The concept of unreached people groups is a helpful way for Christians to organize their efforts toward global disciple-making. Around the world, people group themselves along certain lines- lines that also present significant obstacles to the spread of the gospel from one group to another. Ethnography, the practice of studying and categorizing groups of people, provides the mission with a framework for the measurement, organization, and global strategy for missionary engagement. When we know what languages people speak, we can make efforts to get them the scriptures and a gospel witness that they can understand.
This “people group thinking,” now common to most involved in the missions world, is relatively new to the scene. It was championed by Ralph Winter and Donald McGavran at the Lausanne International Congress on Global Evangelization in 1974. Hinging on a new interpretation of the ancient Greek word ethnos (“nations”) found in some of the missionary passages of scripture, people group thinking asserted that the goal of Christian mission is to reach people of every ethnolinguistic people group.
This was a radical departure from the historical missionary conversation, which focused on language/affinity blocs, countries, regions, and an ongoing debate over whether to focus on “harvest fields” vs. “pioneer areas.” Nevertheless, most major evangelical missions agencies adopted this new understanding of “nations,” and reorganized their systems and structures accordingly. Strategies were built around the prioritization of certain groups over others based on ethnography, population, degree of difficulty, and access to the gospel.
People Group missiology goes like this: according to passages like Revelation 7:9 (“..behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…”), God desires that people from every nation (ethne) in the world come to worship Him. The church should, therefore, concentrate its efforts to that end by redeploying personnel and resources away from “reached” people groups and toward the “unreached.” The categories of “reached” and “unreached” were further defined as being “2% or fewer evangelical.”
The concept of ethnolinguistic people groups is borrowed from 1960s anthropology. During that time, anthropology as an academic discipline moved away from science toward theory. Cultural anthropology was separated out from the sciences of archeology and biological and linguistic anthropology. This is important to missions because the concept of “people groups” is based on the old, measurable, observable “scientific” approach to the study of humans. It deliberately takes into consideration only what can be objectively observed by outsiders.
People groups, though, are not static. Through intermarriage, assimilation, global influence, and desertion, ethnolinguistic groups die out all the time. Meanwhile, new such groups are emerging at a surprising rate. According to missiologist Carol Davis, transitional peoples– second- and third-generation immigrant groups, for example– are not simply combinations of host- and home-cultures. They are completely new people groups, with distinct cultural identities, worldviews, and use of language. This complicates the notion that we might somehow be gaining on the goal of finishing the task. The ever-changing unbelieving world is a moving missiological target.
Neither is the spiritual status of a group permanent. Once a person is in Christ, he is forever in Christ. But if he is not faithful to make disciples of his own, knowledge of the Creator can and will be lost in future generations. That’s why, according to the “reachedness” statistics, places like Spain, France, and much of the Middle East are all now “unreached.” None of the seven churches of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation have survived. In all of Turkey, where those churches once thrived, there are only three thousand known believers today. A “reached” group isn’t necessarily always reached.
While ethnography is helpful to us in missions, it is not strictly biblical. Jesus never mentions the idea of unreached people groups; His emphasis was on those who believed and those who did not. In Acts 1:8, without any mention of ethnolinguistic groups, Jesus further commissions His disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Paul seems to have only two missiological categories for people groups: Jews and Gentiles. This was the radical shift in the New Testament concerning the recipients of the gospel: Christ is the only salvation for people of any ethnicity. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the New Testament authors displayed any anthropological savvy in their missiology.
So what about all the mentions of “nations” (ethnos) in the scriptures? You only get “ethnolinguistic people groups” if you’re very selective. It’s true that the Great Commission sends us to make disciples of “all nations,” but that same term is used elsewhere to mean something other than ethnolinguistic people groups. In the Pentecost account in Acts 2, Luke writes that “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation (ethne) under heaven.” If he actually meant that there were Jews and devout people from every people group, well then the “task” of “reaching” them was accomplished in the first century. If instead he means only that Jerusalem was quite diverse at the time, it presents a problem for this particular understanding of the word.
There is no historical evidence of ethnography ever being a factor in missions. According to David Bosch, even the word mission was not applied to the idea of Christians sharing the gospel with non-Christians in other cultures until the sixteenth century. Before that, it was used in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity (as in, the Father sent the Son). So the over-simplification of missions as “reaching all the unreached people groups” is relatively new. Roland Allen, in his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? suggests that Paul’s missiological unit was the province (Acts 16), as opposed to people group.
Again, the concept of people groups is extremely helpful to our mission. As we identify significant barriers to the communication of the gospel, we can be smart about overcoming them. Every Christ-follower everywhere needs an indigenous expression of church in which to worship. As God has demonstrated since Babel, cultures are valuable things, and part of His redemptive work among humanity.
But as helpful as it can be, the anthropological approach to missions can also be a problem for Christians who are trying to discern God’s direction. When the categories of people groups, particularly “reached” and “unreached,” “engaged” and “unengaged,” become a presupposition for God’s leadership for our missionary efforts, we limit Him. When we assume that our work among the lost of one group is somehow of more kingdom value than that among the lost in another, we play a part that isn’t ours to play.
The only biblical mechanism for organizing our work is the Holy Spirit. Through the local church, He equips, calls, and sends missionaries. In Acts 16, Luke writes that Paul clearly had a desire to preach the gospel in Asia, where it seemed to be his assumption that the gospel had not yet been proclaimed. Nevertheless, he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit. As Paul and his companions attempted to go into Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them. Finally, they were lead to Macedonia by a vision. As God orchestrates His Church on His mission, He doesn’t do things the way we would do them. By using human means, God has proven Himself to be neither logical (by human standards) nor efficient.
There’s even a dangerous heresy that springs out of the people group thinking interpretation of Matthew 24:14. Some have come to assert that Christ will not return, indeed cannot come back until this task of reaching every unreached people group is completed. Some have even taken to using this as a motivation for missions- that Jesus is just waiting in the wings, unable to return until we finish the job. This, of course, contradicts verse 36 of that same passage, where Jesus says that no one– not even the Son of Man– knows when He will return.
The greatest danger in the anthropological approach is that it has made missions a problem to be solved rather than our very identity in Christ. Francis Dubose, who coined the word missional, wrote that God is a sending God. We are a sent people. As Christopher Wright reminds us in his book, The Mission of God, the Father was sending long before He sent the Son. It’s His nature. And ours, as His people, is to be sent. There’s no other way to be a follower of Jesus.
So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!), but because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.
My friend Kyle Goen recently posted about his experience using the internet to meet people in Belgium. I’m proud of him for stepping out of his comfort zone (even further) in order to build relationships with people in Belgium.
The concept is simple: lots of people are using the web to meet people. Sure, many (most?) of them are not looking for platonic, Christ-centered relationships. Some are, but don’t know it yet. Skydivers, moms, coffee enthusiasts, and Abba tribute bands are looking for others who share their interests. Many are simply out to find a friend. Forums, message boards, and social networking sites across the internet are full of open invitations to personal relationships. The opportunity for ministry is tremendous.
Kyle used meetup.com to start his own group. Dozens of people responded. Eight showed up to the fist meetup. He admits that he wasn’t initially a fan of the idea. It wasn’t long ago that only perverts and nerds met people online. You often hear about predators, scammers, and worse lurking around on social sites. It turns out that the virtual world, like the real world, is not safe.
We were never promised safety. In fact, we have been sent like sheep among wolves. So be smart. Be courageous. Never go alone, even (especially?) into cyberspace. Don’t give out too much personal information. Communicate well in order to establish expectations. Lead with Jesus, He’s a great filter. Love whomever God brings you.
It’s funny- “meeting people” is often cited as the biggest challenge to mission and ministry around the world. Yet there are meetup opportunities in your city today. Why not take people up on their open invitations?
Talk all you want about being missions-minded or globally-conscious, the evidence betrays your poorly-developed missiology.
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The American who moves into the slums when his countrymen almost always live uptown. The third-world-born doctor, the female cab driver, mixed-race families. These are people who deliberately choose to not conform to social expectations. When someone bucks the system, people take notice.
Basic to our missiology are the concepts of cultural norms and expectations. Every culture has pre-determined ways to think about and interact with different kinds of outsiders. Everyone has their place. In a global city, for example, some outsiders are the scapegoats. These are usually a lower-status immigrant group that takes the blame for all of society’s ills. These cultural norms tend to be built around social stereotypes, and when an outsider doesn’t behave as expected, he doesn’t fit the pigeonhole. This can be seen as good or bad, but it’s always remarkable.
Usually, missionaries put their efforts into conforming to cultural expectations. Follow the norms, the thinking goes, and people will be more likely to hear the message. In missiology, this is called contextualization; minimizing the differences between the missionary and those to whom he ministers so that the unevangelized can hear and understand the message without getting hung up on the “other-ness” of the outsider’s presence.
That’s why field workers learn language, dress appropriately, and do all the customary social things. In Asia, one might bow deeply to show respect to an elder. In the Arab world, women avoid eye contact with men. In Russia, there’s kissing. Every culture has some sort of greeting, public comportment, and mealtime rituals. These things may not seem to have any direct bearing on the communication of the gospel, but they really do. Failure to follow the rules only serves to highlight the foreign-ness of the outsider and his message.
But blending in isn’t always our goal. As Jesus-followers, there’s a time to blend in and a time to stand out.
Obviously, believers should stand out in some ways. The Bible is clear that we ought to repay evil with good, forgive every offense, be known for our love (both for one another and for our enemies), and live such good lives that unbelievers glorify God in heaven. Being in Christ makes us pilgrims and strangers, even in our own hometowns. Our other-ness marks us as God’s “called out” people.
In some cases, breaking societal norms will get a person into trouble. Because of the company He kept, Jesus earned a reputation for being a “glutton and a drunk, a friend to tax collectors and sinners.” (Luke 7:34) Some people certainly used this as an excuse to write off anything and everything Jesus said. The religious may have accused Him of syncretism- going too far in His efforts to contextualize.
In other cases, breaking the norms can add credibility to our claims of internal spiritual transformation. Humble submission to one another may not be a norm in many cultures, but it is a distinct value of the Kingdom of God. Revenge may be acceptable in many cultures, but Christ-followers are called to stand out by repaying evil with good. Following Jesus makes us irreparably different and necessarily foreign.
Note: How is a missionary to know when to conform to social norms and when to break them? The Holy Spirit, who knows culture and the hearts of men. He alone can guide us into incarnation of the gospel that is both cultural and acultural; specific to context yet universal. Culture cannot be navigated from afar. Only the faithful worker on the field, walking in the Spirit of God and committed to incarnation, can understand the implications of meeting or breaking cultural expectations. While it is entirely appropriate that, for accountability’s sake, a sending church question a worker’s approach to cultural immersion, we must take care not to impose our cultural meanings of the norms of other cultures. This is missionary work.
Most missionary strategy is developed with one major assumption: that a missionary presence of one sort or another might be welcomed by the people to whom we feel “called” to minister. With all the missions talk of “embracing” the “unengaged” and “reaching””unreached” people groups, we need to consider one elemental aspect of ministry across cultures: What if people don’t want to be engaged by Christians?
The scenario isn’t hard to imagine: popular sentiment leads a people to reject the presence of outsiders and their influence. This can occur whether the outsiders are known or unknown, but it seems most common where the influence of outsiders is only imagined to be threatening. Some places, like Turkey, justify outright persecution of Christians by categorizing Christianity as a crime that insults “Turkishness” and Islam.
Many countries have laws restricting missionary access and activity. We tend to dismiss such laws as being imposed by controlling governments rather than reflecting the will of the people. But what about other warning signs like anti-Christian graffiti, social shunning, or outright opposition? At what point do we consider a people hostile to us and our message? Does the response of the recipient have any bearing on our efforts? Basic to our missiology is the question of whether we should attempt to continue work among inhospitable (or even hostile) people.
A “welcome” can be a subjective thing. In some places, Westerners are met with government delegations or fattened-calf feasts. In others places, missionaries may not be officially welcomed, but are shown hospitality all the same from locals. Workers often tell of being met by nationals who had been anticipating their arrival after having had dreams and visions of Westerners coming with an important message.
The majority of the world today meets Christians from the West with a collective yawn; an indifferent tolerance that neither loves nor hates us. On the one hand, our presence might mean community development or material wealth. On the other hand, our influence is seen as toxic and exploitative. Consequently, they nothing us.
Paul certainly faced hostile crowds during his travels. Sometimes he challenged such opposition, claiming his rights as a Roman citizen and condemning his accusers. Other times, the Apostle was run out of town by zealous religious people or by protective friends. so we see that despite his “calling” or “passion,” he didn’t always stay where he wasn’t welcome.
Jesus addresses the possibility of an unwelcoming community in Luke 10 when He tells His disciples “When you enter a town and are not welcomed, go into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town we wipe from our feet as a warning to you.” Earlier in that same passage, Christ mentions the harvest and the constant danger of working in the harvest fields. He never mentions working in “resistant” or “hard places.”
Obviously, we cannot confuse a red carpet reception for the leadership of the Holy Spirit. But is it good and biblical missiology to insist on maintaining a missionary presence in the face of persecution, opposition, rejection, and indifference? Are we there “for their own good,” “whether they like it or not?”
The answer must lie in our obedience to the guidance of the Spirit. There is no better strategy than to go where He leads and to stay as He directs. Resistance is best measured at the individual level, and even then, only the Spirit knows the heart of man. He is surely at work among the peoples of the earth, and He alone prepares every person of peace to welcome His messengers.