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.