The Controversies Around Unengaged at Capetown 2010

Original first part of the title: “The devil is in the definitions” (by Justin L.): During one of the last days at the Lausanne Congress in Cape Town (Twitter hashtag: #capetown2010 or #lcwe), Paul Eshleman gave an impassioned plea for the unreached peoples of the world – and especially for engaging the “unengaged” peoples (e.g. those groups which had no work among them). In the course of this presentation he handed out a list of unengaged groups to each of the table groups and asked people to (1) submit any corrections and (2) commit to send a team to engage at least one of those groups.

Almost immediately there was an undercurrent of uncertainty about the list in the Congress. People began looking at the list and saying—why was this or that group on the list? “We have teams among this group” or “I know of teams among this group” or “This group is mostly Christian” were all pretty common refrains. No one really wants to talk about it publicly, I understand – I love Paul (as does everyone else) and his passion for reaching the unreached is perfectly in sync with mine. But what to do with a list that has a number of groups on it that we don’t think are unengaged?

With such lists as these – when we move from the abstract theoretical (“we have to reach the unreached!”) to the hardcore practical (“here is a list of groups to reach”)—it becomes difficult. Especially because we are talking about that nasty word—prioritization—where we take from scarce resources (e.g. manpower, donor dollars, etc.) and dedicate them to a particular group (and the odds are, for any particular missionary, it will not be your group or your cause). The devil is in the definitions: we can easily get mired in the “weeds” of controversy about what group is “in” the list and what group is “out.”

Well, having been in the middle of these kinds of controversies for 15 years, and not being one to shirk from a good ol’ battle over statistics, I’m wading in where angels fear to tread. Hence this post. Which I hope adds some clarity and light without too much heat.

1. Labels and Controversies

On April 1, 2004, Google introduced a brand new email service called “Gmail.” At the time everyone wondered whether it was an April Fool’s prank (as Google was notorious for them). However, it has gone on to be one of the most beloved (at least by yours truly) email services available. It has several really interesting features; among them are Threaded Conversation View and Never Having To Delete Email as well as Google’s namesake, Search Thousands Of Messages In A Few Seconds. But perhaps the most innovative feature (at least for the purposes of our discussion here) was the label.

Before Google, most (all?) email clients allowed you to organize your messages in folders, which could themselves be organized in a hierarchical fashion (e.g. a tree). It makes sense that this would be the first form of organization, since most of the people who got enough messages that they had to be organized were in corporations—which were, in themselves, organized in hierarchies. So a hierarchical tree of little boxes into which you could slot emails is obvious. But, we’ve all come in recent days to think of ourselves less in terms of hierarchies and positions and more in terms of roles and relationships. And once you’re part of lots of networks, a hierarchical view of your mail becomes more problematic.

Google did away with that. Each individual message could have more than one label. So a particular message could be “news” but could also be “from-my-wife.” Or, in my own context, a message could be labeled from “Friends/Best15” and “CapeTown” and “Events” And “Important” and “Done”. I have about 69 different labels, which have to do with a message’s status, its context, and its source. You can search by any of these labels.

Labels, whether they are hierarchical or multiple, require definition. Only messages from my wife get the “from-my-wife” label—that’s easy enough. But when does a message deserve a “News” label? Do newsletters count, or only press releases? You have to know which slot to put  a message in to. It’s easier when you can have multiple labels – it’s no more a one-vs-many choice – but you still need to know whether a label applies. And thus you need a definition for a label. It can be a pretty loose definition, in terms of email. But in terms of statistics related to people groups and Christians and non-Christians we tend to want things a bit tighter.

In missions research, labels and definitions are the trickiest part. (Our own labels—but also understanding the labels that others use.) Some of the labels are all-or-nothing: Christian vs. non-Christian, for example. Some of the labels can “cross” boundaries (e.g. evangelical vs. Pentecostal vs. Charismatic vs. Protestant vs. Catholic vs. Anglican vs. Orthodox vs. Independent vs. Marginal). But all of these labels can be quite controversial. People can disagree over whether a label should be stuck on a group.

For example, just consider the label “affiliated church member.” In some denominations, children count. In others, they don’t. So to get a global number of affiliated church members, one has to account for the children—either adding them in for the denominations that don’t count them, or removing them for the ones that do. Labels! Definitions! Details!

One of the most controversial definitions in Operation World or the World Christian Encyclopedia or any other list is – Who is a Christian? Who is not? Many, many people have come up to me and said, “Why can’t we just count the true believers?” And my response– “Who is a true believer? How do you measure them?” Once we get into the nuts-and-bolts of this—that it is a heart decision, and you can’t see the heart, only God can—then we see how it’s nearly impossible to measure a “true believer.” OW and the WCE make stabs at this with measures of “evangelicalism” and “Great Commission Christians,” but the two don’t agree on the methodology (a disagreement I’m happy to say is friendly, fortunately). Ruth Padilla DeBorst at Cape Town had a great deal to say about the idea of defining who is “in” and “out” of Christianity.

A second controversial definition is—who is “evangelized”? This was introduced (to the best of my knowledge) by the first edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia: an attempt to measure how many people had heard the Gospel and how many had not. The original formula was a series of 200+ questions to ask for each country. Each question could be answered with a yes/no  and on that basis you either added 1% or subtracted 1%. You could actually hit more than 100% in countries that were especially saturated with Gospel presentations, and this was indicative of oversaturation. But of course this had controversy of its own. Just because you had a Bible in your home, for example—were you evangelized? Perhaps, perhaps not. You could always find individual cases that disproved the general theory. The point was that you could have a Bible in your home, and thus had access to the Gospel (unlike some who have been fined or imprisoned for having Christian materials).

Another definition soon emerged which had to do with the church: the “unreached” definition. This emerged through a long history but was especially defined at a 1982 meeting in Chicago. Missiologists at the meeting defined a people group: “From the viewpoint of evangelization this is the largest possible group within which the gospel can spread as a viable, indigenous church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.” An unreached people group was a group where such a church planting movement did not exist. In other words, to be unreached has less to do with evangelization of individuals and more to do specifically with whether there is an indigenous church capable of doing the task without cross-cultural (missionary) assistance.

For a long and insightful piece on the history of this thinking, see “Major Concepts of the Frontier Mission Movement” by Alan Johnson in the International Journal of Frontier Missions 18:2.
Now we have three different labels over which to argue, and argue we have. Fortunately, over the past fifteen years these arguments have been for the most part resolved, and we can pretty much understand where everyone stands on these. The definitions have been worked out. As a result, we have some different lists around.

Three stand out—the Joshua Project, the World Christian Database, and the CPPI. These have a common heritage in the time of the AD 2000 & Beyond Movement and the period when Dr. David Barrett worked with the International Mission Board in people group research. I don’t have the time in this article (or the will, really) to go into all the intricacies of the “political” developments during those days (or probably all of the insider knowledge, although I was there for part of that time). But three lists came out of the roots of that period: the Joshua Project, the IMB’s CPPI list, and the World Christian Database (WCD). JP is colored by its evangelical roots & its long standing connection with Operation World; Patrick Johnstone in many ways was a mentor to the guys at JP. The CPPI list was developed by IMB and is very field-driven. And the WCD list is behind the World Christian Database and is most directly the heir of David Barrett & Todd Johnson’s work. I am honored to call all of these guys my friends. And what is interesting is that these three lists, while being different in some ways, largely agree with each other on their global numbers. Each list gives a slightly different perspective, but already the lists have more and better links with each other than ever before. (For example, look on the JP list and you’ll see for many of the people groups as  “WCD” number that links JP to WCD. Enormous work was involved in that.)

Today the arguments over these labels have mostly died down. When it comes to Christianity, we acknowledge the multiple traditions of Christianity. We know evangelicals tend to focus on evangelicals as being the “true core.” We don’t say it too loudly, because it can be offensive to non-evangelicals (of which some were present at Cape Town and were indeed offended). We all know of instances where there are “true believers” in non-evangelical traditions. Be that as it may, there’s a reason why the Joshua Project definition for unreached takes into account both % evangelical and % Christian.

We don’t talk so much about evangelization any more although the World Christian Encyclopedia & its related materials still focus strongly on it. Nevertheless a lot of our statistics are derived from the concept, and a lot of our effort is geared toward it (which is kind of ironic). We talk a lot about “unreached” or “least reached” – and while there is some difficulty statistically with this, Joshua Project’s done a good job of ironing out most of the difficulties and presenting a pretty comprehensive list.


At Cape Town, Paul introduced a brand new label which most of those present were not familiar with. Many in the audience would have had some picture in their mind if you said “Christian” or “evangelical” or “unreached” (or “hidden” or “missing”—still not sure why we couldn’t use “unreached peoples” instead of “missing peoples” but be that as it may). But when Paul introduced “unengaged,” there was no definition. Few people at the grass roots level had heard this term before. Instead of having a common framework, everyone immediately took the term “unengaged” and built their own mental picture from their own experience. They looked through the list examining it with this picture in mind. Because the definition wasn’t clear and shared, everyone looked at the list from the perspective of their individual passion.

When we ask whether a group is engaged, we immediately begin thinking mentally about both quantity and quality. How many workers among a group is “enough” for the group to be considered engaged? One short-term team? One long-term couple? One per 50,000 (which was the definition Paul espoused on the documentation if not so much from the presentation—and how many read the fine print? And remember, the fine print was in English. Many present were not English speakers.) Secondly, what kind of engagement was the “right” kind of engagement? Bible translation teams? Social works? Relief work? Church planters? Church planters of a particular denomination?

In some cases, a group was on the list because the engagement clearly wasn’t known about. In other places, the group was on the list because someone likely thought whatever engagement was active wasn’t the “right” sort or wasn’t “sufficient.”

And over this data, people will disagree: but we need desperately to first move from talking about data (specific cases) and into talking about definitions that will be generally applicable. When we argue not for definitions but for cases—specifically the cases we have invested our lives in—then lots of emotions boil over. At the risk of offending some folks who work in the Buddhist world, let me quote a Buddhism-laden movie series, “Star Wars”: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” When faced with a new list that we don’t understand, we begin asking emotionally-laden questions: Why is this group on the list? Why is that group not on the list? We fear that our passion is going to lose resources—that we will be marked as “no longer priority.” We become angry. When attacked, we become defensive. If we feel our opinion or our passion is ignored, bitterness can ensue, and soon we can be slipping in our darkest moments into hatred. We don’t want to talk about it, but we can. I remember one fellow at a conference who told me how much he hated David Barrett—that Barrett was the worst thing to ever happen to the International Mission Board. I was absolutely stunned that this professedly good Baptist could stand there and tell me, “I hate him.” It’s a short, slippery slope.

If Paul erred, I think he erred a little bit to the side of “let’s go-go-go-go!” and not enough on the side of explaining the implications and challenge of the unengaged. So let me call to everyone to slow down, and take a breath, and choose the more excellent way of charity. It’s going to take time and thinking for us to understand this list and its implications. For example, consider:

There is a need to clearly enunciate, perhaps on a website, the history and source of the list. How was the list created? What researchers are behind it? where did the data come from? how does it line up with other lists? etc.
Since the list deals with engagement, we need to have very clearly defined what engagement is.
Since we’re being asked to engage groups in order to “finish the task,” we need to know: who is maintaining the list of engagements? What happens when a group becomes unengaged? (Because that happens quite frequently).
What about the sensitivities in dealing with engagement issues? Some groups, we don’t want to say they are engaged, because they are too small and it’s immediately obvious who the engagement is by.
How is this list being corrected? Where can corrections be submitted? If corrections are not accepted, how will our submission be acknowledged and the reasoning behind its rejection communicated? How quickly will they be dealt with? (This has been addressed in some private correspondence but needs to be made clear publicly.)
What is the intersection between engagement and already-existing Christianity? I’ve seen some groups on the list that I would label “Christian” even if not necessarily solidly “evangelical”. JP has a method for dealing with this.
Most of the world’s unevangelized/unreached individuals are NOT within groups that are unengaged, but RATHER within groups that are engaged but not yet reached, and primarily in India & China.
What is the purpose of engaging the unengaged groups—is it just that we want to get workers everywhere, or are we in danger of some triumphalistic “engage-them-all-and-Jesus-comes-back” thinking?
Admittedly, it’s difficult to do all that in the space of about 20 minutes, which is about what Paul had to work in!


So the way forward: We need to begin talking less about the list and more about the definitions, and then once a fairly standard definition is created, let’s go back and apply it to the lists. In my own organization (Mission to Unreached Peoples) we have a team, which I’m part of, which is looking at which People Group Clusters have no existing “champions” or “partnerships” and then seeking to recruit new workers for those. Just in the few days we met after Cape Town, we in our  much smaller setting also struggled with this challenge. And, in our own little microcosm, we had the same fears, arguments, storm clouds, and reassurances.

It takes time. Time to talk things out. Time to contemplate the dangers and necessities of prioritization. Time to grapple with the complexity of the task. Time to listen and hear a brother’s heart more than his words. Time to consider whether there is something more that can be done. Some will say, “We don’t have that kind of time. I don’t want to spend that kind of time.” Fine—but then you’re going to have to be patient and wait for others to spend the time and give you their reflections. Because we owe it to a brother in Christ not to make a snap judgment and then completely dismiss his passion and work.

I have heard several people say that “people are going to do all this research and get to the field and find out there’s already a team there.” My first response: if you do research the way you should with initial exploratory trips and networking, you won’t get to that point. And second: even if that “worst case scenario” happens—how “bad” is it? Is it a complete waste? If we’re talking about groups with populations from 100,000 on up, are we saying that an extra team on the field is a bad thing? I wouldn’t consider it so.

Finally, to the question that my friend Doug Lucas posed: can’t we just have one list? Can’t we all get along? I hear your heart, Doug. But I have taken much comfort in Rodney Stark’s book, “The churching of America,” in which he noted that a plethora of denominations and competition between them (not always friendly, to be sure) actually resulted in more church growth and more individual participation, not less. In European countries where there is one state church, there is a much higher degree of apathy because the church can’t appeal to everyone. But when there are many churches of different “flavors” (but same Lord, same faith, etc.) then you’re more likely to find one that gets you more involved.

I would say that a similar effect happens with multiple lists. Different lists have slightly different lenses. The trick here is that their definitions must be clear and we can hope for good interaction between the list holders. Fortunately, that is the case with the existing lists. We researchers know each other and have regular conversations. Iron sharpens iron. You can use any of the well-established and larger people group lists – the JP is the one I typically recommend because it is easiest to get to—and be confident you’re getting good data that you can rely on for strategic planning (although you should also do your own field research for up to the minute).

As for the list that Paul shared: I think it’s interesting, and I think that over the next weeks and months there should be more clarity as the list is talked about and refined. In the meantime, if you want to pick a group off that list and see if you can do something about it – I don’t see that it would be a complete waste of time. As a first stage of research, however, you might want to compare the people group you’ve picked with the JP list and see if you can more detailed information before buying a plane ticket.

By Justin L.

Link to original article with posts.