The History of Unreached People Groups
The term “unreached people group” is common within missions organizations, but it has not always been a key focus of world missions.
An unreached people group is defined as an ethnic group without an indigenous, self-propagating Christian church movement. No one is telling this group’s population about the good news of Jesus, and people are being born and most likely dying without knowing where they could receive salvation. That is an intense, eternally impactful issue.
The disciples were given a missional charge from Jesus in Matthew 28:19-20: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” At this point in time, Jesus was about to ascend to Heaven and leave his disciples to spread the news to the people of the Earth that their sins had been paid for. The entire world was full of unreached people—people who had never heard the name of Jesus—and the disciples were left with a very big job.
Even though Jesus gave the Great Commission more than 2,000 years ago, the job is still not finished. According the Joshua Project, about 6,700 people groups are considered unreached. So, what has been going on the past 2,000 years? When the disciples first began, they told anyone they could reach about the good news of Jesus, but as the Church grew, it became more unclear who had heard and who had not. As the lines became more blurry, the Church had to become more strategic.
Narrowing the focus
Since the first century A.D., people have responded to the Great Commission by taking the gospel to those who did not know Jesus. But the focus of reaching unreached people groups was popularized after the founding of the U.S. Center for World Mission in 1976. Before then, the world’s population was often defined in broader terms. The world was broken up into larger nation-states rather than people groups, according to Mission Frontiers. The difference being that a nation-state could be categorized as a large area housing many people of different cultures, dialects, languages, and ultimately ways of living. In this way of looking at the world, the task of spreading the gospel to all nations seemed simpler. It wasn’t until the Church zoomed in and saw the vast diversity within nation states that it became apparent that reaching only every nation, tribe, and tongue was a more complicated task.
The importance of viewing the world and its people in a more intricate way helped evangelists and missionaries focus their mission. With this new take on viewing populations, missionaries realized that one could not enter into a country, preach the gospel, and believe that the job was finished. They began to understand the cultural barriers that would most likely prevent people, even within the same nation, from sharing the gospel with each other.
Ralph and Roberta Winter, founders of the U.S. Center for World Mission (now Frontier Ventures), advocated for a focus on unreached people groups in missions. In the 1960s and ’70s, an unreached people group was often considered a population where less than 20% of adults were professing Christians. That definition has evolved over time. Today, the Joshua Project defines unreached as a people group with less than 5% professing Christians and less than 2% Evangelicals.
The Joshua Project began identifying people groups in the mid-1990s, starting out with 1,750 known groups. By the early 2000s, the list of people groups had climbed to staggering 16,500, a nearly 10-fold increase. Today, the Joshua Project recognizes 17,423 people groups, 7,402 being classified as unreached.
The need for movement
After the identification phase, the movement launched into mobilization. The excitement of the task launched missionaries all over the world into action. According to the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, the percentage of unreached people groups from 1970 to 2000 decreased by almost 25%. The gospel was catching fire among the nations.
Unfortunately, for reasons unknown and most likely multifaceted, in the years from 2000 to 2016, the number of unreached people groups has only decreased by 1.3%. Based on statistics, it seems the fire that started in the bellies of missionaries in the ’70s has become a dull ember. What is slowing progress? Burn out? Believing the task to be finished? Discouragement?
Whatever it is, we must tap into the zeal of our earlier brothers and sisters. There is still a task to be finished and precious souls who have not yet heard the name of Jesus.
East-West has chosen to partner with the Church in sharing the good news by mobilizing individuals to go directly to the unreached. Whether it is through a short-term mission trip or a mid-term or long-term opportunity, East-West partners seek to fulfill the mission of mobilizing the Body of Christ to evangelize the lost and equip local believers to multiply disciples and healthy churches among unreached peoples and/or in restricted access communities.
Whether you choose East-West to join in this call, here are some tangible ways you can partner in this mission:
- Go: Consider going to an unreached people group though a short-term trip or as a long-term missionary.
- Give: Consider giving a portion of your resources to a missionary or a missions organization.
- Pray: Consider adding a specific unreached people group, a missions organization, or a specific missionary you know to your prayer list. If you don’t know where to start, here is a link for resources on how to pray for the unreached.
- Welcome: Consider reaching out to refugee organizations in your city, or inviting an international student at a university over to your home for a meal. Many people who come to our country will leave without contact with a Christian household.
The time is now to take action. As Jesus said himself, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few (Matthew 9:37).”
To learn more, check out East-West's guide to unreached people groups.