My earliest memories involve a lot of staring. At kids my age in tattered rags, starving on the streets, eyes desperate for comfort. Every day, on my walk to get bread, a blind amputee would be hunched on the curbside, never failing to shake his cup, eyes hollowed by the harrows of hopelessness. To this day, the clinking of coins always brings me back to the same street. The same kids. The same eyes. Every single day.
I grew up as a missionary kid in the Middle East, in a city of one million people and zero surviving churches. My parents would go on to plant a church that met inside our apartment. Outside of my home, “Jesus” did not exist in the vernacular vocabulary.
Now, as a proud Okie, there are multiple churches on each corner of my neighborhood. My city houses every denomination in the book, and the cultural Christianity of the “Bible Belt” is as tangible as the air I breathe. Here, I hear “Jesus” almost every hour.
After a decade living in the United States, I continuously struggle to reconcile these two realities. And I fear that I’m forgetting that increasingly unfamiliar hopelessness.
“Religious liberty” is back in the news. To be completely honest, I’m not sure I even know what it means. When I ask folks to name the first thing they imagine after hearing these two words, I hear everything from “ISIS” to “gay wedding cakes.” As my fellow interns have already detailed, religious liberty in America is under increasing assault. The cultural apathy and even animosity of my generation towards faith in the public square are causes for grave concern. But there’s always a bigger picture.
Even in an international context, most of the Millennial and Generation Z Christians I know view religious freedoms primarily through the lens of the persecuted Church. Daily news of Jesus followers losing their lives for their faith overwhelm and desensitize us to the actualities of being a non-Western Christian. But there’s still a bigger picture.
This may be hard to comprehend for Christians (myself included) living in a country enveloped in tepid cultural Christianity exacerbated by rampant individualism, but there are still cities in the world with no Christians. No Church. Joshua Project defines an “unreached people group” (UPG)” as “a people group whose number of followers of Christ and amount of resources make outside assistance necessary to reach the rest of the group with the gospel.” The 100 largest UPGs include 1,866,000,000 people. This is twenty-five percent of the world’s population. One out of four humans alive today are in an unreached people group. Eighty-one percent of the world’s Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists do not personally know a single Christian. For every one Christian missionary, there are approximately 300,000 Muslims, 175,000 Hindus, 170,000 Buddhists, 80,000 nonreligious people, and 15,000 adherents to tribal religions. Sixty percent of unreached people groups live in countries closed to missionaries from North America.
Examining North American Christians’ giving to foreign missions is even more telling. Eighty-seven percent goes to work among already Christian groups. Twelve percent is sent to nonbelievers within reach of the Gospel. Astoundingly and quite frankly embarrassingly, only one percent of our giving is directed toward unreached people groups. The missionaries in organizations such as Anglican Frontier Missions, Operation Mobilization, and Ethnos360 are giving their lives to bring Jesus into foreign territory. Where is our awareness of them? Where is this same zeal for religious liberty?
The Church has and will continue to thrive under persecution. But for missionaries trying to evangelize to unreached people groups, religious liberty means a whole lot more than advocating for the persecuted Church. For them, it’s not a matter of suffering the evils of earth with the assurance of Heaven. It’s a matter of eternal destiny. Huge, often uncomfortable ideas of Heaven and Hell are starkly involved. I’m not diminishing the importance of domestic religious freedom or the crucial witness of the persecuted Church. Both should remain essential priorities of American Christians. But comparing the loss of a business and loss of life to eternal separation from God can provide a more holistic perspective.
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:14-16)
Missionaries are not only carrying the freedom of the Gospel to the unreached, but they are messengers of the liberty to say yes to the love of God. For many of them, just surviving the brutality of daily life is a struggle. Grace is in the grit. God is in the grind. They don’t have the luxury of the abstract. For them, religious liberty is simply the ability to ask their neighbors to choose Jesus. That’s it. Let’s not forget the ground they walk on or the people they reach. Let’s not forget these beautiful feet.