Balancing people and place in missions
Jesus commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. That command necessitates focus on both peoples and also places.
In the mid-20th century, some evangelical Christians believed we were on the cusp of fulfilling the Great Commission because there were Christians located in almost every geographical country in the world. But at the First International Congress on World Evangelization in July 1974 in Lausanne, Switzerland, Ralph Winter warned triumphant Christians about “people-blindness” and “hidden peoples.” He recognized that some geographic countries simultaneously contain both very evangelized and completely unevangelized groups of people (e.g., China).
Winter’s recognition prompted a significant paradigm shift in missions strategy that placed the focus on so-called “unreached people groups” (UPGs) around the world. More than 40 years after his strategy-altering address at Lausanne, the conversation continues today. I want to provide some historical context, express some caution, and highlight a corrective to the unreached-people-group strategy that dictates so much global-mission strategy today.
Winter emphasized unreached peoples because he believed they were being ignored and neglected. The overwhelming majority of Christian missionaries at that time were working in contexts where Christians and churches were already present. He contended, “Precisely where the cross-cultural task is the largest, the cross-cultural workers are the fewest.” So churches needed to rethink their global-mission strategy to ensure that the gospel would be proclaimed to these unreached people.
Winter’s address set in motion a missiological shift from targeting geographical regions to reaching people groups. His notion of unreached people groups took on more definition in the years following. Various Lausanne Working Committees in the 1970s and 1980s labored to define the people-group concept and then continued to define “reached” and “unreached.”
In the end, after much deliberation and discussion over the course of many years, the missiological community (Joshua Project, IMB, AD 2000, and others) decided that once 2 percent of a people group are Christians, that group is “reached.” The 2 percent dividing line wasn’t biblically derived, but it informed strategy.
I’m grateful for Winter’s emphasis on unreached people and believe he provided a needed corrective to mission strategy. However, I want to share several drawbacks I’ve observed in the unreached-people-groups strategy in my time both on the mission field and also in working at a mission-sending organization.
First, we need to always remember that the 2 percent number is arbitrary. Originally, those defining an unreached people group proposed 20 percent as the dividing line (see Alan Johnson, “Major Concepts of the Frontier Mission Movement”). Other scales and numbers were proposed later. Evangelical Missions Quarterly published an article in July 1990 titled, “What Does ‘Reached’ Mean?” In that piece there is minimal agreement among the respondents. Some use “reached” to note engagement, whereas others use it to measure the number of believers. Either way, it’s critical that we hold this designation lightly and use it as a means to inform—but not dictate—mission strategy.
Second, missionary engagement doesn’t equal completion of the missionary task. In the race to accomplish the Great Commission and fulfill Jesus’s words in Matthew 24:14, some want to equate engaging people groups with completing the Great Commission. Slogans like “finish the task” can be helpful in communicating the urgency of the mission, but they can also contribute to the notion that engagement equals completion.
Third, to use a football metaphor, the goalposts are often moved in people-group strategy. Missiologists and researchers readily admit new people groups are always being discovered. And with increased urbanization, people are relocating to global cites and assimilating into other near-culture peoples. All of this makes the people-group strategy difficult to accurately measure and complete.
Fourth, while people-group lists and charts can be helpful, anyone who’s lived overseas knows how messy things can be on the ground. People don’t always self-identify in ways consistent with the people-group lists. Migration, linguistic nuances, and cultural expressions can change the way people identify. Thus it’s imperative to use the lists as guides and tools, but to remember they are merely guides and tools.
In recent years there has been an effort to highlight the concept of “place” as well as people (see Zane Pratt and David Platt). I applaud this corrective and believe it helps bring a healthy balance to the unreached-people-groups strategy and conversation. The New Testament certainly speaks of geographic locations as the gospel advances. Further, in Romans 15:19 Paul frames his mission and effectiveness in geographical terms (Jerusalem to Illyricum). The effort, then, to refocus attention on place is biblical, and it needs more attention in the ongoing unreached-people-group discussion.
As noted previously, increasing urbanization is creating a variety of challenges for the unreached-people-groups strategy. Therefore, the inclusion of place alongside peoples allows for churches and missions organizations to identify the state of the church in a given geographic location as well as in distinct people groups. The Great Commission compels us to focus our attention and efforts on both the Malay people and also the city of Kuala Lumpur.
Jesus commissions his disciples to go and make disciples of all nations. That command necessitates focus on both peoples and also places. There continues to be debate about what constitutes a people or place being “reached” with the gospel. Such debates and discussions should remind us to be flexible in our strategies and approaches, and ultimately to submit ourselves to Scripture as our primary guide. Our King has given us a task. May we all be faithful in our attempts to complete it.
Editors’ note: This article was first published at The Gospel Coalition.