EDITOR'S NOTE: Visit "WorldView Conversation," the blog related to this column, at http://worldviewconversation.blogspot.com. Listen to an audio version at http://media1.imbresources.org/files/126/12619/12619-71205.mp3.
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RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--A missionary struck up a conversation with a businessman seated next to him on a plane flying over Southeast Asia.
The plane was heading toward an area where the missionary hoped to make new contacts with a people group yet to be reached with the Gospel. He asked in a general way if the businessman knew anything about the group and how to develop relationships with them.
"No problem," the man replied. "I could introduce you to them. We've already been in their villages. We know how to get to their children. I can give you prices."
Horrified, the missionary realized his seatmate's business was sex trafficking. The businessman assumed the curious American questioning him was either a customer or wholesaler involved in the same trade.
After all, who else would care about the remote villagers they were discussing?
That missionary is the son-in-law of Tom Elliff, newly elected International Mission Board president. Elliff tells of the encounter to make a point about the mission terms "unreached" and "unengaged" -- often used to describe the thousands of people groups with little or no Gospel witness.
"We're actually deluding ourselves to say that they are unengaged or unreached," Elliff says. "What we should say is that they are unengaged by us and unreached by the Gospel, because other people already have engaged them."
Those others include not only criminals but legitimate corporations, humanitarian groups, governments -- anyone who is serious enough about connecting with a group of people to "pay the price to get there," Elliff explains. Their motivation may be to help or to exploit, but seldom to share the love of Jesus Christ.
"If it's worth the price, we must go to the uttermost now," Elliff says. Not in the next generation. Not after Christians solve all their church problems. Not after they get local and national politics straightened out. Now.
That's why he seized the opportunity of his acceptance speech -- immediately following his March 16 election by IMB trustees -- to issue a bold challenge to Southern Baptists: Engage all of the estimated 3,800 people groups worldwide that have yet to be touched by the Gospel.
"I intend to introduce at the [June] 2011 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention a very simple plan by which each one of these 3,800 unengaged people groups can be embraced by a Southern Baptist congregation," Elliff told trustees.
"I believe we can accomplish this in one year. Just think about that for a moment. Should Jesus grant us the days, by the 2012 Southern Baptist Convention meeting, we would be able to say that, to our knowledge, every people group on this globe has some church committed to take specific steps to strategize, to pray over, to learn about and discover some way that the Gospel witness can be shared with those people."
Can it be done?
Local churches have many God-given ministries: worship, preaching and teaching, discipleship, caring for the needs of believers, evangelizing lost people close at hand, feeding the poor, visiting the sick. These days, they're carrying out those tasks in a tough environment of increasing secularism, rapidly changing communities and social norms, conflicting demands from members and a still-struggling economy.
Effective international mission work, meanwhile, has become an enormously complex and expensive task -- often conducted in hostile conditions -- requiring in-depth cultural knowledge, detailed logistics and careful cooperation with like-minded partners. It calls for well-trained workers with a high degree of commitment -- good missionaries, in other words.
But missionaries can't get the job done alone. And they aren't sent by mission boards and agencies; they are sent by local churches.
Missionaries are "your boots on the ground," Elliff said. But fulfilling the Great Commission is "going to require local churches ... becoming burdened for the unengaged and the unreached of this world, signing on, creating vital partnerships. This is not a new way of doing missions. This is a biblical way of doing missions -- and your missionaries are eager for you to step up to the plate."
If a time ever required boldness, "it is this day," he said. "[You] can't simply be content to say you're for church ... and the Rotary and good government and low taxes and oh, by the way, you're for missions. It is something that is going to have to consume us."
For all its challenge and complexity in our day, taking the Gospel to all peoples remains primarily a matter of the will. Will we pay the price of obedience to God's command, or not?
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.