From Singular People Group Adoption to Multiple People Group Advocacy

by Erik Hyatt

The author discusses the benefits of a church moving from singular people adoption toward a multiple people group advocacy model.

Our church adopted an unreached people group back in 1990. At that time, there were about eight hundred church members supporting about twenty missionaries. Five of those supported missionaries were sent specifically to minister among our adopted people group. It was an exciting and unifying vision for the church in missions at that time. Then our church experienced explosive growth in both church members and missionaries being sent out in the late 1990s. By the time the church hired me as their first full-time mission pastor in 2002, membership was at about 2,500 and supported missionaries at about sixty. In addition to this, our missionary preparation program had about eighty people enrolled.

As I pondered how to advocate for the church’s adopted people group, I was confronted with the fact that about one-half of our supported missionaries were ministering among other unreached people groups. And many of the other missionaries we supported were working among “reached” peoples who were surrounded by “unreached” peoples. So in this context, how could I justify extraordinary advocacy for one unreached people group when so many of our sent-ones were pouring out their lives among other unreached peoples? This launched me into a more critical study of the “Adopt-a-People” mission strategy.

Biblical Challenges to “Singular People Group Adoption” as a Church’s Mission Strategy
Most evangelical Christians would agree that according to biblical revelation God created, sustains, and will be glorified among all ethno-linguistic people groups on earth. He established his predetermined plan to create various languages and cultures as a means of both judgment and mercy (Gen. 11:1-9). He revealed his predetermined plan to be glorified through each language and people group on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5-21). And he declared his plan to keep it this way through the end of the ages, when he will be worshiped by people from every tribe, language, and nation on earth (Rev. 7:9).

Developing mission strategies to reach each ethno-linguistic people group on earth is a sound biblical approach. So the question is not whether individual missionaries should focus on reaching particular ethno-linguistic people groups. The question is: “Should a church adopt only one (or only several) unreached people group(s) as a mission/outreach strategy?” The question is highlighted by both the lack of biblical evidence and the potential contradictions in the New Testament to such a narrow strategy. Two points:

1. There are no clear NT examples or teachings (that I can find) that would instruct churches to “adopt” an unreached people group as their outreach strategy. In fact, we find the apostles working with several people groups at a time in the same region (e.g., in Acts 6, Hellenist widows are cared for; in Acts 8, Philip goes to the Samaritans and later to the Ethiopian eunuch; in Acts 10, Peter goes to Cornelius).

2. It seems as if Paul would counsel against a “singular people group” focus as a church’s outreach strategy. Paul did say that he “becomes all things to all men…” (1 Cor. 9:22). And this is advisable for individual missionaries (especially for Bible translation work). However, he never counseled Timothy, Titus, or any of the churches to focus on Jews only, Syncthians only, or Greeks only. Instead, the apostles seemed to identify people groups either in a macro sense (e.g., Gal. 2:7-10, Jews, Gentiles) or in a regional sense (Galatians, Philippians, Ephesians, Cretans, Romans, etc.). Even in the macro/regional sense there seems to be no NT instruction for churches to “adopt” particular unreached people groups as a mission/outreach strategy.

Both Acts and the writings of Paul seem to promote a multi-ethnic church rather than a mono-ethnic church planting strategy (Eph. 2; Titus 2:14). This goes back to Christ’s Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) and looks forward to a church that reflects the revealed picture of heaven (Rom. 15:6-7; Rev. 7:9-10). The only exception seemed to be the perceived call of Peter, James, and John to the “circumcised/Jews” in contrast to the confirmed call of Paul and Barnabas to the “uncircumcised/Gentiles” (Gal. 2:7-10). But even the call to the “circumcised/Jews” likely included Jewish proselytes from other ethnic origins (Acts 2:5).

History and Present Relationship with the Kachin as a Case Study
The Kachin were a completely “unreached” people group in northern Burma before Ola Hanson and other missionaries were sent to preach the gospel among them in the 1890s. The Hansons labored among them for thirty years, putting their language into writing and translating the Bible into that language. Since the Hansons were sent out and supported by Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota (BBC), the Kachin church has always considered BBC to be their “mother church.” But BBC never “adopted” the Kachin, formally or informally! Ever since BBC rediscovered her history with the Kachin people in 1993, the Kachin have been seeking to re-establish a close relationship and asking for our help with a theological training mission strategy to the unreached around them. We have a unique authority and respect among their churches like no other church in the world. Should they not be highlighted at our church for extraordinary prayer, support, and partnership even though they are now listed as over sixty percent “reached”? Should we not seek to highlight their needs among our congregation with the goal of partnering with them to reach the “unreached” around them? How does that fit into the “Adopt-a-People” paradigm?

Twenty-first Century Challenges to “People Group Adoption”
Today, there are more missionaries being sent from former “mission fields” (e.g., Korea, Brazil, Philippines, India, Nigeria, etc.) than from the traditional “sending” nations (e.g., England and the U.S.). From 1960 to 1990 evangelicals outside of the West multiplied from twenty-nine million to 208 million. Today, about three in four of the world’s evangelicals are non-westerners (Guthrie 2000, 395). The Nigerian Evangelical Missions Association (NEMA) has announced a goal of sending fifty thousand Nigerian missionaries into the unreached areas of North Africa. This will be in addition to the existing 4,700 Nigerian missionaries already deployed! The Church in China is already engaged in fulfilling their call to send missionaries westward until the gospel comes “back to Jerusalem” where it started.

Also, due to globalization/urbanization, fifty percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. This number is expected to climb to sixty percent by 2025 (United Nations 2007). Even the remaining villages of the world find themselves more and more dependent upon technology and supplies from the city. With the internet, road construction, and economic and education opportunities in the cities, more people groups are co-habitating and interacting than ever before. While ethnic and tribal racism continues, the Church (and her missionaries) has the opportunity/obligation to model and develop “Antioch-type” churches (Acts 11, 13) as multi-ethnic and missionary-sending bases.

So what might be the advantage in the twenty-first century of ONE church adopting ONE people group in ONE small area of the world? It could be a way for a church that had no previous global mission involvement to begin with a focus. But consider the following challenges to starting with such a narrow vision.

Homogenous Unit Principle in the Twenty-first Century?
The “Adopt-a-People” strategy seems to go hand-in-hand with the “Homogenous Unit Principle” (HUP) strategy of church planting for people movements to Christ, initiated by Dr. Donald McGavran in the 1960s. However, in this ever increasing globalized urbanized context for missions, the Homogenous Unit Principle can become so narrowly focused that it becomes counter-productive to making “Great Commission” disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). Missiologists, particularly from South Africa, have objected to HUP on the grounds that it promotes racist church bodies (or unwittingly sanctifies ethnocentrism) (Wilson 2000, 745). In fact, it has been suggested that Christian apartheid proponents favored the HUP strategy because it gave them deeper theological justification for the policy. A cursory glance at the mono-ethnic focus of most churches in the U.S. also illustrates this point. In most U.S. cities, one can find Hispanic churches, Korean churches, Russian churches, Vietnamese churches, etc. But very few churches are seeking to establish themselves as multi-ethnic. The result is a church that portrays (wittingly or unwittingly) divinely-sanctified racism!

Much more could be said about this, but the main point here is that HUP may be a good initial strategy (particularly in rural village contexts and for Bible translation work). But when we evaluate the status of evangelical churches around the world today, HUP (as an end goal in church planting) could be charged with supporting and empowering ethnocentrism. Could the “Adopt-a-People” strategy be an unwitting accomplice to this?

What about “Reached” People Groups?
One of the concerns noted in the Perspectives lesson on “The Task Remaining” is that seventy-four percent of the current mission force is laboring among “reached” people groups. The definition of a “reached” people is “when the people group has a viable and growing church that is able to evangelize their own people without the help of foreign missionaries” (The State of World Evangelization 2002). But recent missiological analysis of these so-called “reached” peoples reveals that many are syncretistic, biblically illiterate, adopting Western forms of worship, and largely ethnocentric (Eller and Grossman 2003, 300). Meanwhile, the American mission-minded church, under the “Adopt-a-People” banner, seems to be promoting a departure from involvement with “reached people groups” to working directly with “unreached people groups.” No biblically-literate, mission-informed person would argue against increasing our knowledge, focus, and resources to reach “unreached” peoples with the gospel. But based upon what we know about the state of the so-called “reached” Church, we must be careful not to abandon, ignore, or step over the reached Church in the process. Instead, let’s consider ways to better partner with the reached in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Biblical Perspective on Adoption and Advocacy
Our goal is the same, no matter what we call it (adoption or advocacy): to focus our time, resources, personnel, and prayers on particular unreached peoples until they have a growing indigenous church movement among them. But let’s consider the biblical definitions and applications of the terms adoption and advocacy.

Adoption in the New Testament occurs only in Paul, and is a relationship conferred by God’s act of free grace which redeems those under the law (Gal. 4:5). Its intention and result is a change of status, planned from eternity and mediated by Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:5), from slavery to sonship (Gal. 4:1). Adoption is implicit as a relationship of grace in John’s teaching about “becoming a son” (John 1:12; 1 John 3:1–2), in the prodigal’s acceptance into full family rights (Luke 15:19ff), and in Jesus’ oft-repeated title of God as Father (Matt. 5:16; 6:9; Luke 12:32) (Wood and Marshall 1996, 16).

Consequently, spiritual adoption of a people group, in the NT sense of the word, means that GOD alone is the adoptive parent—not the Church. The Church, in this metaphor, is more akin to an orphanage full of children who were adopted by the same Father. According to Dr. Robert R. Wilson, “Christians were sometimes addressed as children by church authorities, a practice the Church traced to Jesus (Gal. 4:19; 2 Tim. 1:2; Philem. 10; 1 John 2:1, 12, 18, 28; Matt. 9:2; Mark 2:5; 10:24; John 13:33)” (1985,162). But even in these instances, the term connotes a family relationship where the apostle acts as a type of spiritual father to the church, rather than becoming a “parent” to a whole ethno-linguistic people group. In this sense, a senior pastor may be considered as a type of spiritual father to his congregation. But this does not adequately correlate to a congregation becoming the collective spiritual parent to an ethno-linguistic people group.

Therefore, as fellow adoptees, we do better to “advocate” for other people groups with the goal of seeing them enter that “adopted” relationship with our Heavenly Father through Christ. This is indeed “planned from eternity and mediated by Jesus Christ” (Eph.1:5).

Advocate in the New Testament (Gr. parakletos). An advocate is one who pleads another’s cause or helps another by defending or comforting him or her. It is a name given by Christ three times to the Holy Spirit (John 14:16; 15:26; 16:7, where the Greek word is rendered “comforter”). It is applied to Christ in 1 John 2:1, where the same Greek word is rendered “advocate,” the rendering which it should have in all the places where it occurs (Easton 1996)

Advocate seems to be an attribute of the Triune God that all followers of Jesus Christ can imitate on behalf of individuals and whole people groups (Old Testament: Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:19; Ezek. 47:22-23; New Testament: Eph. 2:19-20; 1 Thess. 5:10). Jesus described the Holy Spirit’s work as our advocate most clearly in John 16:8-15:

And when he [Holy Spirit/Paraclete/Advocate] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

The scriptures describe the work of the Holy Spirit (the “advocate”) as the one who abides in each individual believer (Rom. 8) and works through the unified church body (1 Cor. 12:1-7). In this sense, a congregation of believers can be unified in corporate advocacy on behalf of an ethno-linguistic people group. For example, the Macedonian church and the Corinthian church “advocated” for the suffering Jerusalem church when they offered financial aid for them (2 Cor. 8-9). As our advocate, the Holy Spirit does not merely condescend upon us, but he “comes alongside of us” to comfort, encourage, and convict concerning sin. Therefore, it seems to be a more fitting role for a church body to imitate in relation to unreached people groups than the role of adopter. 

For Those Opposed to the Change in Terminology…

Remember that the well-known mission agency bearing the initials SIM originally stood for “Sudan Interior Mission.” As the mission grew and missionaries were engaging other people groups in other global locations, they realized that the name of the mission no longer described their enlarged focus. So they had to either change the name to reflect the current reality, or change their current reality back to the original narrow focus. SIM now stands for “Serving In Mission,” as the mission supports missionaries working on several continents and among multiple people groups around the world. Should SIM return to their original name and vision of Sudan Interior Mission and limit their focus again to the sahel region of Africa then known as the Sudan? How would that affect their work among other people groups today? A similar story could be told about OMF and several other older missions. As the world and social constructs are drastically changing, so must mission strategy and nomenclature change in order to effectively make disciples of all nations in the twenty-first century.

The Impact
In 2004, I proposed that our church mission strategy cease from the singular people adoption and move toward a multiple people group advocacy model. The impact has been overwhelmingly positive. I believe the benefits we are experiencing would be similar in any church that makes the change from adoption to advocacy. Below are five.

1. Missionaries will feel equally supported, rather than existing in the shadow of a favored few.

2. “Reached” people groups will not feel abandoned, but rather sought out as vital partners in reaching the unreached around them.

3. More church members could advocate for people groups for which God has given them a relational connection or an extraordinary passion to reach.

4. Church members have more opportunities to become “fellow workers in the truth” with those being called and sent from among us.

5. The church is ready to support their people according to the particular calling the Holy Spirit has given them, rather than requiring the whole church to share one burden for one people group alone. Missions in this way is more relationally oriented than single-strategy oriented.

By the grace of God, and the Great Commission mandate joyfully pursued among our pastoral staff and congregation, this new strategy has gotten more of our people involved and engaged with multiple people groups all over the globe. It is an exciting and humbling place to be.

Easton, M. 1996. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, Wash.: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

Eller, Laura and Roger Grossman. 2003. “Guatemala Research: The Joshua Project.” Evangelical Missions Quarterly 39(3): 300-310.

Guthrie, Stan. 2000. “Globalization.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Gen. ed. A. Scott Moreau, 394-396. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

“The State of World Evangelization.” 2000. Mission Frontiers. Accessed February 20, 2009 from 

Wilson, Robert. 1985. Harper’s Bible Dictionary. San Francisco, Calif.: Harper & Row.

Wilson, Samuel. 2000. “Peoples, People Groups.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions.  Gen. ed. A. Scott Moreau, 744-746. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Wood, D. R. W. and I. H. Marshall.1996. New Bible Dictionary. Includes index. (electronic ed. of 3rd ed.). Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

The World Urbanization Prospects: The 2007 Revision Population Database. Accessed February 20, 2009 from z


Erik Hyatt is associate pastor for global outreach at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has a masters in divinity in intercultural studies from Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and is currently working on a doctorate in missiology from Fuller Seminary.

Copyright  © 2009 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


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