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.