Once for all… What is an Unreached People Group?
(and why is everyone getting interested in this idea?)
Let's start with the very basis of the concept--it is a fascinating story. Landing at an airport, whole square blocks and buildings suddenly jump into focus. Details not visible before become clear as a bell.
This is what happened when Protestants finally decided to send their own missionaries out across a strange and mysterious world. The Biblical command was simple: disciple the nations.
But as soon as missionaries "landed" they discovered that winning individuals was unexpectedly difficult. Most "people" lived within the tight grip of a "people," a social structure, a culture, an extended family. Missionaries found that individuals could not very easily be pried out so as to "be saved" one by one. In fact, highly individualistic Americans today are probably the most likely missionaries of all to be confused by the "obstacles" of social and family constraints in non-Western societies.
In any event, soon or later, missionaries learned that the highest quality church movements were those that did not try to tear up or replace the social fabric of the "nation" to which they were sent. Thus arose the concept of "peoples" (within which people live). More than anyone else, Donald A. McGavran, a third-generation missionary in India, championed a somewhat novel idea: that missionaries ought not to consider their job done, nor assume that they have given any individual a real chance to accept Christ, unless that person can become part of what he called a "people movement."
This radical idea required missionaries to do more than evangelism. They had to plant churches. McGavran would not let missionaries "count raised hands"--only count those who had been securely folded into a vital ongoing fellowship!
A further logical conclusion is then that unless "a people movement to Christ" is set in motion, the basic missionary accomplishment has not yet been made. This means it is not good enough for there to be a few Christians, some missionaries, even a Bible translation, if there is not yet a substantial, indigenous social movement within which new believers can belong.
Aha! This now precisely defines what is or isn't an "unreached people. " A people (group) can be reached only if somehow there is achieved "a viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement," e.g. one of McGavran's "people movements." Amazingly, this has brought into focus precisely how to measure progress, how to measure what has yet to be done, how to measure what only mission organizations uniquely do (e.g. penetrate groups, not merely win individuals).
The fascinating question then arises, in any mission situation, "If we can penetrate this group with a fully indigenous people movement, how many individuals will then be brought into an unconfused opportunity to truly accept Christ and become part of His body? In other words, how large is the group?"
This may sound like an unnecessary question, but even the truly professional Wycliffe Bible Translators do not always know in advance how many people, how large a group, how many groups, will be able to read a printed translation they have developed. They number their remaining translation projects by their best guess as to the size of the "reading basin" in which they are working. They might guess there are "3,000" such tasks to go.
But when the Bible is put on cassette, or preached, or put on the radio, the distinctions in intelligibility or acceptability are even finer, and the number of groups still to be reached could be three or four times as high. Thus, estimating the number of remaining "unreached peoples" is a very subtle question, ranging as high as 10,000, even though all those groups can be listed under 6,000 accepted names for groups.
Big as these numbers are, the global church movement is enormous by comparison. There are well over 600 believing congregations for each remaining unreached people group. That's why the Adopt-A-People concept is so hopeful. The global Church has more than enough resources to see every people group reached, perhaps even as soon as the year 2000.