Access Isn’t Everything

This is my 8th post in a series on developing a new missiology.

Previously: A Global Wave

Many have taken to using “access” to the gospel as the criteria for missionary engagement. From their perspective, people groups who do not have access to the scriptures, need more of our attention and resources than those who do.

Starting with concerns about “access” is assuming too much.

In Acts 8, Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to cross paths with an Ethiopian official. As Philip joins the official’s cavalcade, he sees that the Ethiopian man is reading the scriptures from the book of Isaiah. Philip, likely looking for a way to start what I assume might have been an awkward conversation, asks whether he understands what he’s reading. “How can I,” responds the Ethiopian, “unless someone explains it to me?”

Here is an example of a man (from an unreached people group!) who had access to the scriptures. Granted, he didn’t have Paul’s (yet-to-be-written) letters before him, but here was an Ethiopian man with reading an explicitly Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah in a language he could understand. Yet he did not understand.

The Ethiopian needed someone to explain it to him. So the Lord’s messenger sent Philip. Just as Romans 10 asks (somewhat rhetorically), “How can they call on one in whom they do not believe? How can they believe in one of whom they have not heard?” Connection to Jesus requires more than just information about Him.

What seems like “access” to you and me– scriptures in the heart language, tracts, churches, the presence of witnesses– might not, in fact, be indicators of access at all. The information is only part of the equation; the personal communication of the gospel is what makes it all make sense. Without an incarnational presence, it is entirely possible for someone to have heard an explicit “gospel presentation” and yet still have no access to the good news at all.

Anecdotal evidence of this abounds. Missionaries discover a previously-unknown tribe in a dark corner of the world. They are met by a tribal leader who has read the Bible and has been praying that God would bring someone to explain it to them. Muslims in a village in a closed access country devote themselves to prayer and fasting during Ramadan. During this time, the men of the village all have the same dream: Jesus appears to them and tells them to follow Him. They send for a Christian to come explain it to them. Of course, these stories cannot be proven to have happened. Otaku in Tokyo who have developed their own language, culture, and worldview, but have never heard the gospel despite spending most of their lives online.

And my favorite story: Missionaries stumble upon some people in a city that claim to be believers. The missionaries ask about their salvation- when it took place and how. The people aren’t exactly sure about all of that. So the missionaries explain the gospel to them, and twelve men believe and are baptized. Of course, this story is from Acts 19:1-7, and it shows us that when it comes to mission, access isn’t everything.

Following the Holy Spirit is.

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.