In the first installment in this series on defining missions we talked about the importance of missions being focused on God’s glory and not merely peoples’ needs. We also looked to the Scriptures to see what God says about how we should execute missions. God’s desire for His glory to be known and proclaimed throughout the world among all peoples is a theme that is woven through the entire Bible. It is perhaps most clear in Christ’s command that has become known as the Great Commission. In Matthew 28:19-20, just before He ascends into heaven, Jesus commands His followers to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” In part 1 we talked about what missions is, but in this article we will focus on whom missions should be directed towards, the “nations”.
All Christians are called to share their faith and evangelize the people around them. In Luke’s account of the Great Commission in Acts 1:8, Christ says that His followers will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This could be understood as being a witness to friends and family, your community, your country, and to the other side of the world. In Revelation 7:9 we get a glimpse at the end of time: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.” The nations, tribes, languages, peoples, and Gentiles of the Bible are all translations of the Greek word ethne or ethnos, from which English gets ethnic, ethnicity or people group. It is very important to understand the difference between people and peoples or people group. If our missions mandate was to make disciples of more people, we could do that without ever leaving our own version of Jerusalem or Judea; there are plenty of lost people that need salvation next door. Missions is going to the people groups that do not have a church and starting a church so that the believers there can do the work of evangelism to reach the lost within that community. This is how Paul in Romans 15 can say that there is no more work for him to do in Asia and he needs to go to Spain.
So what is a people group? According to the 1982 Lausanne Committee, “For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance”. The Joshua Project estimates there to be 16,587 distinct people groups in the world, and 6,738 of those groups are considered unreached. These groups consist of 3,111,210,000 individuals – that is 42 % of the world’s population. In other words, almost half of the people in the world will live and die without ever having a clear presentation of the gospel that they can understand.
If God’s commission to his followers is to go and plant churches among all the people groups of the earth so that there can be that vast and diverse eternal worship service we see in Revelation 7, we would think that the global church would be pouring its resources into these 6,738 groups of people, right? What if I told you that only 10% of missionaries and 1% of “missions” money is going to reach the unreached? How can this be? There are many reasons, but some are as follows. Geography is a big factor; missionaries tend to go to areas that are close to home and easy to travel to. Similarly, missionaries will tend to go long term to an area where they have previously visited on a short term trip. Short term, especially, but also long term missionaries tend to focus on “projects” rather than “peoples” when planning and fund raising, and this leads to more resources going to areas that already have strong churches that are well established. Another reason for the disparities is that the Lord has worked wonderfully in the last 150 years of global missions, and most of the traditional mission fields of Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa now have well established churches that are sending missionaries themselves. We must be like Paul (Romans 15) and know that when the work of the church is established, the frontier missionary must move on to new unreached peoples. In part 3 of this “What is Missions” series we will discuss what we can and must do as a local church to make a difference in advancing the gospel where Christ is not yet known.
 Throughout the history of the Lausanne Committee (or Lausanne Movement), Christian leaders such as Billy Graham, Francis Schaefer, and John Stott have discussed the theological foundation for global mission and unreached people groups. (www.lausanne.org)
 According to the Joshua Project’s website, an unreached people group consists of a population in which there are less than or equal to 2% Evangelical Christian and less than or equal to 5% Professing Christians. (www.joshuaproject.net)