"Unreached people group" was a sort of buzzword of evangelicalism during my formative years in the Midwest. I surely can't speak for everyone, but in my own mind the phrase conjured up images of far-off, developing worlds, unfamiliar cultures, and languages I didn't understand. Perhaps this is because of the common association drawn between unreached people groups and what is commonly referred to as the 10-40 window - a region of the world marked by deep poverty, low quality of life, and minimal access to the gospel of grace. The humanitarian and spiritual need in this region of the world is severe, so our family is enormously grateful for dear friends that have sacrificed privileged lives of comfort and security to serve in countries like India, Jordan, China, and Iraq.
But those worlds and peoples that can correctly be called "unreached" seem very far away. I live in Kentucky, solidly in the Bible Belt, where rural communities are overwhelmingly identified by Protestant Christianity. And Kentucky certainly isn't some statistical outlier. Generally speaking, the vast majority of US adults describe themselves as Christian. These numbers are especially high in my part of the country, but Christians make a good showing in even the most diverse populations of our pluralistic culture. In Benton County, Oregon - the most secular county in the United States - Christians still make up over 1/5 of the general population. It isn't any wonder that the idea of "unevangelized" or "unreached" people is a rather foreign-sounding concept.
But what if there were a people group within the United States that was unreached by the gospel? A place where people lived lives not so dissimilar from yours and mine, spoke our language, had Bibles on their shelves...but had never heard or understood the gospel?
Such a place does exist, perhaps surprisingly, in the 2nd most religious state in America. (Good ol' Mississippi is hanging on to their #1 spot.) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormonism, is the dominant religion of the state of Utah. This same sect constitutes less than a full percentage point of the Christian-identifying population in most other states. In Utah, however, especially the rural areas, our cultural expectations are subverted. For a Midwesterner like me, the statistics are turned entirely on their head. Traditional or Biblical Christianity makes up less than 1% of the population of Sanpete County, UT.
To understand why we don't consider Mormonism a faith that confesses the gospel, check out our last post comparing some of the crucial teachings of the Mormon church with the most essential truth claims of Christianity. Mormon people are living in bondage to expectations of perfection and obedience to superfluous and extreme commandments. Where the Bible teaches that "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (James 2:13), the Mormon church counters with "Mercy cannot rob justice" (James E. Faust, Ensign, May 2003, p. 62).
This way of understanding the world and our place in it has real consequences on real people. Utah leads the nation in some really depressing statistics: highest rate of mental illness and highest rate of anti-depressant prescription, to name two of many (another blog post topic for another day).
Sanpete County, a community of 28,000 people in rural Utah, is what we would call an unreached people group. It is not linguistically or ethnically distinct, it is not improverished, and it is not far. But it is marked by an astounding lack of access to the gospel of grace.
Ken's claim might seem surprising to those of us who haven't lived in Sanpete County, but his experience is far from unique. In the video below, various ex-Mormon Christians living in central, rural Utah describe their unlikely experiences coming to faith within this unreached people group, and how a Christian presence is so desperately needed in their community.
Many of the people in this video are our friends, and we trust them when they say that the Christian community is Sanpete County is small and in need of support.
Our vision for ministry in Sanpete County is big - it involves community outreach, discipleship, and, of course, lots of coffee. While we have lots of strategies for impacting the people of rural Utah, our primary objective is to be three more Christians in an unreached community, dedicating our time to making more opportunities for people of any age to hear the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
So next time you hear the phrase "unreached people," remember the peculiar state of Utah, and pray for the people that need to hear the gospel. And when you pray for the Mormons of Utah, remember that they are a lost people in need of Jesus, who have never had the opportunity to hear who He is before. They are victims of a system of deception that has enslaved millions of people to a culture of pressure and despair for over a century. They need someone to reach them.