of beliefs and practices) with Catholicism and practiced in homes, on the front steps of cathedrals, and inside at the altar.
The Other Five have further distorted the identity of the mother of Jesus country by country. She is adored in Bolivia as Pachamama ("mother earth"), in Venezuela as Maria Lionza (chief mountain goddess), in Brazil as Lemanja (water goddess), in Cuba as Yemoja (major water deity), on and on it goes. Every one of these are syncretized with, approved by, and practiced within the Catholic church and community.
The Other Five make up over 98% of Mexico City and worship La Santa Muerte (Holy Death who hides you from enemies), La Virgen de Guadalupe (an Aztec-Spaniard Mary who requires worship at her altar), and most recently Santa Maria La Juaricua, who conveniently helps those at risk of losing their home to a real estate developer. The Day of the Dead,
Día de Muertos, is an Aztec celebration making offerings to the dead who come near to the living during the first two days of November.
The Catholic Church absorbed this tradition. So, Happy Day of the Dead! Of course, Jesus makes his appearance here too. Hanging lifeless and bleeding on a giant cross - everywhere. Meanwhile, central Mexico retains the sobering nickname: Heart of Darkness.
In Guatemala The Other Five pray to Maximon, the "demon saint" of the Atitlán region, who is "aprobado por la Iglesia" - approved by the Church. At least that's what the idol's caretaker told me as he demanded that I leave the shrine. They don't care much for being challenged on these things.
At the southern end of Peru, The Other Five lay on the mammoth granite boulders of the temple of Sacsayhuamanhe to "absorb spiritual power". Sitting at nearly 15,000 feet, the ancient city of Cusco claims to be The Center of Spiritual Power of the World. Burnt offerings of llama fetuses are made in open fields and on the steps of the Catholic Church. That's why we are planting a base of church planters in Cusco to reach the 5,000 surrounding villages that are bound in witchcraft and have not heard the gospel! The first convert was a woman who owned sheep and turned her sheep corral into a makeshift church. Kind of poetic.
The Other Five include 16 million people found among 475 ethnic groups who practice witchcraft/shamanism and worship "local deities". Around 20 missionary couples serve among a number of these groups.
Pray for more workers and for open doors that have been closed by governments.
The Other Five include 4 million immigrant Muslims from Syria, Palestine, and Lebanon, 1 million Chinese Buddhists and Indian Hindus, and half a million Jews. There is not a single missionary serving any of them.
The Other Five make up 35% of Uruguay that is atheist or agnostic. Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, is a self-proclaimed Catholic and a practicing shaman of the Aymara indigenous people. The current mayor of San Salvador Nayib Bukele, is Muslim. So was the former president of Argentina, Carlos Menem ('89-'99), who donated 34,000 sq. meters of land in Buenos Aires to build the King Fahd Mosque - the largest in Latin America. The vice-president of Venezuela, Tarek El Aissami, is Druze - a spiritualist sect of Islam.
What will this cost us?
I'm uncomfortable with missiological strategies that compete for missionary dollars by using human beings as a form of "bait" (these are less reached than those!). I believe that pitting one person's lostness against another's is always unwise (is being "less reached" like being more lost?). Measuring the spiritual lostness of people by percentages of how "reached" their ethnic group is does very little to advance the cause it promotes; once they reach 2%, do you just move on? I believe it undermines the brotherhood that missionaries share and has the potential to turn colleagues into competitors. I believe that it is irresponsible to market "arbitrary" percentages to college students who are passionately seeking to change the world, without acknowledging and explaining the shift in definitions. And I am certain that practice of shifting committed missionary support mid-term is unwise, unkind, and unproductive.
Decide FOR YOURSELF
There are a lot of things I don't know. What I know for certain is that Jesus spoke of lostness. Lostness is not about geographic position, it's about spiritual condition. It's not about percentages, it's about people. Lostness is not about tactical terminology that dictates where the Harvest Master ought to send his servants. It is about obedience to the call of Jesus to go to everywhere to reach everyone and every one. And I am certain that 5 out of 6 people in Latin America Caribbean do not know Jesus Christ as their Savior. Jesus thinks they are spiritually lost. I agree.
So, thank you for being partners with us, and ¡Gracias! from the thousands in Latin America that have heard over these 16 years!