by Dr. Ken Baker
Decades ago, it used to be that interested people would ask about our “country of service.” But over time, the question morphed into “What people group do you work among?” For quite some time, the status quo for presenting the missionary task has been ‘reaching people groups’, or rather, reaching the ‘unreached people groups’ (UPGs).
Photo courtesy Ken Baker
Decades ago, it used to be that interested people would ask about our “country of service.” But over time, the question morphed into “What people group do you work among?” For quite some time, the status quo for presenting the missionary task has been ‘reaching people groups’, or rather, reaching the ‘unreached people groups’ (UPGs). Noting the ubiquitous nature of UPG language now, it is hard to believe that there was a time when no one used such terminology. Today, it is so standardized and popularized through well-known and valuable courses like Perspectives and Kairos that it is considered self-explanatory. This was not always the case.
That which is so common now was a fringe idea in 1974, when Ralph Winter presented “The Highest Priority: Cross-cultural Evangelism” at the first conference on world evangelization in Lausanne. He introduced the concept of ‘hidden peoples’—those peoples who were ‘hidden’ from mission vision at the time—who did not have comprehendible access to the gospel. At that point, missions endeavors mostly tracked along geo-political boundaries (gospel witness within national borders) in those countries where Western missionaries had access. However, due to ethnic, linguistic, and cultural barriers, there were many ‘people groups’ in these countries and beyond who were ‘unreached’ with the gospel.
The Lausanne committee uses this definition of ‘people group’: a people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance. What began as a necessary, and welcome, missiological correction to the geo-political orientation of world missions became over the last four decades a ‘people group’ movement accompanied by a ‘people group’ industry.
In this movement, entire ministries have formed around the identification, quantification, and location of UPGs. Likewise, missions mobilization embraced initiatives spawned by the ‘people group’ movement, such as ‘10/40 window’, ‘adopt-a-people’, ‘finish the task’, etc. These developments have been useful, even thrilling, as formerly ‘hidden’ peoples have had access to the gospel of Christ in ways they would not have otherwise experienced.
Likewise, the need to migrate from a ‘territory’ mentality toward an ‘access’ orientation was a step in the right direction, because it raised missions awareness toward the barriers the world’s peoples face relative to the gospel. Such a perspective concentrates attention toward blocks of people where there is significant gospel resistance.
To examine the usefulness of the term ‘people groups,’ there are two questions to explore : (1) the meaning of the term, and (2) how that meaning is employed (unreached, unengaged).
The terminology ‘people group’ (as opposed to ‘ethnic group’) is unique to the missions enterprise. Its meaning is fluid depending upon whether linguistic, ethnic, social, cultural, or political considerations are included in the assessment. (For example, compare the difference between the Joshua Project and the IMB list of peoples according to different determining factors.) Therefore, within the range of missional uses of the term, there is a popular understanding of ‘people groups’ for mobilization purposes, as well as a deeper, empirical meaning for strategic purposes. Generally speaking, however, both have the same intent—to identify peoples according to gospel comprehension and acceptance, purposed toward a church-planting movement (CPM).
In scripture, the Greek words ethnos (Gentiles or nation), phule (tribe), or laos (people) are used to demonstrate that there are distinctions regarding human groupings. For example, in Revelation 5:9 and 7:9 they are used together (with glossa–language) to describe the extent of Christ’s ransom on the cross (5:9) and the multitude praising God before his throne (7:9). Likewise, ethne (nations or Gentiles) is prominently used in Matthew 28:19 to refer to the scope of kingdom mission. Thus, as stated above, there is value in recognizing the role of ethnic, cultural, and linguistic factors in describing groups of people. Differentiation among groups of peoples is biblical. However, it is the way that ‘people group’ has been used that causes concern.
People group terminology is primarily employed as unreached people groups (UPGs) and unengaged, unreached people groups (UUPGs). The former refers to those peoples in which less than two percent of the population are Evangelical Christians, whereas the latter references those groups where there is no Evangelical gospel witness among them (see peoplegroups.org).
Yet, I must ask, “What compels us to squeeze kingdom mission into a mathematical equation? Has the pursuit of quantitative categories and benchmarks run the risk of devolving missions into a mechanical enterprise?”
It is at this point that the empirical character of the people group movement and its strategic implications seem to take on a life of their own. That which was intended to serve kingdom mission has become the driver of kingdom mission. For decades, the missions enterprise has used, and passed along, this empirical perspective and its assumption that they represent an accurate rendering of the outcome of God’s mission in this world.
The usage of UPG and UUPG inevitably involves measurement which unavoidably accentuates quantitative above qualitative aspects of missions. Counting and measuring are endemic within a particular cultural mindset, especially in North America. It comes naturally and it is one of our cultural contributions to the world missions endeavor. However, when does such an emphasis become so dominant that it presumes to control the conversation? Have we reached the point where this perspective is so completely embraced in certain sectors that it imposes itself on global missions?
The focus on people group language tends to oversimplify global identities for popular consumption. In current missions industry practice, UPG identities are externally validated. In other words, people group identities are assigned by outsiders, meaning that a particular people group designation is not necessarily how persons would self-identify.
As a result, there is a pervasive impersonal aura surrounding the usage of UPG and UUPG, as well as a reductionism which employs simplified, managed categories overlaying complex social realities.
A Neglected Dimension
Since the UPG/UUPG system assumes the validity of the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) too exclusively as an organizational formula, it often fails to take into account God’s intent to reconcile people, and peoples, to each other. HUP-based approaches concentrate solely upon the expansion narrative (“make disciples of all nations”) of kingdom mission while neglecting the integration narrative of Christ’s kingdom mission (“that all of them may be one”). Gospel intent always envisions boundary-crossing and engaging otherness.
Focusing on people groups implies that God’s mission is solely about reconciling with each individual ‘nation’ (ethne), thereby increasing the count of ‘reached peoples’, instead of God’s ongoing kingdom intention to reconcile people(s) into a kingdom people who are one in Christ and displaying the unity of God himself (John 17).
When we are used to thinking along one track (the gospel within a people group), we think only about the role of intra-ethnic relationships, not inter-ethnic relationships. The latter represents a more complete portrayal of the unity Christ envisions for his body, the Church, his kingdom people. Therefore, community more accurately exhibits the gospel expectation of inter-ethnic unity which kingdom mission anticipates.
The unqualified, wholesale acceptance of the UPG orientation, based upon the HUP and the manner in which it is passed along as the way to understand and pursue kingdom mission, creates an echo chamber experience. Rather than being presented as one narrative of kingdom mission, the UPG orientation is often offered as ‘the way things are’ to explain the relationship between the peoples of this world and the gospel of the kingdom. This leads to distortion at both the micro and macro levels.
The UPG/UUPG approach is a macro perspective. Macro perspectives naturally trade in sweeping generalizations about people…who they are, what they are like, what they believe, how they live, how they think, who are their friends, what language(s) they speak, what makes them comfortable, how they order society, etc. However, to insist on such a macro-oriented model causes those involved to overlook the contextual realities which people in a local community live, since actual gospel ministry always engages on a micro level—with real people, in real places. There is an accompanying neglect for the natural distinctiveness which contexts display.
At the popular level, promotion of the UPG orientation as the absolute standard for conceptualizing and engaging in missions often leads to committed involvement. However it can also contribute to unrealistic images of the ministry context.
Typically, when a church ‘adopts’ a people group and proceeds with ‘targeting’ this group, such an initiative is based upon a generated narrative—one which is often not rooted in the actual context where the targeted people live. Unfortunately, such a scenario can then lead to strategic conclusions and decisions on the basis of this generalized narrative. We have the cultural tendency to distil information into bite-sized morsels for popular consumption, but when we don’t caution people about actual complexities, then we are not preparing them appropriately.
The greatest concern lies with the level of assumption which shapes involvement regarding the targeted people group. Such generalized information about a people group is received as an accurate portrayal of their reality regarding who they are, how they live, what they believe, what they need, etc. At the next level of engagement, mobilization and strategic conclusions are drawn, even to the point of deciding which approach to employ (DMM, T4T, etc.). Much of this trajectory by assumption is decided prior to significant time invested in actual contextual inquiry.
In my opinion, this empirical approach remains simplistic and ultimately misleading with regard to the actual contextual realities because it often reduces real people in real communities to a generic, impersonal category which is statistically determined. Such data can truly be helpful in a limited way for research purposes.
Instead, however, it is packaged and popularized for broad consumption, then received and passed along unquestioned. As a result, it has become the status quo, the way to think about, imagine, pray, adopt, and target the world’s people. Even though it is simplistic, generic, and detached from real life, it remains the basis upon which much missions methodology proceeds.
From my experience, the people group approach creates a presumptive mentality which pre-shapes church-planting endeavors, creating arbitrary fences in the ministry context. Thus, when such an approach is taught without a caution label to those who have no way of evaluating its veracity, it perpetuates a distorted perspective on the world and kingdom mission. The unquestioned confidence placed upon people group data sets tends to inadvertently foster a standardized trajectory for missions ministry which is based upon assumptions about people and their contexts. In the process, it communicates a type of empirical sophistication which minimizes the multiple complexities with which communities of people live around the world.
The commonness of people group usage subconsciously shapes thinking. Thus, when we receive and use people group terminology without reflection, it undermines the possibility for creative imagination in thinking about people and their living reality in the world. The crush of numbers and categories tends to render invisible actual people in real communities. While it is commendable that the people group movement has shed light on formerly ‘hidden peoples’, this does not mean that they are intimately known and understood.
Finally, it is not wrong to talk about missions among people groups as long as we recognize that it is not the complete picture of kingdom mission. If we use such language thinking that it gives the whole story, then we are misrepresenting the mission of God’s people. Instead, I encourage appropriate mindfulness of the whole context of peoples’ lives and, viewed this way, ‘people group’ appears incomplete.
I realize that I am tossing pebbles at an icon of the Evangelical missions community. The intent of this article is not to invalidate identifying UPGs and utilizing this information, but to explain why it is preferable to use the language of ‘communities.’
Why Is the Term ‘Communities’ Preferable?
Some have been curious as to why SIL International, an international missions organization, would prefer to use ‘communities’ instead of the common expression ‘people groups’ in its purpose statement:
no one should live and die
without hearing God’s good news,
we believe that He has called us
to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ
in communities where He is least known.
There is a focus upon communities because relationship to place matters. Place invokes context. Everyone lives in a context, a particular place in space and time which shapes personal and collective narratives, and which contributes to the ongoing local narrative. We focus upon communities because people live in actual contexts where life happens. Therefore, geography does matter, not just the socio-linguistic-ethnic focus of the ‘people group’ perspective. Likewise, it recognizes that the narrative of any given people group or population segment is significantly larger than just themselves.
A physical community is personal, intimate, and real; it is not impersonal, generic, and theoretical. Furthermore, every context is unique, with its own history, people, and story inhabiting a particular place with its own unique, enduring narrative. A community focus compels us to engage with actual, specific contextual realities, whereas a people group focus tends to concentrate upon generalities.
A focus on community accepts the contextual reality as it actually is, whether homogeneous or diverse. Such an approach requires flexibility in order to absorb the breadth of what that context presents.
It is in actual, contextual communities, in real places, that we, as kingdom gospel ambassadors, personally engage with people, intersecting life together. Acknowledging that kingdom flourishing is God’s intent for all people, this is a vision which stretches beyond a particular people group to incorporate the fullness of their context across ethnic boundaries. Additionally, a focus on communities recognizes that God’s intent for all peoples is not only to be reconciled to him, but also to each other, in Christ. The gospel of the kingdom celebrates the reconciliation of people to people in tandem with the reconciliation of people(s) to God.
There are three relational spheres which are intrinsic to human being; parent-child, men-women, and neighbor (near and distant) (Deddo 2007, 31). Biblically, every human being is my neighbor, none is intrinsically excluded. A focus upon community acknowledges ‘neighborness’, and our inherent ethical obligation toward all my neighbours in a given context.
In a community, there may be a particular ‘people group’ or a mixture of ethnicities, but it is in a community space where we truly interact with people in their context. We do not relate to them as a people group, but as persons and fellow image bearers of God. It is their interactive, contextual experience which gives texture to their lives and existence. Even when we conceive of community as a population segment (such as ‘street children’), they are still part of a context, a space/time existence which contributes to their identity and shapes their narrative.
Therefore, all mission must be community-based, for such a framework recognizes that people exist in living, intersecting, complex social networks. Even in contexts which are ethnically homogeneous, there are boundaries of class, family, clan, neighborhood, education, lineage, etc. which must be confronted with the gospel. The gospel always pursues barrier-breaking and boundary-crossing. Thus, we must beware of approaches which reinforce separation and exclusion.
Engaging people in their community context affirms human beings belonging to each other, and models the unifying intention of the gospel, whereas concentrating on ‘people groupness’ can (and hopefully unintentionally) affirm separateness.
A few years ago, while church planting (or, as I prefer, ‘gospel planting’) in an African desert country, I encountered a young missionary couple who were entirely focused on a people group that made up less than five percent of the local population. Gifted in language, they were deeply integrated, but exclusively in relationships with this people.
Although ‘their’ people group mixed well with the local population, this couple didn’t, because they didn’t want to become “distracted.” They viewed their approach as missiologically faultless. However, other people in the community viewed them as cold, unfriendly, and haughty. To me, this seemed like a classic case of missing the forest for the trees. I asked them what gospel they were modeling before ‘their’ people, as well as the community, reminding them that we are always ambassadors of an all-inclusive gospel, even if we concentrate upon one people.
In ethnically-diverse contexts, attention toward a single people group risks rendering others in their context invisible, whereas a focus on community turns invisible people into neighbors (McKnight 2014, 70). Thinking ‘community’ rather than people group opens us to the full scope of kingdom flourishing and belonging. A community focus displays universal love toward all people in a context—not just select ones.
In summary, there are clearly ethnic groupings in this world; however, this is not necessarily how people would self-identify, or how they actually live. Likewise, there has always been mixing of groups through migration, marriage, and social networking. More recently, urbanization and globalization have accelerated these phenomena such that blurred ethnic lines are the norm in many places.
Thus, it is not helpful to depend upon strict ethnic categories when we address missions engagement, because it doesn’t match the whole reality of peoples’ lives. While people group identity does have a useful role, it is still only a partial description. In the end, to change from ‘people group’ to ‘communities’ launches new patterns of consideration and thinking by creating new horizons for gospel engagement.
Deddo, Gary W. 2007. “Neighbors in Racial Reconciliation: The Contribution of a Trinitarian Theological Anthropology.” Cultural Encounters 3(2).
McKnight, Scot. 2014. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. Kindle Edition.
. . . .
Dr. Ken Baker, DMiss, spent 24 years church planting in three West African countries, in both rural and urban contexts. Afterward, he was director of Culture ConneXions, a ministry which coaches churches in intercultural life and ministry. Currently, he is the international ministry training facilitator for SIM International.
EMQ, Vol. 53, No. 4. Copyright © 2017 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. aAll rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.