Tuesday, January 5

People or Unreached People Groups?

Is reaching every UPG (unreached people group) our primary task, or is reaching people the task? The answer to this question seems to be at the center of a growing hot missiological debate, and at the heart of recent major changes taking place at the International Mission Board (IMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Does God place a higher value on reaching UPG’s than he does on merely adding more and more children regardless of where they come from?

Is the Great Commission a command to make disciples of the nations--bringing in the harvest-- or is it a command to make sure that each people group be represented with at least a few disciples? Or both?

If both, is it right that we walk away from those nations and people groups where we are seeing the culmination of decades of faithful plowing, sowing of the Gospel seed, and watering, only to disengage at the very moment of bringing in the harvest?

No one is arguing we should not do all we can to engage the 6500+ known UPGs, but does this mean that when we are able to identify a people group as having 2% or more Christ followers, then they are "reached" and it is time to move on?

Act 5:14 And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number...

Act 6:7 The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly...

In Acts, and similar references, are we talking about UPGs or people? That seems to be the question.

To see the direction we are headed in our Southern Baptist global missions outlook, click on this link from an IMB website study that clearly espouses UPG's are God's priority. But is this so?

Here is an excerpt from the study (bold letters are my own for emphasis)...

The promise of God is that “all nations (people groups) will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:1-3). This means that God is infinitely concerned with the reaching of each and every people group that exists. In fact, He is so concerned with reaching all of them that He is keeping a meticulous record of the fulfillment of His promise. In Psalms 87:4-6, the Lord says, “I shall mention Rahab and Babylon among those who know Me… The Lord will count when He registers the peoples, ‘This one was born there.’” We see that God is recording in the Register of the Peoples all those that He is bringing to heaven. They will one day make up the multicultural worship service seen in Rev. 7:9.

So, if God has promised to reach them all and we are commanded to go to them all, we must be familiar with the task remaining and rally the church to the targeting of them all. There are currently 11,260 people groups on planet earth and there are about 6,534 that are considered unreached. The Great Commission is finishable. It is measurable and something that can be completed. The question now is; what is an unreached people group (UPG)?

Ed Dayton says, “It is a people group among which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to evangelize their own people. In other words, unreached people groups lack a church that has the numbers and strength to reach their own people. Obviously, if there are no Christians within this group, there will be none who can share the gospel with them. And this is the situation in which we find over 3 billion people of the world. They are the people groups in which there is no church that is able to tell them the good news of Jesus Christ."

Trent Rowland clarifies what is not an unreached people group by saying, “Since ‘unreached group’ refers to a group of people with no viable and relevant church, a non-Christian neighbor of most Americans would not be termed ‘unreached.’ They are unsaved and need the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet they probably have a church available in their own language and culture. They could go to church if they chose. In other words, they may be termed ‘unsaved’ or unevangelized persons,’ but not ‘unreached’ because they are part of a ‘reached’ group.”

God is not just concerned with reaching more and more people as He seems to be with reaching every People Group. I would like to borrow an illustration from John Piper in which he compares the situation to two sinking ocean liners. If the promise of the Navy General was that no matter what ship in his fleet went down there would be some rescued from that ship, and if he enlisted his crew for that one purpose, what would they do if there were two ocean liners sinking at the same time? After reaching the first sinking ship you might see that there is great need and that you could justify staying to save as many as you could from the first ship, rather than going to the second. You could even argue that in the effort and time it required to get to the second ship, you could be a better steward by staying at the first. Perhaps the people at the other ship are unwilling, and this seems to be a fruitful ground for desperate swimmers. There is plenty of need here.

However, this was not the General’s command. He specifically ordered his crew to save some men from both ships, not just one. This is why it is necessary for men to take the rescue boat to each ship. There must be representatives and survivors at the General’s banquet from every ship. God has promised to reach some from every tribe, tongue and nation and people. He has enlisted us to rescue them and one day there will be a banquet, where all nations and people groups are represented before the throne.

So, what do you think? In a world with so much lostness, and so few laborers, where should our priority be? Bringing in the final great harvest? Making sure there is representation from every people group on the face of the planet? Both? And if both, how with limited resources and personnel is this to be accomplished? Which gets 'top billing'?

Have you considered the possibility that YOU might be part of the solution to this dilema? Will you go to an UPG and patiently plow, sow, water till the first fruits start to be seen? Or would you rather be one of those that helps bring in the harvest where others have gone before and worked those fields so that you and I can be the ones to reap what we did not sow?


Tim Patterson said...


It is both/and... depends on who/what/where God is calling a particular community of believers to focus.

The only thing that I resist in this approach/ message (whether intentional or not) is that God is somehow dependent on us to accomplish His mission and that it won't happen unless we obey. God has already determined it will happen and is not dependent on us. He is commanding/ inviting/ allowing us to be part of His plan, to participate in the sewing, cultivating and harvesting of people from all nations who will be around the throne on that day. If we don't obey and do not play our particular role in His plan, we are the ones that miss out, not Him... He will find someone else to accomplish His will.

Also, we do not give enough credit to the church indigenous to that people, to reach their own and participate in the Great Commission. We are too easily dissatisfied with the job they are doing, that it does not meet our standards and so we justify our continual presence as foreigners. All we have to do is look at what happened in China when the foreign missionaries had to leave to answer this issue.

At an organizational/institutional level (like IMB and other mission orgs, churches, etc) I think it is healthy to determine priorities and where you must focus limited resources. You can't do everything, and if you attempt to do so, you end up not doing any particular thing very well.

The Navy Christian said...

Guy, I have struggled with this for a long time. A personal example: My daughter has cystic fibrosis. We are not in a position to go to most, if not all, of the unreached people groups. Does this mean God has counted us out of his plan for the Nations' salvation?

While Christ said in Matthew to teach all Nations, he is referenced in Acts as saying we should be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, etc. I tend to think this gives a more general outlook on God's part. Someday, I have no doubt that it will equal all Nations, but there is no magical formula of how many people must be reached before we call it "reached." Besides, 2% isn't exactly a God-designated number.

J. Guy Muse said...


Good hearing from you again. It has been awhile! As usual, I agree with you. Part of the reason for writing this particular post is that most of Latin America has more than 2% evangelical Christians, so therefore cities like Guayaquil, where we serve, are considered "reached." We are being asked to transition out and either, 1) move to and engage an UPG, or 2) become a mobilizer for UPGs. We are one of those "harvest fields" where after many decades, are finally seeing the longed for harvest. Right at the moment when the clear need is to "bring in the harvest", and finish what hundreds before us longed to see, we are being asked to relocate, and engage UPGs. So, is the NT imperative about people, or about reaching unreached people groups? I agree, both. But there is a strong priority on UPGs.

J. Guy Muse said...


Your 2% question has also been that of nearly every missionary I know. Why not 5%, 15%, 35%? Jesus left the 99% to go out and find the remaining 1%. The message seems implicit that the Good Shepherd goes out of his way to make sure 100% are safely in the fold. How is it that 2% was chosen as the bar to determine whether or not a people group is "reached" or "unreached"? I don't know.

The Navy Christian said...

Guy, it drives me crazy. I did some ministry in Japan when I was stationed there back in 1998-2000. I even did Japan as a research project for my seminary studies. The fact is that there are plenty of churches in most places major cities, but it would be foolish to think that Japan is "reached."

I feel for you, being asked to leave a place you love and have ministered in. I hope that there will be another way. If you were required to go elsewhere, would it require a new language study? Or would you be able to minister still in Ecuador?

Anonymous said...


Pues no hay suficiente café para tratar el tema. Basta decir que en muchos lugares ya estamos haciendo ministerio y no la obra apostólica. De todos modos en Cristo hay campo para no estar de acuerdo y amarnos el uno al otro. ¡Bendiciones! Esteban

“Taking the gospel from where it is to where it isn’t is the essence of the apostolic task.”
Jeff Liverman in Missions Frontiers Nov/Dec 2006

“My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church
has already been started by someone else.” Romans 20:21

J. Guy Muse said...


Saludos. No hay nada mejor que una buena taza de café junto con amigos. Estoy de acuerdo que la obra apostólica no es la misma cosa que los llamados ministerios que muchos misioneros desempeñan, pero no todos nosotros estamos involucrados en tales ministerios. Algunos de nosotros entendemos la diferencia y en mi humilde opinión hay aun mucha necesidad de obra apostólica y profética en nuestra querida Ecuador. Bendiciones!

Justin Long said...

I, too, think it is both/and. (1) I would say Japan is unreached, clearly. I would argue strenuously with anyone who says otherwise. (2) a people group or a city may be unreached while the country as a whole is. For example, Paris and London are both fast becoming unreached megacities, as global researchers know, due to the strong influx of expats. (3) The goal of a pioneer missionary should be to raise up a church which can take the Gospel to the other 98%. 2% is generally chosen as a sociological "tipping point." There is not strong agreement in the whole research world on this number. The actual definition of an unreached people group is one in which the church lacks the resources to complete the task of evangelization without cross-cultural assistance. Obviously this is subjective and some want to apply the 2% figure as a way of measuring it. But it is a challenge.

Anonymous said...


I'd like to preface my comments first by acknowledging that I was present when a high-ranking IMB administrator very recently told a group of pastors that the drawdown to 5,000 personnel was a part of a strategy to get more personnel to the uncontacted and unengaged peoples, most of whom are in or near the 10/40 window. He was trying to convince pastors to lead their churches to adopt peoples in "legacy" areas, so I don't think he even considered how his statement might seem to contradict all of the recent press about the drawdown being related to budget shortfalls. (I don't mean to get bogged down on that last part, as I'm well aware that the shortfall is real and has affected current personnel in very tangible ways.)

My point is that based on that meeting, I believe that you're right that there's nothing magical about 2%. It fits a particular strategy, nothing more nothing less. If I'm not mistaken for many years the Joshua Project has used 5% as a sort of magic number. So is 2% really about gospel advance, or does it just fit the strategic goal of shifting personnel resources (especially new appointments) to particular parts of the world? Seems pretty clearly to be the latter.

20 years ago or so, Ralph Winter introduced us to the idea of Unreached People Groups. But where in missions/missiology, outside of the IMB, have people continued to add modifiers? It was no longer enough for a people to be largely unreached by whatever definition, as we continued to discover "unreached" peoples all over the world. So we added "unengaged". These unengaged, by whatever definition, and unreached peoples became a new level of priority. Time and research revealed UUPGs all over the world. So we added yet another modifier, "uncontacted". So now it's less about whether or not a group has heard and received the gospel, but whether or not they have "access" to it.

After 400+ years of colonialization and influence, very few remaining groups in Latin America don't at least understand Spanish (or French or English in parts of the Carribean Basin), even if it's not their primary language. The few who don't have any Spanish qualify as a priority. The others, well they're "contacted" because they could presumably stumble upon a short-wave radio broadcast or find a hidden Jesus DVD amongst the mangroves.

I don't agree with that strategy, but, if the IMB wants to PUBLICLY change it's mission statement and clearly articulate this strategy to Southern Baptists, I think it's their prerogative. But I don't think most Southern Baptists would either comprehend or embrace the new strategy changes, or the idea of drawing down on purpose, pulling out of "legacy" fields, etc.

I'm not saying that the national Baptist partners aren't capable, or that they need an IMB presence. They do have the Bible and hte Holy Spirit, after all. I just wish those who are driving these changes would be transparent about their new strategy goals to the people in the pews in the States.

I'm still also a bit unclear as to the extent that CSLs and ASLs are buying into this. Do they fully agree? Or are they just implementing it as directed? I suppose the former, but honestly don't know.

I just know that I was disappointed to hear that particular administrator say, on a Thursday, that the drawdown was strategic, and then turn around on the next Tuesday and tell a large congregation about the budget shortfalls and appointee log-jam without so much as a mention of the massive strategy shift that was in the first stages of implementation.

J. Guy Muse said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J. Guy Muse said...


Thanks for the input. I thought these words were particularly helpful insights, The actual definition of an unreached people group is one in which the church lacks the resources to complete the task of evangelization without cross-cultural assistance. Obviously this is subjective and some want to apply the 2% figure as a way of measuring it. But it is a challenge. As stated above to Anon., I do understand the need to begin an ordered phasing out of "legacy" fields where there is a strong Gospel presence, but would argue that the phasing out ought to be along the lines of what the actual situation is in each region, and what is God doing city by city, region by region.

J. Guy Muse said...


Very interesting comments, especially the part where you write about our continuing to add "U's" in an ever-widening way to find uncontacted, unengaged, unreached people groups. One fellow IMBer wrote me a few days ago, next thing you know we'll find Brazilian homosexuals living amongst the Chilean Mapuchis living on the Argentine side of the border who are practicing Buddhists, but speak Italian and we'll have a new category of UUUUUUUUPG to engage! Whatever happened to the simple designation of "lost people" wherever they are found?

I do understand the need to begin an ordered phasing out of "legacy" fields where there is a strong Gospel presence, but would argue that the phasing out ought to be along the lines of what the actual situation is in each region, and what is God doing. I would not argue for simply keeping missionaries in legacy countries; but would say that certain missionary giftings, skills, and wisdom are definitely still needed as we transition from being spiritual fathers to our sons, into more of a grandfather stage in the work for a few more years. IMO there are places in Latin America where the sons have grown up and have far surpassed the fathers. But in others there is still the need of a wise father figure where the sons are in their teen years and "know it all" yet aren't doing anything.

The Navy Christian said...

Guy, is it possible that we're over-thinking this? I don't see any evidence of this sort of strategy in the NT. Paul never spoke in terms of percentage points and it seems that missions were driven by the Holy Spirit, not men. It bothers me that we're trying to put a numerical value on the lost. I don't know how biblical that is, to be honest. I'm just concerned. I know you're on the field and the last thing you can do is ruffle too many feathers, but it concerns me.

Ministerio Cosas Nuevas Cosas Viejas said...

Greetings Guy from Arequipa!

Good discussion, and we have been thinking and praying through some of these very things over the past year or two and this is the short, short version of some of the changes we’ve implemented concerning the missionary mindset.

The two most important factors in missionary activity are 1) God’s discerning of the times and seasons and 2) the hearing obedience of the gifts He’s placed in His Body. First, someone is either called to be a pastor or prophet, an apostle or evangelist, etc. And it is the type of gift that determines whether you stay or go in any place for a given time (kind of what Anon. said above concerning father/sonship). This, along with what God decides is the need within any particular region and its population at the moment according to His purposes, are the key things.

And His purposes are more concerned with calling-out [ecclesia] a peculiar people for Himself than establishing “Christians” within existing cultures, also known as Christianization. The point of “from every tribe, tongue and nation” is that He has formed a New People from members of those thus distinguished – not that He has a presence among them.

How do you see yourself among the people you've been laboring with in Ecuador? More pastoral, apostolic, other...

Bless you brother!


Anonymous said...


I couldn't agree more that we shouldn't keep resources in legacy areas indefinitely, especially for the sake of tradition and/or comfort. It sounds like you're saying there should be a contextually-appropriate phasedown.

You mention missionary giftings, skills, and wisdom. I'd also like to add "calling" to that list. Calling seems to be being overlooked in the midst of all the statistics and superfluous U's.

Now, if the IMB wants to say, "if you're convinced God has called you to ______ then wonderful. But that's not going to fit our strategy, so perhaps you should consider another sending agency as you fulfill your calling", then fine, but just be more transparent about it to Southern Baptists instead of giving us articles about people who weren't appointed because of money.

J. Guy Muse said...


I think Anon., right above you, has some relevant things to say on the subject that address some of your concern. I too would like to get back to a more apostolic/prophetic Biblical basis of missions, and less a corporate business-type structure which seems to be the current norm.

J. Guy Muse said...


Some good thoughts coming from you. Thanks for sharing. You ask, How do you see yourself among the people you've been laboring with in Ecuador? More pastoral, apostolic, other... We work together as an Eph. 4 team. There are those strong in apostolic functions, evangelistic orientation, pastoral types, and several with the gift of teaching. Probably our weakest area would be in the prophetic, which we are still trying to better understand.

J. Guy Muse said...


I like the way you describe it with your contextually-appropriate phasedown terminology. That does express well what I think is an important part of the transition we are going through. And I think you are definitely right about including "calling" on the list as well. But "calling" isn't as big of a factor in the corporate mindset as it once was for determining who, when, where, personnel are placed.

Anonymous said...

Thought pattern of some Southern Baptist:
2%, what kind of goal is that?! We are Southern Baptist for crying out loud! I thought we had higher standards!! Pulling missionaries out, I thought Chavez was a communist, you know those people aren't saved. We got to start praying for them. I give to Lottie Moon for missionaries to stay, not to leave! Just git r dun!
I think we have lost our common sense!
good night!

J. Guy Muse said...


LOL! We are trying our best to "git r dun!" Thanks for your prayers. BTW, we are in Ecuador, not Venezuela. To put your mind at rest at bit in regards to the 2%, for many years now we have been praying, laboring, training, etc. with the understanding that our assigned portion of "Nehemiah's Wall" is 25%. The other 75% of the task belongs to the rest of Jesus' Church here in the region.

Anonymous said...

I believe that we must do both. We need to ensure that existing churches that the believers are adequately discipled and able to disciple others. In some locations, I suspect that existing churches need outside aid for various reasons. I recently went on a mission trip to Liberia, and the church is in need of outside help in order for them to have the tools to evangelize unbelievers and disciple believers. But I do believe that a disproportionate amount of resources goes to "reached" peoples. For example there is a statistic that 2.4% of all foreign missionaries go to unreached people groups.

J. Guy Muse said...


I believe we must do both also. You rightfully point out on your own blog that a dismal 2.4% of foreign missionaries are trying to reach such people. Almost all foreign missionaries are working amongst peoples that are reached... For me, though, the problem lies in that "reached" is being defined as anything greater than 2%. Is a people group really reached when 2.1% profess faith in Christ? It seems, as Dan points out above, that percentages ought not to be the defining measuring tool.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing these thoughts.

BTW, you have a great blog yourself and would recommend people click over for a visit to Against the Current.

E. Goodman said...

You know this has been a concern of mine for some time now. I share the frustration with the ambiguous percentages and the taxonomic (category-driven)approach to strategy.

I'm reminded of the Acts story of Paul on mission. He thought it seemed like a good idea to go into Asia (according to his strategy of preaching where the gospel had not been proclaimed), but the Holy Spirit prevented him.

What seems like a good idea to us isn't always what God wants to do.

The only thing I'd add to the discussion is that the world is not static. People Groups, reached or otherwise, change. People groups dissolve, merge, or assimilate. Arguably, new ones are emerging.

Our missions strategy needs to be single-mindedly focused on step-by-step obedience to God's direction.

Thanks for your post.

J. Guy Muse said...


Insightful remarks. I agree with you What seems like a good idea to us isn't always what God wants to do. As you point out, Paul wanted to go to places, and do some things but was not permitted to do so by the H.S. The lesson here seems to be we cannot box-in the Holy Spirit and tell God the what and how things need to be done. A paraphrase of Is. 55 For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your percentages My percentages," declares the LORD. As we learn to walk with God, He will make clear the who, when, where, and how of what He expects and wants of each of us where He has planted us.

Anonymous said...

Tim ,
This note is 18 months after the fact but it is am obligation for me to afirm whay you've said: God is not dependent on us for anything. However, God has given a clear mandate for His Church--Go, make disciples, baptize them and teach them. God, in His infinite wisdom has purposed His followers in reaching out with the Gospel.Almighty God includes the redeemed perform in a profound way inHis redemptive plan. But we seem to neatly talk ourselves out of "Theologcally" doing what is obvious. In lieu of being risk takers, I believe we're careful Christains. If we were bold enough to do some apostle Paul sized misistry, maybe we would realize some apostle Paul results, praying to take the Gospel where it had not been heard. Then, when God shut option one down--a number two option would be brilliantly and profoundfully apparent. I've witnessed God do some incredible minsitry in through "probably most likely to not suceed," visully impaired and physically disabled body--I'm afrad not to try.

Tim Patterson said...


No argument here. It is both/and Holy Spirit driven.