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Lesson 1: Unreached and Unengaged People Groups

Defining Terms

Let the peoples praise you, O God; Let all the peoples praise you!

Psalm 67:3

In Unit 4, Lesson 1, we described people groups as used in the Bible. Just as a refresher, for the sake of missions, we defined a people group as the largest group of people within which the gospel could flow freely without running up against a significant barrier, and the barriers we labeled as significant were ethnic identity, language, religion, culture, shared history, and/or geography. We saw that there are far more people groups in the world than there are political countries. We learned in our exploration of our family history that people groups became a major issue in missions strategy in the 1970s, and this issue has remained high on the priority list of missions strategists ever since.  In this lesson we will look at how this plays out on the mission field.

Reached and Unreached People Groups

Some people groups have thriving, evangelizing churches already living among them. Odds are, if you are taking this topic in a local church, your people group falls in this category. We refer to these as reached people groups.  This does not mean that everyone in the people group is a believer. It doesn’t even mean that everyone in the people group has heard the gospel. It simply means that there are disciples and churches within the people group who able to finish the task. It means that lost people in that people group have access to the gospel, whether they have actually heard it or not. Disciples and churches within that people group can evangelize and disciple the people around them better than anyone else, and that responsibility rests on them.  An unreached people group (UPG) is one that does not have Christian disciples and churches in it that are able to carry the gospel to the rest of the group. It may have no believers in it at all. It may have a few, but they are too few and too new in the faith to finish the task without outside help.  Lost people in this people group have no access to the gospel, and the vast majority of them will live and die without ever meeting a Christian, ever seeing a Bible, or ever hearing the only message that can rescue them from the condemnation we all deserve. The responsibility for sharing the gospel with these people groups falls squarely on the global church.

Engaged and Unengaged People Groups

Some unreached people groups already have cross-cultural workers who are laboring to get the gospel to them. They are still unreached, because there are few or no believers, and the churches are too few and too untrained to finish the task without outside help. These people groups need cross-cultural workers who will live among them, learn their language, understand their culture, build relationships with them, and share the gospel. They also need disciples from other people groups who will train new disciples, plant churches, and train leaders.  However, these people groups have been engaged with the gospel. We regard a people group as engaged when there are Christian workers actively pursuing a church planting strategy among them, but until the resulting church matures to the point that it can carry on without help from outside workers, it is still considered unreached.  There are thousands of people groups in the world that fall in this category. There are thousands more that no one is engaging with the gospel. These are unengaged unreached people groups. They have no access to the gospel, and no one is trying to do anything about it. These people will live, die, and go to eternity in hell without ever hearing the good news of a Savior who can rescue them.

Global Statistics

How does this break down in terms of numbers? At present, we believe that there are approximately 11,490 people groups in the world. Of these, over 6,700 fall in the unreached category, and over 3000 of those are also unengaged by anyone with the gospel.  In terms of population, over three billion people (out of a total world population of seven billion) are in unreached people groups, and almost a billion of those are members of unengaged unreached people groups. That means that almost half of the population of the world has no access to the gospel, and there is no one even trying to reach a third of those.

UPGs and Missions Strategy

Unreached people groups are unreached for a reason. They are hard to get to. This may be for political and religious reasons, like much of the Muslim world. This may be because they live in hard places, like deserts, mountains, jungles, or war zones. In every case, they are unreached because we haven’t taken the gospel to them.  Some peoples are considered resistant to the gospel. However, from a biblical perspective, everyone is resistant. Before Christ, everyone is spiritually dead, enslaved to sin, and unable to understand the things of God or to please God. Everyone needs the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit to be saved. People in Afghanistan are no more dead in sin than people in Alabama, and it takes the same miracle of rebirth for a person in Chicago to be saved as it does for a person in China.  God is the same God, and the gospel has the same power to save, everywhere in the world. In the experience of seasoned missionaries, every place we have ever gone, stayed, learned the language, and built relationships, we have seen people come to faith in Jesus. This is true in the places that appear the most hardened against the Christian faith. The issue is not their resistance. The issue is our disobedience.  Mission strategy therefore focuses on the unreached (UPGs) and unengaged unreached people groups (UUPGs) of the world. Because they are hard to get to, creative engagement strategies will be needed. Because they live in places that are difficult, those who go must be willing to endure hardship in the process. The easy people groups and places have already been covered (if any place has ever been easy before the gospel got there!). It simply is not right to continue to send the gospel to people who already have access to it when there are billions of people in the world who do not.

Group Discussion

Answer the question(s) below in preparation for group discussion.

Question 1:

Look at your own community. How many gospel-preaching churches are there in your community? How many church members are there? How does this compare with the condition of unreached and unengaged people groups globally?

Question 2:

What internationals live in your community? Are any of them from unreached, or even unengaged, people groups (you can use the IMB research website to discover the level of evangelization of every known people group)? What can you do to reach them with the gospel?