Addicts: An Unreached People Group?

With over 2 billion people worldwide lacking access to a Bible, an evangelical church, and even just a Christian person, there is a serious need for the missional work of global evangelism, disciple-making, and church planting. That’s why I believe biblical counseling is a tremendous tool for a church plant or an already established church to use to reach hurting and lost persons, especially those enslaved to addictions of all types. Addicts are everywhere, even overseas. When we refer addicts out of the church for help, we are losing opportunities to preach the Gospel and failing to address the heart issues driving addicted, idolatrous behavior. It is a problem that trained biblical counselors can address for the purpose of disciple-making within the local church and evangelism in our communities and the world.

WHO ARE THE UNREACHED?

I deeply appreciate Dr. David Platt’s work to mobilize the body of Christ to be mission-minded because reaching the lost is a daunting task for an often apathetic church. Missional work is a primary work of the body of Christ. While I know some of my more literal friends may get angry with my broad use of the description “unreached people group” when describing persons in the struggle with all types of addictions, I truly believe the label applies to addicts in several ways and I will explain why.

In a Radical Together blog post entitled “Who Are the Unreached?” on January 6, 2015, Dr. Platt answers this question in the following way:

The unreached are people groups among whom there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to engage the people group with church planting. Now you’ll notice in that definition the term “people group.” And just to remind you what that means . . .

 When Jesus commanded the church to make disciples of all the nations, the word He used for nations there is “ethnē,” from which we get words like “ethnic groups.” And this is important, because when Jesus was talking about nations there in Matthew 28:19, he wasn’t referring to nations like we think of nations today – 200 or so geopolitical nations in the world that, quite frankly, didn’t exist 2000 years ago, when Jesus said this, in the way they do now. No, Jesus is specifically talking about ethnic groups: groups of people that share common cultural and language characteristics. And among 200 nations today, there are a plethora of people groupings.

And not just among nations, but in cities…

So think about 200 nations filled with a diverse array of peoples. Most anthropologists and missiological scholars say there are over 11,000 different people groups. So unreached peoples, then, are people groups who don’t have “an indigenous community of believing Christians” – and what that means is that there is not a church made up of men and women from that people that is sufficient to engage that people with the gospel . . . that has enough presence to make the gospel known among that people.

Technically speaking, when we say “unreached,” we’re saying that the percentage of evangelical Christians in this people group is less than 2%. And why that’s important is because what that means is that if there’s not a substantial church presence among a people, then not only do over 98% of the people not believe the gospel, but because there’s no church around them, and no Christians among them, then most of them have never even met a Christian (i.e., a person who would share the gospel with them). They are “unreached.” Most (if not almost all) of the people in that people group have not been reached by a Christian . . . and Christ has not been named/preached among them.[1]

HOPE FOR ALL PEOPLE

How can we read this quote and not have broken hearts for those without access to the Gospel? As believers prospering by God’s generosity to us in America, we have been entrusted not only with great monetary riches but with the greatest of all riches: the Gospel. Yet the call to make disciples of all nations starts in our own backyards. To paraphrase a former pastor of mine: “If you are not already doing the work of ministry and evangelism here in the United States, then you certainly won’t do it if we send you out on the mission field.” In like manner, local churches must stop automatically referring addicts of all types out to secular entities for so-called help. If local churches refuse to serve the spiritually lost people of their own country who are struggling with heart issues leading to addictive behaviors, how effective will they be in serving those overseas?

The Bible clearly addresses alcohol, drug, and other addictive problems as moral choices rather than some medical disease since the problem is within one’s own heart. For example, Proverbs 23:35b ends an unusual portion of Scripture with a statement of the heart: “When shall I awake? I will seek another drink.” Clearly, it is a desire of the heart and an act of the will to leave one drunken stupor in search of the next drunken stupor. Addiction problems are sin and often likened to idolatry. Passages such as Matthew 24:49; Luke 7:34; I Cor. 5:11 & 6:10; Eph. 5:18-21; and I John 5:21 are just a few Scriptures that address drunkenness and warn against idolatry.

REACHING THE UNREACHED

The call is for Christians to reach out to help the enslaved idolater in the community who is crying out for help. Most people turn to the church last, not first, for help with addictions. “I’ve tried everything else so now I will try God,” is often the thought that brings an addict to his knees, and yet what the addict finds in a secular, self-help meeting is an introduction to a Higher Power of one’s own choosing. Let me remind you that if I can choose my Higher Power, then I am really the highest power in that I am crafting this god into my own liking and my own understanding – which is the definition of idolatry (Isa. 44:9-20). The secular world is offering “god” to the addict while the church is offering a referral to an outside agency for so-called “real help.”

Here is what I have observed with the unreached people group of idolaters/addicts who are lost and need Christ:

  1. They do not have access to the Gospel if they go to the vast majority of the treatment and rehabilitation programs available today. If there are believers in those programs, then they are bound by the policies not to initiate faith discussions. Dr. Platt wrote, “The unreached are people groups among whom there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to engage the people group with church planting.”[2] Church attendance in lieu of attendance at 12 step meetings is very often discouraged among most programs because, as it is commonly said, church is for “religious people” while self-help groups are for “spiritual people.” Some have even said, “Church will just confuse you.” (In many churches in America, this may be an indictment of a culture that needs to be taken into consideration and changed.) My point is, however, that addicts will not be pointed to the evangelical church or the Bible for help at the majority of addiction programs.
  2. There are not many addiction resources to make Christ known since it is discouraged in treatment and rehab programs that teach a different message that any higher power will do. A common phrase among self-help meetings is that, “Any God will do as long as he’s higher than you!” Well, any god won’t do and only the One True God will do. You won’t hear that message at the majority of addiction programs.
  3. Addicts share a common culture and language, not only in their underground drug-seeking world, but also, as I’ve already alluded to in the points above, in their treatment and rehab circles. The drug culture is its own widespread community. It is hard to break into that sense of belonging and community when you are a biblical counselor working in a residential program that is disconnected from the local church. Many well-meaning programs are 501c-3 non-profit programs that are NOT under the direct authority of the local church; therefore, they help temporarily in the short-term but cannot offer the lifelong community that a local church can offer. For this reason, we see many substitute churches that have risen in the form of self-help groups all over the world.
  4. Finally, the remedy taught by most programs is based upon the assumption that addiction is a disease not a sin nature problem from the heart (Mark 7:20-21). As I’ve said in my many publications on this topic, we acknowledge the physical ramifications of putting poisons into your body and take measures to have that addressed by medical professionals where needed, yet the message of most addiction programs is one that does violence to the Gospel and makes addicts hopeless victims of a so-called medical problem when the problem is one of sinful desires and idolatry (Prov. 23:35). Why would a local church send a lost soul to a secular entity where they will not hear the Gospel; not going to be held responsible for their choices in terms of their relationship to God;[3] and not be encouraged to read and study the Bible? Should we reconsider how often churches refer lost souls out to wolves in sheep’s clothing for soul care? Are we in sin when we send hurting people like this away, without any real hope?

CONCLUSION

While I know I am broadly using the description “unreached people group” for addicts, my reason is to make one simple point: The local church is the answer for connecting the hope of the Gospel with the heart of addiction. Churches failing to offer hope and help to those struggling with addictions are missing opportunities to proclaim the excellencies of Christ (Col. 1:28).

If you are looking for a helpful way to start an addiction outreach in your local church, The Heart of Addiction and its companion Workbook are written directly to the struggling addict. These practical tools I’ve written can help you come alongside someone struggling, so you can start by working through the text together. For group leaders, my precious wife and I co-authored a Leader’s Guide for The Heart of Addiction to be used in an intensive small group study. The message of these resources matches the message of the Bible – a fact that is not true of all self-help, recovery materials. When starting a group, start as small as possible and make quality disciples, maybe even challenge them to become disciple-makers one day!

Admittedly, my desire is to see more and more churches reaching out to lost and dying souls right here on American soil, particularly addicts of all kinds. I believe that there are more souls willing to seek God’s answers for help with an addiction than you may realize. The harvest is plenty but the workers few (Luke 10:2). Is your local church ready and willing to labor in this field while continuing to try and reach the billions of those in urgent physical and spiritual need around the globe as well?

When we say unreached, we’re not just talking about lostness, we’re talking about access. Unreached means that they don’t even have access to hear the gospel. There’s no church, no Christian, no Bible available … God has not just commanded us to make the gospel known among as many people as possible. He has commanded us to make the gospel known among all the peoples.[4] – Dr. David Platt

 “There’s only one thing worse than being lost. That’s being lost and having no one try to find you.” – Dr. David Platt[5]

FOR FURTHER DISCUSSION

  1. How are you strategically reaching out to connect the hope of the gospel to those struggling with addiction?
  2. How can your local church begin praying about starting a non-residential, biblical, and Christ-centered disciple-making program for the addicts in your area?
  3. How can your local church begin to reach the more than two billion lost people around the world?

[1] Platt, David. “Who Are the Unreached?” Radical. January 6, 2015. Radical: Devoted to Christ, Serving the Church, Reaching the Nations. March 5, 2015. <http://www.radical.net/blog/2015/01/who-are-the-unreached/>

[2] Ibid.

[3] Most programs will hold them somewhat responsible for their choices that hurt society, their families, etc.

[4] “Missions Focus: Unreached.” East West Missionaries International. Nov. 26, 2013. East West Missionaries International. March 5, 2015. <http://www.eastwest.org/blog/missions-focus-unreached/>

[5] Platt, David. “Our Obligation to the Unreached- Part 1, Romans 1-3” Radical. August 17, 2014. Radical: Devoted to Christ, Serving the Church, Reaching the Nations. March 5, 2015. <http://www.radical.net/media/series/view/2441/our-obligation-to-the-unreached-part-1?filter=series>

 

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Mark ShawMark Shaw
Mark Shaw has 22 years of counseling experience working in a variety of settings including faith-based residential programs, dealing with issues surrounding “addictions” of all types, and supervising staff positions. His experience in the biblical counseling field began in 2001. He has written 14 published works including The Heart of Addiction; Relapse: Biblical Prevention Strategies; Divine Intervention: Hope and Help for Families of Addicts; Addiction-Proof Parenting; and Hope and Help for Self-Injurers/Cutters. He also co-authored a chapter in Christ-Centered Biblical Counseling (2013).