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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.

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.


Comments on this article

This may be a useful exercise in highlighting some of people and places where there is definite unaddressed need, but the presence of a small number of Christians, the existence of scripture in a second language and the presence of one or more missionaries should never be confused with saying we can tick a group off the priority list. I'm sure neither author is saying that other work is not important but I'd hate to see anyone look at this article and say we're only an estimated 138 people groups off finishing the Great Commission!
Peter :: 24 Sep 2010

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