An avalanche of data. Information overload. Culture immersion at a whole new level. These are just a few of our experiences over the last few months as our assignment has come down to a simple, vital question: Where is the church?
The process of People Group Assessment (or “Surveys”) is the first step in seeing a people group reached with the Gospel. The reports produced in the assessment process provide the tools and information that leaders need to make decisions about the best places to locate missionaries, and also the best strategies to effectively reach a particular people group.
Receiving Training and Starting the Process
Shortly after we returned to the Philippines in January, I (Josh) was able to attend a training seminar in Thailand on the process of People Group Assessment. For the last four months our role has been to assess the availability of the gospel for the 12 major people groups represented in the Palawan region. We have produced detailed (10-25 page) reports and maps about five of the twelve major people groups represented in the Palawan region, as well as summary reports for the remaining seven people groups.
This assignment has taken me from the northern extremes of the Palawan region to within 100 miles of the southern tip of Palawan. I have interviewed or met with over 40 different pastors, elders, missionaries and influential members of communities.
Finding the Church
Very early on in this process, it became crystal clear that, while all of the historical and cultural data about a people group are very important, my most important task through this process is to answer one simple, yet incredibly difficult question: “Where is the Church?”.
At first glance, it is such a simple question. You hike or drive through a village or town, and see a church building. Can you check the “yep, there’s a church here.” box? Wrestling with this question has let us to ask perhaps an even more fundamental question: “What is the church?”. The reality is, that in many areas there are church buildings, but the Body of Christ is not there.
There are places where you will find a church building with the name of a major US recognized denomination across the front, and yet a short visit reveals that there is no pastor or leadership of any sort, and the few people who still meet have no understanding of the Gospel, and are still sacrificing to spirits for healing or successful crops. Clearly a church building does not indicate the presence of the Church!
The Role of Foreign Missionaries
Perhaps an even more challenging scenario is the church that is a short hike away from a people group who desperately need the gospel. This church clearly understands the Gospel, but now we have to ask the difficult questions: Do they have the ability and desire to cross the language and culture barriers between their people group and their neighbors in the hills who speak an entirely different language, and live a completely different life? Do they even know that this people group exists and needs to hear the gospel?
If there is a national church capable of reaching these least-reached peoples for Christ, then it is important that they are the ones to do it, and we may play simply a supporting and training role as they reach out to their fellow countrymen. However, in some areas the national church is not yet capable of reaching across the language and culture barriers that separate and divide people groups in the Philippines, and so decisions must be made between allocating foreign missionaries to plant churches themselves, or training, discipling and equipping national churches to reach out farther and more effectively than they thought they could.
Why Assessments Matter
It has been an exciting journey with many encouraging visits with indigenous church leaders who are reaching out against all odds and expanding the reach of the Gospel as far as they can. There have been the pit-in-your-stomach moments too, when I have sat with a group of leaders and realized that they themselves barely understand the gospel, and struggle to understand the Word of God because their only Bible is in their second or third language.
It really is only as we understand where the Church truly is, that we can effectively work together as the Body of Christ to see every people group reached!
Learn more about funding People Group Assessments: http://usa.ntm.org/projects/step1