This is an article from the January-February 2005 issue: Which Peoples Need Priority Attention? (Part 2)

Priority Peoples: a Customized Approach

Priority Peoples: a Customized Approach

Editor’s note: in this Mission Frontiers we present the second part of a cover theme introduced in our previous issue – “Which peoples need priority attention?” In that issue we invited Dan Scribner (of Joshua Project) to share his perspective, and in this issue we have invited Todd Johnson and Peter Crossing (of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity) to tackle the same question. We encourage our readers to compare and contrast the authors’ approaches and answers. Our intent in this series is to help churches, mission agencies, and others to reflect on how and where they might deploy their resources most strategically. As always, we welcome your comments and questions in response.

Every year Christian churches spend over $1 billion to collect detailed information on their membership. Much of this information is collected, collated, and analyzed in the World Christian Database (WCD), where it is also integrated with demographic information from the United Nations, religious data from half of the world’s national censuses, scholarship on religion, and numerous other sources. The result is two sets of data tables: one recording the number of religionists (including nonreligious and atheists) for every country (Table 1 in each country article of the World Christian Encyclopedia, or WCE); and the other offering estimates for membership of every Christian denomination in the world (Table 2 in each country article of the WCE). While one result of this effort is a startling portrait of the diversity of global Christianity, an unintended consequence is an equally compelling picture of where Christianity is not present. In fact, we cannot adequately assess the unfinished task of world evangelization without a careful inventory of Christians within the world’s total population.

Building an ethnolinguistic taxonomy

This picture of the world’s Christian and religious situation can then be further broken down into a classification of over 13,000 ethnolinguistic peoples. This classification is built upon two separate approaches to the world’s peoples, described below as ethnometrics and linguametrics (and explained in detail in Table 18-1 of World Christian Trends, p. 615).

Ethnometrics: a culture code

First, this enumeration is built on the taxonomy and classification of races, ethnicity, cultures, peoples, and families, with physical/geographical/genetic characteristics as portrayed in The new Encyclopedia Britannica (15th edition, 1975-2001 versions). The inclusion of this type of analysis is an affirmation of several key points:

  • the centrality of indigenous cultures to local expressions of Christianity
  • the right to exist of minority tribes and peoples
  • their autonomy in their own areas
  • their importance from the Christian standpoint vis-à-vis the world’s dominant peoples and cultures
  • the need to reduce the imperialistic influence of more dominant peoples (especially Western culture) in non-Western local churches and lands.

It is also an affirmation of the necessity to view people, not primarily as nationals of a given country, but primarily as members of the natural homogeneous units to which they belong and through which they may most effectively be described. Example: Kazakhs, who are coded MSY41e as a culture.

Linguametrics: a language code

The second approach emerges from the study of the world’s languages and their relationships, including language speakers, language influence, language usage, and lingua francas. This approach is called linguametrics, with all languages classified by a language code. It results in seeing the world divided among 5,000 different clusters (or outer languages) and 13,500 different languages (or inner languages) enumerated in the ‘World Language Classification’ and described in detail in World Christian Encyclopedia, Part 9 (“Linguametrics”) and in the two-volume survey The Linguasphere Register. Example: the Kazakh language is coded as 44-AABC-c under the Turkic cluster.

Ethnolinguistics: a culture/language code

These first two approaches can be merged to provide a third approach involving both culture and language, resulting in a single integrated listing of what are here termed ethnolinguistic peoples. Example: combining the two codes above, the Kazakhs of Kazakhstan speaking Kazakh are coded MSY41e—44-AABC-c as an ethnolinguistic people. Some cultures are identified with a single language (e.g., Kazakhs), while others may consist of peoples speaking hundreds of different languages yet still identifiable as single cultures (e.g., New Guinea Papuans).

Measuring Christian outreach by ethnolinguistic people

To utilize this ethnolinguistic classification to set mission priorities, the first task is to measure the various forms of Christian outreach at the level of each people. This begins with a careful assessment of the number of Christians in every people in every country, keeping in mind that the total number of Christians by people must add up to the totals by denomination in each country. Next, evangelistic tools utilized by Christians for evangelism can be tallied by people. Because most of these resources relate to a particular language, each resource (scriptures, radio, audiovisuals, etc.) is assigned to a single language code. This provides a bridge by which the information can be applied to every ethnolinguistic people. Finally, these language tools are combined with other evangelistic factors (e.g. cross-cultural mission presence, and mass evangelism) to estimate the number of non-Christians who have been evangelized, i.e. are adequately aware of Christ, Christianity, and the gospel. (See pages 756-757 in World Christian Trends for a detailed explanation of these factors.)

An updated approach to prioritization

This article offers an update to the approach we took in the January 2002 issue of Mission Frontiers. There we focused on the application of our targeting code (T), which measures the presence or absence of 24 basic Christian ministries. Our 2002 article identified 815 peoples with the lowest coverage (T=1). This is still a valid approach, and a short visit to the World Christian Database (WCD) reveals that this list now includes 926 peoples. The increase is explained by, first, the addition of new peoples to the WCD in the past three years and, second, the updating of the World Christian Database from mid-2000 to mid-2005 estimates.

But the innovation we introduce here results from the advent of the online version of the World Christian Database, which contains 100 variables related to each ethnolinguistic people. Over 50 of these variables can be utilized directly by various users to generate a variety of tailored, prioritized lists of peoples. Prioritization is no longer limited to a single list. The following examples show how lists can differ when differing criteria are used to generate them.

Priority lists and the WCD

These seven lists show that there is a significant level of customization built into the World Christian Database (WCD) in producing priority lists of peoples. Our hope is that users will use the sorting and filtering capabilities of the WCD to narrow down their priorities. For frontier mission applications, one only has to look at peoples who are the least Christian, the least evangelized, the least targeted, the least resourced, the least discipled, and so on.
A complementary approach: estimating the number of unreached peoples

With all the of the data presented above, it would be tempting to claim that one or more of these lists represents a definitive list of unreached peoples. But this is not the case. Lists of ethnolinguistic peoples, even if mixed with lists of castes and other sub-groups (such as the Joshua Project tallies), cannot represent lists of unreached peoples by definition. That is, the very definition of unreached (see sidebar on page 14 for definition) tells us that the delineation and status of unreached peoples can be definitively assessed only after frontier missionaries are on-site and the gospel has been introduced. Before that point we can only estimate what social, ethnic, or linguistic factors will hinder the spread of the gospel. Under these conditions, it is only possible to make rough estimates of the anticipated boundaries of both reached and unreached peoples. To clarify this on the accompanying table on page 15, we have expanded the “Unimax” term to “Unreached Unimax Peoples” and “Reached Unimax Peoples”.
Methodology for estimating unreached unimax peoples

Building upon the ethnolinguistic data of the World Christian Database, we have produced an update of the estimates of unreached peoples. The table titled “All Humanity in Mission Perspective, mid-2005” is an update of “All Humanity in Mission Perspective in 2000 AD” found in R. Winter and S. Hawthorne, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, WCL, 1999, p. 521. The methodology to produce this table is as follows:

1. Ethnolinguistic data from the World Christian Database was broken down by major religious tradition. This produced rows 1, 7, and 13. Row 1 is defined as peoples less than 50% evangelized (World A peoples). Row 7 is defined as peoples 50% or more evangelized (or Worlds B and C peoples). Note that, by definition, there are no least evangelized ethnolinguistic peoples (Row 1) that are predominantly Christian. This does not deny the existence of much nominalism within the wider Christian church, nor does it obviate the need for church planting as well as more traditional renewal strategies. It simply means that all of this activity should not be considered frontier missions.

2. The figures in Rows 1 and 7 were further broken down by considering caste, clan, and language to produce estimates of the number of unimax peoples in Rows 2 and 8. There is an enormous amount of literature on this subject, including Francis L.K. Hsu’s classic Clan, Caste, and Club. In past estimates of unreached peoples, most attention has been focused on caste. For example, mission planners in India have been greatly helped by the work of K. Singh, who has identified more than 4,000 divisions (many of them castes) in the Indian population. But of equal importance are language and clan. In assessing the potential delineation of unimax peoples, we have utilized the World Language Classification with over 13,000 languages and a growing literature on clans, especially among Chinese and Muslim peoples.

Estimates in rows 6 and 12 are built on the analysis of mission agency data found in the World Christian Database. Detailed studies of missionary deployment in recent years have consistently shown that most missionaries work among Christians. (For example, the India Missions Association “pin code” survey in 1997 revealed that relatively few of the thousands of indigenous Indian missionaries worked among Hindus or Muslims.)
4. Rows 13 through 18 are sums of the corresponding rows in 1-6 and 7-12.

From 10,000 to 13,000 unreached peoples

One of the major features of this updated table (page 15) is the fact that for the first time since the 1970s, the estimate of the number of unreached peoples has increased. After the initial estimate of 16,750 was rounded to 17,000 in 1978, the estimate dropped to 12,000 in 1989, and then to 10,000 in 1995 to represent progress in world evangelization. Here it has been raised to 13,000. The rationale for this is complex: while there has been undoubted progress among unreached peoples in the past 10 years, there has also been an increasing awareness of the significance of subdivisions among ethnolinguistic peoples. For example, the Somali of Somalia have been represented as a single entry on lists of unreached peoples since the 1970s. But those who work among the Somali are well aware of major clan divisions; the Somali might be considered four or even six peoples at the broadest level of clan affiliation. Furthermore, there are at least 150 clans and subclans among the Somali that are potentially significant as barriers to church-planting. One can quickly see that our estimate of 13,000 might be conservative because this same dynamic of clan is found all over the unevangelized world, ranging from Africa to China.

The main value of this table is in attempting to lay out a more thorough assessment of the unfinished task. The growth of the Church must be assessed at the most fundamental cultural unit if the Great Commission is to be taken seriously. The barriers or obstacles to the growth of the church are not theoretical and will in the final analysis prove highly significant in world evangelization. Therefore, if we now anticipate that approximately 13,000 new initiatives are needed to reach every unreached unimax people, we can best respond by sharpening our focus on those least evangelized ethnolinguistic peoples overlooked by current mission efforts.


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