A world missions parable, "where the Church is not yet," and the THUMB acronym

Missions parable: The Society for the Picking of Apples

"Our God of Grace often gives us a second chance, but there is no second chance to harvest a ripe crop." -- Kurt von Schleicher

Using an orchard to put world evangelism statistics in perspective: A world missions parable about lost people

Allocating Christian resources: Remember Jesus' parable about one lost sheep? Here's one on a similar note except it's about the ruined apples from a potentially plentiful harvest.

Once upon a time, there was an apple grower who had acres and acres of apple trees. In all, he had 10,000 acres of apple orchards.

One day he went to the nearby town. There, he hired 1,000 apple pickers. He told them:

"Go to my orchards. Harvest the ripe apples and build storage buildings so that they will not spoil. I need to be gone for a while, but I will provide all you will need to complete the task. When I return, I will reward you for your work.

"I'll set up a Society for the Picking of Apples. The Society -- to which you will all belong -- will be responsible for the entire operation. Naturally, in addition to those of you doing the actual harvesting, some will carry supplies, others will care for the physical needs of the group, and still others will have administrative responsibilities."

Drawing of ripe apples

As he set up the Society structure, some people volunteered to be pickers and others to be packers. Others put their skills to work as truck drivers, cooks, accountants, storehouse builders, apple inspectors, and even administrators. Every one of his workers could, of course, have picked apples. In the end, however, only 100 of the 1,000 employees wound up as full-time pickers.

The 100 pickers started harvesting immediately. Ninety-four of them began picking around the homestead. The remaining six looked out toward the horizon decided to head out to the far-away orchards.

Before long, the 94 pickers filled the storehouses in the 800 acres immediately surrounding the homestead with beautiful, delicious apples.

The orchards on the 800 acres around the homestead had thousands of apple trees. But with almost all of the pickers concentrating on them, those trees were soon picked nearly bare. In fact, the ninety-four apple pickers working around the homestead began having difficulty finding trees that had not been picked.

As the apple picking slowed down around the homestead, Society members began channeling effort into building larger storehouses and developing better equipment for picking and packing. They even started some schools to train prospective apple pickers to replace those who would be too old to pick apples one day.

Sadly, those ninety-four pickers working around the homestead began fighting among themselves. Incredible as it may sound, some began stealing apples that had already been picked. Although there were enough trees on the 10,000 acres to keep every available worker busy, those working nearest the homestead failed to move into unharvested areas. They just kept working those 800 acres nearest the house. Some on the northern edge sent their trucks to get apples on the southern side. And those on the south side sent their trucks to gather on the east side.

Even with all that activity, the harvest on the remaining 9,200 acres was left to just six pickers. Those six were far too few to gather all the ripe fruit in those thousands of acres and hundreds of thousands of apples rotted on the trees and fell to the ground.

One of the students at the apple-picking school showed an exceptional talent for picking apples quickly and effectively. When he heard about the thousands of acres of untouched faraway orchards, he started talking about going there.

His friends discouraged him. They said: "Your talents and abilities make you very valuable around the homestead. You'd be wasting your talents out there. Your gifts can help us harvest apples from the trees on our central 800 acres more rapidly. That will give us more time to build bigger and better storehouses. Perhaps you could even help us devise better ways to use our big storehouses since we have wound up with more space than we need for the present crop of apples."

With so many workers and so few trees, the pickers, packers, truck drivers, and the rest of the Society for the Picking of Apples living around the homestead had time for more than just picking apples.

They built nice houses and raised their standard of living. Some became very conscious of clothing styles. Thus, when the six pickers from the far-off orchards returned to the homestead for a visit, it was apparent that they were not keeping up with the styles in vogue with the other apple pickers and packers.

To be sure, those on the homestead were always good to those six who worked in the far-away orchards. When any of those six returned from the far-away fields, they were given the red carpet treatment. Nonetheless, those six pickers were saddened that the Society of the Picking of Apples spent 96 percent of its budget on bigger and better apple-picking equipment and personnel for the 800 acres around the homestead while it spent only 4 percent of its budget on all those distant orchards.

To be sure, those six pickers knew that an apple is an apple wherever it may be picked. They knew that the apples around the homestead were just as important as apples far away. Still, they could not erase from their minds the sight of thousands of trees that had never been touched by a picker.

They longed for more pickers to come help them. They longed for help from packers, truck drivers, supervisors, equipment-maintenance men, and ladder builders. They wondered if the professionals working back around the homestead could teach them better apple-picking methods so that, out where they worked, fewer apples would rot and fall to the ground.

Those six sometimes wondered whether the Society for the Picking of Apples was doing what the orchard owner had asked it to do.

While one might question whether the Society was doing all the owner wanted done, the members did keep very busy. Several members were convinced that proper apple picking requires nothing less than the very best equipment. Thus, the Society assigned several members to develop bigger and better ladders as well as nicer boxes to store apples. The Society also prided itself on having raised the qualification level for full-time apple pickers.

When the owner returns, the Society members will crowd around him. They'll proudly show off the bigger and better ladders they've built and the nice apple boxes they've designed and made. One wonders how happy that owner will be when he looks out and sees the acres and acres of untouched trees with their unpicked apples.

drawing of basket of apples

Discussion questions

  1. How would you sum up how the parable applies to the Church's task of evangelizing the whole world?
  2. How does the behavior of the pickers affect the apple harvest they were expected to gather in?
  3. How would you evaluate how the Society for the Picking of Apples allocates its resources?
  4. What solutions might we suggest to overcome the problem of apples rotting in the far-away orchards?

by James M. Weber, missionary to Japan. Original version appeared in Let's Quit Kidding Ourselves About Missions, Moody Press. © 1979 by The Moody Bible Institute. Revision by Howard Culbertson.

"I could get so consumed with better preparing myself for ministry and life that I miss opportunities to use what I have gained. I don't want to be the most prepared person who never does anything but 'research and development.' I must, at some point, go and do the ministry." -- John Miller, Nazarene Bible College student

Afterword: Is a parable just a made-up story?

Parables like this one about apple orchard workers can be powerful storytelling tools. They that have been used for centuries to convey truths, moral lessons, and complex ideas in a simple and memorable way. Here's how parables can effectively communicate truth:

In short, parables serve as powerful tools for communication because they combine simplicity with depth, engaging both the intellect and the emotions to convey timeless truths in a compelling and memorable way.

Mission Briefing: Ideas that shape world mission outreach today

Unengaged groups: Where the Church is Not Yet

Former Nazarene World Mission Director Verne Ward said we must fix our sights on places "where the Church is not yet." The word pictures which that phrase paints should stir us to intercessory prayer, to sacrificial giving, to going, and to mobilizing others.

Unengaged People Groups is another phrase coined recently to guide us toward Great Commission fulfillment. "People Groups" reflects the original Greek wording of Matthew 28:19, which, in most English translations, calls us to "make disciples of all nations." Does that mean the political entities we call "nations"? Probably not. The original Greek word, ethne, is the origin of the English term "ethnic." Therefore, it can be said that Jesus' call was to make disciples in every one of the world's thousands of cultural groupings.

Audio of Matthew 28:18-20

The 1970s Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism used the "ethnic groups" nuance from the Greek wording of Matthew 28:19 to emphasize that missionary strategy leaders must think in terms of the groups to which people feel attached because of a shared mixture of traits such as residency, ethnicity, language, traditions, religion, and ancestry.

A speaker at that congress, Ralph Winter, pointed to numerous "hidden" or "bypassed" people groups that were unevangelized even though they were in countries where Christianity was flourishing in other ethnic or cultural groups. Clearly, an entire country should not be cannot be checked off as "evangelized" if significant blocs of its population remain unreached.

Discussions on this issue evolved to the point that Unreached People Groups (or UPGs) became a way to describe the task yet to be done in Great Commission fulfillment. The criterion for labeling a people group "unreached" is its percentage of evangelical Christians. If less than 2% of a people group are evangelical believers, that group is classified as an Unreached People Group.

More recently, missiologists began talking about Unengaged People Groups. By this, they mean those Unreached People Groups in which there are very few or even no known believers AND in which there is no active missionary presence. Thus, not only are those groups unreached, but there is no one actively working to evangelize them. These Unengaged People Groups have been called "the neediest of the needy." They are, as Verne Ward puts it, "where the church is not yet."

Such "unengaged" groups range in size from very small to enormous. Groups like the eight hundred indigenous Bora people in Colombia are on the small end. At the other extreme are extremely large groups such as the several million Khmer Kran in Vietnam.

Promoting outreach to the Unengaged People Groups is not an attempt to say these cultural-ethnolinguistic groups are the only people needing cross-cultural missionaries. Rather, it is a call to Believers to remember that Jesus' Great Commission calls us to "make disciples in all people groups." These Unengaged People Groups are indeed "where the Church is not yet," as Verne Ward has said. Don't we need to work toward getting indigenous church planting movements started within those people groups?

Discussion questions

  1. What are some ways that highlighting the concept of Unengaged People Groups can help the Church prioritize world mission outreach efforts? What are some of the challenges in trying to get the Church to focus on Unengaged People Groups?
  2. How do you explain to someone that Unreached People Groups exist in countries where Christianity is flourishing in other ethnic or cultural groups?
  3. How should the Greek word ethne in Matthew 28:19 shape our understanding of the Great Commission? In what ways does an emphasis on reaching cultural-ethnolinguistic groups truly reflect the biblical call to "make disciples of all nations"?
  4. What is the significance of the phrase "where the Church is not yet" in the context of global mission outreach, and how can it motivate believers to action?

    -- Howard Culbertson,

This 500-word mini-essay on a key issue in world missions outreach is one of 12 articles in the "Mission briefing" series published in Engage, a monthly online magazine produced by the Church of the Nazarene.

THUMB: An acrostic to remember unreached peoples

"How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?" -- Romans 10:14

THUMB -- a word whose five letters help us remember five blocs of unreached peoples

Here is what thumb can mean in world evangelism

T - Tribal
H - Hindu
U - Un-religious / Chinese
M - Muslim
B - Buddhist

 dreawiang of a hand with thumb sticking up

Tribal (usually animistic)
Believes in spirits that live all around us: in trees, fields, rocks, and on rooftops.
People must try to keep these spirits happy and enlist their help.
Animists usually live with a certain amount of fear that a spirit will be unhappy with them. [ Animistic case studies ]
Believes in hundreds or thousands of gods (which are all seen as appearances of one divine essence).
God, as Christians understand Him, may be divine, but what the Christians call "God" is only one of millions of gods.
Believes in reincarnation -- that is, when you die, you come back to life as an insect, a cow, or even a better (or worse) person. [ Hindu case studies ]
Un-religious / Chinese
This conglomerate category includes the following:
The largest bloc of unreached peoples in the world is in China. Some follow Confucius; others follow a mixture of animism and even Buddhist teachings. [ story from China ]
Believes there may or may not be a God. The Bible is a fascinating historical book, but is not divinely inspired.
Believes that to worship God and be a part of God's people (the church) is to be out of touch with real life.
Nominal Christian
May have been baptized as a child.
Considers himself/herself a Christian, but has no connection with the church now. Goes to church only for funerals and weddings.
Believes in one God.
God is to be worshiped, but He is too high and far away to think of as "father." In fact, to call him "father" would be blasphemy.
Jesus was a great prophet, but He was not God.
Christ was not crucified for our sins; he actually lived to be an old man. [ Muslim case studies]
Follows a path of discipline in order to reach enlightenment
Often there is no conception of a god at all [ Buddhist case studies ]

Adoption of Unreached People Group

Fulfilling Christ's Great Commission by focusing on the unreached

As a result of the great missionary advances of the 1800s and early 1900s, Christianity has become a global religion.

By the middle of the twentieth century, William Cameron Townsend and Donald McGavran [ more on McGavran ] had begun trying to focus the Church's attention on those people groups still unreached by the gospel.

"Adopting" an unreached group has been a practical step taken by some local congregations to fulfill the Great Commission. Here is how three churches have banded together in an Adoption Covenant>p?

Adoption covenant

Oaxaca (wa-HAH-ka) is one Mexico's southernmost states. This state has the largest concentration of unreached people groups in all of the Americas (North, Central and South).

Oaxaca is a rugged land of 36,000 square miles full of diversity and contrast. It is home sixteen officially recognized tribes, each having its own language and culture. Some know little or nothing about Jesus Christ and have no one to tell them about Him in their own language.

For this reason, Lake View Park Church of the Nazarene in Oklahoma City and Second Hispanic Church of the Nazarene of Oklahoma City are partnering with Second Church of the Nazarene in the city of Oaxaca, state of Oaxaca Mexico to adopt one of the unreached people groups of Oaxaca state.

We commit ourselves to pray and work for:

  1. The salvation of members of this people group
  2. The birth of a self-supporting church within the group
  3. The Lord's choosing of workers from our three churches who will take the Gospel to this group.

map of Mexico with
Oaxaca state highlighted

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NextWould you pledge to do whatever God asks of you in fulfilling the Great Commission? [ more ]

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