This is an article from the November-December 2004 issue: Which Peoples Need Priority Attention? (Part 1)

A Model for Determining the Most Needy Unreached or Least-Reached Peoples

A Model for Determining the Most Needy Unreached or Least-Reached Peoples

Editor’s note: in this Mission Frontiers we return to a cover theme we last addressed almost three years ago: “Which peoples need priority attention?”  To do so, we have invited Dan Scribner (director of Joshua Project) to share his perspective.  For our following (January-February) issue, we have invited Todd Johnson (director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity) to tackle the same question.  Note that we have more good material than print space available, so you’ll find supplemental material on both this and the Joshua Project website.  (This related material explains definitions, the concept of “understanding and acceptance,” and Joshua Project itself.)  As always, we welcome your comments and questions in response.

Two thousand years ago the Lord gave us the command to make followers of Christ from among all the ethnic peoples of the world.  Significant segments of the world are still considered unreached.  In the light of such great need, how do we prioritize need in fulfilling the unfinished task of the Great Commission?  Our purpose here is to identify criteria to determine the most needy unreached peoples, to apply these criteria to a database of people groups, and to generate an approximate list of priority unreached peoples.  Prioritizing is potentially controversial.  Need can be defined in many ways because an individual’s values and beliefs strongly influence his or her priorities.  Below is one attempt to recognize the unreached people groups currently most in need of evangelization.  There are certainly other valid models and other sets of data that would yield somewhat different results.  The data used in this model is available at

Prioritization Model

The current Joshua Project list shows approximately 6,900 unreached peoples.  The model presented here attempts to assign a “score” or priority ranking to each of these people groups.   A scoring system from 0 to 100 is used, with 100 indicating the least Christian presence and influence.  Scoring points are set in four general areas:

  1. Progress of, or response to the Gospel (35% weighting, lower Christian presence = higher score).  See the Joshua Project Progress Scale (“From On/Off to a Scale” on page 9) for details of this measure.  This scale is primarily based on % Evangelical and several church-planting progress indicators.  This criterion is given the greatest weight because it represents the most important factor in measuring the progress of the Gospel in a culture.
  2. Population (25% weighting, larger people group = higher score). The rationale of this weighting is that the larger a people group, the more likely it will have an influence on the smaller groups around it.  The population weighting in this model will bias the results toward larger groups.  Population would be a good criterion to try varying in other iterations of this model. 
  3. Country location (25% weighting, greater persecution level and less human development and lower national percent evangelical levels = higher score).  This area attempts to measure the political, persecution, economic, educational and spiritual environment of a people group, based on their country of residence. 
  4. Ministry tool availability (15% weighting, fewer tools = higher score).  This area is weighted least because a ministry tool can be produced but not necessarily available or in use.

Within the criteria areas are various measures, each with value ranges that are assigned point scores.  Table 1 outlines the scoring system. 
An overall score is generated for each people group by summing the points from all the criteria.  People groups with the highest scores are suggested as the highest priority.


On pages 10-13 is a listing of the 233 highest-scoring people groups. These are all the groups that scored 83 and above using this prioritization method.  The 83 scoring level is an arbitrary cutoff point for space reasons.  Approximately 354 million individuals live in these 233 priority unreached people groups.

Trends and Observations

Trends by country, region, people cluster and religion emerge when applying this model.  Table 2 outlines the rankings by country. It is interesting to note that the highest-scoring countries are located in North Africa, but the countries with the largest numbers of people groups are concentrated in the Middle East and China.

Also of note is that nearly half of the 60 top-ranking people groups are located in the adjacent countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.  (A missionary serving in Pakistan recently visited Joshua Project and claimed that “as Pakistan goes, so goes the Middle East and Muslim world.”)  The 10/40 Window is prominent in this prioritization.  Of the 233 peoples on this list, 216 live in countries within the 10/40 Window.

Patrick Johnstone has developed the concept of Affinity Blocs and People Clusters.  (See the Definitions article on the Joshua Project website.)  People Clusters are a way of associating similar people groups.  These larger clusters are often the more commonly recognized people names in the missions community.  Table 3 shows the prioritization scores across People Clusters.

Interesting trends emerge in Indonesia.  While only seven Indonesian groups are in the top 233, there are numerous Indonesia groups scoring between 75 and 82 that do not appear on this list for space reasons.  (Complete data is available at .; While Indonesia ranks somewhat down the list in ranking as a country, the People Cluster ranking in Table 3 would suggest that there are strong pockets of unreached in various areas of Indonesia and other areas of significantly-reached Indonesian peoples.  Note the number of People Clusters in Sumatra.

Table 4 lists the religion rankings.  Islamic groups dominate the list, followed by Traditional ethnic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism.

Weighting Somewhat Determines Trends

We would encourage other weightings and models to be applied to this data.  The weightings in this prioritization model will somewhat pre-determine the trends.  For example:

  1. People group population size was weighted quite heavily; thus, small groups tend not to appear on the list. 
  2. Countries resistant to Christianity were significantly weighted, so groups in those countries will tend to appear on the list. 
  3. Less-developed and poorer nations were weighted, so again groups in those countries will tend to appear on the list.

Issues and Notes

  • Joshua Project numbers do not necessarily “sum to 100”, and priority is given to input from on-the-ground researchers.  This can sometimes cause a bit of a data “fruit-salad” effect, but hopefully this reflects reality as much as possible.  Different researchers close to the situation may have different perceptions, but even though these may differ, they may be more accurate than those of someone removed from the situation.
  • While continually being refined and updated by a network of missions researchers, the Joshua Project ethnic people groups database still has errors, duplicates, older data and data gaps.  In the process of developing this prioritization model, several errors were found and corrected as well as duplicates merged.  It is very possible that some of the people groups on this list should not be ranked as highly because of significant church-planting movements that Joshua Project is unaware of.  We welcome any and all feedback regarding this data and ranking.
  • Data on the Joshua Project Website is the latest available and may vary slightly from the data listed in this article.

A “Unimax Peoples” List?

Hopefully the Joshua Project all peoples database represents another step toward a unimax peoples list.  A Unimax people is defined as “the maximum sized group sufficiently unified to be the target of a single people movement to Christ, where ‘unified’ refers to the fact that there are no significant barriers of either understanding or acceptance to stop the spread of the gospel”   (“Finishing the Task,” Perspectives on the World Christian  Movement, Winter / Koch, 1999).  While the Joshua Project list goes beyond traditional ethnolinguistic lists and allows religion, caste and various cultural distinctives to define a people group, Unimax peoples may involve distinctives (such as education, political and ideological convictions, historical enmity between clans or tribes, customs and behaviors, etc.) that are not considered in the current Joshua Project list of peoples.


This list of priority peoples can serve as a focal point to bring the gospel to some of the most needy people groups in the world.  Yet at the same time, existing ministry among people groups not on this list should not be considered irrelevant or less important.  Every individual is of infinite value, whether he or she lives in the most unreached people group or next door.  The King of Kings is worthy of worship from every tribe, tongue, nation and people.  Scripture promises that there will be some from every people group in heaven before the Throne.  As Dr. John Piper has exhorted, let us “demonstrate and spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.”

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