Missions agencies send; it’s what they were created to do. Where they send is the question. At the beginning of the modern missionary movement, when evangelical Christianity was concentrated entirely in Western Europe and North America, the question hardly even needed to be asked. Everywhere else in the world needed the gospel. So, it was legitimate to send missionaries anywhere outside the evangelical heartland.
Coastlands and Inlands
Because travel in those days was usually by sea, the first wave of Protestant missionaries went to the coastlands of the non-evangelical world. Mission stations were established in port cities around Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The islands of the Pacific were also accessible to sailing ship, so missionaries went to them. Everywhere they went, the gospel was new, and gospel witness was desperately needed.
After a time, missionary leaders began to realize that their workers tended to stay along the coastlands, to the neglect of inland regions. After all, supplies and new recruits came by ship, and if things got bad, evacuation could only happen from the coast. In the mid-nineteenth century, the focus of mission work was able to shift to the interior regions of non-evangelical countries. The names of famous mission agencies like China Inland Mission, Sudan Interior Mission, and Africa Inland Mission reflected this shift.
Unreached People Groups
At the time of the Lausanne missionary conference in 1974, there were evangelical Christians in most countries around the world. During the conference, a missiologist named Ralph Winter drew the attention of the missionary world to the priority of unreached people groups. A people group is not the same as a country. Members of a people group share the same ethnic identity. They typically have a common language, a common religion, and a common history.
A country, defined by a fixed geographical border and a central government, usually has more than one people group living within it. People groups, on the other hand, often spill over political borders and live in more than one country. When Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of all nations (Matt, 28:16–20), he used the word ethne, which refers to people groups and not to geopolitical countries.
Examples of people groups would be the Catalan and Basques of Spain, or the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. Everyone is part of a people group. But some people groups have access to the gospel (such as ours, if you are an English-speaking North American like me), and some do not. Ralph Winter pointed out to the evangelical world that there were still thousands of people groups that no one was trying to reach with the gospel. Unless someone intentionally crossed barriers of language and culture to bring them the good news of Jesus, they would remain lost in darkness. Beginning in the 70s, the focus of evangelical missionary activity shifted more and more toward unreached people groups.
So, what constitutes an unreached people group? For many years, missionary leaders have said that any people group that is less than 2 percent evangelical Christian should be considered unreached. This is based on observations about the sort of critical mass necessary for any people movement to keep going without outside help.
However, the Bible never mentions any particular percentage as the cutoff between reached and unreached. If the evangelical population of a people group is 2.1 percent but declining, they may need more outside help than one that is 1.9 percent but surging ahead. Percentages are helpful, and we continue to look at them, but they need to be seen alongside the state of the church and the progress of the work in each people group. Keeping those things in mind, IMB regards unreached people groups to be among the highest priorities in deciding where to send missionaries.
The obvious question, then, is whether we should stop sending missionaries to a particular place after the evangelical population reaches a high enough percentage point. Not necessarily. The missionary task includes entry, evangelism, discipleship, healthy church formation, and leadership training before it reaches the point of exit. The evangelical church in a people group needs to be able to do evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training without outside assistance before the missionary task is done.
Leadership training includes both theological education and missionary training. Churches need to be training pastors and other leaders who are theologically sound and handle the Bible well—and they must also be actively training and sending missionaries—before outside assistance should stop. Therefore, we may continue to send missionaries to more-reached people groups for the sake of the health of the church and to raise up missionaries to join us in the task elsewhere.
The people group theme is common in the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New. However, as we read the missionary accounts of the Book of Acts, we also notice a clear focus on unreached places. Acts shows the gospel breaking through barriers to people groups, such as Samaritans and Gentiles like the Ethiopian eunuch and the Roman centurion Cornelius. However, there’s also a geographical thrust to the book as missionaries carry the gospel to unreached city after unreached city. Therefore, geography and ethnicity plays a role in missionary deployment.
These are our priorities, then. We send missionaries to unreached people groups and unreached places. We send them to complete the missionary task, which includes entry, evangelism, discipleship, healthy church formation, and leadership training before exit. The state of the church and the progress of the work shape the specifics of our strategy.
Zane Pratt is vice president of training for the International Mission Board.