Skip to Content

Asia Pacific's Unreached

The Asia Pacific region varies from the windswept prairies of Mongolia to the tiny, isolated islands dotting the Pacific Ocean. Within its world-class cities and forgotten villages are more than 1,100 people groups that have little or no evangelical witness. AG missionaries to Asia Pacific have committed to pray and establish communities of believers among them.

Earlier this year, missionary Bryan Webb and photographer Gaylon Wampler traveled to two Asia Pacific nations — Indonesia and Taiwan — to learn more about the work among unreached peoples there. Following is Bryan’s report of their journey, as well as an account of initial efforts to establish contact among an unreached people group in Vanuatu, the island nation where Bryan serves.

The Unreached of Indonesia

The market is crowded along the debris-strewn dirt road. Stalls made of fabric walls topped by low-slung tarpaulins encase mounds of vegetables, fruits and meats. In the crowd are a variety of people — young and old, merchants, customers and beggars.

This scene could describe thousands of villages across the island nation of Indonesia. Along with appearance, each village shares another commonality: not one Christian lives there. No one even knows a Christian, and no one has access to the gospel. No one who can speak the language of the people has come to tell them about Jesus.

This is what “unreached” means.

Located along the equator between Asia and Australia, Indonesia is a vast strand of more than 18,000 islands. Its population is approximately 250 million, of which more than 80 percent is Muslim — the largest Islamic population of any nation on earth.

Of Indonesia’s nearly 800 people groups, more than 200 — with a combined population of 154 million — are less than 2 percent evangelical. Most of these people groups do not have even one church, many not even one believer.

Photographer Gaylon Wampler and I have joined AG missionary John Taylor to visit and raise awareness of two of these people groups.

BANJAR

Our day starts in a small boat, its diesel engine coughing and sputtering its way up a narrow canal in the predawn darkness. We are headed to Banjarmasin, a coastal city on the island of Kalimantan. Built around an intertwining system of rivers and canals, Banjarmasin is often called the Venice of Asia and is the largest city among the Banjar people.

Each missionary in Indonesia has adopted an unreached people group for prayer and outreach, and John is leading the team effort among the Banjar. A people group numbering nearly 4.5 million, it has only a few believers.

“In 1914, founders of the AG committed themselves to the greatest evangelism effort the world had ever seen,” John says. “We in Asia Pacific have committed ourselves to the greatest evangelism effort the Banjar have ever seen.” 

The trip up the canal moves us deep into the heart of Banjarmasin. Simple wood-frame houses on stilts crowd the banks of the waterway, and from their kitchens the scent of spices wafts out over the still water. A passing watercraft creates a wake that rocks our boat violently, and its lack of a muffler shatters the early morning stillness. 

All around us, the spires of mosques pierce the sky. From one of them comes the Muslim call to prayer. Soon other criers join the chorus, ending the predawn calm. The waterside populous begins to stir, and lights from homes stream out over the water.

Beneath the boat, the dark, murky waterway moves sluggishly toward the sea. Families gather on their docks to bathe, brush teeth, wash dishes and collect drinking water — all in the same muddy stream.

At the juncture where the canal meets the river, we enter a floating market where clusters of brightly lit boats are piled with dried spices and fresh produce. As vendors wait for customers, the chants from the mosques ring in the background. Occasionally the wailing is obscured by loud rumbling as diesel engines head upriver. The wake created is quickly followed by the splash of paddles as merchants reposition their boats.

The chatter between merchants and customers grows steadily. Small boats, heavily laden with produce, jostle against one another in competition. Women, modestly draped in head coverings and long-sleeved blouses, maneuver small canoes between the boats as they carefully select their morning purchases.

Soon the morning light becomes a harsh glare, and the market breaks up. Back through the canal we travel. The sleepy neighborhoods we passed earlier now bustle with life. Boats chug up and down the waterway while cars, trucks and motorbikes trundle over low bridges. Mothers line the small wharfs behind each house to bathe their screaming babies and wash the day’s laundry.

These are the sights, sounds and faces of those who do not know of Christ. I can’t help but wonder: Why do I know while they don’t?

We disembark the boat and join the throng of traffic headed down narrow roads. At last we come to a modern hotel.

In the lobby several people greet John. Six church planters, trained by missionaries and funded by Indonesia AG churches, have brought their families to live among the Banjar as small-business owners. Together the group heads to a small conference room for a day of reporting, encouragement and prayer.

I feel honored to sit with these courageous national believers. They are currently in the process of integrating into their new environment while they learn the language and culture of the Banjar. All this is part of the process in the hard, slow work of planting the church in spiritually unplowed fields.

The day ends with a worship service and Communion. As the church planters cry out for God’s help in the task before them, I join my own plea with theirs.

“Thank You, Jesus, for the price You paid,” I pray. “Your body was torn and broken, Your blood poured out for the Banjar. By Your Spirit, propel Your people to go, give them the words to say, and help the Banjar understand what You have done!”

MADURA

Across the Java Sea from Banjarmasin is the island of Madura, the rugged, stony homeland of the Madura people. Like their surroundings, the 8.5 million Madura are known for being tough and hard. The island has no churches, and less than one-tenth of 1 percent of its people follow Christ.

Our car inches along a crowded, two-lane road. Dust, diesel exhaust and humid air swirl into a thick haze. Hundreds of motorbikes thread their way in and out of traffic as a steady stream of pedestrians pours along each side of the road. Women, draped head to toe in heavy coverings, walk in groups. Men transport wire cages full of ducks and chickens, while boys push two-wheeled wooden carts loaded with produce.

An old man hobbles slowly past us carrying a bag full of holes slung over his shoulder. Several chickens poke their bright orange heads from the holes to join the rest of the crowd in gawking at the three foreigners. It is market day on Madura.

The reputation of the Madura people, the crowded roads, and the stifling heat make us leery of mingling in the market. Spotting a side road running between rice paddies, we change course and plunge into the countryside. Densely packed houses and shops give way to broad fields of rice, sugar cane and corn. Swirling clouds of dust and exhaust are replaced with streams of water that gurgle through irrigation ditches and flood placid green fields.

Eventually we come to a market pitched under the shade of towering bamboo plants. Rusty tin roofs offer shelter to bamboo tables that hold a vast assortment of produce, dried fish, root crops and traditional medicines. Friendly smiles replace the callous stares we received in town. Toothless old men, elderly women, plump mothers and grandmothers, pretty young girls, and adventurous young boys gather around us in a curious, chattering crowd.

Our team cannot understand a word of Madurese, yet the women enthusiastically pitch their wares, offer free samples, and even go so far as to prepare a simple dish with fresh spices and local produce. We purchase some items, accept numerous gifts, and marvel at the warmth and friendliness of people rumored to be reserved and unwelcoming. 

After leaving the village, we stop for a moment while Gaylon snaps a few photos. John and I stand at the side of the road and take in the view before us. The sun struggles to break through a thick haze. Silvery beads of dew coat the broad leaves of sugar cane planted nearby. A patchwork of small fields in various stages of cultivation dips down into the valley before us and climbs the facing hillside.

Across the fields, women bend low over the ground, planting seeds, pulling weeds, and harvesting vegetables. A man guides a wooden-handled plow behind a water buffalo while other laborers rest beside a windbreak of tall trees. Overshadowing the entire scene is the massive dome of a mosque perched atop a hill.

This is Madura Island, home to simple, ordinary, friendly people who live their lives from birth to death under the shadow of Islam. Unlike the Banjar, no missionary is leading a team to plant churches here. There simply aren’t enough missionaries to go around.

As John looks out over the scene before us, he begins to weep.

“We have more than 200 people groups like this in Indonesia!” he exclaims, frustration showing in his voice. “What are we supposed to do, write them off because nobody wants to come here? In the middle of the night I go stand on the roof of my house and cry out, ‘O God! Give us this land!’”

As John speaks, I hear the heart of a missionary burdened for his country. I also hear the words of our Lord:  “Ask the Lord of the harvest … to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38, NIV). I join John in praying that God-called laborers will invest in a harvest among the Madura — and the other unreached people groups in Indonesia.

The Unreached of Taiwan

HAKKA

At the head of an ancient, seemingly forgotten village, a rustic brick wall encloses a weed-choked pool of water. An ancient springhouse, roofless and broken by age, teeters on the edge of collapse. From its base, clear, cold water streams through grates as it begins its journey alongside a stretch of red tile pavement.

The current slides swiftly beneath a rocky area, its stones worn smooth by pounding garments against them for generations. Farther on at a food stall, two women patiently wash broad, flat leaves used in crafting dumplings. The stream gurgles past houses dominated by shrines and eventually disappears beneath a broad courtyard.

I am at a place called the Street of Three Holes, an area lined by timeworn brick buildings. In many ways the scene symbolizes the ancient, largely forgotten people who live here — the Hakka of Taiwan. Gaylon and I are here because we asked missionary Shannell Keck and our national guide, Pastor Wang, to help us understand the spiritual need among this unreached people.

A temple in disrepair and a row of tiny shops frame the community courtyard. In front of one shop, an old man sits in the sunshine. His face is lined with age, his translucent skin marked by sunspots. Massive eyebrows give him an owlish expression.

The Street of Three Holes has been home to the man’s family for five generations. His ancestors helped build the ancient structures. Now he and his granddaughter mind the shop each day. For them and the others in the area, life has changed little with the passage of time.

The Hakka are one of more than 30 people groups living in Taiwan, located 100 miles east of China across the Taiwan Strait. Similar in appearance to the majority Han people, they maintain their own distinct culture based on their language and traditional religion.

Of Taiwan’s 4 million Hakka, believers in Christ make up less than four-tenths of 1 percent.  Deeply rooted in animism and shamanism, the Hakka are one of the most acutely unreached people groups in Taiwan.

Pastor Wang’s wife, Lin Qiulin, is Hakka, and the church they lead is one of only a few in Taiwan with Hakka members. Over cookies and fruit juice, Lin Qiulin shares the story of her family’s conversion and explains that Hakka typically equate receiving Christ with abandoning their community. When I ask about Hakka churches, she shakes her head regretfully. To her knowledge no Hakka-language church exists.

In the courtyard I walk across the worn red tiles and into the temple. A trio of gods are perched high above the altar on the far wall. Lining the altar are offerings of fruit, smoldering incense, and wooden tiles used for discerning the future.

A workman stands on a ladder, patiently working to reconstruct a scene of the gods interacting with Hakka ancestors. A young man brings a fresh offering to the gods and bows repeatedly before them.

As we prepare to leave the village, Shannell stoops before the old shopkeeper and respectfully asks if she may pray for him. Speaking Mandarin Chinese, the main language of Taiwan, she prays that he will experience a revelation from God. I silently pray that someone will tell him about Christ in his own language before it is too late. 

The Street of Three Holes is an alcove of Hakka culture, forgotten and bypassed by the majority population. It represents a people unreached by the gospel and forgotten far too often by the church. I pray the Holy Spirit will whisper His call to willing hearts so the Hakka will know they are not forgotten by God.

TAIWAN’S ABORIGINES      

I stand in an alleyway of Taipei’s Zhongshan district, feeling more than a little nervous. Gaudy neon signs illuminate gray brick streets and windowless buildings, announcing the names of bars and brothels in Mandarin, Japanese and English.

This area is a red-light district, and Shannell and Pastor Yen Lin Shi have brought Gaylon and me to observe a ministry Pastor Yen has started among pimps, madams and prostitutes in the area. Mei and Chun, two former prostitutes from Pastor Yen’s church, lead the outreach.

Ethnically, Pastor Yen is from a mountain tribe known as the Tayal, one of Taiwan’s 14 aboriginal tribes. Twenty years ago God led him to leave his mountain village and move to Taipei, Taiwan’s capital and largest city.

When Pastor Yen started holding services, his congregation consisted of his wife and dog. About the time he started to question his decision, a beautiful young woman asked him and Mrs. Yen to come to her restaurant and pray for her.

When the couple arrived, they were shocked to discover the restaurant also functioned as a brothel staffed by young girls from mountain villages like the one from which Pastor Yen came. As the Yens walked the streets of Zhongshan district, they were horrified to find 400 such brothels predominately staffed by tribal girls. 

“These girls were being sold into prostitution as children,” Pastor Yen tells me.

Guilt and shame left these young women feeling abandoned and forgotten. When their health deteriorated, they were driven from the brothels only to be rejected by their families.

“I wept and cried out to God for these girls,” Pastor Yen says. “I wanted to help them.”

Mei, the young madam who had approached Pastor Yen and his wife, soon received Christ. Chun, one of her prostitutes, did the same, and together they now share Christ with people in the sex trade. They visit the brothels before they open for the evening and talk openly and honestly about their own past and the life they have found in God.

Pastor Yen Lin Shi accompanies Mei and Chun on an outreach in Taipei's Zhongshan district.
Pastor Yen Lin Shi accompanies Mei and Chun on an outreach in Taipei's Zhongshan district.

Tonight they pray with a 28-year-old barmaid deemed too old to continue working.

“Sadly, she is not ready to come to the Lord yet,” Mei reports. “When they are almost dead and have given up hope, these women often will remember us and come to us for help.”

We leave and head to Mei’s apartment. On the way we pass the building where she used to run her brothel. Pastor Yen points up and down the street.

“This street used to be lined with brothels,” he says. “Today there are only a few because so many who worked in them are in our church!”

Once at the apartment, Mei and Chun share their amazing stories of Christ’s healing and redemption. 

When they first began their ministry, they were horrified to discover many of the prostitutes and madams pressuring their own children into the sex trade. Gripped by grief, Pastor Yen began to focus his efforts on giving these children a hope and a future. To do so, he started an after-school center at the church to offer them tutoring, education and a safe environment.  

“My worship leader is the daughter of a prostitute,” he tells me. “When we first met her, she was being pressured by her mother to work with her in the brothel. She joined our after-school program instead. Today she has graduated from college, works in a law office, and assists with our youth!”

Pastor Yen Lin Shi accompanies Mei and Chun on an outreach in Taipei's Zhongshan district.
Pastor Yen takes me to a youth meeting. As we survey the group that has gathered, he assures me that most of the young people present share similar backgrounds from the brothels. Tonight they are worshiping God — hands lifted high, faces aglow, singing with all their might.

“I see revival for Taiwan in the faces of these kids,” Pastor Yen says.

In the middle of Zhongshan district is a grassy square. On one side is a Taoist temple. On the opposite side is The Church of God’s Love. Formerly a brothel known as A Thousand Generations, it was abandoned after a series of suicides. Pastor Yen took me inside and down a staircase leading to the basement. With mirrored walls and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, it doesn’t take much imagination to know what used to take place here. I wonder how many generations of young women were trapped within this structure.

Pastor Yen leads me into a classroom where a college student teaches an English class. A projector flashes lessons onto a bright screen. The room is full of eager voices, bright eyes and cheerful laughter as the group of 6- and 7-year-olds learns about Jesus.

This is redemption, a vicious cycle broken, the children of prostitutes — from a variety of people groups — finding hope in a repurposed brothel.

They are finding hope through the love and power of Christ!

The Unreached of Vanuatu

THE SA

Climbing mountain trails with a 40-pound bag of rice slung over my shoulder is not my normal idea of fun. However, today I am so excited I barely notice my pounding heart, my near-slips on bare rock faces, or even the dense tropical heat. I am with Pastor Peter Solomon and a local translator on a trek to visit the Sa people.

Vanuatu, an island nation in the southwest Pacific Ocean, is a diverse tapestry of tribes and languages. Its population of 250,000 is spread over 65 major islands and 120 language groups. Three islands — Tanna, Espiritu Santo and Pentecost — are home to people groups who have had little, if any, witness.

Naghol, or land diving, is a tradition among the Sa people.
Naghol, or land diving, is a tradition among the Sa people.
The Sa people live on the southern end of Pentecost Island and are widely known for naghol, or land diving. Once a year, Sa men build soaring towers, tie vines to their ankles, and dive from platforms 100 feet above a broken hillside. The flexibility of the tower, the snap of the vines, and the controlled collision with the earth are believed to ensure an abundant yam crop for the following year.  

Bonlap is a central village for many Sa communities and a stronghold of the traditional tribal religion. Recently the paramount chief of the area died. Seeing the mourning period as an opportunity to begin a relationship with the next generation of leaders, Pastor Solomon and I flew to Pentecost and began the hike to Bonlap.

As we make our way up the last ridge before the village, a short, muscular man meets us. Bounding over the ridge, he stops suddenly, clearly shocked to see us approaching. After a rapid conversation in the Sa language, his shock turns to excitement.

“Wait here,” he says. “I will prepare the village for your arrival.”

A few minutes later he returns and tells us we will be welcomed as long as we show proper respect at the late chief’s grave.

Entering Bonlap is surreal. The village starts on the top of a mountain and then pours over the western side down to the ocean. Centered on the mountaintop is a broad dancing ground framed with a low stone wall. Nearby are low-slung thatch nakamals — meeting houses for the village men.

Naghol, or land diving, is a tradition among the Sa people.

Men and boys line the stone walls and entrances to the nakamals. Women, some holding naked babies, swarm the banyan trees or hide in the thick tangle of branches and vines. All watch in silence as we enter the village and make our way to the foot of the gravesite.

The chief’s grave is centered between the nakamals. Posts adorned with the skulls of large boars anchor each corner. Long, frond-like namale leaves, the universal symbol of chiefly authority in Vanuatu, crisscross below the skulls. Finely woven mats dyed rich reds and purples form a low curtain around the grave.

I stand before the grave of the old chief, knowing he was instrumental in keeping the gospel from his people. I weep, not for his passing but because he died without knowing Christ. It is too late to pray for him, but I silently cry out to God to break the darkness that has controlled the Sa and give the chief’s children and grandchildren the opportunity to receive salvation in Christ.

Before Pastor Solomon and I leave Bonlap, we are able to begin a relationship with the people. Soon I will return with a team of medical volunteers from HealthCare Ministries to show Christ’s love in a tangible way. My prayer then will be for lives transformed, a pastor called, and a church planted as the Sa see the light of Christ.

BRYAN WEBB,
a missionary to Vanuatu,
occasionally travels as a writer for AGWM.

Slideshow:

Click here to start a SLIDESHOW of all photos related to this article.
SearchSite GuideStoreContact Us
Assemblies of God USA