A Question That Must Be Asked

It was estimated to be 6000 in 2001 and 6645 in 2010. Now it is 7402! (joshuaproject.net)

Missionaries, mission agencies and churches have been focusing their efforts on bringing this number down for the past forty years.

Why is the number of Unreached People Groups (UPGs) not declining? Worse yet, in spite of all the attention for forty plus years, it is increasing! Here are some of my thoughts on possible explanations for the lack of progress.

  • Is the People Group framework appropriate to our task? For those utilizing the people group framework the goal has been to establish a viable church planting movement in all 17.000 or so people groups of the world. Is this the best way to make disciples of all nations in the 21st Century? Just because the Bible states that the ultimate outcome will be people from every nation, tribe, people, and language in heaven (Revelation 7:9), must that framework be the basis of our foundational strategy in missions? Several factors might cause us to question the viability of this strategic framework. To name a few…the fluid nature of people groups, the minute size of some listed groups, blurred boundaries between people groups, and the barriers to direct cross-cultural ministry among the groups.
  • If the strategic framework is appropriate, are we aligning our ministry activities and allocating our ministry resources with this strategic perspective? As an example of poor alignment every year hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to send tens of thousands well intentioned short term “missionaries” to the “field”. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of these groups do not go to UPGs. Even if they did, it is highly unlikely that they could effectively disciple these groups since they do not understand their language and culture. Numerous other examples of misalignment could be given as well.
  • Is the number of UPGs going down in reality but the true progress is not evident because of inadequate research? Was the number of UPGs underestimated in years past? I have a poster titled “Unreached Peoples of the World 1985” that estimates the number of UPGs as 17000 out of 24000 total people groups (obviously vague guesstimates). On the other hand, could there be “lag time” between groups becoming reached and our research revealing that fact? 
  • Do we want the number of UPGs to continue to appear to be high?  Much of the educational information about missions focuses on the need to reach UPGs. This framework is also a widely used recruiting tool for missionaries. Do we have a vested interest in continuing to promoted inflated numbers of UPGs?

In addition to my original question, an even more concerning question to me is, “Why do I not hear anyone asking why the number of UPGs is not going down?”

My conclusion is simple…we fear the answer to that original question. We do not wish to be held accountable for continuing to promote an unproductive framework for discipleship. Our bias toward “action” precludes us from taking the time and expending the effort to reexamine our disciple making strategies. We fear having to redesign our strategies for doing missions and discipleship. 

After nearly 50 years the time has come for us to do some serious evaluation. Is the Unreached People Group framework producing fruit? Is it leading to disciples being made of all nations? Honest, relevant, and timely research is needed along with thoughtful reflection and discussion. The task is too important for us to ignore this question. We cannot afford to hold on to strategies and frameworks that do not bring about the desired result! 

What do you think?  Why is the number of UPGs increasing in spite of all the attention and effort?  What are the alternatives to this framework?

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