Missions agencies send; it’s what they were created to do. Where they send is the question. At the beginning of the modern missionary movement, when evangelical Christianity was concentrated entirely in Western Europe and North America, the question hardly even needed to be asked. Everywhere else in the world needed the gospel. So, it was legitimate to send missionaries anywhere outside the evangelical heartland.
Coastlands & Inlands
Because travel in those days was usually by sea, the first wave of Protestant missionaries went to the coastlands of the non-evangelical world. Mission stations were established in port cities around Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The islands of the Pacific were also accessible to sailing ship, so missionaries went to them. Everywhere they went, the gospel was new, and gospel witness was desperately needed.
After a time, missionary leaders began to realize that their workers tended to stay along the coastlands, to the neglect of inland regions. After all, supplies and new recruits came by ship, and if things got bad, evacuation could only happen from the coast. In the mid-nineteenth century, the focus of mission work was able to shift to the interior regions of non-evangelical countries. The names of famous mission agencies like China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, and Africa Inland Mission reflected this shift.
Unreached People Groups
At the time of the Lausanne missionary conference in 1974, there were evangelical Christians in most countries around the world. During the conference, a missiologist named Ralph Winter drew the attention of the missionary world to the priority of unreached people groups. A people group is not the same as a country. Members of a people group share the same ethnic identity. They typically have a common language, a common religion, and a common history.
A country, defined by a fixed geographical border and a central government, usually has more than one people group living within it. People groups, on the other hand, often spill over political borders and live in more than one country. When Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt, 28:16–20), he used the word ethne, which refers to people groups and not to geopolitical countries.
Examples of people groups would be the Catalan and Basques of Spain, or the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Everyone is part of a people group. But some people groups have access to the gospel (such as ours, if you are an English-speaking North American like me), and some do not. Ralph Winter pointed out to the evangelical world that there were still thousands of people groups that no one was trying to reach with the gospel. Unless someone intentionally crossed barriers of language and culture to bring them the good news of Jesus, they would remain lost in darkness. Beginning in the 70s, the focus of evangelical missionary activity shifted more and more toward unreached people groups.
So, what constitutes an unreached people group? For many years, missionary leaders have said that any people group that is less than 2 percent evangelical Christian should be considered unreached. This is based on observations about the sort of critical mass necessary for any people movement to keep going without outside help.
However, the Bible never mentions any particular percentage as the cutoff between reached and unreached. If the evangelical population of a people group is 2.1 percent but declining, they may need more outside help than one that is 1.9 percent but surging ahead. Percentages are helpful, and we continue to look at them, but they need to be seen alongside the state of the church and the progress of the work in each people group. Keeping those things in mind, IMB regards unreached people groups to be among the highest priorities in deciding where to send missionaries.
The obvious question, then, is whether or not we should stop sending missionaries to a particular place after the evangelical population reaches a high enough percentage point. Not necessarily. The missionary task includes entry, evangelism, discipleship, healthy church formation, and leadership training before it reaches the point of exit. The evangelical church in a people group needs to be able to do evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training without outside assistance before the missionary task is done.
Leadership training includes both theological education and missionary training. Churches need to be training pastors and other leaders who are theologically sound and handle the Bible well—and they must also be actively training and sending missionaries—before outside assistance should stop. Therefore, we may continue to send missionaries to more-reached people groups for the sake of the health of the church and to raise up missionaries to join us in the task elsewhere.
The people group theme is common in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New. However, as we read the missionary accounts of the Book of Acts, we also notice a clear focus on unreached places. Acts shows the gospel breaking through barriers to people groups, such as Samaritans and Gentiles like the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion Cornelius. However, there’s also a geographical thrust to the book as missionaries carry the gospel to unreached city after unreached city. Therefore, geography and ethnicity plays a role in missionary deployment.
These are our priorities, then. We send missionaries to unreached people groups and unreached places. We send them to complete the missionary task, which includes entry, evangelism, discipleship, healthy church formation, and leadership training before exit. The state of the church and the progress of the work shape the specifics of our strategy.
Unreached peoples and places are those among whom Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help.
In contemporary terminology, unreached peoples refer to ethnolinguistic groups in which the number of evangelical Christians is less than 2 percent. Though this definition is helpful in some ways, it is problematic in others, in particular because:
It arbitrarily identifies a 2 percent threshold as the determinant between “reached” and “unreached.” Missiologists have examined sociological data to determine the threshold at which a population segment can sufficiently spread its ideas to its broader population without outside assistance. However, sociologists (and consequently missiologists) have disagreed on what percentage of people constitutes that threshold. This reality, in addition to the absence of biblical prescription regarding such a threshold, renders attempts to identify a particular percentage of people as “unreached” or “reached” problematic, particularly if that percentage becomes the sole determinant in mission strategy. We believe it is valuable to identify the percentage of evangelicals among a particular people group or in a particular place, but we also couple that percentage with research regarding a number of other factors in order to accurately identify the state of the church and the access to the gospel among that people or in that place. Based upon all of this information, we then organize which missionaries we deploy where and what those missionaries do when they get there, letting the state of the church determine our strategy for mission.
It unnecessarily limits the “unreached” label to a particular people group. Research regarding people groups is necessary in light of Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (of all the ethne), Christ’s promise that the gospel will be proclaimed as a testimony to all nations (to all the ethne) before the end comes, and the Bible’s guarantee that individuals from every tribe, language, people, and nation will one day be ransomed by God and represented in heaven. Matthew 28:19; 24:14; Revelation 5:9-10.
It is beneficial, then, to identify ethnolinguistic groups in the world and to track the spread of the gospel among them with the goal of reaching all of them. Furthermore, such research must inform mission strategy. However, we do not ignore the reality that when the New Testament records the spread of the gospel through the early church, biblical authors strongly focus on places, not only peoples. In Luke’s account of Paul’s missionary journeys, he primarily records the spread of the gospel from city to city and region to region, not people group to people group. Acts 1:8; 8:1; 9:31; 11:19-21; 13-21.
Moreover, in Paul’s clear explanation of his passion to proclaim the gospel where Christ has not been named, he speaks in terms of distinct places, not of distinct people groups. Romans 15:18-24. This does not mean that biblical accounts neglect the mention (and even importance) of ethnic and cultural distinctions among Christian converts, Acts 8:27; 10:1-2; 11:19-21; 16:48; 17:18. but the earliest missionaries seem focused not just on spreading the gospel to unreached peoples, but also (and often even more so) to unreached places.
It is both biblical and helpful, then, to recognize the unreached in terms of both peoples and places, for both realities bear uniquely upon mission strategy.
Recognizing the unreached in terms of particular people groups has a unique bearing on disciple making. Ethnolinguistic barriers often hinder the spread of the gospel across people groups. Such barriers are necessary for missionaries to consider in evangelism and discipleship as they contextualize the gospel for their listeners. Missionaries must often learn a language in order to share the gospel, and they should always consider the ethnic, cultural, linguistic, and religious distinctions of their listeners when communicating the gospel to them and applying the gospel to their lives.
Recognizing the unreached in terms of places has a unique bearing on church planting. As previously noted, New Testament mission patterns put clear priority on planting churches in unreached places. As churches are planted in particular places, these churches are uniquely designed by God to include different people groups. The New Testament does not prioritize planting homogeneous churches comprised of single people groups. Across the New Testament, the gospel beckons (even requires) Christians to bridge ethnic barriers in the church. Acts 14:21-23; 5:1-35; 1 Corinthians 8-10; Galatians 3:23-29; Ephesians 2:11-22.
Therefore, we reject the notion that in places where multiple people groups exist, we should purposefully plant churches exclusively and perpetually comprised of one people group. Instead, we believe that in places where multiple people groups exist, we should plant churches that intentionally bridge ethnic barriers by evangelizing distinct people groups and incorporating them into the church. To be sure, language differences must be considered in church planting, for the ability to communicate with one another is critical to carrying out the core functions of the church. Further, even among people groups who may speak the same language, getting to multiple people groups in the same church can be a process which demands much patience and wisdom in disciple making. But it remains the end toward which we are working until the day when all the peoples gather as one people to give glory to God through Christ. Philippians 2:9-11; Revelation 5:9-14; 7:9-12.
Our mission strategy, then, focuses on both unreached peoples and places. We deploy missionary teams to unreached places where Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help. We also deploy missionary teams to reached places with a significant population of unreached peoples. In addition, we deploy missionary teams to reached places with significant potential for reaching unreached peoples and places. Regardless of place, we proclaim the gospel to all people with an intentional focus on reaching different peoples and, to the extent to which it is linguistically possible, gathering them into churches together. In this way, we are resolutely focused on playing our part in seeing disciples made and churches multiplied in every place and among every people group in the world.