Our mountainous corner of Central Asia is extremely language-diverse. The language my family has learned is the mother tongue for only about a quarter of our focus people group. Other colleagues are learning another of the major language/dialects, one which goes by the same overall name as ours, but is about as different as English is from German. Together, we can speak the mother tongues of maybe two-thirds of the locals of this region. The other one-third is made up of a linguistic stew of a dozen or so minority languages/dialects, mostly belonging to UUPGs.
A UUPG is an unengaged unreached people group. This means not only does this people group not have an indigenous church, but there are no organizations that have personnel actually learning their language and culture and attempting to plant churches among them.
There are reasons these groups remain unengaged. Some of them are hidden, barely even showing up on the radar of obscure linguists and anthropologists, let alone Christians and their sending organizations. We have local gypsy groups, for example, that no one has any solid data on. Other groups are known, but so little research has been done that it’s unclear if they warrant a specific focus or if they can be reached through a majority language strategy. Still others are known as distinct ethnic and linguistic groups warranting their own church planting teams, but they live in dangerous or politically inaccessible places for Westerners. Again, there are reasons why these groups remain unengaged.
Yesterday I met with some members of a Bible translation team. They have begun publishing newly translated books of scripture for one of our UUPG groups, which makes us very excited, not only because we have long prayed for this group, but also because we have open positions for a new team to at last come and engage this mountain people. We don’t have any takers yet on these positions, but having a few books of the Bible available in their language now and some job positions open is an encouraging start. Potential takers will be able to begin their work with some of the Word of God already available! This is no small thing. However, once again, there are reasons we’ve had no applicants for these positions.
Anyone who desires to engage these groups will be faced with an extremely challenging task. First, they will have to learn at least two new languages, the majority trade language the minority group uses in the marketplace and government offices as well as the mother tongue. They may be the first outsiders to ever attempt to learn said language. It may be only an oral language and not yet be written down or have its own alphabet. Most of these groups live in dangerous border areas which present difficulties for residential work, such as the ability to get a visa and the ability to have a work identity in the community that provides access and makes sense. Most also live in small towns and villages, a fishbowl type of setting where everyone will be aware of the presence of foreigners from day one – and where most are much more devout in their Islam or minority faiths.
As I mentioned above, foreign Christians living among these groups will need an identity that provides legitimacy and access. At the very least, they will need to open up a branch of an existing NGO or business, or they may need to build this kind of a platform from scratch. And then run it as they are also full-time learning language. Oh yes, and these are areas without any local or international churches or even other residential Christians. So the team will need to be able to thrive spiritually by themselves abiding in Jesus and by covenanting together as a healthy house church, perhaps made up of only the team for a long season. Homeschool or online school will be a must for any school-age kids, even if they are able to attend local school for the sake of language and relationships.
These areas are less developed, meaning spotty electricity and water supply. This exacerbates the blistering hot summers and the very cold winters. Decent medical care will be at least a couple hours drive away. Good medical care will be a couple hours drive and then a flight to another country. This will hit home when one of your kids has an appendicitis scare, as our daughter did this week.
In all likelihood, after one or two terms of residential work, once the mother tongue is learned and some have come to faith, the team will get run out of town by the local religious leaders. At that point they’ll need to relocate to one of the bigger cities of our region and continue their work in the homeland from a distance and with whatever displaced population of their focus group lives in the city. Par for the course with our regional people groups, group implosions, betrayal, false conversions, and heartbreaking apostasy await – a long string of deep disappointment with locals they had hoped would be future leaders.
Sounding impossible yet? Not so fast. We know that Jesus has his sheep, even among these unengaged groups. They will hear his voice (John 10:16). The harvest is ripe (John 4:35). All we lack are some laborers, some seemingly-crazy trailblazers who embrace the shame of a foolhardy task for the joy set before them, knowing that the kingdom is unstoppable and the mouths of all scoffers will one day be shut as even the most unlikely bow the knee to king Jesus. These groups will have churches among them, sooner or later. God will not use dreams and visions alone. These only ever precede and accompany his workers. He will use his chosen means, his Church and his Word, his proclaiming people.
Perhaps you feel a strange burning in your chest as you read of these impossible tasks. Maybe instead of balking at the unlikelihood of success, you feel overtaken by an unusual confidence, perhaps even a jealousy for God’s glory among these forgotten peoples. Pay attention to those desires if they keep surfacing and if they align with gifting and opportunity. If they do, talk it over with your pastors and your closest believing friends. You may be called to be a trailblazer. We are sure praying that some of you will be.
My friend Reza* is one of only a handful of believers we know about from one of these UUPGs. What a joy it was to see one of the very first from this people group born again, knowing that he is a forerunner of many to come. What a joy it has been to get to share the gospel in the trade language with those from other UUPG groups, knowing that someday others will share the gospel with them in their mother tongue, and perhaps even give them a gospel of Luke or an entire Bible. They will demonstrate for these groups – some a half million strong – the powerful truth that God knows their oppressed minority language and even will speak to them through it.
This is a call for trailblazers. A few are called to this hard and wonderful work. A great many will be called to the crucial work of sending and supporting them. May God show us which one he is calling each one of us to.
*names changed for security