The chief reason for the development of people group thinking in missions was the lack of precision in measuring the remaining task in terms of countries. There was a church for every country, but many individuals within specific peoples throughout North Africa and Asia lacked access to the Gospel because churches in their countries were either too small or cut off from peoples due to language, culture or political restrictions. An example: in China the Han Chinese might have a large church, but minorities like the Hui, Uighurs, or Zhuang did not. Since Dr. Winter’s address at Lausanne 1974, people group thinking has rapidly expanded and permeated the global missions movement. It has caused a significant focusing of missionary effort, albeit with some controversy and debate. It has especially enabled the global church to see the complexity of the remaining task and the many ‘gaps' in Gospel progress.
However, people group thinking, too, can suffer from a ‘blind spot' similar to that of ‘country' thinking: very large people groups can be underengaged. People groups like the Pashto, Thai and Turks are vast in numbers and spread out across large areas. They may be engaged by churches and cross-cultural workers in some places (for example, the Turks are lightly touched in Istanbul), but in others (for example, eastern Turkey) the same group can be unengaged and virtually unevangelized, living with no access to the Gospel at all.
Because of this, it is not enough to know a people group is engaged by at least one team. It is not even enough to know how many workers have engaged a people group because teams tend to clump geographically. We need to be monitoring both peoples and places.
In response to this, I have been laboring for over a year on a District Survey, which combines a more granular geographic and ethnographic focus. It lists all of the countries, provinces, districts, and ‘sub-districts' (counties or whatever they are locally called), with descriptive factors (including peoples) for each. By going down to the sub-district level, I am evaluating population segments of about 100,000 people—a size my research suggests can be adequately engaged by a single team or church.
As I have worked on this project, I have found at this population size, places usually mesh in one of three ways with the Peoples lists:
1. The place correlates to a specific people group. Some places are completely, or nearly completely, dominated by one people group (e.g. Turks or Koreans). Of course, there may be tiny pockets of a few dozen or hundred diaspora (for example, Chinese in some places in Africa, or American businesspeople in Saudi Arabia).
2. The place correlates to two, or sometimes three, peoples. One ethnic group is the largest, but one or two other groups are ‘significant minorities.' Southern China is one example of this; so are parts of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, where large numebrs of expatriates live and work. It is most common in districts on the borders of two provinces—the two provinces may each have their dominant group (category 1 above), but at their edges there is some ‘blending.'
3. The place is a potpourri. This is particularly the case with urban areas. Sometimes the ethnic groups are all ‘mixed in together'; in others, within the urban boundaries, there are significant ‘clumpings' of groups.
My own list contains confidential data and is thus not accessible on the Internet. But you don’t need my global list. To make a difference in one place, you don’t need to have the whole world in view: start with the country or province you are focused on. Create an Excel spreadsheet and list all the provinces in the country, and then for each province add the districts. You can usually find these with simple Google searches, or check out the tables at Statoids.com. It’s a public open-source list of the world’s countries and provinces (and in some places districts) which you can use. Add columns to your sheet—how many people are in the place? what are the major people groups there? are there churches? are there workers? can workers get there, and stay there long-term? If you want more data to flesh out your sheet, you can get my index file, 243+ global data sources, which will help you find more information.
In compiling this list, you will almost immediately gain a clearer of the situation ‘on the ground.' To be reached by the classical definition, every population segment needs an indigenous (E-1) church capable of evangelizing the segment to its borders without cross-cultural (E-2 or E-3) assistance. To be ‘engaged' at all requires a team of some sort, whether E-1, E-2 or E-3. While we might not know the exact numbers of teams or churches or believers in particular districts, I have found it is generally possible to ask ‘whether a church' is present, or ‘whether an E-3 team is present'; this kind of yes/no question can be fairly easily answered.
Second, developing this list will help you see more clearly the kind of strategy required: some places cannot be accessed by E-3 teams (you probably won’t be placing a long-term missionary team in Mecca any time soon, for example). By seeing places that cannot be accessed by E-3 teams, we can ‘back up' and see where we need E-1 churches that can send E-1 workers to those districts. (E-3 workers can’t easily access rural Afghanistan, but might be able to work in places where Afghanis are—and E-1 Afghanis could get into rural Afghanistan.)
Third, the list can help you raise apostolic vision in others. You could, for example, print out a map of the country, and ‘color' it by hand with locations of workers and teams—this very simple process requires no advanced GIS software, and will enable you to show anyone where ‘gaps' are.
Most importantly, this process will give you an understanding of the complexities of the task remaining, as well as specific places to pray for. The closer we get to ‘ground realities,' even in list making, the better we can see the strengths and weaknesses of the existing mission effort and the opportunities and threats we face. All too often our view is too simplistic; by getting further into the details we may find options for reaching population segments that we wouldn’t have seen with a too-broad view.