What is a People Group?
by Claude Hickman
When someone gives you a job, it is important to get a good handle on the task, including the definition of the task. When God gives you a task, it is infinitely important that you know the definition of the task. God has promised to reach all the nations of the earth and commissioned us as His ambassadors in that work. In order to be good stewards of this mission we must have a firm grip on the extent of the task, which, in the work of world missions, brings us to look closely at the terms that the Bible uses for the task. Namely, what does it mean to reach the nations?
When we think of nations we usually think of the 268 nations of the world. In the New Testament, the Greek word for "nations" is the word "ethne." We get our word ethnicity from it. It means something like an ethnic group. The idea is that it is much more specific than the political nation-states we think of such as Indonesia, Turkey, or Nigeria. An anthropologist would call this "ethne" a "People Group." A people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance due to culture, language, geography, etc.
Take the country of India for example. In India there are hundreds of different ethnic races of people, but even among those ethnic groups there are divisions made according to the thousands of languages they speak. It gets more complicated. Among one language and ethnic group there are religious divisions that keep people from interacting with one another, and will, at times, even result in violence between neighboring groups. Now, even among those same ethnic, language, and religion groups there will be more divisions; social divisions. In India it is called the Caste System. Basically, what this all results in is over 2,348 people groups in India that see themselves as a unique people from those around them. And because of their differences, most are isolated from the gospel. Even though it may be nearby, the message of Christ may be in a language they don't understand or in a culture that is unaccepted. In other words they have no interaction with those people groups around them who may have the gospel. Someone must cross these cultural boundaries to get it there. This is the work of missions: to take the gospel into each people group. When the Bible speaks of nations, tribes, tongues, peoples, it is referring to the same mission; the reaching of all people groups.
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.
The task is finishable. "God blesses us that the ends of the earth may fear Him" – Psalm 67:7. God has indeed blessed us with all the resources that we need to finish His Great Commission. Let's look at how the statistics break down in view of what it would take to reach each individual Unreached People Group (UPG's). Basically, for each of the 6,534 Unreached People Groups there are 552 churches in the world. That means if your church teamed up with 551 other churches to send out a team of ten people and financially support them, it doesn't sound impossible to pull off. In fact there are 103,500 Evangelical Christians per UPG, plenty for putting together teams of ten. How much money would it take to send out these teams? A generous guess would be $3.26 Billion annual support. Sound like a lot of money? Christians earn $16.3 Trillion each year as a whole. Evangelicals probably earn about $5.4 Trillion. If only the Evangelical Christians (a much smaller group, 1/5th the size of all Christendom) gave five dollars each year, this would supply above and beyond the needed finances. The task of world missions is not being held up by a lack of finances, or churches, or people
Now, with a solid grip on the definition of the task, a confidence in the resources available, and an unyielding obedience to the mission of the General, let us throw off everything that hinders and run with perseverance the race He has set before us.