All too often the very idea of world evangelization is mysterious both to Christians today and to people in the different periods of the Bible. Yet it is apparently being pointed to in the following basic passages: Gen. 12:1-3, Psalms 67, Isaiah 49:6, and Matt. 28:18-20.
To penetrate this mystery, note that the two common elements in these passages are:
1) A concern not merely for “souls” but for some entity on the order of “the peoples of the earth” (families, nations, peoples, Gentile nations, etc.).
2) A concern that this entity, whatever it is, be blessed, gain a reverence for God, receive the light, salvation, be discipled, etc.
All this boils down, I believe, to the establishment within a group of a godly, outreaching fellowship. Worded differently, the goal has been stated as a church for every people by the year 2000.
Both of the Biblical elements are present in this goal statement. So is the concept of peoples. Salvation is certainly therein the high goal of an authentic, accountable fellowship of believers, which can reach out effectively to every person in that group.
The particular wording in this goal statement comes officially from the World Consultation on Frontier Missions, held in Edinburgh in 1980. If measured by the number of mission agencies sending delegates, that consultation was, amazingly, the largest world-level meeting ever held. One third of the agencies represented were new ones that had sprouted up in the so-called mission lands, a first in history.
It had taken almost two years prior to 1980 for the Edinburgh convening committee (composed of the delegates of a number of well-known mission agencies) to get a grip on the key concepts as stated here. But it was their keen thinking which eventually hammered out the “Church for Every People” goal statement.
They further elaborated this goal: (to reach) those peoples within which there is not yet a community of believers able to evangelize their own people (the E-80 definition).
Almost two years later, in February of 1982, the newly created Frontier Peoples Committee of the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association voted to suggest to all of its 90 or so member mission agencies that they each begin to employ synonymously the three commonly used goal phrases. Unreached Peoples, Hidden Peoples, and Frontier Peoples, and that the definition for these be the E-80 wording.
Then, in March of 1982, the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization’s Strategy Working Group decided to adopt essentially the same (E-80) definition. In so doing, they replaced their own earlier working definition of Unreached Peoples, which had been based on a 20 percent-Christian measurement. Their slight modification was no doubt for the better. It now read: An Unreached People is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize this people group. This valuable definition, however, builds in turn upon a key term which itself deserves attention: what is a peopled The March 1982 meeting convened by the Lausanne Committee also dealt decisively with this question. Their definition:
For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.
It is important to note that the wording here defines a group which normally would be capable of having within it a church movement.
By contrast, I have recently suggested the term “bridge peoples” for those often smaller, highly specialized groups like Osaka barbers, or Taipei taxi drivers, or Manila prostitutes, within whose more restricted fellowship evangelism can often be startlingly effective but which might not result in a church movement as such.
Once such individuals become Christians, they will seek to help their families, which likely will not fit in the restricted fellowship where the first one was reached. As a result, the entire family might best find church membership in some larger, more diverse sphere. Yet the existence of such evangelistic “bridge peoples” explains why the word largest is crucial in the definition of the kind of people groups that are candidates for a church movement.
As I see it, the careful consensus of March 1982 on the definitions of peoples and unreached peoples produced a marvelously wise pair of formulations. These two definitions can help us avoid many pitfalls, and protect us from misunderstanding the key goal of “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000.”
But now that the goal is well defined, it is time to ask if it is possible!
How we define people group. “Who are they?”
How we define “people group” has also been a process. For hundreds of years, as missionaries entered new territory, they naturally encountered barriers to the spread of the gospel. Some were geographic barriers, but others were ethnic barriers that were harder to define. There were no maps, books or profiles that could tell the missionary that they are crossing these barriers and encountering other distinct people groups.
Over the past twenty years these barriers have been studied and a clearer picture has been provided to the missionary movement. This has enables mission to be much more specific and thus much more strategic. However, the more research has uncovered, the more we see that people group is harder to define.
New standards and research tools are on the horizion for this work. Researchers are needed to help map out the work plan for the missionary movement. If we do not accomplish this work, many future missionaries will continue to go into all the world where the Gospel has already been taken. More importantly millions will parrish with out ever having the chance to receive Christ.
How we define peoples must progress to further help identify and record newly encountered barriers. These new maps and profiles are the missing link in all strategic missionary sending.
Many different organizations and movements have agreed upon the E-80 definition of people group. This is important because without a common definition, the missionary movement will send new missionaries according to their own definition. A common definition also tells us “who are the people groups”.
Where are the people groups located in the world?
Establishing “who are the people groups” is closely tied to where they are. As field research accumulates on “who” the peoples are, it also simultaneously tells us roughly “where they are”.
Today, we have very detailed information on the location of people group and language group divisions. We call these two entities: Ethno-Cultural Groups and Ethno-Linguistic Groups. This information usually comes in the form of maps and profiles. There are even databases with the exact GPS coordinates on their location. Again, missionaries have a much clearer plan to be able to take the Message of Christ to specific “unreached peoples”. These maps and profiles form a work plan for evangelism and Bible translation.
‘How reached are the people groups?
Now that we have a much clearer picture of “Who” the peoples are, and “Where” they are located, we must define “How” reached or unreached they are.
The “how reached” question is much more theological in nature than the who and where questions and is much more of a debate within the missionary movement.
The tragedy that the people groups remain unreached is unchanged, while we go on debating. The debate might cease to exist if there were enough missionary teams or couples to be sent to all the unreached peoples. The greater tragedy is that our generation is unmoved to the point of taking the Gospel to the last hidden peoples.
Two pastors in the same city live 500 miles from an unreached people group. Their definitions of unreached are very different but once one of the pastors sends missionaries to the group, the debate is over.
Two pastors in the same city live 500 miles from an unreached people group. Their definitions of unreached are very different. One of the pastors sends missionaries to the group but the debate is not over. The other pastor also sends missionaries to the same group because his definition of reached is so different.
From these examples we see how closely our definition of unreached is related to our definition of how to reach a people.
The Lausanne covenant of 1972 helps bring us into unity in order to evangelize the world. It holds foundational concepts that most all Christians can agree on. Its purpose is not to teach theology to us, as much as to help those of us with differing theologies not duplicate evangelistic and missionary sending efforts.
1. Who is a People Group?
2. Where are they?
3. How unreached are they?
by Ralph D. Winter: Missions Frontiers Magazine 1987