Articles Etnopedia Team Articles Research Chatter

Identifying Points of Missionary Need (people groups)

We need to be aware that all the worlds’ peoples are not identified yet. I can give you examples from field researchers that will tell us we do not have a complete picture. Here is one: I was recently traveling in an unreached people group with a field missionary. The area has 50+ distinct languages (or Bible translation needs) and an unknown number of ethnic peoples (other missionary needs). Some call these distinctions ethno-linguistic and ethno-cultural.

The field missionaries in this region have identified at least twenty-five known peoples beyond the 50+ languages, most of which are unreached. He is the expert, and he says that there might be another 40 ethnic peoples yet to be identified here. He calls them “Points of Need”. This means that there is a definite point where a separate missionary effort is needed. He may not realize it but his term fits the classic definition of a people group. “Where the Gospel will naturally flow without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

As we were traveling up into the mountains, we got out of the vehicle and he showed me where one group ended and another began. On this mountaintop we could see three points of need. Not only were the groups very different linguistically, they were warring tribes. In this area you are persecuted and sometimes put to death for preaching the Gospel.

It is so interesting to me that when you get closer to the field things are clarified. All of us researchers need to get out into the field more often to get back in touch with “why” we are doing research. Here is a field missionary (national) who has been in one of the most resistant people groups in the region for over 15 years. He knows exactly “why” we are doing research and “what” we are looking for. 

WHAT We are looking for are the “Points of Missionary Need”.

There is a definite point on the earth representing some form of people grouping where missionaries are needed. WHY? The Gospel will not flow there naturally because of some barrier. Could these be the ends of the earth? These are substantial BARRIERS that define the lines between one ethno-cultural group and another. They are definite Points of Need for a separate missionary effort. The same missionary might be able to meet the needs in two points, but he or she will have to make two separate efforts, and in some cases, translate another Bible. We are not trying to create more work for the missionary movement or keep ourselves in a job. We are trying to make the needs known so prayer can be raised and missionaries can be sent.

Our team waited ten years before we started to add ethno-cultural groups to our national list. This was a mistake; we should have started long ago. Ten years ago we didn’t feel qualified and feared that the mission movement would revolt seeing all the newly identified peoples on the list. We feared adding so many more unreached peoples to the list, most of the new additions will be unreached. So we began preparing the people year after year saying that one day we will be adding peoples to the list. I have seen at least 15 new languages added over the years. I just got the new list of the languages that are not in the Ethnologue from national SIL director. I haven’t counted yet but he tells me there are at least 5 languages I do not have on our list. We automatically count new languages as new peoples pretty much around the world. So we need to be prepared to see many new languages identified. The barrier of understanding is our greatest point of missionary sending need. The world needs Bible translators!

Unfortunately, many other parts of the world are similar to the region I was recently in. We simply do not know how many peoples or languages there are. I have personally spoken to two of the foremost researchers for India. One of them says we definitely have at least 4,000 peoples. The other says that there are at least 5,000. According to these researchers, these are definite Points of Missionary Sending Need. Most of the world people lists show only 2,500 to 2,700 peoples in India. We just don’t know. So, there is a definite need to continue to identify all the new people groups.

Problem: Who defines where the points of need are (the people groups)?

Solution: The definition of people group is determined by the field entity that is giving us the point of missionary need. We allow field efforts tell us what these points of missionary need are and where they are. If we try to define peoples at a higher level above the field, we will complicate the issue and undermine the field entities efforts. The real priority is getting the points of need identified. We are not attempting to create an anthropologically correct people list. We are trying to identify the needs for missionary sending. 

One of the greatest problems we have in the missionary movement is knowing “how many unidentified people groups there are”.  Last year I was asked to put together a comparison of four world people lists for a mission’s conference. To sum it up, there is an average disparity of 1,800 peoples between all four lists. This means that there are many peoples on one list and not on the other. Which ones are real? Which ones are duplicates? Which ones on one list need to be brought into the other lists? But more importantly, which peoples do not appear on any of the 4 lists? We need to involve more field entities in our research.