WHERE: To People Groups?

Over recent decades a certain theory has grown to be the informed, missions-minded Christian’s default answer to the question: WHERE does the Great Commission send us?

The people-groups-focused understanding of the Great Commission goes something like this: ‘The Gospel is to be taken to all the different ethnolinguistic groups of the world; the priority of missions therefore is not that every individual would have an opportunity to hear the Gospel, but that there would be a Gospel community established within the borders of every one of these groups.’ Usually included in this explanation is something about the completion of the Great Commission being achieved when every group has an indigenous church, followed by some ‘good news,’ namely, that’s there’s only a few thousand remaining unreached people groups. Finally we are exhorted to direct our missionary efforts into evangelizing these remaining groups.

I find this perspective a little hard to believe for, well, a lot of reasons. Certainly more than will fit in one post. And almost certainly more than you are interested in hearing! But let me summarize my disagreements:

1) Biblical – I doubt the interpretation asserting that Jesus’ meaning was for the church to make a priority of evangelizing as many different kinds of people as possible, as well as the bit about the Commission’s completion

2) Theological – the people-groups interpretation seems at odds with what we know about God

3) Strategic – even granting a certain understanding of ‘all nations,’ the change in missions strategy and activity that has emerged from a people-groups focus has not been positive

4) Historic – the church has for centuries understood the Commission of Christ to have all lost individuals as its target, only in the 1970s did we supposedly discover its true thrust

Not sure it would be of much benefit at this time to go into great detail on these three categories (I’m sure it’ll come up eventually, though). For now, I just want to let it be known that another viewpoint exists. Primarily because the people-groups understanding of the Great Commission has already attained that status so enviable among theories: that of perceived factuality. In other words, I don’t remember ever hearing someone explain this theory as ‘one take on what the Great Commission means’ and not ‘this is what the Great Commission means.’ Those who have not previously made it their business to know are often herded in by theories masquerading as facts. And so, for those missions-loving folks, just letting them know that there is another viewpoint out there may be enough to keep them from unwarily accepting a fresh-out-of-the-box interpretation of Scripture as orthodox.

Well, if it doesn’t mean ‘people-groups’, then what does it mean, you ask. An excellent question. One that you could answer easily yourself if you had never heard of ‘people-groups.’ The plain and obvious reading of the Commission is that the Gospel needs to be taken to all unbelievers, no matter where they are. And that’s what I take it to mean. Contrast with Mark, Luke, and Acts seems to verify that Jesus is pointing the disciples to all people everywhere. Isn’t that the same thing, you ask. Apparently not. Ask the missions organizations packing up and leaving South America. Ask the missionaries in China who have little interest in reaching 90% of the population because they’re Han. The traditional interpretation is just broader than the new: ‘all lost individuals’ obviously includes ‘all unreached people groups.’ But the reverse is not true.

I would like to say, in commendation of this viewpoint, that it really does have a strong theological foundation – it is people-group focused only because it is God-focused. Its advocates for the most part are also voices for the pursuit of God’s glory in missions. In defense of the seemingly (I would say, ‘truly’) illogical desire God has to save more kinds of people than just more people, they rightly insist that God’s ways of manifesting his glory are always right and good, though often not what we would expect.

All that to say, if you are on that side of this disagreement, I really like you! You’re the ‘good guys’ in my book! So why even bring this up? Well, for the same reason you do – because of a belief that a wrong understanding of the Commission will lead to a wrong strategy, and ultimately to a failure to obey. Where will we spend our limited manpower and resources? The people-groups theory, as enthusiastically confirmed by its proponents, leads to widely different answers to that question than would a traditional understanding.

(If you’re new to this entire discussion, I would recommend reading ‘Let the Nations Be Glad’ by John Piper. Though I disagree with his conclusion, I have to say it’s the best explanation and most biblical defense of the people-groups theory that I’ve found, particularly chapter 5 of the second part. I’d suggest a book endorsing the other side, but I am unaware of a single title written in defense of the historical view – if you know of one, I’d love to hear about it)

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4 Comments on “WHERE: To People Groups?”

  1. Matt A February 6, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    Sorry, I’m a little late to this conversation. But from the looks of it, shamefully there isn’t much conversation going on. (At least not in the Comments section here.)

    I’m with you–preach the Gospel to EVERY creature.

    Now, what do we do with “pante ta ethne” (all nations, or all peoples) of Matthew 28?
    What about Paul’s claim in Romans 15 that he has “fully preached the Gospel from Jerusalem round about to Illyricum”? Obviously, he hasn’t won every single person in that wide expanse to Christ–but there are nucleii of believers spread across that land, that will be able, through the power and leading of the Holy Spirit, to continue to evangelize those people.

    Does India need missionaries? Of course.
    At the expense of South America?
    Well, what about at the expense of South-eastern United States?
    Why are missionaries leaving the USA when there are “needs at home”? (I’ve heard that one so many times I’m sick of it!)

    But why would we leave the USA and go where Christ has been named? …where there are believers, and churches, and movement of the Holy Spirit?

    • Vengador February 6, 2012 at 6:53 pm #

      Hey Matt
      Thanks for your comment! You’re right – kinda ghost town in here.
      Like I said in the post, I’m just not convinced by this interpretation of these texts. Even John Piper, who in his book is adamantly advocating a people-groups focused missions strategy, admits that that’s not the only meaning of ‘panta ta ethne’ – that it can mean just ‘every individual.’ There is a lot to be said about this phrase, but I’ll just give an example of one reason as to why I lean towards ‘individual’ than ‘nations.’ Piper, to demonstrate that it means ‘nations,’ compares Matt. 28 to Psalms and Revelation. Whereas comparing first with the other Gospels and Acts’ rendering of the Commission most naturally leads to the interpretation ‘individuals.’ There’s a bunch of other reasons, too, which I won’t bore you with!
      And about Paul’s claim to have preached ‘fully’ in these areas. It is precarious to define Paul’s terms for him when he doesn’t give us a definition. True, there were the nuclei of believers that you mentioned. That would seem to be a possible definition of ‘fully preached’. But attempts to turn ‘fully preached’ into a technical term are not convincing: the most obvious meaning of Paul’s words is that he has preached ‘all over the place.’ This would seem to be a little more satisfactory understanding of Paul’s philosophy of leaving a place – Paul leaves many places without the indigenous nucleus in place! But he doesn’t leave places where he hasn’t preached the Gospel like a crazy person! Besides all this is the fairly self-evident truth that we are not Paul. Nor is Paul’s method that he describes in Romans 15 prescribed to us as the way to do Gospel ministry. Again, it is precarious to try to read a people group focus into Paul’s words here. He doesn’t say,, ‘I want to preach to those peoples among whom there is not an indigenous nucleus of believers.’ Instead he says, ‘I want to preach in those PLACES where there aren’t BELIEVERS.’ And Paul obviously isn’t interested in crossing places off his map when they have an indigenous church: he spends time in this same book telling the Romans he wants to spend time with them and have some fruit preaching the Gospel among them! Apparently it was enough that there were massive numbers of unbelievers in Rome.
      And this is what I think we can say is truly different about India (or South America) than the Southeastern U.S. – the size of the unbelieving population. Christ had been named in Rome (based on the people-groups strategy’s definition) but Christ had not been named in Rome, in the sense that there were still hundreds of thousands that hadn’t heard the Gospel.
      Thanks for the comment – sorry for the mess – too long of a comment, too short of a real explanation!

      • Matt A February 6, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

        Surely I’m mis-pronouncing your name? I really appreciate your input here! This is a topic that needs to be discussed at length, especially within our leadership. I’m afraid that the gut-reaction too often is “they don’t cross their T’s just like me; therefore they hate me.”
        I really appreciate your comparison of the use of “pante ta ethne” in the closer context of the Gospels and Acts versus the larger context of Psalms and Revelation. That truly helped me.

        It has been many years since I read Piper’s “Let the Nations Be Glad,” however I seem to remember his defense of an all-nations/all-peoples approach leading to the reality that a diverse ethnicity giving praise to God gives greater glory than merely filling Heaven with white-middle-class-Americans-from-Georgia. (lest I offend our friends in Georgia, I’ll add North Carolina to that group)

        So, as self-acclaimed leaders among the FIBC* movement, especially in terms of missions, what should our united presentation to the largely unknowing layperson be?
        I’m sure either side of the argument can be damaging to the other–a passionate presentation about the UPG* movement will naturally lead to pastors turning away missionaries to England (and, as we have seen, turning away missionaries to South America). However, a passionate plea for the need to send missionaries to England (or South America) leads to pastors turning a deaf ear to the UPG movement.

        I believe a knee-jerk reaction to this discussion would be: “Stop being so passionate about your field of service.” To which I whole-heartedly say, No.
        We have seen God raise up 10 missionary families to PNG* in the last few years. Yet, we are merely scratching the surface of the need in PNG. (By the way, we also “just missed” the 10-40 window.) There are still 19 people-groups (entire tribes…and I’m not talking about Chinese laborers in the main city) in my province alone that need the Gospel–and there are 20 provinces in the country! And then there is the other half of our island too!

        Now, let’s see the nuts-and-bolts of this: I passionately have pled for laborers in the field, and God has raised up laborers (harvesters) for PNG. But along the way, there have been other missionaries raised up too–I know of several other missionaries in other countries that have told me that God called them to the field after hearing about how He had used us. That shows me that promoting PNG missions provided a spin-off of missionaries in other places. To stop being passionate about it would kill all of that.

        I would excited repeat what my friend Jason (a missionary in South America) said about furlough–it is the prime opportunity for the missionary to recruit future missionaries. And if we stop being passionate, we might as well quit.

        Thanks so much for this discussion!

        *FIBC–Fundamental Independent Baptist Church
        *UPG–Unreached People Groups
        *PNG–Papua New Guinea

      • Vengador February 11, 2012 at 10:08 am #

        Great thoughts about being passionate for our particular field of service! I agree – the solution to balance in recruitment is probably never to be less passionate about our own field, but more passionate about those places we don’t serve in. Awesome to hear about the other laborers you’ve seen raised up. I would love to hear about where some of those laborers came from, how God used you to issue a call to them, etc. That’s def. an area I hope to grow in.

        You know, I see the danger you’re talking about in UPG teaching, and the teaching that we need missionaries ‘everywhere.’ It seems both are inadequate. To be honest, that’s why I’m not interested in either of those arguments. Because they both allow for the possibility of sending a missionary to a place with a very small number of unbelievers. Not that anyone’s asking me, but my questions for a candidate for missionary support would include: ‘how many unbelievers live in the place you’re going?’ ‘what’s the pastor:population ratio in the city you’re going to?’ and ‘what plan do you have to change those numbers?’

        I know those questions aren’t exactly the in vogue missionary criteria, but they’re the only ones I know that don’t miss the real issue: ‘is there any need for you in the place you want to go?’ I know Piper’s sure that God’s glory is greater when there’s differently colored people worshipping God, but I’m still looking for that verse. I just think it completely irrelevant what color people you’re giving the Gospel to, so long as you don’t leave any colors of the local palette out!

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