Unreached Peoples and the Power of Prayer

Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors

The Powerful Life of the Praying Pastor: In His Room, With His Family, Among the People of God

The Magnitude of Unreached Peoples

It is an honor to be here and be invited to this conference. I have benefited so much from listening to the other speakers talk about the praying pastor. My sermons on prayer seem trite to the reality that we are dealing with. The sheer number of unreached, unengaged people groups overwhelms the greatest of missionary strategies. These people have been kept from the knowledge of the love of God through violence and isolation. Some have perhaps heard the gospel, but the masses are uninformed.

In looking at the current global movement, we can see that God is moving in massive ways as the gospel has been advanced in creative and unexpected ways. Political upheaval, natural disasters and social unrest have all been used of God to expose people to the Good News. With the present unrest in Egypt, the State Department has issued a call for all non-essential personnel to evacuate the country. Some missionaries informed their agency that they would not be evacuating because they are essential—God has called them to their ministry and the advancement of the gospel is at stake.

At another time, I was meeting with some missionaries in the former Soviet bloc. And as we prayed, the missionary thanked God for the seventy years of Soviet domination. I later asked him why and he said the region was a stronghold of Islam and after seventy years of atheistic domination, the stronghold of Islam was emasculated and left the people open to the gospel.

The Central Asia regional leader I met with later told me that twenty-three people groups had been effectively evangelized, but three hundred were still not engaged. The hardest thing for this leader was determining in his strategic plan what people group would have to be deprived of hearing the gospel because of a lack of personnel and resources.

If we believe indeed that Jesus died for the whole world, if we truly believe that one-day there will be a remnant from every tribe and tongue and people, what will we do to advance the gospel? When the International Mission Board (IMB) reached 5,000 missionaries, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) took such pride in this number. However, I was quick to remind them that this means there is one missionary for over one million lost souls.

We don’t necessarily have to go ourselves. We can pray. I have encouraged people to pray Psalm 2:8, but that is not a promise of salvation to the nations. It is a messianic psalm in which Jesus the Messiah has been promised the nations as an inheritance. And it is Jesus who will rule the nations with a rod of iron. Does praying really do something? Is it like it stimulates a passive God to do something about the nations?

Prayer and the Sovereignty of God in Missions

Why would an almighty, sovereign God limit his desired action on the contingency of the prayers of his people? This is a question I no doubt many of you pastors have wrestled with. I would periodically receive a printout of the current status of global evangelization. And in this volume, in bold thick print was listed the peoples were still unreached and unengaged. If God has given us glorious promises of the in bringing of the nations to his covenant people, why pray? In Matthew 7:7, we are told to ask and seek and knock. In Mark 11:23, if we prayer in faith, believing, it will be done. In John 16:23, we are told to pray in Jesus’ name.

Our denomination has been going through a recent “Great Commission Resurgence,” to put more effort and funds toward global evangelization. This has caused tension as budgets and structures are considered. Many have said we first need an outpouring of God’s Spirit. But why would God pour out his Spirit to us if we have not been disobedience in his command to go to the nations?

Obedience to the Call of God

When I was coordinating our work for many years in India, I was on a late flight with a lady who clearly had not flown much before. She was perplexed as to how the pilot would know where we were going since it was so dark. Her son told her to consider the little lights on either side of the plane. He said as long as the pilot remained between those two lights, he is right on course. It is so vital for us also to remain on course in the missionary task. We cannot be duped into a provincial mindset of misapplying the promises of God.

We must remain vigilant and plead with God on behalf of the nations for the barriers to be removed and these peoples reached. We should be praying for the nations for God’s will to be carried out. I met with a first-term missionary couple heading home for furlough after being on a very difficult assignment. They were looking for reassurance. They said after they arrived on their assignment, they realized that God had not necessarily called them to success and fruitful ministry but obedience. He had called them faithfully proclaim the gospel. How much more should we be obedient in prayer from the relative ease of home?

Even Jesus, in carrying out perfect obedience, would often rise early in the morning to spend time in prayer to his Father for people. Jesus’ instruction to pray that God would raise laborers for the harvest should not baffle us. The first thing Jesus commanded his disciples after calling them to follow him was for them to see. He called them to see the need for the Good News to be shared.

A man wrote me, asking why it God was not answering the prayers for laborers to be raised up. And a 19th century missiologist addressed this question by saying that God is calling out the laborers but the laborers are not responding because of a closed mind, a callused heart and rebellious will. We are to be obedient to wherever God would call us.

Prayer as Relationship With God

Consider the parable of the persistent widow. Who would loose heart if God readily answered our prayers? That diminishes the need for faith for that particular issue. Our God is not like that insensitive judge, holding a stopwatch over our prayers, waiting for us to persist. No, our God is ready and willing to answer our prayers. The injustice is for us to have free access to the gospel and the ability to share it and yet we do not seek God in prayer on behalf of the nations. We must go on believing the promises of God in relation to the nations and cultivate our relationship with God in prayer.

As Psalm 37:4 became the focus of my meditation, my understanding of it shifted from thinking about having more time in my schedule and losing weight to realizing the verse is calling for the Lord himself to be the desire of my heart. When God becomes the desire of our hearts, the desires of God’s heart become our desires.

I am not the most tech savvy, but when my office began making the switch to a computer-based system, I was helped by the automatic spell check. One word that surprised me was not in the computer’s dictionary was “unreached.” The word it suggested was “unrelated.” It made me think that that relates to the status of the unreached; they are unrelated to God the Father. It encouraged me to pray for the nations and to pray for people to go to the nations.

The Motivation of Missions

Many have come up to me after a missions talk and say, “Dr. Rankin, I am willing to go, but God has just not called me.” I have not figured out how to reply to that tactfully. Read your Bibles! Who are the commands to go to the nations given to? It is not just an elite few, but to all of God’s people.

Where are our hearts and affections in relation to the nations and the advancement of the gospel? During the Iranian hostage crisis, a missions speaker asked his audience how many had prayed for the hostages in bondage to their Iranian captives. Nearly the whole crowd raised their hands. Then he asked how many had prayed for the release of millions of Iranians from their bondage to sin and death. Few raised their hands and he sat down. How little do we pray for the nations! How little do we feel burdened for the advancement of the gospel!

When the Son of Man comes, will he find us praying in faith, believing? Consistently praying for the nations, for barriers to be removed? I have found that many who go to the nations are not leaving their established livelihoods at home because of mere duty but because they are obsessed with the glory of God among the nations.

One of our missionaries who gave her life for the cause of Christ had left a letter with her pastor before she had left for Iraq. In the letter, she had written, “His glory is my reward.” That is what will motivate us and our churches. That is what will motivate our relationship with God in prayer to call for the evangelization of the nations.

is President Emeritus of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.