This is post #4 in a series on developing a new missiology.

In my last post, I summarized the origins of the current popular understanding of missions. People group thinking, as I call it, hasn’t been all bad. But neither has it been all good. This, I suspect, is due in large part to the fact that is isn’t entirely biblical.

For starters, the concept of “people groups” is easily read into scripture, but may not be explicitly found there. Sure, one can make a case that when Jesus told His disciples to go to “all nations,” He really meant “all ethno-linguistic people groups.” But did Luke mean the same when he wrote about Pentecost in Acts 2:5, saying that there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” present? Surely not.

When Paul and Barnabas were sent out by their church, (First Baptist, Antioch, naturally) Acts 13 says that they were sent by the Holy Spirit “for the special work” to which He had called them. There was no mention of people groups or um, reaching anyone. Their strategy was to follow the Spirit’s leadership. As they were led, they proclaimed the good news. Even after they shifted their focus from Jews to gentiles (again, per the Spirit’s direction), their strategy never resembled the “adopt an unreached people group” approach so common today.

My point is that “all nations” is not necessarily a firm foundation on which to base our missiology. Other than Greeks and Jews, there is little evidence that Paul and the other apostles used the concept to organize their missionary endeavors. Furthermore, if people group thinking is based on a “new” understanding of the ancient Greek, (and far be it from me to disagree with John Piper… but), it’s one that ignores the reality of a dynamic, changing social structures. The reality is that people groups die out, merge, and emerge all the time. More and more, formerly “reached” groups are falling back into the “unreached” category. Unfortunately, people group thinking doesn’t have room for anything but a static world.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people groups are a great way for us to organize our missionary efforts. I agree that different peoples need different kids of ministry and communication. The concept certainly isn’t anti-biblical, but it isn’t explicitly biblical. We put people groups into categories of “reached” and “unreached”– categories not found in scripture. Furthermore, the professionalization of missions has led to the development of complex taxonomies that measure “reachedess,” “receptivity,” and “degrees of evangelization.” Jesus concluded the Commission with the promise to be with us always, but we really don’t need Him because we’ve got it all figured out.

So the missions community is busy trying to convince people that no, God isn’t calling them to South America or to Western Europe, and are they sure God didn’t mean Indonesia? We talk about “engaging” people groups as though they were squares on a chess board just waiting to be occupied by the missionaries we move about like pawns. We allocate resources to the “hard places” because we expect God to work there, nevermind where He may, actually be leading us to go.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of people group missiology is that it replaces the Great Commission mandate to “make disciples” of the nations with “reaching” them. This subtle difference has has widespread ramifications. Now, we talk about missions as though the goal was to “reach” people or to “finish” the Great Commission. The mission is not to “reach unreached people groups,” it’s to “make disciples of all nations.”

The truth is that our responsibility to go does not end. Not when the last people group is “reached.” Not when every city has “enough” believers to take responsibility for their own. Not when everyone has had a “chance” to hear. No, our calling is to nothing less that ongoing, radical obedience to the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, it’s not our job to determine what course of action will bring God “the most glory.” God has lets us know what He want from us, and it’s not measurable, finishable, or easily managed. He wants us to obey Him. When His leadership contradicts our strategies, I say we should go with God.

To be clear– I appreciate the work of the missiologists and practitioners who have gone before. I don’t in any way claim to know more than they. But the Unreached People Group philosophy held by groups like the Joshua Project and others isn’t the only way to understand missions. In fact, I think there is a better and more biblical way.

NEXT: If not Unreached People Groups, then how should we go about doing missions? What is the mission, and how might we organize ourselves for obedience? My solution? Callsourcing.

12 thoughts on “Missiospeak

  1. Good post, especially concerning the completion of the task.

    I also believe we have largely read the idea of people groups into Scripture. However, it does seem clear that, from Babel, God has been interested in reconciling all the DIVISIONS of people back to Himself. This won’t look as neat as our people groups though. Basically, what I see from Babel to Paul to Revelation is a desire to take the Gospel to all the people and peoples (there is often an emphasis on peoples rather than people, though they aren’t well defined in Scripture) that are yet divided from the Gospel message. Our definition of people groups has assisted us in seeing the divisions that we were ignoring before. We have a more complete picture of the progress of the Gospel now. I personally wish that my movement of Independent Fundamental Baptists would begin to see this more complete picture. More of us need to go where, to whom, the Gospel hasn’t been.

    This all being said, not every missionary today or in Scripture is called by God to be what we would call a ‘frontier missionary.’ In my opinion, my movement needs more of these. This will require more of us to ‘lift up our eyes’ more than we are now.

    Thank you for the post. I look forward to reading what is ahead.

  2. My daughter married a guy who grew up in Salem Oregon who never had any contact with Christians and had no knowledge of the Bible other than it was a book. A generation is growing up around us who are as “unreached” as any. The true story that Jesus was God incarnate and that after He died He rose from the dead was as astonishing to Him as it was to me when I first heard it when I was 20. To make disciples to Jesus of the next generation is indeed frontier missions.

  3. Loved the “First Baptist of Antioch” line. Hilarious.
    I’ll never forget my missionary friend in Spain who said this: “Americans like to think in neat little boxes. We have to put everything in mental boxes to understand things, but God isn’t necesarrily like that.” This was in reference to a discussion we had about the 10/40 window push. It’s something that has stuck and I’m so glad it did.

  4. debtorpaul,
    I like your point about divisions of people. God often reminds His people that they are blessed not only for their own sake, but for the sake of others.
    I think you’re right about things necessarily being messy. The People Group concept either needs to be re-defined to include emerging groups and subcultures, or thrown out in favor of something more dynamic.

    You mention that not all missionaries are called to “frontier” places. I guess I’d agree, but where do we get the idea of there being a “frontier?” I think it’s less ans less helpful for us to think in two dimensions; “reached” and “unreached” nations like “red” or “blue” states on a map. There are so many “reached” places where people have never heard the gospel (see Steve’s comment). Yes, let’s share the good news where Christ is not proclaimed, but let’s trust the Spirit to lead us in that.

    I’ll pray for your faith tradition. I am grateful that they have you to lead them to missionary obedience!

  5. Believe it or not, I meet people like that all the time- no understanding of Christianity at all. I know you can find people– especially in “christianized cultures” like those of the deep south– who have a distorted view or believe a false gospel. But there are many- many more than I think we realize- who have never heard about salvation and life in Christ at all. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad your son-in-law has your influence in his life!

  6. Pingback: Missions Misunderstood » Blog Archive » What Are We Saying?

  7. I agree with many points of this post. I understand that “reached” and “unreached” can be dangerous categories to build a mission/church on. But let’s think in terms of “Gospel-saturated” and “non-Gospel-saturated.” In other words, there are nations with great, almost universal access to the gospel. There other “people groups” with little or no access to the gospel.

    Shouldn’t we in the “Gospel-saturated” people groups have a passion to focus on “non-gospel-saturated” groups? Do we (having the gospel) not have an obligation to take the hope of Christ to a place with little or no access to the gospel? Yes, it is true that “people groups” are fluid, but we possess the technology and resources to identify those groups. Therefore, we must be willing to focus on making disciples in those nations as well.

    According to Romans 1, those in inaccessible areas have enough knowledge of God to “damn them to hell.” Do we really possess the experience and credibility to say our focus “shouldn’t” be on those groups while we sit in a context with unlimited and universal access to the good news?

  8. Chad,
    Thanks for your comment. Please don’t hear me saying that we should not go to places where people don’t know about Jesus- we must!
    I understand your point about access and saturation. As we engage people in evangelistic ministry, we need to know what sort of setting we’re entering- do these people have no idea, a false idea, or a good idea of who Jesus is? In other words, are they ignorant, deceived, or openly rebellious (of course, everyone is all of the above, but you get my meaning).

    The problem is that I don’t see in scripture where Jesus told us to saturate places with the gospel (or access to it). Besides Paul’s preference to preach in places where no one had preached before (Romans 15:20), I don’t see the first missionaries organizing their mission strategy around saturation either. In fact, when Paul tries to enter Asia and later Bithynia (presumably because he thought they were “unreached” or “under evangelized”), the Holy Spirit prevented him.

    The fact that we have access to the gospel does indeed make us responsible to spread the word around the world. But my point here was that we cannot assume that God wants us to go straight away to work among groups that we deem “unreached.” If God has given us a passion for a people group, I believe that’s Him calling us to action.

    Yes, we need to be in those places- but we need to be there because God is calling us to them, not because they are in the “unreached” category.

  9. Two comments from one who spent 23 years in cross-cultural living:
    1. The church in the West still suffers from a myopic and under-valued view of the non-Western church. We still tend to think about the movement of the gospel as “from West to East” and from “North to South.” We discount the fact that missions movement in the 21st century – at least in the eyes of many – if from the under-developed world to the developed world. We need to awaken to the fact that partnership is needed between West and East, North and South. We must reject that Western tendency to think that the extension of the Kingdom rests on the Western Church alone.

    2. When Jesus said, “Raise up your eyes…the fields are white unto harvest…,” he was looking at his immediate context, his immediate surroundings. It’s always easier to give and to pray for the ones going far away than to be among those who “Go” into their neighborhood and workplace. I don’t know that I’ve every heard a message preached from this verse that focused on what God is doing right in our midst among the unchurched and the post-churched.

  10. I appreciate the desire to go where God is calling us. The problem is this: a lot of people seem to be called to reach easier-to-get-to places than to harder-to-reach areas. Considering Jesus gave us a command to go into “all the world”–doesn’t the fact that that there are places “in the world” where no one has “gone into” constitute a call? or at least, a pocket of disobedience on the part of the Church? From the earliest chapters of Genesis we have been told to fill the Earth, and we have refused to obey.

    I would be the first one to defend anyone who has a God-given call to Europe or Latin America. I have many friends who work there. On the other hand, I am the first one to say that if those people have a calling–and I believe they do–then an awful lot of people are being disobedient to their calling to the harder-to-reach places. Because no one is there.

    Yes, you can make the case that a given place-to-go-selection methodology is not necessarily Biblical. But if it helps us to fulfill the command of “Go into *all* the world” then I think it’s a good methodology. I look forward to your suggested alternate :) :) :) but I will be asking – how does this alternative get more people into places where no one is presently going?? How do we help people recognize their calling to, say, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia or Algeria, and be obedient to it?

  11. Rick,
    Both great points. Thanks.

    Say the majority of missionaries from the U.S. go to easy-to-get-to places like Latin America and Korea, and they share the gospel and plant churches there. And then God, in a sort of chain reaction, sends Latin American believers into the Middle East and Korean believers into China to share the gospel and plant churches. As those works mature, those fields produce and send workers into Southeast Asia and North Africa. This is a beautiful picture of God redeeming people and sending them out to the near cultures around them. The Great Commission belongs not only to the Church in the West, but to the whole Church, even those parts that are currently hearing the gospel for the first time.

    You make an excellent point about many believers not being obedient. I don’t think the lack of work in certain parts of the world is a good indicator of that, though. I don’t think that going into the “whole world” (Mark 16:15) or to “all nations” (Matthew 28:19) means that we’re supposed to find every place on the map and put a missionary there. I believe that God uses humans as the means to communicate the gospel. If some are disobedient, I He will raise up others who will obey.

    Your last question, though, is brilliant. “How do we help people recognize their calling… and be obedient to it?” That is what missions education and mobilization should be. I hope to explore some ways to do just that.

  12. Thanks. (I did follow this up in a later post.) BUt let me just ask here – if you don’t think that the lack of owrk in certain parts of the world is a good indicator of it, then what do you think the lack of workers is a good indicator of? I find it interesting that we have lots of workers where it’s fairly easy to get there – e.g. western Europe, Latin America, Caribbean, etc. – and very little work where it’s harder. Why is that? Why is it that on a per-capita basis we have so little work going on in, say, India or China, and so much going on in Latin America? (I’m not denying LAM needs work–I’m just asking why we don’t have a similar amount of work in other areas of the world?) I think the reason gets back to helping people identify their vision and challenging them to obey it–which I mentioned in passing at the end of my last comment.

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