IMB trains for unreached, unengaged peoples
Don Graham, Baptist Press
September 15, 2011

IMB trains for unreached, unengaged peoples

IMB trains for unreached, unengaged peoples
Don Graham, Baptist Press
September 15, 2011

MARIETTA, Ga. – It’s a problem many pastors wish they had.

About a year ago Chris Roberts started Bridge Community

Church in Blackshear, Ga., with just 36 people. The congregation has since

swelled to an average of 280 in Sunday morning worship. The rapid growth has

sent Roberts scrambling to lay groundwork for what he hopes will become one of

Bridge Community’s hallmarks – missions.

“We already have a heart to connect with an unreached people group,” Roberts

said, explaining that his church has the passion but not the know-how. That’s

what brought him to the International Mission Board’s first Embrace equipping

conference Sept. 7 in Marietta, Ga.

Roberts was one of nearly 500 pastors and church leaders who packed the

Atlanta-area Johnson Ferry Baptist Church for the all-day event, a starting

point for churches willing to explore the challenge of taking the Gospel to the

world’s 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs).

Launched at June’s year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in

Phoenix, the Embrace initiative represents a radical addition to Southern

Baptists’ traditional missionary-sending model and an ambitious goal for the

denomination’s 46,000 churches: a lifetime commitment to “do whatever it takes”

to make Jesus’ name known among a UUPG.

The idea was born of a prayer-laden collaboration between IMB President Tom

Elliff and Bryant Wright, SBC president and pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist

Church, who have challenged Southern Baptist churches to claim responsibility

by next year’s SBC annual meeting for reaching all 3,800 unengaged, unreached

people groups.

These UUPGs “are in some of the absolute hardest places in the world,” Elliff

told Embrace attendees. “As far as we know there is no ongoing, deliberate

strategy involving boots on the ground that is doing these three things –

evangelizing, discipling and planting a reproducing church.”

The IMB can’t reach all 3,800 UUPGs, not even with 10,000 missionaries, Elliff


“It’s not so much us asking you to be our partner in this … but actually it’s

about us saying that we want to be your partner,” Elliff said. “It’s going to

take us all to reach the ends of the earth.”

For Roberts, the Embrace call is an answer to prayer. Just a few weeks earlier,

he had assembled a group of church members to seek God’s direction for the

shape of Bridge Community’s future missions involvement. Though the group might

be more commonly known as a missions committee at other churches, Roberts calls

them a “Go team.” One of the members stumbled upon the Embrace conference while

surfing IMB’s website.

BP Photo

Mark Harrison (left) missions pastor at Old Town Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., talks with IMB missional church strategists team director Eric King at the conclusion of the Embrace equipping conference Sept. 7 at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

“We’re ready to obey, even though we don’t know the task yet,” Roberts said. “If

I allow God’s passion to overflow in my heart, then that’s going to spill out

on our congregation.”

That’s why Roberts didn’t come to Atlanta alone. Like many of the 200-plus

churches and entities represented at the Embrace event, Roberts brought along

two members of the Go team. Between the three of them, their short-term

missions experience is deep and diverse, with trips to India, Turkey, Moldova,

Romania, Russia, Greece, Ecuador, Brazil and Jamaica. So it’s no surprise that

sharing the Gospel with an unengaged, unreached people group doesn’t worry this

team. Instead it’s the daunting task of picking a UUPG with whom to share that


“It’s intimidating trying to find where God wants you,” said Shannon Gillen,

one of Bridge Community’s Go team members who accompanied Roberts. “But once

God does that, it’s exciting to be able to partner in one specific place and

pour everything into it.”

Helping churches navigate the UUPG selection process is one of the goals of the

Embrace conferences, which feature a series of people-group-focused breakout

sessions designed to paint a picture of the unique challenges of reaching UUPGs

in a specific area of the world. The conference also attempts to tackle some of

the “alphabet soup” of acronyms and terms for which IMB is infamous, breaking

down information into clear concepts that church leaders can share with their


For instance, there are more than 11,000 people groups on earth; approximately

3,800 are UUPGs. The first “U,” unengaged, means there is no known active,

evangelical church-planting strategy among the people group. The second “U,”

unreached, describes a people group that is less than 2 percent evangelical

Christian. A “people group” is the largest group through which the Gospel can

flow without encountering significant barriers of understanding and acceptance.

BP Photo

IMB President Tom Elliff emphasizes the importance of prayer as churches begin to consider embracing an unengaged, unreached people group. Elliff addressed 500 pastors and church leaders attending an Embrace equipping conference at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga.

Conference attendees also heard success stories from churches already “embracing”

unreached people groups – churches like Beulah Baptist, a small, rural

congregation in Hopkins, S.C.

Led by pastor Brad Bessent, Beulah began praying in 2007 about partnering with

IMB to spread the Gospel among an unreached West African people group. Beulah

eventually set its sights on a village of about 3,000 people. There were no

evangelical churches in the village and no known Christians.

Short-term missions teams from Beulah began visiting the village every six

weeks, openly sharing the Gospel with anyone willing to listen. At an average

cost of $4,000 per volunteer, the trips weren’t cheap, and the church didn’t

have money to fund them.

“God can supply $4,000 as easily as He can give you four pennies,” Bessent

said. “We don’t pay anybody’s way. They have to raise their own support. We’re

a blue-collar church. There are no rich people in my church. … God has always


During the past four years, Beulah Baptist has witnessed more than 100 new

believers among their people group, and that number continues to grow.

“Now some of you are going to go away after what you hear today and say, ‘I can’t

do that.’ And I think you need to be honest with yourself and say, ‘I won’t do

that.’ Because you can do that with God,” Bessent said.

Elliff strongly cautioned that success like Beulah’s isn’t possible apart from

prayer – the single most important component of the Embrace process.

“If this does not begin with prayer in your heart and prayer in your church,

then it will never go any further than today,” Elliff said.

“You’re not going to be able to get on an airplane and go to virtually any of

these groups tomorrow. You couldn’t if you wanted to. … But you can be there

in a second in prayer. And if God can somehow expand our concept of what

praying does, we won’t think that it’s just a little thing to pray about

people. We’ll see that God being there is sometimes more important than our

being there.”

That’s a truth Chris Roberts isn’t afraid to acknowledge.

“I’m scared we don’t listen enough,” he said. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of

work to do but excited that we know the next step.”

There are three more opportunities to attend an Embrace equipping event: Oct.

27 at Hillcrest Baptist Church in Cedar Hill, Texas; Nov. 4 at Applewood

Baptist Church in Denver, and March 24 at Immanuel Baptist Church in Highland,

Calif. Those who want to participate can register at call2embrace.org, which also includes a

video from the Atlanta Embrace equipping conference sessions.

Those unable to attend any of the Embrace events can register for a free,

one-hour Embrace equipping webinar. Visit call2embrace.org

to sign up.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Don Graham is a senior writer for the International Mission