Defining Unreached and Unengaged People Groups

Over the past two decades, many monikers have emerged to help describe the task of fulfilling the Great Commission.  Samuel Wilson’s informative contribution to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions outlines a brief history of trying to understand the groupings of people based on cultural and/or social contexts.  In the early modern era of missions, Leslie Brierley’s “Remaining Unevangelized Peoples” and Cameron Townsend’s attempt to identify the number of remaining people through language groups were early efforts to articulate what it would take to complete the Great Commission.  It was not until 1972 that R. Pierce Beaver began to use the term “Unreached People Groups.”[1]

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In 1974, Ralph Winter put forward the terms “hidden” and “frontier” as monikers describing groups that did not have an indigenous church capable of evangelizing their own peoples.  Then in 1978, Donald McGavran’s less useful Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) was an attempt to describe the clustering of people in a society based upon certain common characteristics.  These characteristics included geography, ethnicity, language, social position, and education, among others.  According to McGavran, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.”[2]  Not without its critics, HUP was eventually seen as too limiting in culturally and ethnically diverse areas. 

Eventually, in 1982, the Lausanne Strategy Work Group along with the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies gathered together in Chicago to focus on defining terms that would be helpful in completing the task of the Great Commission.  Among the various terms, two emerged to be helpful for our discussion: People Groups and Unreached People.

People Group is “a significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste, situation, etc., or combination of these.”  For evangelistic purposes it is “the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

An Unreached People Group is “a people group within which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to evangelize this people group.”[3]

Focusing on understanding people groups, Winter and Koch developed a more elaborate nomenclature; having divided people into various approaches to reaching and understanding them: Cultural Blocs, Unimax People, Socio People, and Ethno-linguistic People.[4]  Each people group category holds particular use depending on the type of ministry one engages. 

Types of PeoplesMajor Cultural BlocsEthnolinguistic PeoplesSocio-peoplesUnimax Peoples
CompositionBroad categories of people groupsOften a cluster of unimax groupsAn association of peersNetworks of families with a shared identity
What Defines GroupReligious-cultural spheresLinguistic, ethnic & political boundariesActivities or interestsSocial and cultural prejudices
How IdentifiedAvailable published dataAvailable published dataDiscovered on siteDiscovered on site
Strategic SignificanceGlobal overviewMobilization and strategySmall group evangelismChurch planting
Quantity7 major cultural blocsApprox. 4,500 “least reached”Number unknownEst. 8,000 “unreached”

Table 2: Four Approaches to People Group Thinking[5]

An ostensibly arbitrary decision was made in the 1995 to further define unreached people groups as those populations where Christianity represented less than five percent of the population and less than two percent evangelical.[6]  Some have suggested that two percent represents a tipping point for when a culture is considered reached.[7]  However, sociologists studying social movements have demonstrated that movements occur when 10 percent of a population has an unshakeable belief.  Boleslaw Szymanski comments, “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas.  It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.”[8]  If the criterion for determining unreached remains at two percent, then we can expect to see a further regression of Christianity around the world.  Missiologists should seriously reconsider the arbitrary decision of two percent as indicative of an unreached people group.[9]

Most recently, missiologists and practitioners have been utilizing Unengaged Unreached People Groups (UUPG) as a descriptor of those distinct ethnic population that currently have not been contacted by any evangelization effort.  “Unengaged” is used as an adjective describing more graphically the fact that there have been no attempts to contact a particular unreached people groups.  In fact, in light of the Great Commission, it is fair to say that God has been waiting for more than 2,000 years for someone to recognize the opportunity and join with Him to take the gospel to where it has never been

In today’s world, there are 196 nations depending on how you divide a couple of countries. According to the Joshua Project, there are more than 16,300 cultural-ethno-linguistic people distinct in religion, caste, and/or culture (Joshua Project n.d.). These 16,300 are sometimes double counted because one people group could be in two or more countries. Taking this into consideration, the Joshua Project estimates that there are 9,800 distinct people groups in the world today. At least 1,300 of these groups are considered unengaged by any attempt to reach them with the gospel and 7,000 are unreached. There are more than 3 billion people today who live without access to the message of Jesus Christ.

Michael T. Cooper is Missiologist in Residence at East West and teaches at Kairos University, Mission India Theological Seminary, Nepal Ebenezer Bible College, Asia Graduate School of Theology, and Torch Trinity Graduate University. You can contact him at michael@ephesiology.com 


[1]Samuel Wilson, “Peoples, People Groups,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, eds. Scott Moreau, et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 744-746.

[2]Lausanne Occasional Paper 1, “The Pasadena Consultation: Homogeneous Unit Principle” (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978).

[3] Ralph W. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 536.

[4]Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 531-546.

[5]Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 531-546.

[6]Joshua Project, “Why Include Professing Christians When Defining Unreached,” available from https://joshuaproject.net/resources/articles/why_include_adherents_when_defining_unreached. Accessed 20 November 2017.

[7]Global Frontier Missions, “Unreached People Groups,” available from http://globalfrontiermissions.org/gfm-101-missions-course/the-unreached-peoples-and-their-role-in-the-great-commission/.  Accessed 20 November 2017.

[8]RPI News, “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover the Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” July 25, 2011.  Available from https://news.rpi.edu/luwakkey/2902.  Accessed 19 November 2017.  See the full study J. Xie, et al., “Social Consensus Through the Influence of Committed Minorities,” Physical Review E 84, 011130 (2011):1-8.

[9]Robin Dale Hadaway, “A Course Correction in Missions: Rethinking the Two-Percent Threshold,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 57, No. 1 (2014): 17-28.

Blog excerpted from “Toward a Biblical Understanding of Finishing the Task,” Global Missiology (January 2018)

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