When an individual from an unengaged, unreached people group comes to faith, many rejoice: the missionaries who’ve dedicated their lives to reaching the people group, the believers and churches in the U.S. who’ve spent time praying for and investing resources in the people, the national believers and churches who have been instrumental in gaining access to and reaching the people, and even the angels in heaven (Luke 15:10).
But, for the new believer – sometimes the first believer in an entire community – life can get complicated. In these situations, openly living out one’s faith may cost a believer their job, family or community standing.
Boldly sharing the gospel despite the risks is just what Ruth*, the first known believer from a people group of 50,000 in the mountains of Southeast Asia, has been doing.
A divine appointment in language school
Robert and Eileen Hawkins*, International Mission Board (IMB) workers in Southeast Asia, prayed for Ruth’s people group since 2013. They contacted the leader of her village, Ruben*, and visited and stayed in his home many times. They took mission teams to the village to prayer walk.
Before they came, Ruben had never heard the name of Jesus.
A hundred yards from Ruben’s wooden hut lived a widow the workers had never met. She was Ruth’s mother.
By that time, Ruth had left her village to find work in the very city where the Hawkinses lived. Their IMB coworker, Charissa Taylor*, started a language school there to teach the local language to foreigners. One of the first teachers she hired was Ruth, and Ruth’s first students were the Hawkinses.
Ruth’s interest in the gospel had already been piqued earlier when she met a national believer who gave her biblical material. She was taught the worst about Christians, but the Hawkinses and Charissa were different from the Christians she was warned about.
“Her heart started to be drawn, and God’s Spirit started to work in her,” Robert said.
Charissa began speaking “truth and God’s Word into Ruth’s life,” and the Hawkinses began sharing Bible stories with her.
Charissa’s parents came to visit and help with the school in March of 2019.
“My mom did a training on evaluating learners, and at the end she asked to speak a blessing over the teachers,” Charissa said. “Ruth broke down and sobbed.”
Ruth explained that she felt stuck between two ways of life. When she described a dream she had about a bright light that helped people, the missionaries pointed her to Jesus.
While at dinner with two local believers, Ruth explained that the thing holding her back from giving her life to Christ was fear of family rejection.
“That night she decided to follow,” Charissa said. “The next morning she came to work and told me of her decision. It was such an encouraging time, as she slowly told the people she knew.”
Ruth became the first known baptized believer in her people group in the fall of 2019.
And despite the distrust her people have regarding Christianity – a distrust that is actively taught by their government – Ruth has been vocal about her faith.
She’s translating the Bible stories she’s studying into her own language.
When COVID-19 hit, she went home for a couple months. During that time, she became the first (and only) person to share the gospel with her people in their heart language – a language that is exclusively oral.
“I mentioned to her the possibility of recording some Bible stories for her people,” Charissa said. “I figured she could work slowly on them one by one for us to use in the future. Instead, I was away for a little while and came back to learn she had recorded them all!
“The Father is working in and refining her heart. I pray He will use her greatly on behalf of her people.”
Ruth’s mother was more hesitant to accept the gospel because she knew “the high cost of being the only one in her village to believe and live this way,” Robert said. Recently, though, Ruth’s mother also professed faith.
Ruth lives with her uncle in the city nine hours away. He has been resistant to the gospel since Ruth first heard and shared the stories of Jesus. He is considering kicking her out because of her beliefs.
“I try to encourage people to put themselves in Ruth’s shoes,” Robert said.
“What would it be like to be a young lady in her mid-20s, who is [one of two] in her people group of 50,000 that speaks her language, that knows the Truth. How do you live faithfully and balance that pressure, that responsibility, that opportunity?”
How UUPGs are reached
An unengaged, unreached people group (UUPG), according to peoplegroups.org, is a people group where there is “no church planting strategy, consistent with evangelical faith and practice, under implementation.” A people group is unreached (UPG) when evangelicals constitute less than 2% of the population.
There are 7,307 unreached people groups with 3,176 of them being unengaged. That’s a total of 4.6 billion people.
The IMB’s strategy for reaching these people groups and an IMB missonary’s task is entry, evangelism, discipleship, healthy church formation and leadership training.
This healthy church planting sometimes happens by identifying and mobilizing a national church and believers to reach their unreached neighbors. Other times it happens through creative strategies to gain access to the lost. The methods vary as the cultural context varies.
Whatever the method, the goal remains the same – evangelism and discipleship leading to organic church growth among those who previously have had no access to the gospel. This is one way the IMB seeks to support the Revelation 7:9 vision.
- Pray for the rest of Ruth’s family and Ruben to come to believe the truth.
- Pray for believers like Ruth who are the only believers in their families, villages and, perhaps, people groups.
- Pray the first believers in a UUPG or a UPG would wisely discern when to be vocal about their faith.
- Pray these believers would be faithful to share the gospel with their families.
- Pray that the gospel would spread in their villages so Christ’s name would be made known.
*Names changed for security
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Myriah Snyder is senior writer/editor for the IMB.)