The Anthropological Approach to Missions

The concept of unreached people groups is a helpful way for Christians to organize their efforts toward global disciple-making. Around the world, people group themselves along certain lines- lines that also present significant obstacles to the spread of the gospel from one group to another. Ethnography, the practice of studying and categorizing groups of people, provides the mission with a framework for the measurement, organization, and global strategy for missionary engagement. When we know what languages people speak, we can make efforts to get them the scriptures and a gospel witness that they can understand.

This “people group thinking,” now common to most involved in the missions world, is relatively new to the scene. It was championed by Ralph Winter and Donald McGavran at the Lausanne International Congress on Global Evangelization in 1974. Hinging on a new interpretation of the ancient Greek word ethnos (“nations”) found in some of the missionary passages of scripture, people group thinking asserted that the goal of Christian mission is to reach people of every ethnolinguistic people group.

This was a radical departure from the historical missionary conversation, which focused on language/affinity blocs, countries, regions, and an ongoing debate over whether to focus on “harvest fields” vs. “pioneer areas.” Nevertheless, most major evangelical missions agencies adopted this new understanding of “nations,” and reorganized their systems and structures accordingly. Strategies were built around the prioritization of certain groups over others based on ethnography, population, degree of difficulty, and access to the gospel.

People Group missiology goes like this: according to passages like Revelation 7:9 (“..behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…”), God desires that people from every nation (ethne) in the world come to worship Him. The church should, therefore, concentrate its efforts to that end by redeploying personnel and resources away from “reached” people groups and toward the “unreached.” The categories of “reached” and “unreached” were further defined as being “2% or fewer evangelical.”

The concept of ethnolinguistic people groups is borrowed from 1970s anthropology. During that time, anthropology as an academic discipline moved away from science toward theory. Cultural anthropology was separated out from the sciences of archeology and biological and linguistic anthropology. This is important to missions because the concept of “people groups” is based on the old, measurable, observable “scientific” approach to the study of humans. It deliberately takes into consideration only what can be objectively observed by outsiders.

People groups, though, are not static. Through intermarriage, assimilation, global influence, and desertion, ethnolinguistic groups die out all the time. Meanwhile, new such groups are emerging at a surprising rate. According to missiologist Carol Davis, transitional peoples– second- and third-generation immigrant groups, for example– are not simply combinations of host- and home-cultures. They are completely new people groups, with distinct cultural identities, worldviews, and use of language. This complicates the notion that we might somehow be gaining on the goal of finishing the task. The ever-changing unbelieving world is a moving missiological target.

Neither is the spiritual status of a group permanent. Once a person is in Christ, he is forever in Christ. But if he is not faithful to make disciples of his own, knowledge of the Creator can and will be lost in future generations. That’s why, according to the “reachedness” statistics, places like Spain, France, and much of the Middle East are all now “unreached.” None of the seven churches of Asia Minor addresses in Revelation have survived. In all of Turkey, where those churches once thrived, there are only three thousand known believers today. A “reached” group isn’t necessarily always reached.

While ethnography is helpful to us in missions, it is not strictly biblical. Jesus never mentions the idea of unreached people groups; His emphasis was on those who believed and those who did not. In Acts 1:8, without any mention of ethnolinguistic groups, Jesus further commissions His disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Paul seems to have only two missiological categories for people groups: Jews and Gentiles. This was the radical shift in the New Testament concerning the recipients of the gospel: Christ is the only salvation for people of any ethnicity. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the New Testament authors displayed any anthropological savvy in their missiology.

So what about all the mentions of “nations” (ethnos) in the scriptures? You only get “ethnolinguistic people groups” if you’re very selective. It’s true that the Great Commission sends us to make disciples of “all nations,” but that same term is used elsewhere to mean something other than ethnolinguistic people groups. In the Pentecost account in Acts 2, Luke writes that “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation (ethne) under heaven.” If he actually meant that there were Jews and devout people from every people group, well then the “task” of “reaching” them was accomplished in the first century. If instead he means only that Jerusalem was quite diverse at the time, it presents a problem for this particular understanding of the word.

There is no historical evidence of ethnography ever being a factor in missions. According to David Bosch, even the word mission was not applied to the idea of Christians sharing the gospel with non-Christians in other cultures until the sixteenth century. Before that, it was used in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity (as in, the Father sent the Son). So the over-simplification of missions as “reaching all the unreached people groups” is relatively new. Roland Allen, in his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? suggests that Paul’s missiological unit was the province (Acts 16), as opposed to people group.

Again, the concept of people groups is extremely helpful to our mission. As we identify significant barriers to the communication of the gospel, we can be smart about overcoming them. Every Christ-follower everywhere needs an indigenous expression of church in which to worship. As God has demonstrated since Babel, cultures are valuable things, and part of His redemptive work among humanity.

But as helpful as it can be, the anthropological approach to missions can also be a problem for Christians who are trying to discern God’s direction. When the categories of people groups, particularly “reached” and “unreached,” “engaged” and “unengaged,” become a presupposition for God’s leadership for our missionary efforts, we limit Him. When we assume that our work among the lost of one group is somehow of more kingdom value than that among the lost in another, we play a part that isn’t ours to play.

The only biblical mechanism for organizing our work is the Holy Spirit. Through the local church, He equips, calls, and sends missionaries. In Acts 16, Luke writes that Paul clearly had a desire to preach the gospel in Asia, where it seemed to be his assumption that the gospel had not yet been proclaimed. Nevertheless, he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit. As Paul and his companions attempted to go into Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them. Finally, they were lead to Macedonia by a vision. As God orchestrates His Church on His mission, He doesn’t do things the way we would do them. By using human means, God has proven Himself to be neither logical (by human standards) nor efficient.

There’s even a dangerous heresy that springs out of the people group thinking interpretation of Matthew 24:14. Some have come to assert that Christ will not return, indeed cannot come back until this task of reaching every unreached people group is completed. Some have even taken to using this as a motivation for missions- that Jesus is just waiting in the wings, unable to return until we finish the job. This, of course, contradicts verse 36 of that same passage, where Jesus says that no one- not even the Son of Man, knows when He will return.

The greatest danger in the anthropological approach is that it has made missions a problem to be solved rather than our very identity in Christ. Francis Dubose, who coined the word missional, wrote that God is a sending God. We are a sent people. As Christopher Wright reminds us in his book, The Mission of God, the Father was sending long before He sent the Son. It’s His nature. And ours, as His people, is to be sent. There’s no other way to be a follower of Jesus.

So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!) because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.

About E. Goodman

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