It is imperative for those of us who follow Christ to disciple all peoples. Of the many peoples that need missionaries, which are highest priority? We believe it is the groups which, so far as we know, have no Christ-followers among them, no books of the Bible, and no missionaries with the intent of bringing the gospel to them.
In an earlier article we listed languages some missionaries must learn in order to witness to these highest priority peoples.
This article is an update of that list based on further research. The result is a reduction of the number to only 112 languages! These peoples are found in 21 countries.
The largest number, 25, are in China; 16 are in Nepal, and 15 in Iran. The previous list was a combination of data from the World Christian Database (WCD) and SIL’s Ethnologue. The WCD was chosen because it could be consistently correlated with SIL information about scripture availability for nearly every people group in its database. The WCD gives corroborating information about data that a people group has no Christians (though we don’t know for certain how accurate and current this is).
But other databases have information and sources we can use to improve our list. For instance, Joshua Project data often relies on Paul Hattaway (author of Operation China), Patrick Johnstone (former editor of Operation World), Omid (for data on South Asia)1, and others. The IMB’s Church Planting Progress Indicators (CPPI) is informed by IMB field workers. In fact, researchers from all four of the global databases work together. There is value in having these different perspectives on the situation.
In addition to comparing data from other databases, we sought to confirm the findings by contacting field personnel who were close to the unreached peoples on the list. In a few cases, we learned of previously unreported missionaries working with a group or some believers.
Another much larger list has been promoted by Paul Eshleman through the Finishing the Task (FTT) partnership. This is also being updated, but as of July 2011, FTT lists 1,015 Unengaged, Unreached People Groups (UUPG) with populations greater than 50,000. To note yet another popular website, Call2All refers to 3,400 UUPG by including all groups, not just those over 50,000. Both of these begin from the IMB’s CPPI data. At first glance, these might seem to target the same groups as those on our list.
The biggest difference is in whether a list includes only those with fewer than 2% evangelicals, or no Christians of which we know. The “evangelical or Christian” distinction is important to understand. Joshua Project takes both into consideration. To be designated “unreached,” the group must be less than 2% evangelical Christian and less than 5% Christian adherents. An evangelical is a subset of Christian adherents and is defined on their website.
IMB has a similar definition for evangelical. As pointed out in Operation World, not all evangelicals are born again. The FTT and Call2All lists count only evangelicals, while we list only those groups without any Christian adherents. Again, both perspectives are valuable.
As Johnstone points out, there ought to be some distinction made between those who have no witness readily available to them and those who, if they sought it, could find scripture in a language they understand and a church that preaches elements of the gospel. For example, Japanese people in Argentina number an estimated 50,000 and have less than 2% evangelicals, so they make the larger list. But the gospel is generally available to them if they sought it out.
Another difference is that on our list, if individuals of a people group live on both sides of a national border, the language is still only listed once. The question we are asking is how many languages will a missionary have to learn in order to reach the groups who have no Christians or scripture? We learned, for instance, that the Runga of Chad have no scripture and few, if any, Christians; however, across the border in the Central African Republic, there are a number of Runga believers. So we removed this people group from our earlier list.
The final difference with the FTT list has to do with the population. Nowhere in the hundreds of places where God speaks of “all nations” and “all peoples” does he command going to larger groups first. If that were his strategy, Christ might have been born a Roman instead of a Jew.
Let’s advocate for all the unreached peoples as the Bible does, without distinction on size. It is true that the smallest people groups are usually more bilingual and bicultural and may not need a separate witness, but that is a tendency (not a fact) based solely on a low population figure.
The List So click here to view the new list. Although we asked researchers and field missionaries to review it, it undoubtedly still has errors. There may be peoples that are not on the list and should be, and others that could be removed.2
The JP and CPPI lists do not show data for some languages, but as the two right-hand columns show, there are no longer any of the disagreements that were in the earlier list. There is wide agreement on these very neediest people groups. We offer it with the prayer to the Almighty that he will send out workers to the harvest.
By Ted Bergman and Bill Morrison October / November 2011
The authors would appreciate feedback on the accuracy of the list.
1. Data coming from Omid is reflected in the South Asian “country” pages in Joshua Project if a state (division/zone/province) is chosen or if a smaller administrative division of the state is chosen.
2. Hattaway noted in an email, for example, that there have been significant advancements among the Qiangic groups in China that are on the list, especially since the Sichuan earthquake. These groups may now have a few believers.
Ted Bergman (PhD) has lived many years in Africa and coordinated language survey work internationally from 1983 to 2006. He is editor of SIL Electronic Survey Reports, is involved in sociolinguistic research in Asia, and is a research editor for Ethnologue. Bill Morrison (MBA) has compiled the Joshua Project database of people groups over the past eleven years. He was systems and programming manager at Campus Crusade for Christ and The Navigators for more than twenty years.