Only 400 people groups–or 2.9 billion people?

J.D. Payne wrote an interesting and potentially explosive post yesterday: “Only 400 people groups to go?”

I respect Payne a lot. We’ve met once in person, and exchanged many emails and tweets. I know his heart is for missions and the unreached, and that he is passionate about closure. He’s written a number of books that have been very useful in the mission world, and he’s very keen on movements and rapid expansion of the church. So I don’t want anything I say to be taken as criticism, but rather as a critique.

The big problem that I have with J.D.’s post is the implied idea that in order to reach “closure” (to fulfill Matt. 24, basically), we need only “some from every ethnic group.” It sets us up for the bad contrast of some vs all.

I don’t think he actually would take it this far, since he says “the gospel is to be taken to everyone, including reached people groups.” But this idea of some vs. all – a “representative sample” of every ethnic group – has its way of worming itself insidiously into our thinking.

We ask ourselves – “what do we need to do to finish the Great Commission?” And the answer seems to be “some from every tribe, tongue and language before the throne.”

So the next question is – “what do we need to do to get ‘some’ from every tribe?” Then the quick question becomes – perhaps unspoken – “how big is some?” How many do we have to get before we’re done? 

Payne uses the example of Yemen: unreached today, but once a Christian kingdom.

“Some” came from Yemen a few hundred years ago. If “some” have already come, then have we already “fulfilled” the Great Commission for Yemen? Should we put “less” effort there and “more” effort amongst groups that have “never” had any work? 

Depending on your theology, that strategy would deny effective witness and a chance at heaven to all the Yemenis today.  By our very strategy – by seeking “some” from every ethnic group – we consign the “not some” to hell.

This is a very abrasive way to put it, I know. I am sure many of you are recoiling in horror. It’s clear from the comments and discussion on Payne’s original post that this is certainly “reading further into the post” than he means. But the fact is, we have a limited number of workers, and the strategies for deployment and multiplication that we choose determines which individuals hear the Gospel and which do not. There are eternal ramifications in those choices, and the eternal ramifications are not up to the unevangelized.

When the unevangelized have no physical access to the Gospel, those with the Gospel determine which of the unevangelized get the chance, and which do not.

When we say “all peoples will be represented before the throne” the strategy we choose means “many people will not get the chance.” I believe our responsibility – the responsibility of the church – is the whole world.

Is all.

Is every individual on the face of the planet.

God loves the whole world.

God desires that his glory covers the whole earth like the waters cover the sea.

You may say it’s impossible to reach every person on the planet, but I know God deals in the impossible.

Movement thinking if consistently applied in every place can do this.

We can reach “sustainable closure” in every place, among every people, providing Gospel access to every individual–both now and in the future.

I do not believe that reaching “some” is what God has in mind.

I believe we must stretch for strategies that can scale to all.

I am less concerned for the people group lists – for the “3,000” or the “400” – and far more concerned for the 2._ billion that they represent.

A number that is presently growing by 19 million per year.

We developed people group thinking because Ralph Winter told us people were cut off from the Gospel by our country-oriented strategy, by barriers of language.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if we use people group strategies to cut millions of people off from access?

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