Interview with David Sitton

Dts 10-08.JPGDavid Sitton is the President of To Every Tribe, a ministry which has been planting churches among unreached people groups of Papua New Guinea and Mexico for many years now. They are hosting a conference next month entitled The Privilege of Suffering: Jesus is Worth It. David was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about his testimony, his passion for missions, and the organization he leads.
David, can you please tell us a little bit about your background. How did you come to know the Lord?
I appreciate you taking the time for this interview for your blog/website.
I grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas and was quite the wild hare hellion in my junior high and high school days – That would be about the years of 1973-76. I was gladly dominated by the adrenaline-laced life of drugs, girls and the South Texas surfing sub-culture.
But there was always a super-charged spiritual drive within me that was in competition with the excitement of wild living. I remember those days as being a miserably conflicted young man.
The short story for salvation is that the Lord drew me in through the consistent testimony of one of my girlfriends; her whole family actually. It wasn’t the immediate click of a gospel light switch though. For me, it was more like one of those mood lamps where you turn the knob and the light gets slowly brighter; I was drawn in to Christ over the process of some months.

How were you called into missions work, and among what people did you serve?

I’ve got to say that I cringe at the idea of a missionary “call”. Too many believers hide behind the mirage of an expected miraculous, mystical “calling” that never seems to be dramatic enough. There is nothing in the New Testament anything like our Western view of a “missionary call.”
The biblical reality is that 99% of the cross-cultural workers in the book of Acts got there one way: Persecution! And most of the remaining 1% went because the Apostle Paul challenged them to go. And that’s how it happened for me.
The Lord got me for unreached peoples through a missionary. He looked me straight in the eye, quoted a text and asked me a question. Romans 15:20-21 was the text – “I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation, but as it is written ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” And here’s the question – “There are lots of unreached tribes in Papua New Guinea. Some of them are cannibalistic and hostile headhunting tribes; they are completely unreached by the gospel. Come with me brother – Let’s go get some of them for Jesus.” I was 19 years old. But from that moment, my life was re-directed and set upon a course for the unreached regions. And that was 32 years ago.

With the emphasis that men like Ralph Winter put on the concept of “panta ta ethne“, has pioneering mission work (work among unreached peoples) become more common today?

Ralph Winter almost single-handedly put the concept of “unreached peoples” into the missionary consciousness. Until the early 1970’s, the church had focused upon “geo-political countries” as the target for missionary outreach. Winter popularized “panta ta ethne” which is the Greek phrase out of Matthew 28:19 “to all the nations (ethnicities)” as the biblical target for the gospel. The intent of the death of Christ was to secure salvation for the elect people of God within each and every ethnic and linguistic people group; more than 24,000 of them worldwide.
So, yes, this concept is very much understood today in the missionary community, but not so much in the churches.
My understanding, and I could be mistaken, is that the majority of new missionaries still tend to go to reached cultures, as opposed to unreached ones. But I’m wondering if this trend is changing.
Thanks for the set-up for something I really want to say clearly. There’s an important difference between unevangelized and unreached peoples.
Unevangelized people are unconverted individuals in places where there are established churches. Unreached peoples are those that live in regions where there are no churches and no access to the evangelical gospel in their culture.
And to answer your question about the present trend; 96% of the missionary work force is still laboring in unevangelized, but not truly unreached regions. Here it is again – 9 out of 10 Christian missionaries that go cross-cultural are still going to reached places!
Here’s still another way to say it – Something like 90% of all “ministers” worldwide are concentrating on only 2% of the world’s population! We are massively overly evangelizing places where the gospel is already well planted! I believe that we need a substantial strategic redeployment of the missionary workforce to the areas where there is still no access to the evangelical gospel.

You represent a ministry called To Every Tribe. What is your unique emphasis or focus? How are you similar (or different) from groups like Frontiers or Pioneers? Do you partner with any other groups?

Our emphasis is upon the strictly unreached people groups of Papua New Guinea and Mexico along with a growing presence among Muslim immigrants here in the United States.
We have many friends among FRONTIERS and PIONEERS and we highly value their work for the gospel in hard places. And we are interested in gospel partnerships as those opportunities arise.
To Every Tribe though is unique in an interesting blend of its distinctives:
1. We are committed to the least reached people groups.
2. We are a pioneer church planting ministry.
3. We come from a reformed, non-cessationist theological perspective.
4. We are a missionary training institution as well as a sending agency.
You have established the Center For Pioneer Church Planting in south Texas. Can you talk a little about the strategic role of church planting as opposed to other forms of mission ministry (e.g., medical missions, engineering missions)?
Everything is a tool. Medicine and dental clinics and clean water systems and feeding the hungry and all of that is important work. And its gospel work when used as means to actively demonstrate the love and compassion of Christ and to gain a hearing for the gospel in sometimes hostile environments. But the preaching of Christ is the emphasis. Establishing new believers into vibrant, reproducing fellowships is the goal. Everything else is a tool that helps us get the name of Christ and salvation to the most interior places.
Do you think it is preferable for these other forms of missions to be done in cooperation with a church planting team, say, among an unreached people group?
These tools should be carefully used so that they do not become the main thing. One of the big problems in mission is in creating dependency among those we are trying to reach. There is a way to plant indigenous churches so they are not dependent upon American manpower and money-power from the West. And these are the most healthy and happy churches.
Speaking of church planting, what do you do with the fact that nearly 2/3 of the missionary labor force is female?
We actively recruit women and joyfully send them as a part of our church planting teams!
Are there certain areas in which women are particularly suited to serve?
There are many things that only women can and should do! By the way – I counted one time 36 people in the New Testament that were named by name as being co-workers with the Apostle Paul. And almost half of them were women! The list of things women can do is far longer than the “can’t do” list.
Are there areas in which they should not serve?
The Scriptures are clear about male leadership in the church. Women should not serve as elder/overseers in the local church. And they should not lead the way in the teaching and preaching of the Word (though that doesn’t mean absolute silence either as 1 Corinthian 14 gives guidelines for how women should pray and prophesy in the assembly of believers).
But here is a question I get a lot. Can women plant churches? Again, we believe that men should lead church planting teams.
But here’s a question for you? Do you know who planted the church among the Auca Indians in Ecuador? Rachel Saint did. That wasn’t the plan. The men were leading the way in that gospel effort among the Auca’s – But the Ecuador 5 were slaughtered by the Auca warriors! Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot went back in and eventually got the gospel established among that hostile tribe that had killed their brother and husband! So absolutely, women can plant churches as they have repeatedly done all through church and mission history. But our emphasis is still upon male leadership of church planting teams.
At the Bethlehem Pastors conference in 2006, you openly invited men to join you, and sensed that God was calling 10% of those in attendance to join you in pioneer missions work. Is that right? Can we get an update on that, three years later?
That whole period of time leading up to the Bethlehem Pastors Conference was an anointed time almost unprecedented in my entire life. In the weeks leading up to the conference, the Lord strongly impressed upon me the number of 140. I had been told that there would be 1,400 pastors in attendance – And that’s where the “tithe” came from.
Our staff and students were actively praying and fasting for the 3 weeks leading up to the conference that God would release 140 pastors into the worldwide harvest. And the Lord is doing it.
In the weeks and months following the conference more than 200 people contacted me. Some of these are presently on our staff and have gone through our missionary training and are en route for unreached places!
I have received e-mails, letters and phone calls by numerous people that have told me they resigned their pastorates, sold their homes and are now working among unreached peoples around the world (with other agencies). One especially touching testimony happened the following year when I was again at the Bethlehem Conference as a registrant. A man came up to me, introduced himself to me and burst into tears. He said, “I heard you speak last year. I had my daughter listen to the tape. And she is now living among an unreached Muslim people group in the Middle East.”
It was a miraculous day where the Lord mobilized a large number for the unreached regions. And I suspect there were missionary martyrs that were gloriously raised up for the gospel that day. Only in heaven will the complete testimony be known.
What are your hopes for the next 10 years?
Let’s make it 5 years. Anything I say about the possibilities a decade down the road will seriously undershoot what the Lord is about to do. But we do have a 5 year plan. Here’s the way I wrote it out in a purpose statement: My hope is that the Lord will use To Every Tribe to train and launch church planting teams to at least 25 more unreached people groups within the next five years. 25 church planting teams represent about 80-90 missionary families and singles.
I’m asking for missionary martyrs to step up and get prepared for the frontline hostile places; and I’m asking for those that don’t go to step up as financial martyrs to sacrificially send them!
David, thank you so much for your time.
Brother, thank you so much. Let’s do this again.
Update: Part 2 of this interview.

3 Responses to “Interview with David Sitton”

  1. Justin Long September 17, 2009 at 7:36 pm #

    I respect Sitton and the work of To Every Tribe Ministries a great deal. However I did want to comment that the definitions of unevangelized and unreached that he is using here is not necessarily the same as used in other places!
    Unevangelized typically means people who have not heard the Gospel at all… not those who have heard but have not converted (who are in other places called “uncoverted” or “nonChristian”). Unreached, on the other hand, are those who are in a people group lacking a church sufficient to evangelize (tell) the Gospel to the whole of the people group without cross-cultural assistance.
    It may seem picky. But the order in Sitton’s definition is inverted. In his order it would be Christian > Unevangelized > Unreached. Other missiologists will look at it as Christian > Unreached > Unevangelized.
    Nevertheless Sitton is absolutely correct that whether we are speaking of unevangelized or unreached, the 90% in the “told” world vs. the less than 10% amongst the “no-access, untold” world is true.
    So if you look at the status of Global mission in the International Bulletin of Mission Research, you’ll see “World A” or the “Unevangelized” world – these are people who have no access to the Gospel at all. They have never heard of Christ or Christianity. They represent nearly 25% of the world and are growing at some 12 million per year.
    The Problem we face is that while the % unevangelized has fallen from some 50% in 1900 to 25% today, the absolute number of unevangelized people has risen from 870 million in 1900 to 1.6 billion today – while the total number of long-term missionaries amongst the unreached has for the fallen, bottomed out, and only barely begun to rise again. We need more workers! Pray that the Lord will send out workers into the harvest!

  2. Lisa September 19, 2009 at 2:33 pm #

    Thanks for this interview. My husband went to the 2006 Bethlehem Pastor’s Conference and took his youngest brother. My brother-in-law, Chris, was one of the people who responded to that call immediately and went through the training and is now leading a team (from TETM)to an un-reached and mostly hostile location in southern Mexico. I am so thankful for the call by David Sitton at that conference and especially to hear of the fasting and prayers of so many leading up to it.

  3. Alex Chediak September 19, 2009 at 4:34 pm #

    Lisa,
    Thanks so much for taking the time to share that. What a massive encouragement!

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