The term “unreached people groups” transformed how evangelicals approach the Great Commission, revealing how it was not enough to have missionaries in every country if there were still populations with no chance of hearing the gospel. The call to global missions had to get more specific.

But in the 45 years since the late US Center for World Mission founder Ralph Winter popularized the concept—spurring maps, checklists, and stats toward a new goal—missiologists have begun to update their terminology for targeting the unevangelized, with some rethinking the “people groups” idea altogether.

The labels are not just a matter of semantics; if too broad or too narrow, they fail to identify the people who are most desperate for the gospel and won’t accurately capture the church’s progress toward making disciples of all nations.

Critics of the traditional definition of an unreached group, one where evangelicals make up less than 2 percent of the population, note that it ends up including peoples at disparate ends of a spectrum: some that already have a strong Christian presence, and others that have almost no exposure to the gospel. “Unreached people groups with no believers among them will not receive the witnesses they need if they are not clearly distinguished from those with thousands of believers,” wrote missionary and scholar Rebecca Lewis, Winter’s daughter, in the International Journal of Frontier Missiology last year.

Plus, “there is now significant status associated with mission efforts among unreached people groups,” said Robby Butler, general director of Missions Network. “This translates into prayer and financial support for such efforts, so no one wants their people classified as reached.”

Missions experts agree that the categories could be more precise, with some opting to focus on “unengaged unreached people groups,” those that are less than 2 percent evangelical and have no existing missionary efforts among them. Others narrow in on “frontier people groups,” which may or may not be engaged but have no indigenous Christian movement of their own (less than 0.1% evangelical).

“Identifying the frontier peoples subset within unreached peoples is sort of like triage … an attempt to identify the most needy, perhaps overlooked by sending efforts, and set priorities,” said Dan Scribner, director of the Joshua Project, a popular online database tracking evangelism efforts among 17,000 people groups worldwide. “Those in [frontier people groups] have little, if any, opportunity of hearing about Jesus unless someone goes cross-culturally.”

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Fewer than 1 percent of missionaries end up serving among frontier peoples, which make up around a quarter of the world’s population—almost entirely located in India and Muslim-majority countries. The Year of the Frontier launches this May, with more than a dozen ministries joining in coordinated prayer for the largest frontier people groups.

Meanwhile, missions network Finishing the Task has seen the number of “unengaged unreached people groups” drop from 3,300 in 2005 to about 300 in 2019.

At its conference at Saddleback Church last December, 600 attendees walked across a giant map of the world, praying for the unreached. Partner agencies pledged to send workers to each remaining unengaged group, fulfilling the title of the conference, “Within Sight.”

While applauding efforts to send workers to new places, Lewis has raised concerns about whether a single worker is enough to consider a group engaged and take it off the list.

“We have to ask the question, ‘What sort of task are we trying to finish anyways?’ ” said Dusty Hoffman, global evangelism strategist for the Issachar Initiative and Finishing the Task. “In finishing the task, are we trying to finish the whole Great Commission? Not necessarily. We are trying to finish the task of beginning everywhere. We want to try to get first workers into every people group on the planet.

“Is it enough to get a team of four workers into a people group of a million lost people? No, that’s not enough. Is four workers better than zero workers there? We think it is.”

Some worry that the common measure of “unreached people groups” has come to oversimplify the work of global missions.

Despite Winter’s robust view, others “got enamored by the countdown and list,” said researcher Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Over the years, “that fascination has actually overlooked the difficulty of reaching very large groups” who remain under-engaged, such as the Turks in Turkey or the Thai in Thailand.

The complexity of the missions landscape, particularly with urbanization and globalization moving people to new contexts, has challenged whether one definition can capture the most urgent evangelistic needs. David Platt, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, has suggested “rethinking unreached peoples” by including unreached places as well.

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“Unreached peoples and places are those among whom Christ is largely unknown and the church is relatively insufficient to make Christ known in its broader population without outside help,” he wrote for Desiring God in February. “This definition adds places to our understanding of the unreached and removes the 2 percent designation.

“These differences may not seem significant at first glance, but I believe they have large implications for understanding the task of missions.”

Jim Ramsay, vice president of global operations for missions agency TMS Global, agrees with the more holistic view.

“I don’t use terms like 10/40 Window anymore, or even unreached people group. And then we get more precise—unreached and unengaged—and I find it ends up becoming a distraction,” said Ramsay, whose organization uses the term “least reached” instead. “We did not want to follow the path of getting so obsessed with definition and precision that it would negate other missions or cause people to be blind to other mission opportunities.”

It’s also important to distinguish the people groups without any Christian movement of their own because they require a different strategy to counter the perception of Christianity as a threat to their own culture—as an unknown, outsider, Western faith—by working within households and family networks to share the gospel.

“Mission efforts have too often unwisely or unintentionally … gravitated toward winning and isolating young adults or other individuals away from their families and communities into separate ‘Christian’ communities,” Butler said. “Such strategies provoke frontier people groups to seek further isolation, just as India revoked the licenses of thousands of Western ministries in recent years.”

This approach also directs prayer for the least reached. “Many of the frontier peoples still think Jesus came only for the Christians, not for all peoples,” Lewis said. “Pray that they would come to understand that Jesus is the Savior of the world, including themselves.”

Kate Shellnutt is associate online editor for Christianity Today.

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