The best label?

Over the years, Christians have developed vocabulary to try to describe those who don’t know Jesus. One of the most used phrases these days is “unreached people groups” or UPGs. It has become so common we take it for granted when we pray, discuss and create our mission strategies. But this language is not in the Bible.

     Jesus’s words were to go into all the world, make disciples of all nations and preach the Gospel to every creature, because He is not willing that any should perish.  Where did the word “unreached” come from? Decades ago, mission agencies focused on countries in need of the gospel. However, even when missionaries founded new work in a country, many ethnic groups remained without the gospel.

      In 1974, Ralph Winter, founder of the US Centre for World Mission, urged mission leaders to think differently. His term, ‘hidden peoples,’ changed the focus from national borders to people groups. The term ‘hidden peoples’ begged for a definition. What is ‘a people’? Using the Homogenous Unit Principle, people groups became defined by ethnic and linguistic affinities, and put into lists.

      Next, what defined ‘hidden’? The term ‘unreached’ emerged with the technical designation of a people group with less than 2% evangelical Christians (and less than 5 % of any type of Christian). This alternative to the focus on countries influenced every area of missions and produced a wave of productive new work. Many groups such as the AD 2000 & Beyond Movement, Joshua Project, Adopt-a-People,, 10/40 Window, Finishing the Task and more use UPGs to describe those who need the gospel.

       In recent years some have raised concerns about whether this terminology has led to poor strategies in reaching the lost. If a people group is 3% Christian, it can be categorised as ‘reached’ and is no longer prioritised by some churches for mission work. Additionally, a percentage reveals nothing about quality of faith. There may be many believers, but their faith is only lukewarm. Ken Baker of SIM adds that while “a UPG orientation has been helpful for raising global mission awareness”, the People Group category “simplifies identities for popular audiences. In current mission practice, UPG identities are externally assigned. A particular People Group identity is not necessarily how persons within that group would self-identify.”

      There are also many differences within PGs. A PG may be reached in a city, but unreached in rural areas. The older generation may be reached, but not the youth. Also, trends in urbanisation, globalisation and diaspora movements mean that PG categories are blurring in settings where many groups live together.

FRONTIER GROUPS:  Missions experts agree that the categories could be more precise, with some narrowing in on “frontier people groups,” which may or may not be engaged but have no indigenous Christian movement of their own (less than 0.1% evangelical).

      “Identifying the frontier peoples subset within unreached peoples is sort of like triage … an attempt to identify the most needy, perhaps overlooked by sending efforts, and set priorities,” said Dan Scribner, director of the Joshua Project, a popular online database tracking evangelism efforts among 17,000 people groups worldwide. “Those in [frontier people groups] have little, if any, opportunity of hearing about Jesus unless someone goes cross-culturally.”

      Fewer than 1 percent of missionaries end up serving among frontier peoples, which make up around a quarter of the world’s population—almost entirely located in India and Muslim-majority countries.

 CAUSES:    Mission practice is changing too. Some missions now focus on causes rather than UPGs or places. Causes can include anti-trafficking, education for girls, or access to clean water, all combined with gospel proclamation.

THE UNENGAGED:  Over time, the term ‘unengaged’ emerged. This refers to PGs with no existing missionary efforts among them. The terms ‘unreached’ and ‘unengaged’ have acquired less technical cousins: least-reached and under-engaged. Mike Latsko writes in Mission Frontiers magazine that “The unreached cannot be reached until they are first engaged, so engaging the unengaged must become the lead priority of the global apostolic community. Thirty-four percent of the Hindu unreached, 43% of the Buddhist unreached, and 59% of the Muslim unreached are beyond the reach of the Church today. They are not only unreached because they are unengaged; they are also unreachable until they are engaged.”

 COMMUNITIES:   SIM now uses the term ‘communities where Christ is least known’ which identifies people in their contexts. Thus, their strategies can accommodate the ‘deaf community in Mali” or “the miners of Potosi, Bolivia.” A community is the dynamic, 3-D context of a person which shapes their identity and narrative. Even as we wrestle with the best vocabulary, we can remember what Ramez Atallah, General Secretary of the Egyptian Bible Society has said: “Love is the supreme missionary technique.” Just as air can never be caught in a net, so God’s love cannot be caught in our categories; nevertheless, air can fill a net just as God’s love can fill our categories.

       In 2024, the vocabulary of ‘unreached’, with its successes and limitations, will be 50 years old but the concept of prioritising peoples without the gospel is as old as Philip explaining Scripture to the Ethiopian eunuch or the Apostle Paul’s vision for Spain. It is the message behind the parable of the shepherd who sought one lost sheep among 100. (If we extrapolated a definition of ‘unreached’ from this parable, then a people group with 99% believers would still be unreached.) The wording of the Great Commission has the sense of carrying the gospel further and further, ‘to the uttermost ends of the earth.’

      We serve a God who commands us to invest costly resources and time on endeavours which have the merest chance, perhaps not for years to come, of resulting in one new relationship between Him and someone created in His image. May the Lord teach us to seek out this someone.

–with thanks to AfriGO editorial team