Rethinking Unreached People Groups


Imagine that you encountered in your travels a person who (O blessed man!) had never been exposed to the game of basketball – or any other game with a goal, for that matter. As you explain the sport to him, the wave of technical terms overwhelms him. He stops you with a confused look on his face. ‘What is the difference again between the court and the hoop?’ he asks. Think for a second how you would answer this question…

I imagine you would say that the ‘court’ is where everything happens. It is the field of play, the sphere of operations. It’s where basketball happens! The ‘hoop’? The hoop is the goal, the place we will get the ball to go if we are successful. It’s how we measure our efforts in the game!

A clarification of this kind needs to be made, I think, in Christian missions. Everyone who cares about missions knows that it involves ‘all nations’ in some way. Jesus in his Great Commission commanded us to disciple ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē). And for nearly forty years, we have been told in no uncertain terms that ‘all nations’ is the hoop of missions.

We have been told that the target toward which we are aiming in missions is the evangelization of ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē) – that some individuals from each and every ethnic grouping on the planet, however so many there may be (more than 16,000 by recent counts), would become disciples of Christ. In other words, the Great Commission actually shows us thousands of hoops, and we must put the ball into each one of them to complete our mission. These hoops are usually called ‘people groups’ and are defined by ethnicity, language, culture, etc. Thus, in the last four decades, immense effort has been invested in discovering the total number of people groups and the status of Christianity among them. Aspiring missionaries have been admonished to aim themselves toward those people groups that still lack a gospel witness of any kind, and not among those ethnic groups where Christianity has already gained a foothold.

I would contend that this is simply confusing the court for the hoop. Meaning, as the court, ‘all nations’ is the place where Christian missions happens. It is the arena where our disciple-making is done. In this view, Jesus commands us, ‘Disciple (defining our hoop) all nations (defining our court).’

As I will attempt to show in a later post, it makes most sense to understand ‘all nations’ in Matthew as a way to refer to all people everywhere collectively and not to each and every ethnic group individually. The disciples, who had previously received commands to not preach to the nations (ethnē), now receive Jesus’ commission to preach among all nations (panta ta ethnē). Before, the sphere of their work was limited to Jews. Now, they are to step onto a new court, a much larger court, to make disciples. They do so in the book of Acts. The ball is tipped off on Pentecost and play begins. Disciple-making efforts are bearing fruit among ‘all nations’ (panta ta ethnē); goals are being made from all over the Roman empire.

Now, almost two millennia later, we are on the same court, the ‘all nations’ court, playing the same game, trying to put the ball in the same hoop. We are ready to shoot from anywhere and everywhere on this worldwide court. We are no more trying to arrive at ‘all nations’ than a basketball player is trying to arrive at the court! This is where the game began, and we will be here until the buzzer sounds. We might also say that ‘all nations’ is not the finish line of missions; it is the theater of missions.

It’s not surprising, then, that we read in Romans 16 that the gospel has, in some sense, already been made known to all nations. How can this be? Obviously, if we’re speaking of the ball going in 16,000 different hoops, it’s simply inaccurate! But if Paul is speaking of ‘all nations’ as one big court, one big arena of missions, it makes perfect sense! The door has indeed been opened to all people, irrespective of their ethnicity. The whistle has blown and the feet of Christians pound up and down the floor. We are in ‘all nations’, yet ‘all nations’ still need the gospel. Little wonder that Jesus says that the gospel will be preached to ‘all nations’ before the end – the entire interadvental period has been characterized by the advance of the gospel! The difficulty of his words largely evaporates when we give up the idea of ‘all nations’ as a finish line and realize that ‘all nations’ has been the theater of missions since the early church.

This game doesn’t end when 16,000 baskets have been made. The game lasts until ‘the end of the world.’ (Matthew 28:20) As much as we like to talk about ‘finishing the mission’ by evangelizing the remaining ‘unreached people groups’, the New Testament does not depict the mission in those terms. Unlike tennis, a basketball game doesn’t end when a certain number of points have been scored, but when the time runs out. The Great Commission doesn’t leave us with a checklist of people groups, it leaves us with a worldwide field to cultivate, a mission to keep us occupied indefinitely.

The reason this hoop-court distinction matters is quite simple. Where do we shoot the ball? When we decide that each area of the court is a goal in itself, the game’s strategy becomes considerably more complex! The goal of traditional missions was (1) make disciples out of unbelievers. But now, a second goal has been appended. Modern missions sends us to (1) make disciples out of unbelievers (2) from each and every ethnolinguistic grouping on earth. This calls for a radical rethinking of all our missions strategy. If we don’t win unless we hit all 16,000 targets, why waste our time with a target that’s already been hit repeatedly?

Now, the traditional missions model has been shelved for so long, panic arises whenever we talk about abandoning the modern people-groups interpretation. People seem to think that no one cared about carrying the gospel to remote tribes and to places where there are no Christians at all until the late 20th century! But, truth be told, those of us who have no use for the finish line/hoop concept of the mission aren’t interested in shrinking the range of our missions endeavors, but expanding it! All ball players (and even some non-athletes like me) know that you need to ‘get open’ if you want to shoot. A crowded place in the court isn’t an ideal place to attempt a shot. For a skilled shooter, the empty areas of the court are tantalizing. That’s the kind of spot where baskets can be made! If you want to make disciples of unbelievers, there can be no better advice than to relocate to a place where unbelievers abound, regardless of their ethnicity!

As I said, I will have to make another post dealing with specific questions about the meaning of the phrase panta ta ethnē more directly. So… keep your guns loaded, but please don’t shoot me yet!

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13 Comments on “Rethinking Unreached People Groups”

  1. Justin Long (@justindlong) December 12, 2013 at 9:51 pm #

    That’s an interesting nuance. I don’t agree, but it’s interesting anyhow. I leave it to a Greek scholar to figure out if the interpretation is valid. The only thing I would say is that if indeed the interpretation is correct… Then what is to stop us from ignoring the more difficult and hard to reach corners if the court to use your analogy? And if we should play in every corner of the court–among the Pashto as well as the Persians as well as the Parsees as well as the Poles–now is the result any different?

    • Jake December 12, 2013 at 11:25 pm #

      Hey Justin, thanks so much for weighing in. I’m not surprised by your doubts! It would be no credit to you or anyone else to flippantly abandon a long-held conviction. As usual, you express your opinion thoughtfully and graciously.

      However, I hope you won’t mind my saying that ‘nuance’ really isn’t the word to use for this position. As I will show in the next post, the overwhelming weight of commentators (the Greek scholars you mentioned) and church history is on the side of this interpretation. It is the people groups theory that is the new kid on the block! I fear that this theory was elected and maintains its office as the status quo interpretation of ‘panta ta ethne’, not by the votes of careful theologians, but by the votes of passionate practitioners. Though I belong to the latter group, I find this unsettling.

      Your point about the hardest-to-reach places is an excellent one and certainly demands a fuller treatment. I hope I will provide a good answer in another post soon. But, in the meantime, I will insist in the strongest terms that we really must not hold onto a position in the face of all the facts merely because we are motivated by it! We must trust the truth to lead us both to the best of strategies and the best of motivations. And I can say from personal experience that this interpretation of the Commission will not fail to deliver.

      Thanks again, bro.

      • Justin Long (@justindlong) December 13, 2013 at 10:47 am #

        Thanks. I look forward to your post.

        When doing the comparison, you might look at comparing it to the famous Revelation post where there are some from “every tribe, language, tongue.”

        I agree that people group thinking (at least in its current incarnation) is a relative newcomer. (Or, at least, I think I agree with that right now.) And it’s difficult to reconcile all of this together because, obviously, some tribes, languages, and tongues died out before they were reached by the Gospel.

        Still, what I think we have to consider very carefully is any viewpoint which would give us the excuse not to engage the really hard places. I’m not so attached to any specific theory–I’m more attached to the fact that people are born, grow up, live and die never once hearing about Jesus.

        My local church here in Dallas, TX, could be considered a light “among the nations” – there are plenty of peoples about, both locals and expatriates. If all I have to do is play on the court, then why send missionaries to the ends of the earth? Why care about difficult peoples in outback Sudan, or Australia, or the mountains of Vietnam? Is there any justification for doing so?

        I have to reconcile this with the “whole world” mentality that Jesus evidenced (for example in John 3:16-17). I just don’t think Jesus meant for his church to leave any gaps behind.

        I do strongly agree with your idea of “the game goes until the end.” That’s one of the reasons I wrote

        Anyway, I”ll watch for the new post. Blessings.

      • Jake December 13, 2013 at 1:53 pm #

        Great points! I’ll try to get something in there on that Revelation passage! I happily stand beside you in thankful wonder at the blood-bought, cross-cultural congregation gathered in heavenly worship! It’s a glorious thing to anticipate!

        I’m with you 100% on the strategic question, too. I will do my best to show that one of the reasons I accept the traditional perspective is that I believe it is committed to leaving less gaps behind, not more! Thanks for your patience and your perspective!

  2. Amanda F December 12, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

    I really appreciate this. As a new believer in college, my heart for the world was developed in the context of unreached people groups as the hoops. As a missionary, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve begun to pull away a bit from this philosophy. I was first drawn to the field where I serve (where, arguably, the gospel already has a strong foothold, yet there are millions and millions of people who have never heard) by the idea of reaching people here and sending them to the “real” unreached people groups. The longer I’m here the more my heart develops for those millions of people all around me who have never had an opportunity to know Jesus.

    Anyway, thanks for your clear treatment of this issue. I’ll be sharing it with friends.

    • Justin Long (@justindlong) December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am #

      Hey Amanda, just weighing in real quickly – this is a nuance between “unreached” (which applies to groups) and “unevangelized” (which applies to individuals as well as groups) which I really value. I’ve seen dozens of situations just like the one you’ve described – where a group may be “reached” and yet there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who have not heard yet. We have to make sure those people hear, too. I’ve highlighted the difference in (and that is the last self-serving link I’ll make today–grin).

    • Jake December 14, 2013 at 10:29 am #

      Thanks for reading and sharing, Amanda! I really appreciate your testimony regarding this issue. The place where the people groups movement really calls for the greatest changes is in the places like where you serve. So it was refreshing to hear how your estimation of the need in a place like that shifted. Thanks again!

  3. theasianroughrider December 13, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    Great discussion, brother! I, theologically and historically, concur and agree…but in practice, I staunchly disagree. It’s a paradox, I know, Let me explain.

    You are right in that producing generations of obedient disciples is the “goal/hoop” no matter where that happens, the “court”. I also agree in your interpretation that Matthew 28 refers to “all people everywhere collectively.”

    Different passages can be taken out of context. Like when Jesus was talking with his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem in Matthew 24:14, “the Gospel shall be preached to all nations and then the end will come.”…as if it’s a road map to bring about the second coming of Jesus. Romans 16 and Roman 10 can also be seen as if the task is finished. Paul said his job was done because he had preached to the known world not building on anyone else’s foundation.

    But the main flaw (which you might talk about in later posts) is the assumption that Jesus did not have a specific strategy to spread His fame through CULTURAL lines.

    The Missio Dei of God has always been the spread of His fame among every single cultural expression He has ever created, beginning with Adam and Eve he told them to multiply. After the Table of Nations he MADE them spread over the earth. Then he chose Father Abe, the guy with the long beard who became the leader of the Jewish nation, to be his light to the world.

    Jesus from the very beginning was training the ethnocentric Jewish disciples to be a catalyst to the gentiles. And there are countless instances where he purposefully uses Gentiles.

    The people group thinking is strategic in that it helps us develop contextualized linguistic and cultural strategies to reach a given segment of society. Why is Jesus so culturally specific when he tells us to go, “to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth”? (Acts 1:8) Because we suck at going.

    You gave a great illustration about finding an open space to shoot the ball, but the truth is only a few ever play the game at any given time. A better analogy for Christian missions would be the game sardines…were one player hides in the dark while the others, one by one, go search for him. When they find him they hide together until it’s gets crowded like..sardines. There are places in the world among the unreached where the hoop and basket haven’t even been erected – no one is shooting for them.

    Also the modern people group paradigm arose out of a post colonial era. It was really about 50 years ago when the world truly became globalized and unreached peoples became accessible. We live in a unique time this is quite unlike the last 2,000 years and with it comes a unique God-given strategy to take the Gospel to the literal end through cultural lines and groupings.

    Your Fellow Practitioner,

    • Jake December 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm #

      Thanks, Tobias, for chiming in! Like Justin’s comments, I think your voice represents a very significant portion of modern missions thought, practice, and passion, so I appreciate you adding dimension to the discussion.

      It is certainly understandable that you hold your ground on the strategic value of the people groups model. There are two main groups (which often intersect) of people who hold to the people groups model: those who maintain it for theological reasons (a la John Piper) and those who maintain it for strategic reasons (a la Ralph Winter). Of course, Piper believes it the most strategic plan, and Winter believes it to be the most biblical. But they hit upon the plan from these two different trajectories.

      For this reason, I will try to address these two main areas of concern in the next two posts. For now let me say that I could not agree more that Jesus desires for the gospel to penetrate and override cultural lines. I hope that nothing I write will ever be taken to mean the opposite! And I fully recognize that much good has come from the people group focus – namely, some isolated groups have been engaged with the gospel. However, I believe the direction of the model (as it is consistently implemented) will lead to fewer people hearing the gospel. This much is practically admitted by some of its most avid proponents.

      I do plan to use a future post to outline the strategic implications of the traditional understanding of ‘panta ta ethne’. I’m a strategy nut like many others, and I hope that I can show the strategic value of the traditional model. I join you in lamenting the status of those pockets of people who are totally cut off from a gospel witness, and for now I can only assure you that I have no interest in any mission model that has no interest in them!

      We do live in an unprecedented time, and I pray that we will marshal every resource at our disposal to give the gospel to every person. Thanks for your heart for the mission, brother!

  4. Debtor Paul December 14, 2013 at 6:43 am #

    I enjoyed the post, and look forward to the rest. Even as I find myself working among unreached people groups, I wholeheartedly agree with your comments on Matthew 28. At one time, I had uncritically swallowed the messages of men like Piper and Winter. Don’t get me wrong, the passion of their message is great, and most of it needs to be heard again and again. Nevertheless, much has been pressed into Scriptures by their movement.

    The fear of billions of people and thousands of peoples being ignored if a contemporary interpretation of passages like Matthew 28 is incorrect seems unreasonable to me. Are there not plenty of other passages in the canon that could justifyably be used to guard against such an outcome? Granted, we might not find a particular UPG strategy neatly packaged anywhere, but we surely have enough to keep us walking with Jesus in this matter. There is still the love of God for everyone (at least according to Arminians–tongue-in-cheek). There is still the broader sweep of redemptive history, which includes Babel, Abraham, and Revelation. We still have the precedent of Paul and agressive statements in his epistles regarding his view of the mission and Gospel access. We still have clear command to evangelize everyone, which obviously entails somehow crossing all geographical, ethnic, socio-economic, and other Gospel boundaries. There is still the Spirit’s leading. Alas, we yet have only scratched the surface!

    I am very confident that dedicated Christ-followers will “do missions” exactly how they ought to, even without reading more into Scripture than is there. I am also very confident that dedicated Christ-followers will do it even better when motivated by Scriptures properly interpreted and applied (a loaded statement, I know). I am also very confident that many professing Christ-followers will do very little, no matter what interpretations we offer and apply.

    The social sciences have their place in the work–a very important place, in my opinion. But let’s not make Matthew a social scientist that he wasn’t.

    • Jake December 14, 2013 at 9:22 am #

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing your thoughts on this issue! And I wholeheartedly agree with your point about the need to look to the canon as a whole. You said it better than I think I’ll be able! You are right – fears that remote tribes will go unevangelized because we abandoned a fresh spin on a Greek phrase are unfounded. The traditional model gives us all the motivation we need to fight for the evangelization of every individual on the planet, provided – as you point out – that we are dedicated to following Christ.

      And your last thought there about sociology is spot on, in my opinion! Appreciate your contribution to the conversation!

      • John January 6, 2014 at 8:41 am #

        A good theological perspective will address some of the side issues here. All nations will hear when the two witnesses, one hundred and forty-four thousand virgin evangelists and four angels preach to the world – and then the end will come (Matthew 24:14). Every people and culture will be represented in Heaven for infant mortality is greatest in the unreached parts of the world (Revelation 7:9). However, the basketball analogy is best used when it is viewed from a slightly different perspective.

        Our sight should not be set on the nations (the hoop) or the lost (the court) necessarily, although we are encouraged to see the need and opportunity (John 4:35). Our sight should be set on the coach. He is the Lord of the harvest (Luke 10:2)! Even Jesus only did as His coach directed (John 4:34).

        Our might should be placed toward discipleship (2 Tim. 2:2). Naturally discipleship includes education, but more importantly it must be directed toward a vital relationship with the Coach who is Lord Jesus Christ and His play book which is the Word of God!


  1. Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 3) | The Gospel in China - October 18, 2015

    […] way of review, the first post explained the two alternate interpretations: the traditional and the people groups theory. In the […]

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