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

By Ted Bergman and Bill Morrison
September 2010

The primary difference between what we are listing and the previous lists is that we are adding the data on which people have access to scripture they can understand. Only four from our list were also on the twenty-two. If that is due to progress made in the intervening years, we can thank God for it.

WCD has a category labeled “% Christians,” with a few missing that have not been identified. There are nearly one thousand people groups with zero Christians. They speak about three hundred different languages as their mother tongue.

Combining these with Wycliffe data shows which ones have at least one book of the Bible already translated or have translators working with speakers of their languages to produce scripture in that language. Removing all of these from the list leaves 169 with neither Christians nor scripture.

Now, taking WCD and Wycliffe information about whether there are any agencies at work in a particular group or whether there is any cross-cultural work going on (at least as far as evangelism is concerned), the number is reduced further to 147.

The List
Finally, it is my (Ted Bergman) judgment that if a people group has fewer than one thousand who speak the language, we will find upon further research that these people are highly bilingual and have good access to God’s word in a second language. This isn’t a sure thing, but is likely to hold true for most of them. For that reason, we have taken these from the list. The total remaining is only 138. (You can view this list by clicking here.)

This is a relatively small number. But the list is tentative. It might be too small if missionaries who are counted as being at work are not actually doing so. Or it might be too large since the speakers of some of the languages in question may be adequately bilingual and will not need a translation in their first language. Or there may be missionaries at work that we are not aware of, or there may be disciples among them that the WCD does not know about.

When this list is compared to the data held by Joshua Project, there is disagreement with fifteen (eleven percent) of the languages. This is not alarming, given the nature of the data. It underlines the need for more research. Some cells are blank, notably in South Asia where language and people group are hard to associate in the Joshua Project scheme.

In the last column of the chart, levels 0 to 3 of the CPPI data are all unreached. To be zero on the GSEC scale means there are no Christians and not even access to major evangelical print, audio, visual, or human resources. But it may be the case that there are no Christians and no workers within groups that are level 1 either.

It must be emphasized that this list will surely contain inaccuracies. But having such a list to start from and sending it to knowledgeable missionaries working in the same country might help us make the needed corrections. Please see the footnotes in this regard.

Population Size and Country
How big are these 138 language groups that have no Christians and not even a book of the Bible? The population ranges from 1,000 to about 800,000. The midpoint is 7,200. Together the ethnic groups total more than four million souls without a Christian witness or a Bible they can understand.

Seven of the languages are spoken by more than one people group. In fact, twenty-two people groups have been identified for these seven languages, all of them in China. We know that at least in part this is because there are more known languages in China than are listed in the Ethnologue database. Research is needed to verify and make the updates to the Ethnologue.

Four countries have only one language with no Christians and no book of the Bible. At the other extreme, the countries with the largest numbers of such languages are China with forty, Nepal with twenty-one, and Iran with fourteen. These three contain more than half of the total!

There are 19 different countries that have at least one of these 138 people groups within their borders.

Work in Progress
We do not know for sure that there are no Christians and no churches in this set of peoples. We need help from others to find out. There are significant differences between the WCD data and data in the Joshua Project and CPPI databases in whether or not there are disciples in these groups.

So this list of 138 is a work in progress. There needs to be more research to verify the accuracy. More importantly, it constitutes a challenge to the Church to go and make disciples in each of these groups so that year by year the list can be whittled down until it reaches zero6. Pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers.

Endnotes

1. The WCD is available in print or online by annual subscription. Suggested updates can be submitted to info@globalChristianity.org.

2. Suggested updates can be submitted to info@joshuaproject.net.

3. Suggested updates can be submitted to gric@imb.org.

4. Suggested updates can be submitted to editor_ethnologue@sil.org. Additional data used in this study is held internally and for security reasons is not available to the public.

5. Long, Justin. 2007. “Which Peoples Need Priority Attention? Seeking Agreement on the ‘Core of the Core.’” Missions Frontiers. January-February, 18.

6. We appreciate helpful comments on this article by Jim Haney of the Southern Baptists.

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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.