Focus on People Groups – by Steve Hawthorne

The way we look at the world can help us organize the task of evangelization Our motive for missions cannot be based on emotion or even zeal. Instead it must be founded on the sure hope that God fully intends to bring about a following for His Son in every people. Nothing could be more certain. We can pursue the completion of world evangelization with a wise, patient passion. The Son of God is worth it. The Father Himself wills it.

I am reminded of the digging of the Panama Canal. Over a period of decades, several major attempts failed to finish the job. Finally, one effort successfully carved through the land, cutting a passageway between two oceans. The workers dug away from both sides. They kept sight on the goal even when they could not see either ocean. And much work was done which didn’t exactly seem like digging a canal. Railroads were built. Rivers were dammed Swamps were drained by digging over 1,700 miles of drainage ditches. Even so, the thousands of workers kept sight of the vision of an international passageway.

Any worker who did not keep his sights set on the final outcome would have easily gotten discouraged. Christians also must keep in mind our conviction that God’s global purposes are actually being accomplished and will succeed.

Matthew 28:19 commands Christians to an activity: making disciples. But with the all important phrase, “of all nations” it really becomes a goal to guide all evangelistic work: to disciple the nations.

Jesus expects this goal to be finished. He singles out one thing which must happen: establish a Gospel witness in every nation (Matt. 24:14). We are not finished until all nations are reached in such a way that God is praised because Christ is openly followed. The strong implication is that Jesus won’t close the age until this is done. The key word in this passage is the word translated “nation.” We immediately think “country” when we see that word, but the Greek word is ethne from which we get our word “ethnic.” It carries the meaning of an ethnic or cultural people group (Editor: A “people group” can be defined as a significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste, situation, etc.)

People groups are God’s idea. He formed the first nations (Gen. 10) from the linguistic diversity He caused at Babel (Gen 11). Later God promised Abraham that all the groups would be blessed by Abraham’s descendants (Gen 12). Paul taught that God directs the times and movements of people groups that they might find Him (Acts 17:26-27). John indicated that some from every group would be in heaven (Rev. 7:9).

God didn’t give the church such a huge job without any plan to accomplish it. The Day of Pentecost (Acts 2) highlighted to the church God’s concern that every people hear the good news in a way that they could understand. He made it clear that although Gentiles were to enjoy spiritual unity with Israel, a Gentile did not need to become a cultural Jew, leaving his family and culture. Men and women were all to be saved and accepted in the church on the basis of faith alone.

Therefore, our work is to minimize two barriers impeding the advance of the Gospel. First, the communication barrier, which separates people from an understanding of the truth of the Gospel, and second, the conversion barrier, which hinders groups of people from following Christ in ways that will truly express the redeemed value of the culture, and therefore bring about a wide acceptance of the Gospel. The need to overcome these two barriers is clear in a mission definition of a people group: the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.

What are the implications? We must not be content to operate in a commonly recognized trade language if a local dialect will make the Gospel more intelligible. But just as significantly, we must see that people are allowed to follow Jesus in a way that is in accord with their cultural heritage. Never should mission efforts offer a “cheap grace” version of following Christ. True repentance is always costly, requiring a renunciation of false worship and evil practices. But on the other hand no people should reject the Messiah because of a false impression that He is calling them to commit cultural suicide by abandoning and divorcing themselves from their own people.

For example, the vegetarian Hindu must not fear becoming a Christian because Christians supposedly must eat meat and drink blood. The Chinese may fear that conversion to Christ means complete repudiation of their ancestral past. The nomad ought not believe that all Christians must live in cities and speak English. Such misimpressions may seem trivial, but to men and women in unreached people groups, they present very real barriers. Christ did not die for Muslims to eat pork or for aborigines to wear shoes!

People must be able to see the Gospel lived out in all of its radical freshness. That kind of reality can only be seen in the fellowship and worship of a church in that culture. The Word must be made flesh once again as it were, in that culture. Churches must be planted (in every people) which glorify God by using as much of the local culture as the basic message of Scripture will allow.

The way we look at the world determines how we are progressing toward fulfilling the Great Commission. For example, if we look at the world as a growing number of individuals, the job can seem quite impossible because there are hundreds more born every minute. If Billy Graham were to speak to a million people each day for the next ten years, still not all the non-Christians would hear the good news.

By contrast if we look at the world as a collection of countries the job can appear very nearly done. Growing churches now thrive in most countries. Certainly there are some Christians in all countries.

However if we look at the world as an enormous mosaic of people groups, we will see that although there are churches in every country, there are thousands of people groups with no church in those same countries. The groups which do have a viable evangelizing church-planting movement, we would label “reached.” Though many individuals are yet to hear the Gospel in these countries, they are considered “reached” because there is reason to believe that an existing, growing church movement can actually finish the job of spreading the Gospel to everyone in that group with God’s help and without outside cross-cultural missionaries.

But if every Christian were to be mobilized tomorrow and trained to win all of the people in his or her cultural sphere, still there would be 2.5 billion individuals who would not hear the gospel. For these people, the Gospel seed has not been sown or, if it has, it has not yet sprouted. No church embodies and authenticates the claims and life of the Gospel for them. And for some of the people, there is not the faintest bit of witness despite amazing radio coverage. They are the “unreached peoples” of earth, the “Hidden” or “Frontier” peoples, for some reason bypassed by the church.

These people groups may live in physical proximity to a dynamic fellowship, but find a crucial cultural barrier cutting them off from the Gospel. Of the worlds roughly 24,000 people groups, there remain approximately 8,000 people groups unreached.

Most unreached peoples are part of five large blocs of humanity: Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Chinese, and Tribal. Over 80% of the worlds non-Christians live in unreached people groups. They are without the Gospel, and will in all probability remain in abject darkness unless and until deliberate effort is made to bring the Gospel to them in culturally sensitive ways. Then clusters of growing churches must form which can themselves finish the task of proclaiming the Gospel to all of their people.

The difficult news is that only about 13% of the world’s mission force is devoting its work time to pioneer church planting among unreached peoples. All others do important work reviving and nurturing existing churches, or planting more church in already penetrated peoples. No missionaries necessarily need to abandon any worthwhile work they are doing. If they can promote vision for unreached peoples, they may do more by staying where they are. What is also needed is a new wave of informed and focused recruits to reinforce existing missions work and lead the advance into untouched peoples.

Furthermore, there are thousands of “bilinguals” like Paul and Barnabas who today can bridge into virtually all of the remaining groups to be reached if we can claim them for Christ and harness their potential.

The good news is that never has world evangelization been more within our grasp in terms of resources, technology, knowledge, mission mechanisms, church structures, and international church relations. All these lead us to believe that we are on the verge of a great advance, not to mention the great indications of receptivity and opportunity in the hearts and cities of the unreached.

The ‘Hidden Peoples” are not hidden from God. They are only “hidden” from a busy and apathetic church. They can be blocked from our view when pressing needs consume our energies. The vast number of unreached peoples can almost always be eclipsed from sight by the ambitions of worldly comfort or the guest for career stability.

We could not have invented a more difficult task. Borders are closed. People are resistant. Languages are difficult. But with God’s help the job can be finished. The only reason to doubt that this generation will see a church for every people is the lack of resolve to finish the task and a blindness to see clearly the variety of peoples of the earth. We are better at distinguishing 20,000 different kinds of butterflies than we are in detecting human communities!

May God give us sight and strength to say with Jesus, at the close of our generation, “We glorified You on earth having accomplished the work You gave us to do.” (John 17:4)  

Steve Hawthorne directs Waymakers ministry in Texas, USA. This is an adaptation of an article by Steve which was first published in World Christian Magazine in the March-April issue of 1983, and reprinted recently in Mission Frontiers Bulletin, March-April 1998.

From Church Leader in Africa, Oct 01, 1998.