‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (1), 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.’
A thorough consideration of the Old Testament passages in the Hebrew text and in the Greek Septuagint; the New Testament passages in the Greek; and a review of the language oriented commentaries clearly and almost exhaustingly show that “nations” as seen in the Greek phrase “ta ethne” means an ethnolinguistic people group. This is very much in keeping with the definition of “nations” in Webster’s Dictionary as: “A stable, historically developed community of people with a territory, economic life, distinctive culture, and language in common.” Therefore, common evangelism and mission treatments of passages such as Matthew 28:19-20, Luke 24, Acts 1:8 and John 4:33-41 should be interpreted in light of context, content and linguistic word studies related to “nation” as Jesus, the Disciples, the Old Testament Jews, the New Testament Christians understood “nations” in their day.
‘This gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come.’
How many People Groups are there in the world?
Some say 27,000. Others say 16,000. Some suggest 13,000. Still others say 10,500. Which numbers are correct? Could they all be correct? The many different answers to this question often cause confusion.
Different sources quote significantly different numbers. If we are commanded to make disciples of all people groups, just how many are there? But before trying to answer that, an example might help illustrate why the confusion exists. Suppose someone innocently asked … What is the largest country? What is the answer? It all depends on what is meant by “largest.” The answer is Russia if largest refers to geographic land area. The answer is China if largest refers to population. The answer is the United States if largest means financially. All are different, yet are correct answers to the same simple question. The underlying issue is definitions … what is meant by” largest?” So the core question is what is meant by the term ” people group?”
What is a People Group?
The Lausanne 1982 people group definition says “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 list is just a step toward a yet to be defined larger peoples list. From a church planting perspective, a complete peoples list would be a unimax peoples list. Unimax people are defined as “the maximum sized group sufficiently unified to be the target of a single people movement to Christ, where “unified” refers to the fact that there are no significant barriers of either understanding or acceptance to stop the spread of the gospel.” (“Finishing the Task”, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, Winter and Koch, 1999. There are two barriers cited, (1) understanding, and (2) acceptance. The barrier of understanding suggests that language always is important when defining a people group. If for a particular situation the understanding barrier is more important than the acceptance barrier then defining people group by language, perhaps exclusively by language, is appropriate. And this seems to be the case in most cultures and situations. In other situations the acceptance barrier may be as high, or perhaps higher, than the understanding barrier.
The reasons for lack of acceptance may include caste, religious tradition, location, common histories and traditions, and other subtle cultural distinctives. In these situations the barrier of acceptance should be considered on an equal footing with the barrier of understanding, and sometimes acceptance is a higher barrier than is the barrier of understanding.
Ethno-linguistic Peoples Lists
Because of the remarkable language research compiled in the last 100 years, the first people group lists have generally been ethno-linguistic, meaning that a people generally was defined by language and/or dialect. Because of language research and the somewhat definable nature of language, ethno-linguistic peoples lists generally have uniform definitions across all countries and tend to be an “apples-to-apples” comparison. Ethno-linguistic peoples lists have great usefulness, particularly for language-oriented outreach and ministries.
Ethnic Peoples Lists
While language is a key barrier to understanding, in parts of the world factors other than language form barriers of acceptance across which the Gospel will not naturally flow. For church planting purposes, it is helpful to allow factors other than language to define the boundaries of a people group. An ethnic peoples list, in addition to language, allows distinctives such as religion, caste and culture to define a people group. In parts of the world where peoples are defined by their language an ethnic peoples list and an ethno-linguistic peoples list are virtually the same. However in places like South Asia, parts of North Africa and China, where religion, caste and culture are more determinative than language in defining a people group, an ethnic peoples list and an ethno-linguistic list can be quite different. For example, in India there are approximately 450 ethno-linguistic people / language groups but over 2,300 ethnic people groups when caste, religion and cultural factors are considered.
Does moving to Ethnic Peoples list get messy?
Yes. Ethno-linguistic peoples lists tend to have uniform definitions and global standards and generally yield “apples-to-apples” results. However, an ethnic (culturalethno- linguistic) peoples list allowing language, religion, caste and/or cultural distinctives to define a people group can occasionally introduce a bit of “apples-to-oranges” comparison. National and local people group researchers in one area of the world may use slightly different definitions based on their perception of onsite realities compared to another area of the world. Each may differently evaluate the barriers of acceptance. Even with these limitations, the hope is that an ethnic peoples list can help continue to define the church planting task of the Great Commission.
Is the Joshua Project list a Unimax Peoples list?
No. Unimax peoples may involve distinctives such as education, political and ideological convictions, historical enmity between clans or tribes, customs and behaviors, etc. that are not considered in the current Joshua Project list of ethnic peoples. In certain parts of the world such as South Asia, where extensive caste research has been done, a much clearer church planting picture is emerging. In these areas an ethnic peoples list is moving closer to a Unimax peoples listing. In other parts of the world, there will be barriers of acceptance that will only be determined once workers are on-site.
Therefore, all lists of peoples will be estimates until the task is completed. While the Joshua Project list offers a certain level of understanding regarding people group church-planting needs, it is not a complete unimax peoples list. The World Christian Encyclopedia estimates approximately 27,000 total unimax peoples.
What if Country Boundaries are Ignored?
All the above models consider country boundaries when defining people groups. For example, if the Tatar are in 21 Central Asian countries they are counted 21 times.
Some hold that in the purest sense people groups should be counted without reference to political boundaries. The suggestion is that modern country boundaries did not exist when the command of Matthew 28:19 “to make disciples of all the ethne” was given. Others suggest that in many cases political boundaries do not distinguish peoples. The “pure peoples” model counts the Tatar living in 21 Central Asian countries as one people group, not 21. By following standard Registry of Peoples (ROP) coding, the Joshua Project list allows country boundaries to be counted or ignored as desired. The current Joshua Project count for peoples-by-country is approximately 16,600 and the count for pure peoples is about 10,500.
Model Strengths and Weaknesses
The various models have different strengths and serve different purposes. An ethno-linguistic peoples list has a somewhat quantifiable criterion namely language, and serves as a helpful target for language oriented ministries such as radio broadcasting, Jesus Film production Bible translation, etc. An ethnic peoples list considers non-language distinctives which create significant barriers of acceptance and presents a church planting target that begins to quantify some of these acceptance barriers. An estimated model serves as a reminder of the yet to be quantified, ultimate task.
Other Factors in People Group Counts
When comparing lists of peoples care should be taken to understand all factors. For example, some lists have population cutoff points. The original Joshua Project list
of approximately 1,600 peoples only considered people groups greater than or equal to 10,000 in a given country. The India Missions Association (IMA) list for India cuts off the population at 10,000, yielding about 950 groups. Another example is the K.S. Singh list for India peoples which often breaks people groups by state boundaries, yielding a total of about 4,700 groups for India. Understanding these kinds of factors helps explain the very different counts that result.
So What is the Answer?
So after all that, what is the answer to the simple question of how many people groups are there? It depends, if referring to ethno-linguistic peoples about 13,000 and if referring to unimax peoples (the church planting perspective) about 27,000, of which about 16,000 are listed here as ‘ethnic’ (cultural-ethnolinguistic) peoples’. Or if referring to ethnic (cultural ethno-linguistic) peoples without reference to country boundaries about 10,100. All are right answers depending on the perspective.
Summary of People Group Counts
Resulting List, Total Peoples, Counting Method, Least-Reached
Ethno-linguistic peoples 13,000 Peoples-by-Country ~ 4,000
Ethnic peoples 16,600 Peoples-by-Country ~ 6,700
Ethnic peoples 9,800 Peoples without considering Country boundaries ~ 4,100
Unimax peoples 27,000 Mixed ~ 13,000
Go the following website for lists of unreached peoples:
A simpler way of understanding the task ahead is as follows:
A word of warning! It can be very easy to simply focus on the needs of the church family, either one’s own church or the wider church, and not be open to what God is calling you to in the wider world.
When we talk about the church here, we mean those who are committed members of a local congregation or the wider church. The people are those whom one would call your brothers and sisters in the faith, but your calling is to more than the basic minimum of loving, for it is likely to having a specific effect on a group of people, whether it be a small group or a larger group. For example, your ministry might be, as part of a small group, to help others discover their ministry.
These are the people who are not involved in the church, who have probably not made a true commitment to follow Jesus, but do have some connection to the church. Their attendance may vary considerably, from none to fairly regularly. They may attend a activity run by the church with spiritual content, so have a certain openness to the Gospel lifestyle.
GEOGRAPHICALLY & RELATIONALLY NEAR
Here we are talking about those who definitely don’t follow the Jesus lifestyle, but you would have something in common with them. For example, you may work with them, or have a similar interest, or it could simply be family, friends or neighbours. This means being involved in ministries that cater for where they are in their journey to faith.
GEOGRAPHICALLY NEAR BUT RELATIONALLY DISTANT
There are many people groups who you may or may not see around you who have nothing in common with you, like motorbikers or Gypsies, but you have a God-given concern for them, whether it be evangelistically or otherwise. You probably have a skill which could be used in a different context and act as a bridge between the Church and that particular people group.
We also would include those who may come from a different ethnic and religious background from yourself. For example, there may be Muslims living in your street, who only know other Muslims, some of whom may live a long distance away. Simply spending time with them, could develop into a ministry to local Muslims!
GEOGRAPHICALY FAR BUT RELATIONALLY NEAR
This group of people are likely to be similar to those who are geographically and relationally near, or even the church and fringe groups, but are located in another culture. Here one may be called to actually move to another part of the world in a support ministry to those who are working amongst the local people. But it could also mean regular visits in the holiday times or involved in developing support back home for the work overseas.
GEOGRAPHICALLY & RELATIONALLY FAR
The people groups within this category are probably the hardest to have a ministry amongst, often because they are in a ‘closed’ country, ie somewhere that does not allow Christians to demonstrate anything that has any links to the Gospel. But that does not mean there is nothing one can do – for example, there is radio ministry, obviously prayer and then one might be able to go on a ‘tentmaking’ ministry using your skills to help that people develop their economy or education, etc. If one does go into such a country, one’s faith needs to be really strong, as there may be long periods of isolation from other believers.