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No Christians, No Scripture, No Missionaries: Priority People Groups

By Ted Bergman and Bill Morrison
September 2010

Which people groups are the least reached of all on our globe? The purpose of developing statistics and people profiles on all the ethne of our world is to carry out our commission to make disciples of all nations. If a group has no known followers of Jesus, no scripture in a language they understand adequately, and no one sent to evangelize them, are they not among the highest priority of all?

We believe that to reach these people with the gospel, outsiders should be sent to learn their language and culture and love them as Christ loves us.

In this study, we ask how many such languages remain to be learned to reach these top priority people groups.

The purpose for developing profiles and statistics on all the peoples of our world is to carry out our commission to make disciples of all ethne. (“Peoples” is a better translation of ethne than “nations.” We have found out there are thousands of peoples on the globe, far more than the two hundred or so political “nations.”) To carry out our commission, we need data about where the peoples of the earth live and which ones do not have the Word of God and a core of growing believers.

Counting all these by name and place is more difficult than it might seem. Finding every people group is hard enough, but then what constitutes a core of growing believers and where do we get that data?

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. Before the pioneer missionary can leave them to go to another place where Christ has not been named, the new disciples must have enough grounding that they can continue on their own and evangelize their own people.

But in some people groups there are no Christians, let alone a church. There are approximately two thousand languages that still need the Bible translated.

The number of peoples without any followers of Jesus is difficult to measure since only God himself can judge a person’s heart. Attempts have been made, however. In some cases, this means counting church attendance or simply self-expressed adherence to a church. There may be as many as one thousand people groups without any known disciples and more without a viable church.

Who are the peoples that have neither a Bible nor Christians? These would seem to have the greatest need. We would like to work toward producing such a list with this article.

Global Databases
Data on the existence of Christians in each people group may be found in the World Christian Database1 (WCD). Global data on the existence of disciples and churches may be found in the Joshua Project database2 (JPD) and in the Church Planting Progress Indicators3 (CPPI) database of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptists.

Data on the existence of scripture may be obtained from Wycliffe Bible Translators and their affiliated organization, SIL International4. None of these are completely accurate. The subject is just too large and complex for any one agency and requires the global Church working together.

Dan Scribner has published a helpful, concise description of all four of the above databases along with several more. It is published elsewhere in this edition of the Lausanne World Pulse.

In past issues of Mission Frontiers three articles were written, one each based on the WCD, JPD, and CPPI data. The question was, “Which peoples need priority attention?” In 2007, Justin Long5 summarized a description of each of the three data collections, the value of their separate perspectives, and resulting priorities. He asked which peoples all three held in common. He found only 22, in large part because the CPPI priorities at that juncture were limited to groups over 100,000 in population.

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Ted Bergman (PhD) has lived many years in Africa and coordinated language survey work internationally from 1983 to 2006. He is editor of SIL Electronic Survey Reports, is involved in sociolinguistic research in Asia, and is a research editor for Ethnologue. Bill Morrison (MBA) has compiled the Joshua Project database of people groups over the past eleven years. He was systems and programming manager at Campus Crusade for Christ and The Navigators for more than twenty years.