Along with this question come other questions like, “what is a tribe?”, “where do these tribes live?” and “what is an unreached people group?” A tribe is a group of people that have a common heritage, usually live together in the same territory, and are bound to one another through kinship ties, trading, and a common language and culture. Though tribes could live virtually anywhere, the tribes we are referring to tend to live in remote areas full of rainforest jungles, mountains, or deserts. They are usually isolated, with little or no contact with the outside world.
There are thousands of people groups around the world, with languages that have never been written down. Over two thousand of those groups have never had access to God’s Word or the Gospel in their own language. New Tribes Mission considers a tribe (or “people group”) that has never been exposed to the true Gospel message in their language as “unreached.”
Some tribes, however, do have access to the outside world but are still lost in confusion and darkness. Often, cult groups have already come in to these tribes to “convert” them by sharing their false gospel (with an emphasis on works) in the trade language, baptizing them, and declaring the tribal people to be “saved”. This leaves the tribal people still unreached and even more confused about the truth than before. So when missionaries come in and share about Jesus, they find that the tribal people have already added the “Jesus” from the cult groups right into their animistic belief system as another spirit that they must manipulate and appease.
In a nutshell, “tribal missions” is reaching the unreached with the Gospel. It means taking the truth of God’s grace and redemption to a people group that has never before heard that Jesus died in their place to give them life and to make a way for them to be right with God. The process of doing so, however, is a bit more complicated than just walking into the tribe and telling them, “Jesus died for you, just believe it and you’ll go to heaven.”
First, you have to choose a tribe to move in to. Then, you have the complicated process of building your house and moving in (usually flying in all your equipment and supplies by small airplane or helicopter, because there’s no Walmart or Home Depot down the road). After that comes the daunting task of trying to learn a language that has never been written down before, and struggling to understand a culture that is vastly different from a Western way of thinking. At the same time, you’re studying their worldview to discover how they view themselves, God, the world around them, the future, and so many other things. If you don’t take the time to understand their mindset, the framework through which they interpret everything, then when you start teaching them the Bible, you will have no idea how they are taking what you’re saying and fitting it into the belief system they already have.
The next big step is to develop and teach Bible lessons — but not starting with Christ, starting with the very beginning of the story to lay the foundations of who God is, who man is, where everything came from, and so on and so forth. They need to see God’s holiness and their own sin, and that although man continually tries to come to God on his own terms, God will only accept man if he comes His way — and His way is through a rescuer that He promises, starting in Genesis and all through the Old Testament. As you work your way through the Bible, teaching from Creation all the way through Christ, it’s important to help them see that God’s Word is not just something they can import into their current way of thinking — God’s Word must transform their way of thinking from the inside out, and only God can do that.
When you get to the part of the Bible where Jesus died and rose again, many tribal people’s eyes and hearts are often opened by the Holy Spirit, who helps them understand that Jesus is the rescuer that God had promised to save mankind from their sins. As they place their trust in what Jesus did for them on the cross, it can be overwhelming for you as the missionary to realize that you now have tribal brothers and sisters in Christ! In fact, you have the beginning of a church! You can’t just abandon those new believers, they need to be discipled. That is often a long, hard, process as you continue to teach them the truths of God’s Word (often focusing on books like Acts, Ephesians, Romans, etc) and watch God transform their hearts and minds through His Word.
Meanwhile, someone on your missionary team has been working on translating the Bible, starting with portions of the Old Testament and then working on the New Testament (often starting with Mark, then Acts, then Romans and Ephesians). God’s Word is crucial to the church planting process, from the beginning of the foundational teaching all the way through the discipleship process.
All in all, it usually takes upwards of 15-20 years to plant a church among an unreached people group, depending on how difficult the language is, how long it takes to translate the New Testament, and how quickly the new believers grow and mature. And honestly, there is no formula for planting churches, no method that you can use that is guaranteed to “work”. It is a long, hard process of cultivating, planting, watering, and trusting God to work in His way and His time. “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (1 Cor 3:7)
We do want to take a moment to clarify what tribal missions is NOT. Tribal missions is NOT the only thing on God’s heart. We (as missionaries) have to be careful because we’re SO excited to take the Gospel to those who’ve never heard before that we want everyone to be in on this! Reaching the unreached with the Gospel IS definitely part of God’s heart — He is patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
But His heart is also for the widows and orphans, for those who are believers but need discipling, for the lost that live in big cities, and for so many more. Our job as believers is to make Him famous, to show Him off, wherever we go, whatever context we’re in. Do we see the huge need for people to take the Gospel to the farthest corners of the world? Absolutely. Do we know there’s lots left to be done in the United States, too? You bet.
Our challenge to you more than anything else is — do what you know God made you for. Spend your life pointing other people to Him, no matter where you are or what your job is. Each of us are going to stand before Christ someday, and God’s going to be the one judging how we spent our short lives here on earth. (2 Cor 5:10)
“Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” Elizabeth Elliott