The 3 Words That Changed Missions Strategy—and Why We Might Be Wrong

The tragic result of overemphasizing “unreached people groups” is that resources have been redirected away from places no longer deemed strategic.

Unreached people groups.

You may have heard of them. In 1974, the strategy of nearly every mission organization in the West changed over three Greek words—panta ta ethne. They’re found most famously in Matthew 24:14 and 28:19:

And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations (pasin tois ethnesin), and then the end will come.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (panta ta ethne), baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

At the Lausanne Conference in 1974, Ralph Winter and Donald MacGavern introduced the term “hidden peoples.” Winter estimated there were more than 16,000 hidden peoples (he’d later say 17,000) walled off by linguistic and cultural barriers to missionary work. He challenged those in attendance to think of the world not in terms of countries, but rather thousands of unique ethnicities, called “people groups.” Winter would eventually write:

By the phrase “all the nations,” Jesus was not referring at all to countries or nation-states. The wording he chose (the Greek word ethne) instead points to the ethnicities, the languages, and the extended families which constitute the peoples of the earth.

And so the modern missions movement was transformed. More recently, the ministries of men like John Piper and David Platt have emphasized the need to bring the gospel to unreached peoples, appealing in part to panta ta ethne for theological grounding. The subsequent strategic primacy of reaching every ethnolinguistic people group now shapes evangelicalism’s global missionary enterprise.

Along with that understanding comes the common expectation that all (as in, each and every) of these groups will be reached with the gospel (in some manner) before the final day. Such an expectation has produced a unique missionary mandate to “finish the task” by identifying each ethnolinguistic people group and taking the gospel to them. In this interpretation, the church is often said to either usher in the kingdom or at least remove this final obstacle before Christ’s return. This understanding has also prompted the need to define when a people group is reached. A recent article in Christianity Today highlighted some of the implications of this approach for the work of many missions organizations.

We believe the theological grounding for this prevailing interpretation of panta ta ethne is unsubstantiated.

Biblically Inconsistent

The most significant issue with defining panta ta ethne as “ethnolinguistic people groups” is simple: to do so adopts a modern anthropological definition over a biblical-theological one. Fifty years ago, missiologists like MacGavern and Winter rightly reacted to a purely geographic and nationalistic understanding of ethne. The problem is, they swapped that definition for a modern, socio-scientific one.

Defining panta ta ethne as ‘ethnolinguistic people groups’ adopts a modern anthropological definition over a biblical-theological one.

While the authors of Scripture could conceive of nations in geographic, cultural, or linguistic categories, we believe they weren’t first and foremost thinking of ethne in terms of a 20th-century designation of either nation-states or people groups. Instead, the first-century Jewish followers of Jesus would have operated primarily with a biblical-theological understanding of ethne, derived from Scripture itself.

When Jesus spoke of the nations, his Jewish hearers would have understood him to be referring to the pagan nations surrounding Israel. Of course, first-century Jews and their contemporaries were capable of making distinctions along sociological and geo-political lines. But to a Jew, the ethne were first a religious category. They were most basically the non-Jewish peoples of the world, separated from God and strangers to his promise (Eph. 2:11–12; see Mark 11:17 where pasin tois ethnesin [“all the nations”] are non-Jews). When Jesus said his gospel was for the ethne, he wasn’t primarily addressing linguistic or socio-scientific demographics. The phrase was deeply biblical; it hearkened back to Old Testament categories and expectations for the Gentiles (see Isa. 66:18–19).

During his ministry, according to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus promised that many foreigners would be welcomed into his kingdom and join in Abraham’s inheritance (Matt. 8:11). For some of his Jewish listeners, this was scandalous. But it demonstrates Jesus’s understanding that the promises to Abraham were being fulfilled in his ministry. Paul later affirmed the same. God’s covenant with Abraham—that all the nations (panta ta ethne in Gal. 3:8; cf. Gen. 12:3) would be blessed in him—was fulfilled as God justified the Gentiles through their faith in Jesus.

The burden of proof lies with those who would suggest that Jesus or the apostles intended panta ta ethne to be generally understood as each and every ethnolinguistic people group that has ever or will ever exist.

It seems likely, then, that Matthew’s record of Jesus’s promise (24:14) and commission (28:19) concerning all the nations would’ve had the Abrahamic covenant as its primary referent. More could be said about Old Testament expectations for the ethne in the prophetic writings, especially Isaiah. But the initial promise to Abraham, including the preceding table of nations, provides the biblical-theological backdrop for Jesus’s words about panta ta ethne. In fact, there are good reasons to see a literary connection between the table of nations in Genesis (10–11) and the peoples present at Pentecost—the event that reversed Babel’s curse and brought blessing to all nations (Acts 2:1–11).

Luke’s record of the Pentecost event reveals another problematic element in the prevailing interpretation of panta ta ethne. Acts tells us there were Jews in Jerusalem from every nation (pantos ethnous) under heaven (Acts 2:5). Such universal language (from Luke, the careful physician) underscores the difference between our modern definition and the biblical record. We know each and every nation wasn’t represented in Jerusalem that day. But while writing truthfully, the biblical authors weren’t necessarily writing with scientific specificity. They could employ hyperbole. Similarly, Paul later reports that the gospel had been preached to every creature under heaven (Col. 1:23). And he concludes his final letter to Timothy by reflecting on how God worked through him so that all nations (panta ta ethne) might hear his message (2 Tim. 4:17).

More could be said, but these realities demonstrate the potential pitfalls of over-reading Scripture when we impose scientific precision and anthropological definitions on biblical terminology. The burden of proof lies with those who would suggest that Jesus or the apostles intended panta ta ethne to be generally understood as each and every ethnolinguistic people group that has or will ever exist.

Practically Impossible

Practically, there is another glaring reason why we shouldn’t take Jesus’s words about panta ta ethne to refer to each and every people group: many ethnolinguistic groups have already gone extinct, some long before the gospel reached them. In other words, under the current prevailing definition of panta ta ethne, fulfilling Matthew 24:14 is literally impossible.

Some have acknowledged this point and argued that babies who die before they could decide to follow Christ will be saved and represent unreached groups. That of course would mean all groups are now represented in heaven, defeating the purpose of finishing the task. Others suggest that angelic proclamation will be the means God uses to evangelize all peoples (Rev. 14:6). That would also undercut missionary motivation. Still others have argued that Matthew 24:14 must be limited to all peoples in existence at the consummation of the age. But that argument seems to be a stretch.

We could offer other conundrums. What about tongues heard in the first century that no longer exist? Or newer languages now that didn’t exist then? And do we also need to account for changes in language over time—will both medieval English and modern English have to be represented to make the every-tongue-before-the-throne vision true? And will ethnic groups who self-identify as distinct but speak the same language be counted once or twice? You see the complicating factors. And these issues account for why virtually every mission agency and research group still disagrees on how to define and count the world’s people groups. But these problems can all be resolved by looking at panta ta ethne with biblical-theological eyes.

Missionally Important

Is it necessary to take the gospel to the nations? Yes! Is it important to try to break into areas where the gospel has never been proclaimed? Yes! Must Christians own the responsibility to go and to send? Yes! Is it ever appropriate to think of the ethne in terms of geographic or ethnolinguistic categories? Absolutely! In fact, the apostles themselves could consider nations (Spain) or people groups (Scythians) in their efforts to take the gospel to all the world. So should we.

With all the emphasis on people groups over the last 50 years, however, we’ve made a course correction at the expense of our mission. Specifically, the focus hasn’t been on making disciples of all nations (evangelizing, baptizing, teaching, establishing churches, and training leaders) but instead on finishing the task (i.e., getting the gospel to every last people group). Matthew 28 has been usurped by Matthew 24.

With all the emphasis on people groups over the last 50 years, we have made a course correction at the expense of our mission. The focus has not been on making disciples of all nations but instead on finishing the task.

And the results? Material and personnel resources have been redirected out of areas no longer deemed strategic. “Reached” nations have been abandoned, along with their seminaries. The hard and messy work of raising up competent leaders has fallen to the wayside. Missions research now centers around identifying and categorizing groups of people. Missions reporting now emphasizes evangelism, and our methods focus on speed. An approach of rapid church multiplication has advanced, dominating Western mission practice and diluting the global church.

All of this is no doubt pursued with good intentions, desiring to “reach the unreached.” But sadly, our disregard for certain mission fields has left open the possibility that a people group, once being designated as reached, could revert to unreached status. In our efforts to finish the task, we have to ask ourselves if we’ve been faithful to fulfill the original mandate.

What’s the Point?

We’re completely in favor of the work of reaching unreached peoples. In many ways, the correction of MacGavern and Winter was necessary and helpful. The people who’ve given their lives and ministries to engage unreached peoples deserve honor. We’re also not opposed to employing anthropology as a tool for mission work and research. It can be a great weapon to use against our enemy.

But the point is that we need to align the way we talk about the world and its peoples with how Scripture speaks of them. We should define our missionary expectations by the Bible, not going beyond what it has said. And we must ground our endeavors and formulate strategies in ways primarily driven by God’s Word. This involves sending missionaries to places where the gospel has never been heard. But it can also include encouraging them to stay long after churches are established.

The Great Commission isn’t fulfilled, and our task isn’t finished when we’ve identified every single ethnolinguistic people group and merely exposed them to the gospel. We’re called to more. Jesus sends us to make disciples of panta ta ethne, teaching them to obey everything he commanded.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 11, 2019 on The Gospel Coalition. Used with permission. Read a response to this article from a different perspective here.