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Should Missionaries Focus on Unreached People Groups? Yes.

Editors’ note: 

For more installments in this series on missions strategy in the 21st century, see here and here.

Missiological interest in unreached people groups (UPGs) has seen a resurgence over the last half-century. Although the vast majority of cross-cultural workers from the West still don’t minister among UPGs, many missiologists and practitioners have argued that we must refocus on people groups where the church is smallest.

Jesus commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and UPGs lack sufficient intra-cultural resources to make disciples on a widespread scale. Therefore, we ought to focus most of our cross-cultural resources on UPGs.

I want to develop this argument around two questions raised in a recent article by Darren Carlson and Elliot Clark.

Two Big Questions

1. Does Jesus’s use of panta ta ethne support a focus on UPGs?

Carlson and Clark argued that the emphasis on UPGs is grounded on an erroneous view that the Greek phrase panta ta ethne (“all nations”) in the Great Commission refers to every ethnolinguistic people group of the world. To view panta ta ethne this way, they suggest, is to adopt “a modern anthropological definition over a biblical-theological one.” Instead, they argue, the understanding of Jesus’s first-century followers would have “derived from Scripture itself.”

Interestingly, although Carlson and Clark argue Jesus’s original hearers would have interpreted panta ta ethne with the Abrahamic covenant in mind, they don’t account for the strong ethnolinguistic undercurrent that surges throughout the early Abrahamic narrative.

To understand the Abrahamic covenant properly, we must examine the Table of Nations, which serves as the covenant’s biblical-theological backdrop. In Genesis 10, at the end of each of Noah’s sons’ genealogies and at the conclusion of the table, a refrain sheds light on God’s subsequent promise to Abraham. Genesis 10:5, 20, 31, and 32 repeat a refrain around the words “clans” (mishpachot), “land(s)” (artsot/erets), and “nations” (goyim), all of which reappear in Abraham’s call in Genesis 12:1–3.

The promise to Abraham is directed toward all the rebellious multi-lingual groups dispersed from Babel and outlined in the Table of Nations.

This literary connection between the table’s refrain and God’s promise to Abraham indicates that this redemptive declaration is directed toward the groups outlined in the table. The table’s divisions include both tribal and linguistic dimensions, evident by the use of the Hebrew term mishpachot (“clans/families”) as well as by the repeated mention that these various subgroups of Noah’s offspring were divided according to language (lashon; Gen. 12:5, 20, 31). The intervening Tower of Babel story, which describes the linguistic confusion and dispersal from human rebellion, only strengthens the ethnolinguistic backdrop to Abraham’s call that follows.

Since God promised Abraham that “all the families (mishpachot) of the earth” would be blessed through him (Gen. 12:3), and since the table repeatedly distinguishes these “families” on the basis of language, it follows that God’s promise to Abraham extends to every ethnolinguistic people group. Significantly, the first three occurrences of the phrase panta ta ethne in the Greek Bible occur in reiterations of this foundational promise to Abraham (Gen. 18:18; 22:18; 26:4).

The original promise to Abraham, then, is directed toward all the rebellious multi-lingual groups dispersed from Babel and outlined in the table. Recollections of that promise throughout Genesis repeatedly use panta ta ethne, providing warrant to understand the Great Commission as referring to the world’s scattered people groups. Paul reinforces this point by referring to the Abrahamic promise as “the gospel beforehand,” quoting it with the same language: “In you shall all the nations (panta ta ethne) be blessed” (Gal. 3:8).

Since Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples of all people groups, it’s incumbent on us to analyze global Christianity’s landscape, assess which people groups aren’t being discipled due to insufficient resources, and send cross-cultural workers to those places. This is why we must focus on reaching UPGs.

2. Is making disciples of all people groups even possible?

Carlson and Clark observe that “many ethnolinguistic groups have already gone extinct, some long before the gospel reached them.” They conclude this makes the traditional understanding of reaching all people groups “literally impossible.” But does this conclusion follow from a biblical-theological analysis of the purpose for reaching all peoples?

Carlson and Clark’s argument raises a more fundamental question: why does Jesus commission the church to make disciples of all people groups? Or to push the question back further: why does God promise Abraham that all the families of the earth will be blessed through him?

The short answer is that God promises to bless all the families of the earth through Abraham because his mission has always been for humanity to fill the earth as his image-representatives. At creation, God made humanity in his image (Gen. 1:26), which indicates that humans are God’s vice-regents on earth, designed to represent his kingship within creation. He then tells his image-representatives to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (v. 28).

After sin entered the world, humanity continues to be God’s image (cf. Gen. 9:6), though we’ve rebelled against God and don’t fulfill our designed function of representing his kingship. The narratives of the primeval history describe the effects of this rebellion, climaxing at Babel, where humanity seeks to “settle” in one place (11:2) and explicitly states their desire not to “be dispersed over the face of all the earth” (11:4). This is a flat-out rejection of God’s creation mandate to “fill the earth.”

God responds by confusing humanity’s language (11:7)—thereby creating the various people groups of the world (cf. Gen. 10:5, 20, 31, 32)—and dispersing them throughout the earth (11:8–9). The creation of distinct people groups is therefore a result of humanity’s rejection of God’s commission to fill the earth as his representatives.

It’s within this context that we must interpret the call and promise to bless all the families of the earth. In Abraham’s time, humanity had been dispersed throughout the earth—yet they’d filled it as rebellious images. Starting with Abraham’s call, though, God’s creational mission for humanity will be fulfilled as God’s redemption fills the earth and extends to all these scattered people groups.

As rebellious image-bearers are redeemed and reconciled to God, they begin to glorify him as King and their proper function as his representatives is restored. Why does God promise to bless all the families of the earth? Because it’s the means by which he’ll fill the earth with faithful representatives of himself and thereby fulfill his creational mission.

Why does God promise to bless all the families of the earth? Because it’s the means by which he’ll fill the earth with faithful representatives of himself and thereby fulfill his creational mission.

 

Several passages in the patriarchal narratives that link the language of the creation mandate (Gen. 1:26–28) to God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Gen. 17:1–6; 22:17–18; 26:4; 28:3–4) support this conclusion. Reaching all people groups is therefore not an end in itself, but the means by which we fill the earth with God’s faithful representatives. 

For this reason it’s irrelevant that certain people groups are extinct. The goal of our mission is not complete historical ethnolinguistic salvation, but comprehensive geographical coverage; reaching panta ta ethne is the means by which we are to fill the earth and fulfill our creational calling as God’s representative images.

Represent King Jesus

With Carlson and Clark I affirm that Jesus’s earliest followers would have understood his call to make disciples of panta ta ethne within a scriptural framework.

Yet when we engage in a biblical theology of mission that begins at creation and traces the rise of people groups throughout redemptive history, we see the Great Commission as a call to fill the earth with the gospel and represent Christ as King over the whole world. And this necessitates a focus on UPGs.

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