Emerging People Groups

CubaFloridaThe concept of “people groups” has radically affected they way we do missions. It used to be that missionaries were sent to minister to the people of a given country. These days, however, we recognize that people group themselves and identify with communities that may not necessarily conform to (sometimes random and often disputed) political boundaries. Consider the following definition, taken from peoplegroups.org

A “people group” is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity. Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

The idea is that people group themselves in such a way as to create commonality with some people and (therefore) distinction from others. Now, I say “people group themselves…” but really, most of us are born into a group and stay in the group our whole lives. Because these groups create our way of understanding and relating to the world around us, leaving one group for another is very difficult, if not impossible.

Most missionaries these days are sent to engage a people group with the gospel. They usually start by researching the group’s culture and history, and examining that group’s interactions with other groups. That’s how we know, for example that even though the Basque people group resides on both sides of the France/Spain border, they are one ethnolinguistic people group. This is good information to have when we’re trying to coordinate the work among the Basque people. Under the old paradigm, we might have assumed that they were two groups.

My concern with “people group thinking” as it is commonly held, is that it tends to assume that people groups are static, well-defined things. A missions strategy based on people groups would tend to focus on sending missionaries to work among a people group. Once that people group is “reached,” the idea is that the missionaries would move on to another “unreached” people group. One thing that we don’t seem to have taken into account is how drastically people groups change.

Culture is dynamic. It never stops changing. Interconnectivity opens the world to global influences that have dramatic effects on even the most traditional cultures. Growing generation gaps and socioeconomic discrepancies fragment people groups. Aggressive exportation of culture through media, commercialism, and politics, leaves a lasting impression on all people groups. Some are assimilated. Others are willfully abandoned. Some die out altogether, while new ones are being born all the time. The changes that used to take place over the course of centuries now happen daily on social networking websites. When cultures bump up against each other, people are profoundly affected.

Take, for example, well-established immigrant people groups. If a group of ethnic Chinese move to London, they would tend to live in community with one another. But that transplanted Chinese community is not immune to the influence of British culture. They may hold tightly to certain traditions and aspects of their home culture, but, for survival’s sake, they are certain to adopt some of the customs of their host culture as well. How long before that Chinese community becomes something else entirely?

When a group displaced from its people group has become culturally different enough from it’s home culture that, for changes to its values, traditions, and social structure, it could not easily re-integrate into that home culture, it is a new people group.

When a visitor from the home culture visits friends among the displaced group, how does he feel? If, due to changes in worldview, he can no longer fully relate to the group, it is a new people group.

When a displaced people group adopts so much of its host culture’s language, dress, politics, and perspective that it is rejected by its its home culture, it is a new people group.

That’s why the children of missionaries aren’t called “MKs” (Missionary Kids) anymore. Now they’re called “TCKs” (Third Culture Kids). They don’t really belong to the culture that their parents left or to the one in which they’ve come to live.

During the recent elections in Florida, the media paid a lot of attention to Cuban exiles there who are politically active. Since Fidel Castro took control, a growing number of Cubans have fled to the U.S. since the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Today, there are 2 million Cubans living in the United States; 650,000 in Miami alone. Separated by ninety miles, fifty years, and lots of “Spanglish,” are the Cubans in Miami the same people group as those who have stayed in Cuba?

Our missiology needs to hold to an unchanging God and an ever-changing world. Why do we continue to see “emerging” as a cultural term and not a missiological one?

About E. Goodman

Ernest Goodman is a missiologist, writer, teacher, and communications strategist.