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.

15 thoughts on “The Anthropological Approach to Missions

  1. Pingback: The Anthropological Approach to Missions « Feeds « Theology of Ministry

  2. Great Post! There is such a need for the balance you bring to the table. Allow me to give me input on some items.

    Are people groups the only (or even primary) biblical way to view the “target” of the task. Absolutely not. I believe we see a wonderful balance brought by the commissions. In Mark, Jesus speaks of individuals. In Matthew, of peoples. In Acts, of geographic boundaries or theopolitical boundaries (though I take Acts 1:8 as being more of a “prediction” than commission). Also, it is clear that Paul, after his Jew/Gentile distinction, saw his job in terms of geographical access.

    At the same time, peoples (of the Babel sort) are a special focus of God’s mission. The “families” and “nations” spoken of by God in the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while often carrying different meanings, were (I believe) in direct reference to these newly formed people groups. Jesus, as He gave the commission in Matthew, is (I believe) referring directly to the same types of peoples (as the form of His commission matches exactly with that of the promise to Jacob – just because ethne doesn’t have the same point of reference everywhere doesn’t mean that it can’t have this fairly specific target there). Then, Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 seem to refer to the same Babel divisions. So, I believe people group divisions are central to how God sees the mission, though the wider concept of major divisions from the Gospel is the most consistent concern.

    I believe that we see a very biblical progression in the target of missions, especially clear in modern missions. This progression is centered around the concept of divisions/barriers. We are to get the Gospel to every person in every people in every place (see the commissions). After we penetrated most countries (geopolitical divisions), we crossed the next division by moving inland (geographical division). As we have moved beyond many of these geographical divisions we find the next important divisions, people groups (though ethnolinguistic realities have been taken into account all along, they are more of a focus now). I see this as biblical, and God-led.

    “Paul seems to have only two missiological categories” – simply not true. While we don’t know the threshold, he definitely saw them also in terms of reached and unreached.

    “The only biblical mechanism for organizing our work is the Holy Spirit” – Perhaps it just needs rephrased, but as it stands, I believe it is false. Your first sentence seems to indicate that you don’t mean this in the way it comes across: “The concept of UPG’s is a helpful way for Christians to organize their efforts.” The Bible doesn’t pit human planning and strategy (based upon commission parameters) against the special leading of the Spirit in the way that you do here, and have done in the past. It is not either/or as much as it is both/and. Paul clearly had a plan. It was clearly based upon the commissions, his specific call, and the realities in his world. The fact that he was trying to go to two places that the Spirit wouldn’t allow indicates that he had a preformed strategy that he was working out, and that he didn’t always wait for a “Macedonian-like call” before he went. Both-And. We can trust that even when Spirit-filled people seem to be researching and making their own strategy, the Lord of the harvest is yet providentially leading. May not the increasingly intense focus on people groups today be the work of the Spirit?

    Thank you for allowing me so many words.

  3. I think that it is remarkable that Paul would know that it was actually the Holy Spirit who was preventing him from going into Bythinia to preach. Many would think that this resistance was coming from “another source”. After all, we are commanded to go to all nations to make disciples, aren’t we? Our relationship with the Holy Spirit is often weak to notice this kind of leading. I pray that our Lord would grant us who are sent to be able to be guided in such a way, and may our relationship with the Holy Spirit be such that we can discern clearly what could so easily be misinterpreted.

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  5. Steven,
    Great point. I think that’s the sort of connectedness to the Spirit we need in order to be good missionaries.
    How often to we blame what thwarts our plans on the enemy, and give no thought to the fact that it may very well be God?

  6. Debtor Paul,
    Thanks for your comment.
    Where does Paul refer to “reached” or “unreached?” He does say that his preference is to preach where Christ was not known. Maybe that’s what you mean?

    I appreciate the Babel-related view of “peoples.” In fact, I just preached from that perspective on Sunday. I greatly prefer it to the anthropological definition of “ethnolinguistic people groups.”

    In my “organization” contradiction, I meant that the Holy Spirit tells us when and where to go. Once we receive that direction, it helps to know how one group of people may differ from another. Maybe there’s a better word than “organize” to refer to what the Holy Spirit does for us in mission. Maybe “decide when and where to go.”

    I really am a fan of strategy. I’m not saying it’s the Spirit vs. strategy. I’m just trying to remind people that organizing around UPGs are just that: a strategy. Not a biblical mandate, like “going and making disciples” is. You’re right- it’s not eaither/or. But it is a “first this, then that.” Starting with people groups is assuming a lot. We must first start with the leadership and direction of the Holy Spirit, then plan and organize accordingly.

    By the by, I think the “all nations” part was important, but not for the reasons you may think. It was to foreshadow the tremendous shift in God’s interaction with humanity away from only the Hebrews to include Gentiles as well. It was Jesus’ way of saying- go tell everyone, not just the Jews, because I’m the Savior to all.”

    Thanks again for commenting. I think this is a helpful and necessary conversation.

  7. As always, good conversation.

    Concerning reached and unreached (those who had heard or had access and those who had not heard or had no access/who hadn’t been accessed) categories in Paul’s mind I should first make clear that it clearly wouldn’t have been precisely a Joshua Project definition that was driving the distinction (though some of the same issues would have been involved). I believe that we see this distinction in his talks of foundation laying where Christ had not been named (Rom 15:20-21) and his plans to preach in the regions beyond the Corinthians where a foundation hadn’t been laid (1 Cor 10:16). It is very clear that he made a distinction like this as he said things like “so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19).

    All I am saying is that he made finer distinctions than Jew and Gentile. He saw further categories of reached and unreached (for a lack of better terms). These concepts do have biblical precedent. Even the very presence of “all” in the commissions requires distinctions like this to be made, as well as other distinctions. It doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit is any less in charge, but it is a task to be accomplished (though the finish line may not be perfectly measurable). It is biblical that we make some of these same distinctions (though it doesn’t mean that everyone ought to go only to groups we have classified as “unreached”).

    I agree that the emphasis on PG’s is strategic. I would also agree that this emphasis should not be the only concept that drives our approach to missions. There are other divisions to consider.

    I also do not believe that it is as clear a “this first, then” approach as you would assert. Don’t take me wrong: it is always the Spirit in the lead, but He can and does do this as we “strategize” in accord with our commission.

  8. …But sometimes to outsiders too. Think of some examples of different groups helping each other….We all belong to many groups at the same time and they change as we change. Think about the groups you belong to and why. You want to make sure that the groups you re in are positive that they re made up of people who will help you in your life and not hold you back. … …You can t be a member of every group but it s great to try to understand other groups and appreciate them. Just because you don t belong to a group doesn t mean the other people in that group are bad.

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  11. Excellent article, Ernest. Not to sound “too” redundant (because of other blog comments), but Western mission based on Enlightenment rationalism and Euro-American structuralism, has had a significant influence on mission understanding, assumptions, and strategies. A structural functionalist view of mission has resulted in such interesting categories as, hidden people groups, ethnic zones, religious contexts, etc. Structuralism has much to do with under lying forms that enable “predictability”. How nice that we can study cultural structures hence predict cultural responses to the Gospel. Globalization is challenging these categories now,and perhaps they are no longer suitable in the age of global mission.

  12. Gilles,
    I agree. Those categories and structures really aren’t suitable anymore (if they ever were), but for the sake of my largely modernistic audience, I don’t want to simply tear them down. Neither to I want to replace them with new ones (invented by me). I see the need to call the church (the global church) back to service and proclamation through radical, step-by-step obedience to the Holy Spirit.

  13. Pingback: Frequently Posed Complaints on people group theory - Ethne

  14. Pingback: Missions, Misunderstood | Ernest Goodman Is Confused, Pt. 2

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