Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 3)


A long time ago, I started a blog series trying to show that a widespread, modern interpretation of the Great Commission was a novel innovation and in fact not what the mission entails. To clarify, I’m talking about the idea that the mission of the church is to reach people from each and every ethnolinguistic group of people, however so many there may be.

By way of review, the first post explained the two alternate interpretations: the traditional and the people groups theory. In the second, we looked at some exegetical considerations: which interpretation does justice to the text? There we saw that the overwhelming weight of scholarly opinion is against the people groups interpretation. We also saw that the phrase in question has a clear meaning in Matthew: the mass of the non-Jewish unbelieving world taken as a whole. Thus, the traditional view of the mission has been: give the gospel to all people, irrespective of ethnicity.

But as many of you are aware, the people groups theory is defended not only on exegetical grounds, but on practical grounds. So, in my experience, though you may very well convince someone that Scripture cannot be legitimately read to defend the people groups theory, concerned Christians still tend to say something like this: “Well, even if that’s not what Jesus meant, doesn’t it still make sense practically to target those groups that don’t have the gospel at all?”

This was actually the original grounds upon which the people groups theory was first introduced, if I understand the history correctly. It seems that as early as 1955, Donald McGavran, former missionary to India and credited/blamed as the father of the Church Growth movement, said that the gospel spread best within a homogeneous group. That is, evangelism worked best when it concentrated on a group defined by language and culture. Evangelism was hampered whenever the gospel encountered an ethnolinguistic barrier. So, McGavran argued, a missionary should focus his disciple-making efforts on a particular group to maximize fruitfulness.

It is rare, though, today to hear McGavran’s church growth motivations attached to the people groups theory today. The hypothesis is the same: “barriers between ethnolinguistic groups will hinder the gospel’s spread.” But the reason modern missions theorists care about this hypothesis is different. They think this implies that the gospel will not naturally spread from one group to another. By ‘naturally’ they mean that people in group A do not have the kinds of relationships with people in group B that will facilitate evangelism. So, if these people are going to be reached, it will require a missionary intentionally penetrating those barriers. It is now common to hear missions thinkers restrict the definition of a missionary to those who are penetrating cultural barriers to the unreached in this way, and call upon missions agencies to focus their efforts on these isolated (from the gospel, that is) ethnic groups. (Ralph Winter was mainly responsible for developing McGavran’s theory in this direction)

The simple people-groups plea today is, “There are 2 billion people in groups that have no access to the gospel – we must target them.” In other words, we are told constantly that there are lots of people groups out there that have some measure of gospel access, even though there may be a relatively small number of converts. But then there are lots of other groups that have no access to the gospel. These are the groups that we must focus our missionary efforts on, because they’ll never hear it naturally.

Now, I sympathize with this concern quite deeply. Missionaries struggle to make people back home understand that the field where they serve is different than their country. We are exasperated when people in, say, the United States say something like, “Well, there’s still a great need here, too. So much wickedness here, and so many unbelievers, etc..” We want to explain that there is a difference between the need for the gospel in Dallas and the need for the gospel in Tunis, and the people groups theory is the leading attempt to explain this difference. While I absolutely agree that there is a difference, I think there are some difficulties with trying to express it in this way.

First, it is difficult to see that the people groups model provides an accurate estimate of the need in a place. What does it mean that two billion have no access to the gospel? Where does that number come from? That’s the number of people who belong to groups that are less than 2% evangelical Christian. That means that within that two billion, there are actually some believers! Not only that, but many of those two billion people live in towns that have believers and churches, just not that belong to their own people group! For example, the Hui Chinese, which I think is considered the largest unreached people group in the world, live primarily in western China, but they are scattered throughout the entire country. The number of Hui Chinese without access to a church would almost certainly be a minority.

Don’t hear me to say the opposite of what I mean. I would be the last to say that the Hui Chinese don’t need the gospel! I am only pointing out that most of them don’t qualify for the ‘no access’ label. So if the Hui Chinese need the gospel sent to them, why not the Han, or a thousand other ‘reached’ groups? And this, of course, is not even to question how radio, TV, and the internet factor into measuring ‘access’! It seems unavoidable that the people groups theory illegitimately restricts the number of places that are needy. To put it another way, the traditional model sees hundreds of millions more people as legitimate targets for missions than the people groups model.

The people groups model is supported by pleas like, “We cannot accept that many people live their whole lives and never hear the gospel!” But isn’t that the case for countless people in so-called “reached” groups? It seems then that the people groups model does not in the end avert the tragedy it was designed to! If all the people groups were reached, millions would still die every year having never heard the gospel! But the same cannot be said of the traditional model! The best expression of the traditional model I can provide is simply: that every individual would hear the gospel! So if we truly can’t accept that some people go a lifetime without hearing the gospel, how can we accept the people groups model?

Second, it is difficult to see that McGavran’s hypothesis was correct in the first place. Where is the evidence that cultural barriers hinder the spread of the gospel? It is not a good idea to bet against the gospel crossing such barriers. It may sound plausible to compare the gospel to water sloshing around in a container, unable to splash into a neighboring container, but it is a flawed analogy! The gospel message is much more like a hurricane that batters down retaining walls and unifies a splintered humanity. Even if McGavran’s hypothesis does accurately describe a reality in many places, it certainly does not reflect biblical ideals! If there is a group of people that is isolated from the gospel in the same city as a church, that church is to be rebuked and admonished for their unfaithfulness in evangelism! Instead these churches are being encouraged to pray that God will send a laborer to target this people group!

I once heard David Platt, the president of the IMB and an outspoken people groups advocate, say that the unbelievers you work with are not ‘unreached’ because they know you, a Christian. You may not be a faithful witness, but those people are in contact with a Christian. Therefore, it is illegitimate to call witnessing to these people ‘missions.’ But by that standard, how can we call anyone who lives in the same city as an evangelical church ‘unreached’? Can’t we say, no, the people groups in your town, however so many there may be, are not unreached because they have you!

Furthermore, those with experience in modern cities have seen that it’s not people of all one sort that respond to the gospel, so long as it is proclaimed indiscriminately. You’ll see people from multiple cultures fused together by the gospel. Does the record of the New Testament church lead us to expect anything less? The record of modern missions confirms this as well. I can introduce you to many church-planting missionaries who have seen the gospel sweep up people from multiple ethnic groups.

So how do we preserve the idea that some places are more needy than others? If we throw away the people groups theory, is Dallas necessarily as needy as Tunis? Don’t forget, the people groups theory is a recent innovation. We knew other places were more needy than others before we came up with people groups. The real difference between Dallas and Tunis is the number of people who have heard the gospel before. Measure it by the number of people who know a Christian, or who have been to a gospel-preaching church, or who have been given gospel literature, or who have heard a Christian sermon in any medium, and Tunis will show up as vastly more needy than Dallas!

In fact, this brings us to what is, in my mind, the final and greatest failure of the people groups theory. There was a time when the people groups theory, though it was just as flawed then as it is now, was actually likely to lead people to carry the gospel to more needy places. But we are now hearing that there are huge numbers of unreached people groups in highly evangelized countries, such as the United States, and that missionaries need to target them. Well, you say, can’t existing churches reach them? Not according to people groups theorists! Remember McGavran’s hypothesis and the modern application of it. If there is a cultural barrier between, say, Bosnian refugees and the other inhabitants of Bowling Green, Kentucky, then the gospel will not flow naturally to them. We need missionaries, we are told, to target these groups and plant new churches in a town that already has plenty of healthy churches. Thus the people groups theory, which Winter and McGavran manufactured to push people to the most needy places in the world, is now touted as a reason to go to Dallas or Bowling Green as a missionary!

To abandon the people groups experiment would mean that we simply affirm: places with many individuals who have never heard the gospel (“unheards”) are legitimate targets for missionaries. When the unheards are few and far between, it is probably not a good idea to send a long-term missionary there. Where they abound, we need not stress over whether it’s two or five percent of the population that confesses Christ. If a missionary is building a new church with people that had not heard the gospel before he came, his work seems to easily fit the mold of Paul as he explains in Romans 15:18-22.

To abandon the people groups experiment would mean that we dispatch a missionary to a particular geographic location with the expectation that he will target all the human beings he finds, irrespective of their ethnicity. For the missionary to do any less would be a disgrace. And we expect that churches will take responsibility to preach the gospel to their communities, no matter how many ethnicities there may be.

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5 Comments on “Rethinking Unreached People Groups (Part 3)”

  1. Chris Ward October 19, 2015 at 11:51 pm #

    I guess the Han Chinese would be the perfect example of a people group: ethnicly, linguistically (mostly), culturally they are a very homeogenous group. I assume you have found learning the language and culture of Han Chinese very helpful to preaching the Gospel to them. Likewise the ethnic and cultural barriers between Han and say Uygurs will make it very unlikely a Han Chinese church will be effective to reach a Uygur people group, even though language would not be much problem. I would say because a Han Chinese Christian is so often ill at ease with other cultures (due to lack of experience of interaction) a foreign missionary trained in cross-cultural mission might make more impact?

  2. MrPete November 3, 2015 at 11:06 pm #

    First, let me expose my “bias” — I’m the former Silicon Valley engineer, data specialist and missionary who suggested several of the measures you cite. 😀 … Second, few if any people remember why we suggested the “2%” number (if they ever knew at all.)
    For now, let me suggest that 2% is a distraction. So is the definition of “unreached” that you’re using.
    Let’s go back to your own simple definition up at the top: “give the gospel to all people, irrespective of ethnicity.”
    Really, all the “people group” folks are saying is this: we’re ignoring huge slices of “all people”… and have been doing so for centuries.
    It’s a quite Biblical concern. After all, Jesus spoke of going after the one lost sheep… and of going to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth.
    So at first, “ends of the earth” seemed to be the Middle East and a little more. But then we discovered continents and some missionaries traveled by boat to coastlands everywhere.
    And then we discovered huge populations in the interior of continents.
    And on it went.
    So in 1990 (!) I was asked to evaluate the status of all global mission everywhere, first at the national level, then by major cities, and eventually by languages and “people groups” (they didn’t even have a consistent definition for such a thing at the time but that’s a side issue.)
    The following will be a bit hard to believe today, even though 1990 was only 25 years ago:
    1) At the “country” level, there wasn’t even a consistent LIST of nations, let alone coordinated work in every nation. EVERY major agency and denomination had one or more major mistakes in their lists… it’s as if World Vision forgot about Ethiopia. (That’s not real but hopefully you get the idea!) That’s the simple level of analysis we used for the 10/40 Window.
    2) We never did get a good list of major cities.
    3) It’s been 25 years and the best information on People Groups (eg Languages in most of the world) is that we haven’t even evaluated if a Bible translation is needed for 1/3 of the world’s languages (let alone getting started on the translation, let alone printing or recording scripture in that language, let alone actually distributing and having a Christian presence among the people.)

    Let me give one other insight before I tie this together. Being just an engineer but in a position to ask questions and get answers… I asked the following: “You tell me there are over 6,000 different languages that may need Bible translations. How different are those languages? If we didn’t have the Bible in MY language (ie American English), what language would be close enough that you would not bother with Yet Another Translation?” (I was thinking… maybe British English, or Suthern Drawl, or something 🙂 ).
    The experts thought that was a pretty good question, and took the time to do their academic language analysis thing… a few months later they came back with an answer. They said: ok, we took a vote and we have an answer. It was controversial but the majority voted this way… and that’s how we do it for EVERY language. The answer: Dutch. If we had the Dutch Bible but not English, we would not do English. They are linguistically at least kinda-sorta a little bit similar.”
    Wow. That was sobering. I can tell you, a Dutch Bible is VERY hard for me to understand!

    Here’s the point: When we talk about Unreached People Groups, these are population groups that really ARE isolated from one another. It takes incredible effort for the Gospel to spread between these groups! It won’t happen by osmosis. It won’t happen by simple Internet outreach.

    In India for example, there are 18 official national languages and THOUSANDS of culturally and/or linguistically isolated populations (NOT geographically isolated… CULTURALLY.) And guess what: the vast majority of all ministry is among only a few dozen of those groups.
    Or looked at another very very simple way:
    About 1/3 of the world’s population is in the “West.” — our developed world.
    About 1/2 is in what we now call the Global South, the rapidly Developing World…
    And about 1/5 is the rest. Poor, oppressed, isolated in various ways for various reasons.
    The West has easy access to Christian resources. If you or I want to learn about God, we can. Easily. AND, about 99% of all Christian ministry funding goes to the West. (That’s not surprising: it costs a lot to make a message compelling enough to get through our Super Bowl jaded brains 🙂 )
    The Global South is where the Church is growing fastest. Just amazing growth. And all that growth has happened with less than 1% of Christian resources. We could learn a LOT from what God is doing there.
    But then there’s the rest. 1/5 of the World’s population. The Unreached People Groups. Hundreds of huge (mega millions) populations for which nobody has ever even made a someday-we-will commitment to go and share the gospel. No bibles. No radio. No missionaries. Less than a tenth of a percent of Christian resources.
    THAT is the challenge of unreached people groups. And to make it more focused: UUPG’s. Unreached, Unengaged, People Groups. (Google UUPG to learn more.)

    The bottom line issue is one of Access and Presence not Preaching. The Unreached groups have little or no Access to the Gospel, no Access to Christ’s Presence. No Access to a Christian — never met nor heard nor heard OF one. That’s hugely different from the many who DO have Access.

    Oh… and that’s where that 2% comes in. It isn’t important as a number. It’s important as a simple way of “clumping” all the peoples of the earth. When we were looking at this for the first time, we noticed that lots of groups were way below 2%, and others above 2%, but hardly any were near 2%. SO: a nice dividing line. And a simple story to tell. (It’s actually more complex than that… there’s a 2% factor and a 5% factor… but let’s leave that for another day.)
    There you have it, straight from one horse’s mouth. 🙂 … Hope that helps!

    His blessings,

    PS: your proposed method of distributing missionaries (send them where the ‘unheards’ are) is NOT what we do, any more than sending them to the ‘unreached’. Right now, the VAST majority are sent… to where the Christians are. Really.

    • Jake December 8, 2015 at 5:12 am #

      Hey Pete,

      Thanks for your contribution to the conversation and for sharing your connection with the people group discussion.

      While I appreciate your restating of the problem, I’m fairly confident that most readers are very familiar with the points you’re making. They’ve been being made for a couple decades now. I, for one, have no questions or particular concerns about the 2% number. As a system, the people group theory is logically coherent. I don’t think anyone who understands it would deny that.

      My points against the people group theory are two-fold: it is exegetically invalid, and it is strategically ill-founded. Now, the first of those charges is much more serious than the second. I’m more than a little willing to talk about that second.

      Especially because I would agree with you and any other people group strategist on this key concept: those without the gospel should be the focus of our missions efforts. And I also join you in lamenting that so much of our missions money is expended in contexts that don’t fit that description.

      The specific points I’m making in this article are these (the lack of clarity is entirely on me!):

      – Cultural isolation is not as big a deal as it’s being made out to be. Of course, those boundaries exist and must be crossed, but it’s silly to imagine that the average Christian can not do it. I am simply unimpressed by the cultural barriers I have encountered as a Western missionary in the East.

      – There are many places where you could preach to unheards, but we are now being told that these places are not legitimate targets for missions endeavors. We’ll watch the impending IMB missionary migration, for example.

      – There are zero UUPG’s that we cannot send people to without the help of people group construction. People are acting as if to dispose of the theory is to deny the legitimacy of carrying the gospel to those peoples we now refer to as UPG’s. This is simply not the case, as history bears out.

      Finally, in regards to your P.S. – your assertion that we are not sending missionaries to the unheards is both an unfortunate exaggeration and begs the question. For what we are essentially debating is ‘who counts as an unheard.’ I’d say a Han Chinese in Beijing is an unheard and therefore a missionary sent there counts. You’d probably say that this is simply sending missionaries to where the Christians are.

      It is a well-worn bit of mobilization propaganda that says that we keep sending missionaries to where we’ve always sent them. Well, that’s only a problem if the work they were sent to do is done. I am more than willing to say that much of missions money is being wasted. (I daresay a good bit is being wasted on people group research) But there’s a serious difference between spending it on individuals who haven’t heard the gospel before and spending it on those who have.

  3. MrPete November 3, 2015 at 11:13 pm #

    PPS: you suggest “If there is a group of people that is isolated from the gospel in the same city as a church, that church is to be rebuked and admonished for their unfaithfulness in evangelism! Instead these churches are being encouraged to pray that God will send a laborer to target this people group!” Ummm… let’s suppose that a Telegu-speaking family shows up in your neighborhood. Are you to be “admonished” for unfaithfulness if you can’t speak Telegu, one of the main languages of India?
    It really IS that hard to cross over. And that’s just the language barrier.
    In many places, there’s horrifyingly deep-seated enmity between peoples. I’ve been told “Pete, I’m sorry but they do not deserve the Gospel. They tortured my dad and left him hanging to die… I just can’t forgive yet, although I know I should.” Yes someday that bridge will be crossed… but those are real challenges.

    • Jake December 8, 2015 at 7:31 am #

      Hello again Pete! Thanks for chiming in again and giving me a chance to clarify.

      I did say ‘group.’ I don’t think that even people group strategists would advise sending a Telegu-speaking missionary to a town where there was a single Telegu-speaking family! I am talking about those contexts where they would advise that, when there is also a very large local evangelical population!

      Yes, I don’t only suggest, I claim that if the thousand or so churches near Bowling Green can’t produce a dozen people who will learn Telegu and cross over that very real barrier, they are in the wrong.

      Of course, we all understand that cultural barriers exists, sometimes of seemingly monumental proportions. And we must find ways to cross them all.

      I think that where we disagree is concerning who should be expected to cross these cultural (etc.) barriers. I understand that it is a very mainstream idea that a relatively rare breed of Christian with exceptional training is the one who will cross it. And I reject that wholeheartedly as a divergence from scriptural norms.

      Nor do I think the mainstream missions thought holds this idea with anything approaching consistency. How, for example, do we call upon all, say, American Christians to unite across racial barriers while still maintaing that cultural adaptation is a rare gift?

      As you say, these things of course take time. But so does training a missionary, learning a language, moving to the other side of the world, etc.

      I feel there is one other difference of perspective at work here. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but very often the missionaries that have followed a people-groups-charted course end up working in very rural or tribal contexts. After all, that is where the true cultural islands are. And in those places, the kind of cultural animosity that you describe in your comment is perhaps as severe as anywhere in the world. People in large cities, even in relatively homogeneous Chinese cities, are more accustomed to crossing a cultural barrier just to function. The only reason I’d point that out is to say that when we talk about this combination of deep enmity (the you-killed-my-father-and-I-loathe-you-will-all-my-being sort) and next-door proximity, it is a phenomenon that is far from the norm in the world. It would be an extreme minority of cases. Even in cities in the United State or China that have seen their share of racial tension and hatred, a significant percentage of the population maintains peaceable relations across racial divides. What percentage of the world’s Christians have that kind of intrinsic hatred toward their neighbors such that it will take them years to overcome it enough to share the gospel?

      So, yeah, give me proximity over cultural similarity anyday.

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