Missionaries have access to big data now. Researchers maintain databases on locations of ethnic and language groups (ethnolinguistic groups), the number of Christians and churches among them, and Scripture resources available to them. One way churches and mission organizations use research is to uncover unreached peoples and places and direct workers there.
I’m not too big on big data in missions. The problem with it isn’t that we think too big, though I sometimes think of King David’s confession here, “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1). The problem is that we can’t think big enough. I’ve had missiologists teach me, “God can’t lead you with information you don’t have.” We know he can (see Acts 16:6–10).
Yet God sovereignly leads researchers, too. For the sake of the gospel, it matters that we know about unreached and unengaged peoples and places, “where Christ is not known,” “in the regions beyond” (Rom. 15:20, 1 Cor. 10:16). For a balanced take on missions research, see J.D. Payne’s recent article, “God’s Mission Is Not Limited by Our Ignorance”.
Where There Are “No Christians, No Scripture, No Missionaries”
A pair of researchers, Ted Bergman and Bill Morrison, tried to answer the question: Of the many people groups that need attention, which are the highest priority? They culled a list from the major databases according to three critera, groups which have:
- No Christians (and therefore, no churches)
- No Scripture
- No missionaries with the intent of bringing the gospel to them
The result was a list of 112 people groups, which they published in 2010 and 2011 as “No Christians, No Scripture, No Missionaries: Priority People Groups.”1
While there are opportunities for missionaries among people groups which have access to the gospel but remain functionally churchless and Bibleless, for the 112 peoples on this list, there will be no access to the gospel until an outsider goes in. These are the churchless, Bibleless and hopeless.
May there be hope for these people as it’s written:
Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand. (Is. 52:15 and Rom. 15:21)
The research in “No Christians, No Scripture, No Missionaries” needs an update. People groups are moving targets. Why look at it now? Firstly, five years on, most of the groups remain without churches, Scripture, or gospel workers. Secondly, I hope to point potential workers to concentrations of these groups. Thirdly, we can learn from the search criteria the original researchers used as we determine which people groups need priority attention. Let’s look at the criteria first.
What are priorities in missions? It’s important that we ask the right questions. Bergman and Morrison’s first criterion of a priority group was lack of Scripture in any form. They grouped the results by primary language. They were asking, how many languages will missionaries have to learn in order to reach the groups which have no Christians or Scripture?
Some unreached, unengaged people groups share a language. In China, for example, four speak Ersu first: the Ersu, Luzu, Manyak, and Menia. One witness could communicate with speakers from all four groups. This emphasis on primary language puts priority on the verbal communication of God’s Word. The responsibility of Christian missionaries to preach the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:1–3).
One criterion the researchers did not use was population above a certain number. It’s become common practice in missions research to prioritize large groups (100,000 in population and above) over small groups (under 10,000). But Bergman and Morrison took their cues from Scripture where they did not see this distinction.
Another criterion for a group to make the list was that it be unreached. The researchers defined “reached” as a group which had a growing church with access to the Bible. They put this forward as a better definition than what’s in use today, the arbitrary threshold of two percent evangelical Christian.
For a group to be counted as “reached” with the gospel, the absolute minimum is that there be a church — not just any church, but a growing body with access to the Bible in a language they understand well.2
The researchers judged that growing churches, understandable Scriptures, and gospel workers are all necessary elements for kingdom work to go forward among a people group. The absence of any one of these elements is enough to warrant the attention of missionaries. The absence of all three warrants priority attention.
Hotspots of Hopelessness
The research showed concentrations of priority people groups in China, Nepal and Iran. I plotted the groups on a map with location data from Joshua Project. The map reveals broader clusters in Saharan Africa, the Caucasus and Zagros Mountains of Central Asia, and across the Himalayas. These “hotspots” of hopelessness span political boundaries and center on regions of extreme terrain.
These people live in places that remain difficult to access and need the concerted efforts of churches and generations of workers. These are not people who’ve yet been caught in the wide net of a fishing missionary, though missionaries labor through hundreds of trade languages and thousands of Asian towns. The hotspots are blindspots to us on the ground.
Even still, more missionaries should learn the trade languages of these areas of concentration, such as Nepali, Central Tibetan, Mandarin Chinese or Persian. Doing so would put us in a better position to engage the unengaged. It would put us in a position to help the closest churches equip and send missionaries of their own.
Our people group categories do not fully represent reality or the intention of Scripture. People can share affinities in many ways besides ethnicity or language. And people don’t stay still but change throughout their lives and from generation to generation. Furthermore, the “all nations” (panta ta ethne) target of the Great Commission means more than just the 11,000 or so ethnolinguistic groups. It means what it meant to those Jewish disciples who first beheld their triumphant Lord: the gospel is good not just for you, but for everyone everywhere.
By focusing on certain people groups, we overlook the world at our doorstep, people who are also functionally churchless and Bibleless and without hope. On the other hand, beyond our doors and beyond the doors of any known church or believer, there are some people who will not be reached until someone single-mindedly goes after them. Who, with Jesus, will “leave the ninety-nine,” “not greet anyone on the road,” “go on to the next towns,” “go into all the world,” and “go after the lost one until he finds it” (Lk. 15:4; 10:4; Mk. 1:38; 16:15).
So we keep the categories and criteria for now, and update our lists until we reach each known people and see if there are still any “regions beyond.” To the best of my knowledge this list represents genuine and priority needs today. I work near a concentration of these groups and most remain unreached and unengaged. I know other workers who have begun to engage a few of the groups and they need help.
Here are updates to the Bergman and Morrison list that I’ve found so far:
- Pahlavani of Afghanistan seems to be extinct now.
- Panang of China (Banag) is no longer listed as a separate language but a dialect of Amdo Tibetan. One of the Bonan groups (Tu) is now classified as it’s own language group.
- Chaudangsi and Darmiya of India are now threatened languages (and not listed as primary languages of any group on Joshua Project). The statuses of Kurmukar, Shumcho and Sunam are unclear.
- Baraamu of Nepal (Baram) is nearly extinct. Chhulung and Dumi are shifting and no longer vital languages. Northern Ghale, Jerung, Northern Lorung (Lohorung), Lumba-Yakkha and Puma are threatened. Southern Lorung is now a distinct language, Southern Yamphu. Yamphe seems to be an alternate name of Yamphu. Nubri is now said to be spoken by 2 people groups. The statuses of Tichurong and Thudam are unclear.
- The statuses of the Dehwari, Lasi and Waneci of Pakistan are unclear.
- The language code for Tunisian Sign Language has been corrected to ‘tse’ (not ‘thm’).
Priority People Groups (2011)
See the original article (2010), the 2011 update and the updated list by Ted Bergman and Bill Morrison for details of the language groups, including languages codes, populations and statuses from the major databases.
I simplified the original list below, showing only the language groups with their hub countries and linked to their respective pages on Joshua Project. I plotted the groups on an interactive map with location data from Joshua Project, included below for you to explore. You can see concentrations of groups that follow geographical features and cross political boundaries, such as in the Himalayas.
Let’s explore avenues of access and go as close as we can to the vicinities and languages of these priority peoples. Let’s mobilize believers and churches in neighboring areas to go closer still. Let’s pray for hope for the churchless, Bibleless, hopeless.