The Global Status of Evangelical Christianity: A Model for Identifying Priority People Groups

Over the past two decades we have witnessed significant advances of the kingdom. Churches have mobilized their memberships, sending out thousands of new missionaries who have shared the gospel, baptized and discipled believers, established indigenous churches and trained leaders. 

The Ultimate Priority—All People Groups
Today, God continues to draw us to those people groups who have not yet had an adequate opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel;  however, with so many around the world who have not yet had this opportunity, how do we decide where to focus our efforts? 

We certainly recognize that the idea of prioritizing people groups is controversial. Prioritization does imply emphasis, and no one wants to see his or her people group de-emphasized. Yet, with other Evangelicals around the world, we affirm that there are bountiful resources available for the whole harvest of the nations. We believe that God has provided all of the resources necessary for the body of Christ to accomplish his mission in the world.

The challenge, however, is the mobilization and appropriate deployment of these resources to ensure that all of the world’s people groups have adequate opportunities to hear and respond to the good news. To address that challenge, it is helpful to identify those people groups requiring additional attention. Thus, our motivation for prioritization is one of focus not limitation. Our ultimate goal remains that all God’s people will multiply churches among all peoples.

Criteria for Prioritization: State of the Gospel
Two questions seem of particular importance: (1) What is the state of the gospel among each of the world’s people groups? and (2) Which people groups have no evangelical church planting efforts directed toward them?

To answer the first question we utilize the Global Status of Evangelical Christianity (GSEC) Model as illustrated in Table 1. It considers the extent to which a people group is evangelical Christian,1 a people group’s access to the gospel and the scope of evangelical church2 planting within the past two years.

Table 1: Global Status of Evangelical Christianity Model

 holste_cht1_357

As noted in Table 1, levels 0 – 3 are classified as unreached. In this model, unreached signifies a people group whose population is less than two percent evangelical Christian. This definition is consistent with that used in evangelical circles for many years. It differs in that it does not exclude those groups with five percent or more “Christian adherents.” Unfortunately, there are various “Christian” traditions that neither articulate nor embody a clear, uncompromised understanding of the gospel. Consequently, it is difficult to argue that the majority of adherents within such traditions really understand the gospel, really believe it and are really committed to propagating it.

All four of these levels describe people groups in which evangelical Christians comprise less than two percent of the population. Level 0 describes a relatively small subset of unreached people groups for which there are no known evangelical resources available. Level 1 people groups have some resources available, but have had no new evangelical church plants within the past two years. We call Levels 0 and 1 people groups “Last Frontier” people groups. Levels 2 and 3 people groups are also unreached, but have had localized or widespread evangelical church plants within the past two years. As the percentage of evangelical Christians within a people group rises to two percent and greater, the status of that people group progresses from levels 4 – 6.

This information is maintained on every people group in the world and is updated regularly based on information from national believers, field missionaries, evangelical researchers and others. Table 2 summarizes the world’s people groups by status based on the July 2006 GSEC report. The most current reports and lists are available for download at www.peoplegroups.org.

Table 2: Global Status of Evangelical Christianity Status Level
by People Groups and Population (July 2006)

Status
Level
People Groups
Population
0 126 1.1% 6,834,254 0.1%
1 5,711 50.3% 1,657,959,915 25.4%
2 551 4.8% 1,629,259,065 25.0%
3 33 0.3% 335,663,332 5.1%
4 943 8.3% 590,576,388 9.0%
5 1,185 10.4% 1,617,755,386 24.8%
6 1,888 16.6% 302,366,615 4.6%
7 928 8.2% 386,011,125 5.9%

 

Table 2 shows that:

  • More than half of the world’s population is found in unreached people groups (Levels 0 – 3).

  • More than half of the world’s people groups are Last Frontier people groups (Levels 0 – 1).
  • More than a quarter of the world’s population is found in Last Frontier people groups (Levels 0 – 1).
  • Although 5,711 Last Frontier people groups have evangelical resources available to them, no recent evangelical church planting is taking place among them. They continue to remain less than two percent evangelical Christian with no new evangelical churches in the past two years. (Level 1).

Undoubtedly, the availability of evangelical resources is an important factor in reaching a people group, but the last bulleted observation above clearly demonstrates that there are many people groups that have no active evangelical church planting underway despite the fact that resources are available. Why? The fact that a resource is available does not mean that it is being used or being used effectively. For example, a Bible translation may exist in the heart language of a given people group, but no one is distributing it. Perhaps the translation is rather old and no one really understands it anymore. Perhaps the vast majority of the people group is primarily non-literate communicators. They could not read the Bible, even if a current translation of it was placed before their eyes. It is also possible that Evangelicals may be found within a people group involving themselves in various efforts and projects, but their “mission” does not include the proclamation of God’s word, the invitation to accept Christ as Lord and savior or the establishment of churches. If so, does this people group actually have access to the gospel?

Clearly, an overemphasis on the “availability” of resources as an indicator of progress is problematic.  For this reason, while we recognize resource availability as a factor in our model and as an important component of our strategies, we do not give it significant weight as a measure of progress. More significant for us is whether or not evangelical church planting is actually taking place and whether or not people are coming to saving faith in Christ. Thus, progress is measured as people groups move from Levels 0 and 1 to levels 2, 3, 4 and beyond. For this to occur, evangelical Christians must effectively engage these unreached people groups.

The following Global Status of Evangelical Christianity map displays the status of each people group in their country and habitat. Unlike previous maps, this map only portrays the status of people groups in places where people actually live. Table 1 provides the key to the status colors, which are found on the map. A poster-size version of this map will be available to the public from the Missions Atlas Project website later this year.

 holste_map_454

Criteria for Prioritization: Status of Engagement
The second question is also critical: Which people groups have no evangelical church planting efforts directed toward them? In our prioritization model we consider a people group engaged when an evangelical church planting strategy is underway. At the very least, this means that the gospel is being sowed among the people group with the clear intent that the believers who emerge and are discipled will also be gathered together to form healthy, indigenous churches.

While Christians are involved in many significant ministries (e.g. radio broadcasts, literature distribution, relief and development, evangelism, discipleship, etc.), we believe that the gathering of believers and establishing of churches is the key to establishing an effective, on-going, evangelizing, discipling, nurturing and ministering capability among any given people group. Thus, we do not believe that adoption of, prayer for or presence among a people group alone equates to engagement.

A Priority Listing
Considering both of these important criteria (state of the gospel and status of engagement), we find that there are 3,323 unreached people groups in the world who are not currently engaged by evangelical Christians. Of these, 636 have populations exceeding 100,000 each. Table 3 summarizes the number and location of these groups.


Table 3: Unreached People Group Engagement
(100,000 and Larger Population)
IMB
Engaged

Unengaged

Does this mean that we stop doing what we are doing to focus our attention on these 636 groups? If we did so, a number of groups that are currently engaged no longer would be. No, we must preserve the advances that have been made while at the same time find ways to mobilize the vast resources that already exist—enlisting evangelical Christians and churches everywhere to join in the challenge of addressing these groups as well as the other 2,687 unengaged, unreached people groups with populations less than 100,000.

A complete listing of Unengaged Unreached People Groups can also be downloaded at www.peoplegroups.org. This listing and other reports on this site are updated monthly.

Conclusion
We look forward to the day that the number of unengaged, unreached people groups will fall to zero, regardless of population size. It is certainly a challenge; yet, we are confident that it will happen. Evangelical churches around the world are reclaiming their role in God’s mission in the world. Believers are praying, giving and going in record numbers. Local churches in difficult circumstances are taking seriously the challenge of reaching their Jerusalem and extending themselves to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. Not only is God moving in the world today, he is moving quickly. What a privilege to be part of the adventure!

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

Endnotes
1. Evangelical Christian—a person who believes that Jesus Christ is the sole source of salvation through faith in him, has personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit, recognizes the inspired word of God as the only basis for faith and Christian living and is committed to biblical preaching and evangelism that brings others to faith in Jesus Christ.

2. Evangelical Church—a church characterized by Evangelical Christian beliefs.
 


Dr. Scott Holste (left) is a former missionary to unreached people groups in Southeast Asia and in northern Africa. He serves as associate vice president for Research and Strategic Services in the International Mission BoardÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Office of Overseas Operations. He can be contacted at sholste@imb.org.

Dr. Jim Haney (right) is a former missionary to the people groups of West Africa. He currently serves as director of the International Mission BoardÌ¢‰â‰ã¢s Global Research Department. He can be contacted at jhaney@imb.org.