Mission and Anthropology

There are a number of deeply held views and assumptions about cross-cultural mission which don’t always stack up. This post reflects on some of these (again).

Over at Mission Misunderstood, Ernest Goodman has written a superb article entitled the anthropological approach to missions. Now would be a good time to read it, partly because it is an important piece of work, but also because this post won’t make much sense if you don’t.

There are three things that I’d like to highlight from this post; the need for a biblically informed missiology, the issue of people groups and the problem of eschatology. These are all issues that have been raised more than once here at Kouya Chronicle, though, perhaps not as ably as at Missions Misunderstood.

Biblical Missiology

In a sense this is the background to Goodman’s whole article. As Goodman hints good deal of missiological thinking and practice is rooted in the social sciences, rather than in Scripture. Very often the key question asked in mission circles is whether something works or is effective, rather than whether or not it is biblical.

There is, of course, a place for scientific thinking in mission work, but it must be subordinated to biblical thinking and reflection. In one of his books, David Smith points out the interesting paradox that it is those Christian churches and organisations that make the most of their reliance on the Bible who are the most likely to turn to social sciences to inform their mission work.

It is striking that in the comments on Goodman’s article, the only person who disagrees cites no serious Scriptural grounds for his disagreement. One of the underlying problems is that mission leaders tend to be practical souls and often do not have a thorough grounding in theology or biblical studies. Equally, theologians are often isolated from the burly-burly of cross-cultural mission. There is a desperate need for a new generation of missionary-theologians.

People Groups

In a sense, the next two points are illustrations of the first one. Goodman demonstrates that the concept of people groups, as used in much mission literature, doesn’t quite fit with the observed situation around the world and, more importantly, does not fit the biblical record;

While ethnography is helpful to us in missions, it is not strictly biblical. Jesus never mentions the idea of unreached people groups; His emphasis was on those who believed and those who did not. In Acts 1:8, without any mention of ethnolinguistic groups, Jesus further commissions His disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Paul seems to have only two missiological categories for people groups: Jews and Gentiles. This was the radical shift in the New Testament concerning the recipients of the gospel: Christ is the only salvation for people of any ethnicity. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the New Testament authors displayed any anthropological savvy in their missiology.

So what about all the mentions of “nations” (ethnos) in the scriptures? You only get “ethnolinguistic people groups” if you’re very selective. It’s true that the Great Commission sends us to make disciples of “all nations,” but that same term is used elsewhere to mean something other than ethnolinguistic people groups. In the Pentecost account in Acts 2, Luke writes that “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation (ethne) under heaven.” If he actually meant that there were Jews and devout people from every people group, well then the “task” of “reaching” them was accomplished in the first century. If instead he means only that Jerusalem was quite diverse at the time, it presents a problem for this particular understanding of the word.

Of course, there is a value in noting where the Gospel has not been preached, and Bible translators have a special need to be aware of groups who have no Scriptures available to them. However, we have to avoid a simplistic approach which treats people groups a binary items on a checklist. The biblical (and anthropological) picture is not quite so simple.


There’s even a dangerous heresy that springs out of the people group thinking interpretation of Matthew 24:14. Some have come to assert that Christ will not return, indeed cannot come back until this task of reaching every unreached people group is completed. Some have even taken to using this as a motivation for missions- that Jesus is just waiting in the wings, unable to return until we finish the job. This, of course, contradicts verse 36 of that same passage, where Jesus says that no one- not even the Son of Man, knows when He will return.

There are a number of reasons which lie behind this particular misreading of Matthew and, certainly, The issue of anthropology is one of them. The notion that Jesus, a first century Galilean, talking to other first century Galileans, was using terms in the same way as twentieth century anthropologists is stretching credulity a little too far. But once again this highlights the need for good biblical understanding to undergird our missionary strategy.

This particular issue can engender a short term approach to mission thinking that concentrates on listing which people groups are reached (or have some translated Scripture) rather than thinking about our long term call to make disciples (or translate the whole Bible.

However, the greatest danger of an anthropological approach to mission (as it is with other managerial approaches is that it places humanity, and not God at the centre of things.

The greatest danger in the anthropological approach is that it has made missions a problem to be solved rather than our very identity in Christ. Francis Dubose, who coined the word missional, wrote that God is a sending God. We are a sent people. As Christopher Wright reminds us in his book, The Mission of God, the Father was sending long before He sent the Son. It’s His nature. And ours, as His people, is to be sent. There’s no other way to be a follower of Jesus.

So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!) because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.

This is the first long blog post that I have written on my iPad. The process has beebread much les smooth than it would have been on my laptop and I apologise if this is reflected in the way tis has turned out.

12 thoughts on “Mission and Anthropology

  1. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but I think at least some of the “let’s bring all people to Christ so He can come back soon” line of thinking has to do with a lack of dependence on God’s power to do way beyond what we can do.

    There is a balance between our responsibility on this earth and God’s. When I see Jesus face to face, maybe He will tell me just where the line was between the two.

  2. The “every” in “men from every nation (ethne) under heaven” is hyperbole. Therefore, it says nothing about whether ethne means ethnolinguistic groups in that verse.

    In Matthew 24:14, the common interpretation poses no problem because the text does not say “then IMMEDIATELY the end will come”. Besides, even if this verse does not refer to ethnolinguistic groups it still gives the idea that there is something that will happen (I don’t like the MUST happen) before the end comes which is no different than “rumors of wars” and other things Jesus talks about as signs of the end. I do agree that the image of Jesus waiting in the wings for us to do something is way off the mark.

    There is a danger that we read back into the text our current understanding of “ethnoliguistic group” or assume the the biblical writers were using the term with the precision of an academic technical term. Instead, we need to understand it in the world of the day when the term was used. In that day what we now call a “nation” really did not exist.Whatever ethne means, it is not the meaning of the modern English word nation expect in the rare cases where it is used like “Cherokee nation”. There were city states, empires and ethne – groupings of people with a common identity based on a common heritage, a common language, and/or a common religion.

  3. I agree with you Paul, but there are a number of other issues as to why people misread this verse. Ed Lauber highlights one of them. He rightly warns against reading a modern definition of nation back into the text and then reads a modern interpretation of “the end” into it. There is no time to unpack the whole context of the Olivet discourse here, but I don’t believe that, in context, Jesus was referring to his return to the earth. I believe that to be just as anachronistic as believing he was talking about a modern conception of ethne.

  4. Thanks Eddie. How do you reconcile your thoughts here with Vision 2025?

  5. I like the general sense of your comment that there is a danger that we “engender a short term approach to mission thinking that concentrates on listing which people groups are reached (or have some translated Scripture) rather than thinking about our long term call to make disciples (or translate the whole Bible.” Mission is never done in the same way that education, public safety, etc. are never done.

    But let me disagree that it is an understanding of sociolingusitic groups that results in the “check that one off the list” mentality. I believe that it is the short-term, results-oriented, fix-the-problem-and-move-on bent of Western culture that does that. Therefore, whatever terminology or method we use, some Christians in the culture will figure out a way to bend it until they find a way to turn it into “check that one off the list”. It is just that it is pretty darn easy to get “check-that-one-off-the-list” from sociolinguistic groups.

    1. I agree with every word, Ed! In the context of this post, I was looking at the issue of socio-linguistic terminology, but as you say, this is far from the whole story.

  6. I think I’m the only one who disagreed with him, and it wasn’t a complete disagreement. I agree that we ought to be part of missions as part of our identity – in fact, I’m writing and tweeting about this in the vein of “let’s recruit to the community, not the role” – but I don’t want to see us lose sight of engaging the task. (Which Goodman has agreed with me on.) I did cite Scripture, but I did it at http://www.justinlong.org/2011/06/god-wants-it-done/ and a bit further in response here: http://www.justinlong.org/2011/08/god-wants-it-done-revisited-missions-is-a-task/.

  7. Hi Justin, I read both of your articles before I made my comments. Your first article, which does have some enagement with Scripture, was not a response to Goodman as it was written before his piece (and doesn’t really say anything different to him anyway).

    The second one, where you do engage with Goodman, quotes Scripture and draws conclusions from it which do not take into account the historic or cultural setting of the original discourse. It is for this reason that I said that there was no ‘serious’ citing of Scripture. As I said in response to Ed Lauber, above, to read modern ideas of the second coming into the Olivet discourse is anachronistic at best.

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