A Simple Guide to People Group Lists for World MissionBy Dan Scribner
How many people groups are there in the world? How many are unreached? Which numbers are correct and which list of people groups is “right”? The varying answers to these questions can cause confusion in the mission community.
The Lord has graciously provided the global mission community with several sets of people group information. Each has great value and none are right or wrong. Each has unique perspective, definitions, criteria, and sources which cause variation between the lists. These variations cause a degree of disagreement, which encourages healthy dialog.
The following are key definitions, a brief history and an overview of the comprehensive global people group lists, several subsets, and other important collections of mission data.
People group: A significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity with one another. 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.
Christian adherent: Anyone who claims to be a follower of the Christian religion in any form. This definition is based on the individual’s self-confession, not his or her ecclesiology, theology, or religious commitment and experience. The term embraces all traditions and confessions of Christianity and includes Protestant, Roman Catholic, Other Catholic, Orthodox, Foreign Marginal, and Indigenous Marginal.
Evangelical: All who generally emphasize the following: (1) the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation through faith in him; (2) personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit; (3) recognition of the inspired Word of God as the only basis for faith and Christian living; and (4) commitment to biblical witness, evangelism, and missions that brings others to faith in Christ.
Ethno-linguistic: An ethnic or racial group defined primarily by language. Groupings of individuals based on language spoken, but with the possibility of sub-divisions based upon dialect or cultural distinctives. Using this method, one language group equals one or more ethnic groups. This assumes that the "understandability barrier" to the gospel message is higher than the "acceptance barrier."
A Brief History
The foundation of all the global peoples lists is the excellent language research of SIL International over the last seventy years. In addition, much of the content of the ethno-linguistic peoples lists is derived from the work of David Barrett. We acknowledge his significant contribution as the original editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia.
The CPPI (Church Planting Progress Indicators) database had its beginnings in the World Christian Database in the early 1990s and has been significantly modified since by IMB (International Mission Board of Southern Baptist Convention) field staff.
Joshua Project was birthed in 1995 and owes much of its genesis to Patrick Johnstone and his connection with the WCD, Omid research of South Asia, and Hattaway research for China and the Buddhist world.
Comprehensive Global People Group Lists
World Christian Database/WCD: The World Christian Database provides statistical information on countries, cities, languages, world religions, Christian denominations, and people groups. Data sources for the WCD include published and unpublished sources, field work, interviews, questionnaires, and officially published reports of government-organized national censuses. The WCD peoples list is ethno-linguistic, meaning that a people group is primarily defined by language and then by ethnicity, and then by country of residence. Within a language group other factors such as race, tradition, history, and culture sometimes define a subsection of peoples. The WCD classifies peoples by Worlds A, B, and C. World A peoples are groups with over fifty percent of the population unevangelized. The WCD is available in print or online by annual subscription. Suggested updates can be submitted to info@globalChristianity.org.
IMB/CPPI: The IMB/CPPI peoples database is a global list of ethnic people groups from a church-planting perspective. A private, secure, online system is used by regional and national IMB researchers to gather and submit people group data to the IMB central database. Outside data sources are also considered. The CPPI list is generally ethno-linguistic and allows for subdivisions of language based upon cultural or dialect distinctives. In some cases, other criteria such as religion are used to define a people group. “Unreached” is defined as less than two percent evangelical; % Christian adherents is not considered. The CPPI uses Affinity Blocs and People Clusters for grouping peoples. A unique feature of the CPPI is the tracking of unengaged people groups—peoples without any active church planting occurring. A people group is considered engaged when church-planting methodology is underway or being implemented. Suggested updates for review by IMB regional and national staff can be submitted to email@example.com.
Joshua Project/JP: The Joshua Project database is a global ethno-linguistic and ethno-cultural people group database from a church-planting perspective. Joshua Project is an open system gathering data from a variety of sources including field missionaries and researchers, national and regional initiatives, census data, and published sources. People groups on the Joshua Project list are defined by language, religion, culture, and caste primarily based on on-site definitions. "Unreached" is defined as less than two percent evangelical and less than five percent Christian adherent. Joshua Project also uses Affinity Blocs and People Clusters for grouping peoples. A distinctive of the Joshua Project list is defining people groups in South Asia primarily by caste/community rather than by language. Suggested updates can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why Three Lists?
How many countries are there in the world? The answer depends on who you ask. Should there only be one list of countries in the world? Different perspectives on the same situation are a healthy thing. Looking at a picture from several angles often yields greater appreciation. Using different definitions and criteria can help clarify a task and highlight areas needing further research. People group database compilers are confronted by questions such as: Is language always the primary definer of a people group? Should caste be considered when defining a people group? Should Christian adherents be considered when setting the criterion for unreached? Should unreached be defined by exposure or response to the gospel? What are acceptable sources for input and edits? The three global peoples lists answer these questions slightly differently and thus provide different but valuable perspectives.
Dan Scribner has been on staff with the U.S. Center for World Mission since 1988. He currently serves as the director of Joshua Project. Dan and his wife Mary have four children and reside in Colorado Springs, Colorado.