A Shift in Definition of Unreached People Groups?

Do we need a new definition for the people groups that are unreached? Has this term been so misused that it must be redefined? Should the shift in our understanding of church, ecclesiology and mission reflect in this definition, not to mention our actual practice when reaching the unreached?

Here is the classic definition that many as well as I have been using: “An unreached people group is a people group or ethnic group, within which there is no viable indigenous church or churches with sufficient strength, resources, and commitment to sustain and ensure the continuous multiplication of churches.”

Here is my proposed new definition –

“An unreached people group (nation/ethnos) is any people group where there are no followers of Jesus who are making disciples within their own people group.”

I think it is time to change this definition. My reasons for this is that this new definition:

  • Kingdom of God Focused. It will deter those who are doing missions in order to promote Christianity or their brand of Christianity rather than relationship and submission to Jesus Christ as king. There are several attempts of large denominational missions organizational to define the unreached as being those who are not aligned with them theologically, organizationally or historically (see the example discussed here – http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/when-the-reached-are-unreached). In reference to my own experience, I was serving with a large church in an Asian nation several years ago which was made up of a major ethnic group within that nation. At the time this ethnic group was listed as unreached by a large missions organization. After corresponding with them, it was concluded that this ethnic group was on the list because there were no churches of their “brand” among them. This was arrogant and sectarian at least. As this error continues, it justifiably brings the unreached people group strategy to question. Possibly an adjustment to the definition of unreached will deter this self-gratifying strategy of building one’s own kingdom within a people group will be exposed and possibly thwarted.
  • Acknowledging all followers of Jesus. Many are ignoring the huge numbers of followers of Jesus that have chosen not to align themselves with historic or organized Christianity, evangelicalism or denominational organizations. This definition will include them in the body of Christ, though separate from organized Christendom.
  • Focuses on making disciples. This new definition emphasizes the mandate from our Lord to make disciples rather than plant churches. Nowhere in scripture are we commanded to plant churches, but to make disciples. Jesus builds his church – and he can do it without the help of human organizations. Simply, when disciples of Jesus are being made, church happens! The beauty is when it does happen, Jesus is the head, and the community of believers continue on the context of their culture rather than becoming an oddity or foreign.
  • A simple, organic definition. This new definition is based upon the organic and simple multiplication of disciples through the means of relationships. This will focus reaching the unreached on knowing Jesus rather than militaristic strategies, marketing schemes, or tactics to convert from one religion to another (rather than relationship with Jesus). There will be little chance of misunderstanding the intention of the gospel messenger that many times sees them as a foreign threat that may bring colonialism, foreign religion, cultural destruction or worse, but plainly introducing the simple gospel of the Kingdom of Christ by lifestyle and dialogue.

After walking through a huge paradigm shift in my own life and way of thinking I have grown more and more uncomfortable with the definition (see above) for the unreached peoples and other similar versions.

Now I am not naive to the point that I think the “big guns” will immediately change their definition of the unreached. This would mean that their strategies will be reexamined, their methodologies will be in question and the “main thing” will be changed from planting churches to making disciples.  But I do hope that as I change my vocabulary to match what I strongly feel the Lord is saying to his people in these times, it will bring greater clarity and mission in my own life.

What do you think?

16 responses to “A Shift in Definition of Unreached People Groups?

  1. Pingback: A Shift in Definition of Unreached People Groups? « The Dreaming Revolutionary

  2. When my wife and I read this, we both responded, “Yes!” Let’s end the sectarian, denomination-centric, mission “outreach” and strategies. Multiplying denominationalism among other people groups is not missions, it is proselytizing. Jesus created none of the denominations that exist, no matter how old they claim to be and what “corrections” they made in ecclesiology that preceded them. They have all been created, organized and maintained by people. Jesus said, “I will build my ecclesia,” not “my ecclesias.” The Lord’s kingdom has boundaries that cannot be so easily perceived, let alone determined or maintained by human effort.
    But Jesus said to make disciples, baptizing them into his name and teaching them his commands and ways. Discipling is life mentoring, a relationship, not a body of facts or a structural form. It is one person passing on life with Jesus to another person who has heard Jesus’ call.
    We have produced academicians. Jesus wants us to produce disciples. If we do not have lives worth passing on to others, then we need to learn ourselves what life in Jesus is about, both individually and together with other believers. Indeed, my wife and I feel like — since we left institutionalism — we are being put through the mill by the Spirit and being discipled anew. It is painful sometimes and exciting other times. But we must go where he leads, believe what he says, and emulate what he is doing.
    “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master.” Mt. 10:24-25

  3. Hi Don,

    My thoughts exactly!

    I am simply amazed at how when we are confronted with paradigm shifting outlooks, we are still able to do business as usual! We hve gone so far as to STOP doing church planting, as it is NOT what Jesus told us to do. A Church Planting paradigm is detrimental to the organic approach to following Jesus, with HIM doing the BUILDING. Our missions pproach has been TOTALLY challenged and very little is left of our original thinking and approaches!

    I think we also need to look at the following:

    1) Church Planting
    2) Training – the establishment of a Clergy class
    3) The full-time, long term missionary
    4) The “White-Man’s” burden
    5) Funding for mission

    (To name a few)


  4. I like your new definition. It states the idea in simple, refined terms that are less easily redefined.

    I don’t think this idea of going into a community on its own terms and in accord with its own culture is going to cut down on persecution, however, or make Christ followers more acceptable. Native brothers and sisters who have had little outside influence are still suffering for their relationships with Jesus and for their willingness to share and make disciples.

    Hey, maybe if we adopt this idea here in the US, we, too, will be unacceptable to our culture. We could be dangerous like our brethren overseas. 😉

    God bless,


  5. I find myself in agreement with almost everything you have to say in the above post. Great thoughts. The definition certainly can use some refining and updating.
    However I am concerned that we not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
    For example:
    indigenous – if the “follower of Jesus” is teaching his people to obey (Making disciples), but doing it in a manner aped by watching other cultures’ expressions of discipleship, then something is still glaringly absent for the reachedness state of that people group.
    church – I agree that the term “church” has to go. But I am not okay with making the necessity of being “gathered” (ecclesia) a disposable concept. If all of these disciples are unconnected to one another, the people group remains unreached, in my opinion. If we shed the term church we also shed a lot of assumptions about structure, organization, hierarchy, clergy, denomination, etc. But woe to us we we toss out the ecclesia, the Bride of Christ. Helping disciples to connect and gather together IS a big part of discipling them.
    That being said, I am onboard. Let’s redefine this thing!

  6. Simple indeed and I would too agree with that definition, yet I don’t disagree with the first. In my humble opinion a lot of simple/organic church related material, including this one is still about bashing that which has brought many people to Christ. Denominational missionaries I am sure does not have their primary goal to promote their denomination, rather Christ. There are thousands of them and I think as you say the “big guns” will pay no attention to any distraction. Why can’t those in the simple church mindset get off trying to nail the organized church and just get in the homes and see Christ preached.

  7. As simple as this new definition may be, it has sent me into a whirlwind of thought. Being a “Full Time Missionary,” I have seen all of the negatives that you have mentioned and many more. Our practice is already toward simple and organic missions in our area and we are the only cross cultural missionaries in our region.

    I would propose that there are many who have been reached, but then let go. I have personally seen the fruit of what happens to disciples makers or followers of Christ when they are classified as “reached,” by a denomination’s benchmarks and left to fall apart because they were not ready to be let go.

    In our region, we still have people asking, “What is a Bible?” and “Who is Jesus?” The definition also assumes that there can be followers who are simply that, followers without a discipleship aspect to their faith.

    Our region is ripe for simple or organic expressions and I am very interested in what others have to say on this topic as well. I would be happy to discuss this via my personal Email with anyone who would like to.


  8. Hey Don,

    I’m with you 100% in concept. Soon, worldwide, there will be a strong push to return to simple ekklesia and an accompanying return to the simple command of Christ to “make disciples of all nations”! That said, I like that your definition focuses on making disciples rather than planting churches. I do think though that you might want to consider something more concrete than “no followers.” This implies that if there is only 1 follower of Jesus, even among a million person UPG, that it would then be reached. How about a benchmark such as less than 2% or 5% of disciples of Jesus would be considered unreached? For instance:

    “An unreached people group is any ethnic people which comprises < 5% indigenous believers who are making disciples of Jesus Christ within their own people group.”

  9. I am not one for redoing the definition, as I really don’t see a problem with the original definition. Much of the problem has been in its execution. The original definition says nothing about churches of a specific denomination. And the difficulty with your proposed definition is two fold: 1) that it has no yardstick for measurement (as Steve L. noted), and 2) that it drops the entire idea of multiplication. Exponential growth I think only occurs in the context of some form of social organization – whether it be a social network, a denomination, a twitter-storm, or what have you – individual unconnected people will eventually begin connecting with each other and the result will be an ekklesia which becomes a denomination. That’s how we’ve gone to tens of thousands of denominations around the world. I think your big passion here is against the schisms and barriers that we erect against each other’s denominations and against believers, and that I applaud. But drop the multiplicative growth and you drop the possibility of completing the task, I think.

  10. Where did that first definition you used come from? Here is a definition I found on the U.S. Center for World Mission website: “Unreached People (sometimes called “Hidden Peoples”): a people group which has no indigenous community of believing Christians with adequate numbers and resources to finish evangelizing their community without further outside/cross-cultural assistance.” This comes from the organization founded by Dr. Ralph Winter, who coined the term Unreached/Hidden Peoples in 1974 after serving with Dr. Donald McGavran at the Fuller Seminar School of World Missions. I think this is a revised version of his 1974 definition. The Joshua Project uses this definition as well

    I think his definition and your further explanation are similar and get across the same the meaning. I think it is helpful to have a universally recognized accurate definition. I believe it was in 1980 that a common definition was settled upon (again different from the original above) and has been used since. I think they add for measurement purposes that 2% of
    of the population must be Evangelical believers.

    I think it is helpful to sometimes clarify and contextualize definitions and agree with the meaning you get out your own definition, but again there can’t be hundreds of definitions from the same term.

    At the same time, I think there are some flaws in your wording that may lead to misconceptions.

    “no followers of Jesus who are making disciples within their own people group”

    -When does no followers become some and when are some enough to be considered reached?
    -Is a people group reached if there are indigenous churches?
    -What if there are followers of Jesus who are not making disciples? This happens in the States all the time, where does that leave America according to the definition?
    -When does a convert become a disciple?
    -How long does a missionary partner with a people group to raise them up?

    Merry Christmas and I look forward to continuing the conversation!

  11. I appreciate the thoughts and the spirit behind the article above… very beautiful and telling indeed.

    I would also like to reiterate this question:
    -If planting churches is not the main purpose of an apostle/missionary/evangelist, then what place does planting a church take in God’s plan to build his church? What place does “church planting” take in the life of one of these “harvesters?”

    I assumed that when Jesus said “Go ye therefore” and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all things he commanded them… that gathering together on a consistent basis to share the Lord’s supper, edify one another, pray for one another, etc, fell under “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you”.

    Are the terms “making disciples” and “church planting” mutually exclusive? Part of being a disciple of Christ WAS living together in community, gathering consistently, etc – not just a personal disciple of Christ. Maybe being closely connected with others in your area who are disciples of Christ is vital to being discipled!

    Im not sure I agree that planting churches is not one of the main jobs of apostles. Thats a boatload of scripture being thrown out of the mix. How can the church planters write letters to the churches if they never were used by God to help plant some?

  12. Evan Arojo Olufunsho

    I am a missionary, I started the work as a missionary some years ago. I work with PHIWE MISSIONS in Nigeria. I wish to work with you may God help us

    Evan Arojo Olufunsho

    • Arojo Olufunsho

      The work of missions is very much exiting with alot of stress and discomfort but it is easy when God put joy in ones life. I assumed that when Jesus said “Go ye therefore” and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all things he commanded them… that gathering together on a consistent basis to share the Lord’s supper, edify one another, pray for one another, etc, fell under “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you”.
      (And do you this In our region,) we still have people asking, “What is a Bible?” and “Who is Jesus?” The definition also assumes that there can be followers who are simply that, followers without a discipleship aspect to their faith.

  13. Evan Arojo Olufunsho

    May God Help us Am planning to go Ghana for Missions may God Help me

  14. God is Good all the time…………..

  15. The problem with the proposed definition is that that even if there is only 0.0001% of the population of any ethnic group discipling albeit one person, then (according to this definition) they would be considered reached. Another way of stating it is that if there is 99.9999 of the population without a church, without the Gospel and no way of knowing Jesus, although only one small group within the total ethnic population (perhaps in some remote village) is actively discipling albeit one or two individuals they are then considered a reached people group. Because according to this definition, if there is a “follower of Jesus” “making a disciple” that group is now considered reached. So sorry, No. The classical definition still is best.

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