The world is a very different place than it was nearly 50 years ago when the people group paradigm was birthed. Should the missions community still view the world as a waffle? Is traditional ethnolinguistic people group thinking still relevant? This issue will address how the waffle barriers are changing. Global trends are creating new social dynamics and changing both the barriers and boundaries by which groups are defined. New hybrid, trans-national and dynamic groupings must be considered for evangelistic purposes, Disciple Making and Church Planting Movements. Most of the material in this issue is important in shaping our thinking. But be alert for heart knowledge as well as head knowledge; don’t overlook the heart-engaging Unreached of the Day prayer section. See all the articles
I stared at the booklet on the desk in utter amazement. It was November 1991. I was sitting in the prayer room in Hudson Taylor Hall on the campus of the U.S. Center for World Mission. My prayer shift was from midnight to 4:00 a.m. It was now 2:30. As I turned the pages of the booklet, I struggled to comprehend what I was seeing.
A Brief History of Global People Group Lists No comprehensive, global list of people groups existed when Dr. Ralph Winter gave his landmark presentation at Lausanne ’74. Partial lists began to be developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Since then, three global people group lists have emerged: Center for the Study of Global Christianity’s World Christian Database (WCD) International Mission Board SBC’s Church Planting Progress Indicators (CPPI) database1 Joshua Project (JP) database
People group research is not a fixed science. Rather, it is a constantly changing dynamo of motion as people groups move, assimilate into other cultures, regain and lose their languages, come to Christ and fall away from the faith. As a result, a continually updated people group list is essential for decision-making in the mission world. Lists help believers gain a clearer picture of the remaining task of world evangelization that is so dear to the heart of God.
The world is choking on data, most of which has no eternal impact. Today, we take data for granted. Forty years ago, it was a different story. One Bethany leader said, as he made his way to the mission field in 1981: "As a young missionary with Bethany International, I was starving for data. Who are the unreached, where are they, are they open to the gospel, how can we gain access to them? I had just graduated from what is now Bethany Global University and was a “wet-behind-the- ears” young leader of a new church-planting team. We read newsletters, read books, wrote letters and made phone calls, seeking information to help guide our direction. Our best data came from missionaries passing through on furlough. We eventually found our place in Asia among an under-reached people group. We may have been one of Bethany’s first data-driven teams."
The African Church and the growing indigenous mission agencies are becoming more familiar with global people group lists published online. As we celebrate what God has been doing through data curators, there are still concerns about the accuracy of the lists and the accompanying information. It is worth exploring the various views because many churches and agencies depend on the information presented in people groups lists to inform strategies, prayer, and missionary training. Until the whole Church is mobilized to reach the whole world, our work as researchers is not done.
Latin America has been involved in the global movement of cross-cultural missions for decades. For quite some time we received missionaries from other nations and then by the grace of God, we became involved in sending. The Latin Church was impacted by the lists of people groups (UPGs and UUPGs) it was presented, and today we can identify numerous missionaries with years of cross- cultural field experience who were mobilized by these lists. Even now in 2021, mobilization efforts employ lists among their other varied resources. People group lists have been extremely useful in their roles of shaping understanding, motivating people to pray, challenging people to obey and causing people to go.
Never before has the Church had as much access to missions-related information. Yet, despite this unprecedented access to information, the Church doesn’t seem to be using its resources wisely and effectively. Both the number of Unreached People Groups and the number of individuals in Unreached People Groups have increased since 2010. Population growth among the unreached and new discoveries in people group distinctions are outpacing the Church’s ability to reach people with the gospel. There are now over 3.2 billion people in Unreached People Groups. Yet, it is estimated that only about 3% of missionaries and 1% of mission finances are being directed to the unreached, that is, those with little or no access to the gospel.
The Nigeria Evangelical Missions Association (NEMA) is the umbrella body of the Nigeria missions movement. It was established in 1982 to foster the work of world evangelization by providing a common platform through networking, empowering and mobilizing. At inception NEMA was comprised of six missions organizations but has since grown to a national network with 150 member agencies and 15,000 missionaries serving in 197 countries.
People group lists historically have used two factors to identify each people group: language spoken and ethnicity, where “ethnicity” is defined broadly. Such lists may be referred to as ethno-linguistic because both factors were used to form the lists. However, in practice, language spoken has been given more, if not exclusive, emphasis than ethnicity as people groups were identified. This emphasis on language spoken has worked reasonably well in most parts of the world, but it does not work well in South Asia.
For a very long time, many missiologists have tended to measure “progress in the Great Commission” (however that was defined) to some extent in the context of people groups, and how they are reached, evangelized and/or Christianized.
Justin has put his finger on what I believe is the number one problem related to current people group thinking. For decades numerous voices have cast doubt on whether the people group paradigm can adequately describe human grouping in urban contexts. As centers of amalgamation, assimilation and integration of ethnicities, languages, and cultures, cities create hybrid or hyphenated identities over time.
Why is engaging NextGen with people group information important? Barna estimates that three out of four US churchgoers have either never heard of the Great Commission or do not know what it means. Yet, we are depending on the NextGen to be our missions sending force of the future. Something must change. It is critical to engage a younger generation of Christians with unreached peoples.
It was in the 1960s and 1970s that Christian researchers began in earnest to identify the people groups of the world. When the original lists were made, there was limited communication and very little movement of peoples. At that time, an international flight may have cost 10 times what it does currently and taken much longer. An international telephone call typically cost several dollars per minute. The common way to stay in touch with people in other countries was often by hand- written postal letter.
In 1974, when Ralph Winter introduced the concept of what would become known as “unreached peoples” (he used “hidden people”), it would have been impossible to gauge the impact this concept would have on mission thinking and strategy. Almost 50 years later we can look back and see how profoundly a few simple insights can shape a whole movement.
Everyone deserves to have the Word of God in their heart language. Today, we are closer to seeing the Bible translated into every language than ever before, but significant barriers remain. Over 20% of the world’s people are still waiting for the Bible in their own language (6,600+ languages). “Last mile” is used to describe the short final segment of delivery of services or items to customers. Last-mile logistics are usually the most complicated and expensive aspects of completing the service or delivery. This same dynamic occurs in completing the task of translating the Bible into every language.
Is it possible to be both deeply committed to healthy, deeply transformational discipleship, and also to the rapid multiplication of disciples? Opponents of the trend in missions toward DMMs (Disciple Making Movements) and CPMs (Church Planting Movements) often express concern about the rapid growth. Are they truly being grounded in God’s Word? Is allegiance shifting to Jesus over Mohammed or other religious philosophies?
Thinking about the theme of this MF, I wondered: What if Lausanne ’74 hadn’t happened? Without Lausanne ’74, what might or might not have happened on the global level? With no Lausanne Covenant, would there be even less unity in the Church? Even less progress on social and justice issues for the poor? Less cooperation and understanding across cultures? On a personal level, if Ralph Winter had not presented the vision for reaching the unreached at Lausanne, my life would have been very different.
Click on the attached .pdf icon within this article to read the Unreached of the Day