Mission and Holy Week

So, you want to be a missionary?

There can be glory in being a missionary. People sometimes want to put you on a pedestal and you might be tempted to let them. You can write exciting prayer letters and people will be amazed at what you have achieved.

But we follow in the steps of one who rode on a donkey, not on the finest Arab stallion. 

There is money involved in being a missionary. You might have to raise funds for your own work or perhaps for some project that you are associated with. Perhaps you tell people that without money, God’s work cannot go ahead.

But we follow in the steps of one who overturned the tables of the money changers and called for his Father’s house to be a place of prayer.

There can be power in being a missionary. You may have a nice title and, if you come from the rich part of the world, people may well defer to you and treat you like an expert – and you might believe that you deserve that.

But we follow in the steps of one who stopped down to wash and dry the dirty feet of his disciples – even the one whom he knew would betray him. 

Sending, Mission, The Trinity and Us

There is nothing quite so simultaneously frustrating and encouraging as reading a paper or article that says things that you have been teaching for years, but says them much more clearly than you ever could.

I had a strong case of these mixed emotions when I read Graham Tomlin‘s excellent paper Mission, Evangelism and The Nature of God. Because you will need to subscribe to academia.edu in order to read the paper, I’ll attempt to give a brief outline below.

Tomlin kicks off by retreading familiar ground pointing out that though the term mission does not occur frequently in most English Bible translations, its root lies in the notion of sending, which does occur a great deal.

In John’s gospel, there are three movements of ‘sending’. The first is the sending of the Son. Repeatedly, Jesus refers to the Father as the one who sent him. God is “the one who sent me” (1.33), he is himself “the one whom God has sent” (3.34). He describes his task as to “ do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” (4.34) and  so on…

The second movement of sending is the sending of the Holy Spirit. John 14.26 speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name.”

He then briefly explores the notions of sending, begetting and proceeding  in Trinitarian theology (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds). This allows him to root mission in the eternal life of the Trinity.

Theologically speaking, mission begins with the begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit from the Father. It starts with the Trinitarian life of God before it ever involves the creation, let alone the human part of that creation. We have discovered a doctrine of mission and so far, humanity has not even come into the picture. There is at the very heart of God this movement outwards, the eternal begetting of the Son, and the eternal procession of the Spirit which issues in the sending of Son and Spirit into the world. This is not a secondary activity of God but is part of his very being, and it further enables us to say in the fullest sense that God is truly Love.

From here, Tomlin demonstrates that it is the Trinity which allows us to talk about God being love in an eternal sense. If God were not Trinity, he could not love until he had created an object for his love. This is something that I’ve mentioned on this blog from time to time and which anyone who has heard me lecture on mission will be well aware of.

It is this love which leads to God’s mission:

Love of course, is closely associated to mission. The movement outwards that we see in the eternal begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit is his love; it is also carried on into the sending of the Son and Spirit into the world. It is part of the same impulse, an expression of the divine nature. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes inhim shall not perish but have eternal life” is not a secondary activity of God, a subsequent thought or action that he resolves to put into place once the world has gone wrong: it is an expression of the very nature and inner being of God himself…

From here, we move onto the way in which God sends the church out into the world.

There is however a third movement of ‘sending’ in John’s gospel, one which is different from, but related to the other two: the sending of the church. As Jesus speaks to his Father, he prays: “as you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (17.18), and at the end of the gospel heannounces to his disciples: “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (20.21).

The next step is to show the way in which the sending of the church is distinct to the way in which the the Son and Spirit are sent into the world, before setting out the nature of the mission of the church.

Why then is the church sent into the world, according to John’s gospel? The simple answer is to bear witness to this missionary God who sends Son and Spirit, reaching out to his creation, rescuing and winning it back to himself.

This paragraph is extremely important. Our mission is to bear witness to God’s work, not to do it for him. Far too much missionary publicity and literature misses this point and seems to imply that God needs us to do some things because he can’t do them himself. Tomlin continues.

Now it is important to understand precisely the role of the church here. The church is not a ‘continuation of the Incarnation’ or called in any way to complete the unfinished work of Christ. In the most important sense, the work of Christ is complete (John 19.3). In another sense, Christ’s work is unfinished, in that the world is not yet fully redeemed, but that is the work of God through Christ in the Spirit. The church’s  task is to bear witness to the God who created the world through Christ(1.3), redeemed the world through Christ (3.17), and who will bring it to completion through the Spirit.

He then goes on to suggest three ways in which the church can bear witness to this creator, redeemer God; Uniting (building communities), Demonstrating (doing work like Jesus’ work) and Telling (proclaiming the Good News). To my mind, this last section is the weakest one in the paper. It’s not that I can argue with the importance of Uniting, Demonstrating and Telling, I’ve argued for all of these quite recently – and often on the basis of similar thoughts as Tomlin’s.

However, I believe that by digging straight into the ‘what should we do’ sort of question, Tomlin has missed a prophetic, counter-cultural message within the passages he has examined. I would argue that John 20:21 talks about the manner in which the Father sent Jesus, not so much about the things which Jesus came to do. I wrote about this years ago:

God sent Jesus in humility, to serve and finally to sacrifice himself. Likewise, we should expect humility, service and sacrifice to be part of our lives as He sends us out. This sits very uneasily with some of the quasi-military rhetoric about marching and capturing and so on which is part of the current church scene. Our call is to be humble servants, not conquering heroes (and churches need to be prepared to support humble servants and not expect every prayer letter to be full of success stories).

If you want to see more of my thinking on this, you could read my ebook on the Great Commission; the links are in the sidebar.

Despite my slight quibble with the application, this is a superb paper. I just wish I had written it.

Church Mission Noticeboard Checklist

One of the nice things about my job is that I get to visit lots of different churches. Generally, I aim to turn up well in advance of the meeting or service that I am attending and this gives me an opportunity to have a look around the church. If I were an architect, I’d no doubt use my time to study the building itself and if I were a health and safety person, I’d look for the prominently displayed certificate, but I’m a missionary and the first thing I gravitate to is the church mission noticeboard.

Most churches have some sort of noticeboard which they use to promote interest in the mission activities they support. The way these noticeboards are laid out follows a general pattern, there is usually a world map showing where people work, photographs of the workers and copies of prayer letters to inspire people to take an interest. Sometimes the boards are artistic, other times they are purely functional and sometimes they are desperately out of date (especially the photographs!).

However, I’d like to make three suggestions of things that I think should be obligatory on every Church mission notice board.

  1. Evidence of some interest in overseas/cross-cultural mission. It isn’t enough to have church members working in other parts of the UK doing good things with other churches, youth, the poor or whatever. These things are all good, but we have a call to go to the whole world, not just to our own country.
  2. Interest in promoting the Bible. If we take the Bible seriously as a revealed text from God, we will want to promote it’s translation, distribution and use. There are hundreds of millions of people who don’t have a single word of Scripture available to them in their mother tongue. Yes, I would like people to support Wycliffe, but the most important thing is that we support the spread of God’s Word.
  3. An indication that the church is doing something to take the message of Christ to people who have not yet heard about him. I talk a lot here about the spread of the Church around the world, but there are still billions of people who have no opportunity to hear about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Meanwhile 85% of Christian workers worldwide are working to sustain the Church, rather than to reach outside of its boundaries. This is something which should motivate every church in the country!

There are all sorts of things which fall under the rubric of mission; care for the poor, providing water, fighting injustice and so on; these are all good and necessary. However, if a church is not involved in spreading the Gospel beyond these shores, especially in places where people have not heard about Jesus and is not doing something to promote the spread and use of the Bible, it is not fulfilling its calling as a community of Christians.

By the way, this doesn’t necessarily mean sending or supporting missionaries; there are many ways in which a church can get involved in work across the globe.

Have a look at your church noticeboard this weekend and see how it lines up against my suggestions. You might want to have a word with someone, if it doesn’t.

I am aware that some churches are too small to get meaningfully involved in a range of mission activities, but even then I suggest that they should prioritise one of the three areas I’ve mentioned above, rather than some of the other, more fashionable, causes. 

Service, Justice, Proclamation and Balance

BurkinaladyA couple of days ago, I tweeted this:

This seemed straightforward enough to me, but a wee while later I received the following response:

if you read Luke 4, 18-19 I am not sure where the big difference lies.

I found this statement rather frustrating. Partly because the verses cited (much less the wide sweep of Scripture) don’t support the point my correspondent was making, but mainly because it reflects what seems to me to be messy thinking about the Church’s mission.

Let me be clear, I believe that mission involves both social action and proclamation of the message of Christ. I’ve blogged on the Five Marks of Mission, which spell this out and I’ve gone into some length as to why I believe in the social development side of the work that my organisation does. You can’t proclaim the message of Christ without serving people, but service without proclamation is equally short-sighted. So, if works of service, struggling for justice and proclamation are all important, why distinguish between them? Why not just agree with my twitter correspondent that there isn’t a big difference?

The point is balance. In my experience in mission, evangelicals have rarely held the different aspects of mission in an appropriate tension. There was a time when any sort of works of service were dismissed as ‘social Gospel’ and the only sort of mission that was regarded as legitimate was proclamation. Today, I fear that we have gone in the opposite direction and prioritised service and justice ministries at the expense of telling people about the Good News of Jesus. We need to distinguish between the two so that we look at what we are doing and to ensure that our mission has an appropriate balance.

I’ll return to this theme in the next day or two.

Some Thoughts About Missionaries

Missionaries were part of the wallpaper of my childhood. From time to time there would be a strange adult at our week night supper table and I would be introduced to Miss X who was a missionary in some far flung country. These missionaries seemed to be a harmless enough bunch of people, a little dull and strangely dressed, perhaps, but they were unlikely to cause any problems. However, it was clear from my mother’s reaction that I was supposed to regard these slightly dishevelled people with a great deal of awe and admiration. They were missionaries, labourers in God’s harvest and I should feel privileged that they were clearing up the dessert before I could have seconds!

Over the years, I met a large number of these people. They would regularly turn up at Church youth group or University CU meetings to tell us tales of derring-do on the mission field.

Missionary talks were predictable: their slide set would always end up with a sunset and at some point in the talk they would say, ‘ I may be a missionary, but I’m an ordinary person, just like you’ (at which point everyone in the room would think ‘you are fooling no one but yourself’).

In my experience missionaries were a little eccentric, but like the earth in the Hitchhikers Guide, they were “mostly harmless”. I was of course, aware that there were other ways of looking at missionaries. They were rapacious neo-colonialists who destroyed cultures and bribed people to adopt a foreign religion.

The song Missionary Man by the Eurhythmics captures this nicely.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3baOdzHyLno

To be honest, I was never quite sure how this image of the colonial oppressor tied up with the rather mild mannered missionaries who had eaten my mother’s Yorkshire pudding, but the image was there..

It is very easy to find fault with the Western Missionary movement of the last 200 years. However, we should recognize that by and large it was a success. The phenomenal growth of the worldwide Church over the past hundred years or so can be traced, in part at least, to the pioneering work of missionaries from the Western world. That being said, I don’t want to appear to remove God from the throne. It is His mission and He is the one responsible for the growth of the Church around the world. Equally, I think it is important that we recognise that much of the most spectacular growth of the Church (for example in China since 1948) has happened in a post-missionary setting. However, whichever way we look at things, the missionary movement has been, under God, a significant factor in the growth of the Church around the world, and in that sense, if no other, is a success story

This is the introduction to a paper entitled “The Modern Missionary Movement, Was it All Bad“, which I presented at a conference a few years back. I go on to discuss some of my own experiences and what can be learned from them. This is then followed by responses from various other people. You might find it all rather interesting.

The Cross and Mission Financing

At one level, the question of financing world mission seems dead simple. People in the rich world give money and those in the developing world benefit from it. No problem.

If only it were that simple.

I’ve dipped into this question numerous times over the years, but I recently had an epiphany that helped me rethink some of the issues. Firstly, what are some of the issues that make this question so thorny?

  • The first problem is that a continual drip-feed of finance from the rich world can breed an unhealthy dependency, by discouraging local generosity and initiative.
  • It can make the recipients feel as if they have nothing to contribute to the work they are doing.
  • The other side of the coin is that it can develop an unhealthy sense of power among the donors. It is depressing to see how many Christian fund raising videos and such highlight the way in which Westerners have changed the destiny of a village or people group through their gifts.
  • When funds come from outside, they are often used to meet the goals of the donors and agencies, which may or may not line up with the goals of the local community.

I could go on. In an unequal world, problems like these are part and parcel of the world of mission and development; we all struggle with them. That being said, this doesn’t obviate the Christian responsibility of rich people to be generous to those who are not so well off.

The only way to work through these issues is through open and honest dialogue. However, my experience has been that these dialogues are often pragmatic – what should we do. Recently, I found myself wondering whether we shouldn’t take a step back and begin our dialogue at the Cross; where he who was ‘rich beyond all splendour, all for loves sake, became poor’. Would reflection on the cross and the call for all of us to lay down our lives change the way we reflect on these questions?

I’d love to see it happen.

God at Work in the World and Our Place

This Sunday evening it was great to be back at Above Bar Church to take part in their series on discipleship. Not surprisingly, I was speaking on the theme of Disciples of All Nations.

The session seemed to be well received, though the person taking this photograph obviously preferred to stay in the lounge rather than come in and listen!

If you would like to listen, you can use the little player thing below and you can even view my powerpoint slides as a handy pdf document if you wish.

It’s Not All Black and White

Why do Christians easily fall into an ‘either/or’ mentality, rather than a ‘both/and’ one?

I don’t have any solutions, but I just thought I’d air a little frustration. For reasons I can’t fathom, many Christians act as though things are mutually incompatible, when they are actually two sides of the same (often multi-sided) coin. In the area of mission we see false dichotomies created between proclamation of the Gospel and works of service as if Jesus didn’t tell us to do both. You get competition between mission at home and cross-cultural mission to the wider world and so the list goes on.

Another expression of the same theme is the way in which when someone suggests a new way of doing things, others will immediately take this as a rejection of everything that has gone before. A new approach doesn’t mean that the former ways were bad, just that things have moved on and we need to take a fresh look at what we are doing!

I don’t have any solutions, just the mild bemusement that people who live in hope of a eschatological Kingdom, find it so hard to reconcile different ideas in the here and now.

Seminaries, Bible Colleges and Mission

One of the recurring themes of this blog is that the world is changing rapidly and so the way in which we do mission needs to change to meet the new context. A corollary of this is that the way in which we train missionaries also needs to change. Rollin Grams has recently explored this question in an excellent and wide ranging post. I’m going to post a few extracts to give you a feel for what he says, but I do recommend that you read the full article.

Seminaries also focussed their mission studies departments in certain ways that one might question.  We might ask, ‘What is missiology?’  It is a discipline that will combine a variety of studies, but which ones, and with what emphasis?  In this paragraph alone I could make myself a target of not a few missiologists, so let me tread as lightly as I can.  First, let me say that a great variety of mission studies can be valuable to the Church.  Yet, second, I would like to suggest that most missionaries do not need to focus their studies on missiology—without at all implying that missiological studies are irrelevant.  The training of missionaries does not necessarily involve increasing the enrollment of students in degrees focussed on missiology.  This would be like teachers focusing their studies on education rather than what they are teaching.  If I am to become a mathematics teacher, I don’t need a whole degree in education so much as advanced study in mathematics itself, with several courses in teaching method to boot.  What is needed in missions is not experts in missiology but experts in Old Testament studies, New Testament studies, theology, Church history, and the particular ministerial fields such as evangelism, church planting, Christian education, and so forth.

I almost agree wholeheartedly with this. My only caveat is that those who are involved in cross-cultural mission of any type do need some background in the subject. Yes, maths teachers need to be experts in maths, but they also need to know how to teach. I may be splitting hairs here, but the point is an important one.

Mission studies in the seminary should, in my view, dominate the curriculum, but not at all in regard to its present course offerings.  It should dominate the curriculum in terms of focusing everyone on why the seminary itself exists: for the sake of fulfilling the mission of the Church until Christ returns.  … But what is needed is not more courses in missions but a missional focus in Old Testament, New Testament, theology, Church history, and ministerial studies. For example, I applaud recent interest among some Biblical scholars in missional emphases in Biblical studies, such as I. Howard Marshall, Chris Wright, Eckhard Schnabel, Andreas Köstenberger, P. T. O’Brien.

…Also, seminaries, like mission agencies, need to find a way not to have their mission dominated by the agendas of rich churches that take over the tasks of ministerial training and mission work.  This will require agencies working more closely with churches and both working with seminaries so that there is enough trust between them to be constructively critical of one another as well as to work together towards common goals.

…However, as any missionary will quickly say, ‘Please do not send students to America to study, and do not even send them to the UK or Europe.’  Why not?  First, study in the west often means immigration to the west.  Second, ministry training in the west can credential a person beyond his or her worth without the approval of wise elders in his or her own country. Indeed, ministerial education needs to be contextual: one needs to apply this or that text, this or that theological topic, or this or that discussion to a specific context.  Of what value is it for a national to learn this for a western context rather than his or her own context?

…There is ample room for the western seminary to be engaged with churches in foreign missions.  Indeed, greater seminary involvement would be very helpful in a number of ways, including in the formation of Christian identity and tradition.  Yet this does not mean getting more students into mission programs, training missionaries with only Masters Degrees in the west, bringing foreign students to study in the west, or offering full programs of study abroad apart from partnering with mission agencies and national educational programs.  A partnership between seminaries, churches, and mission agencies requires new thinking about costs and funding, a commitment to contextual theological education, and some further thinking about curricular implications for a missional focus of the seminary.  The strands of seminary, Church, and mission agency could be that much stronger were they braided together in a new vision for mission in our day.

I also appreciated this quote from Dana Robert which Grams included in his piece:

The context of globalization, including advanced communication technologies, has led to a massive democratization or deprofessionalization of mission work.  Short-term mission projects involving millions of people and millions of dollars, cross-cultural outreach from local congregations, proliferation of ‘global’ faith-based organizations (FBOs), and migration have become so extensive that the missionary is being redefined in North America.  What should be the trajectory for mission studies in an age when globe-trotting amateurs vastly outnumber career missionaries?

As I said at the outset, please do read the original article and add your comments there, or feel free to comment here if you wish.

The Best Books On Mission (Again)

This, dear reader, is the definitive list of the best books about world mission. In this case, “definitive” has a rather vague sense and basically means “until I get round to updating it”.

The Best Book On Mission

Without a doubt the best book on mission today is Kingdom Without Borders: The Untold Story of Global Christianity by Miriam Adeney. That being said, you’ll have to work pretty hard to find any mention of mission or missionaries within it’s pages. Essentially, it is a book about the world church, or if you like, a book which results from the the success of the 19th and 20th century world mission movement. From my point of view, this book should be compulsory reading for anyone in church or mission leadership. You cannot understand world mission today without taking into account the development of world Christianity (though some try) and, for my money, this is probably the best place to start.

Best Biblical Overview of Mission

Demonstrating regrettable indecisiveness and a failure to understand the meaning of the world “best”, I’m actually going to list three books in this category.

First, and most obviously, comes Chris Wright’s magnum opus; The mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. This book does what it says on the tin. Rather than starting with the normal mission texts, Wright starts with Genesis and demonstrates how mission is a key theme running through the whole of Scripture. He doesn’t present a Biblical basis for mission, but a missional basis for the Bible. The downside is that the book is long and heavy; not only will your mind be engaged, but reading it will develop your forearms too! If you are feeling lazy or can’t afford another big book, you can download a pdf of a booklet by Chris Wright which covers some of the same themes (but that would be cheating).

Covering similar ground to Wright’s book is Dean Flemming’s excellent Recovering the Full Mission of God: A Biblical Perspective on Being, Doing and Telling. Like Wright, Flemming works his way through the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation looking at the theme of mission. Flemming’s key thesis is to integrate character, action and proclamation into a holistic view of mission across the whole of the Bible. There is nothing new here, but it is excellently presented.

My final selection in this category is The Message of Mission (The Bible speaks today) by Peskett and Ramachandra. The Bible speaks today series are all excellent and this is no exception. Unlike the other two I’ve mentioned, this does not work through the whole of Scripture but expounds specific texts in order to illustrate various concepts and ideas in mission.

Best Overview of Current(ish) Mission Issues

There is no doubt that the best overview of (more or less) current mission issues is Global Missiology for the 21st Century. It is almost fifteen years old, so it isn’t entirely up to date, but it is very comprehensive and it has the wonderful advantage of being a free download. I really can’t conceive of any reason why you would not download it (well, perhaps you are on a very expensive internet connection).

The Best History of Mission

This one poses a bit of a problem. I’m sure that the best history of Christian mission is Kenneth Scott Latourette’s 24 volume work. However, unless you are a library, you are unlikely to want to give up enough shelf space or money to get hold of it. In which case, you might find a second-had copy of his one volume abridged history (still a weighty tome) but you might prefer to get hold of the Pelican History of Christian Missions by Stephen Neil. Sadly, it seems to be out of print at the moment, but I’m sure that the usual online-second hand book shops would find you a copy. You can’t have mine!

Best Book of Mission Praxis

There really is only one contender for this title: The Mission of God’s People: A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission (Biblical Theology for Life) by Chris Wright is absolutely excellent. In some ways it forms a companion volume to the Mission of God which I mentioned above, but it is much more accessible. Essentially, it is an overview of different activities which fall under the head of mission and an explanation of their biblical basis and a short exploration of how they can be carried out. It’s another one that needs to be on lots of peoples shelves.

The Best Overview of Mission Theology

There is no getting away from this, it has to be TRANSFORMING MISSION (American Society of Missiology). Bosch is the book! It gives an excellent overview of the development of mission thought historically and a broad canvas of where things are today. Some readers of Kouyant might object that it isn’t an Evangelical book, but I would actually argue that this is a part of its value. Much Evangelical mission theology seems to assume that nothing happened before William Carey, thus discarding three quarters of the life and history of the church. By adopting a broader sweep, Bosch allows us to learn from the thoughts (and mistakes) of others which we might be otherwise unaware of.

If you’ve read Bosch and are looking for something else, you might appreciate: Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (American Society of Missiology) or Comprehending Mission: The Questions, Methods, Themes, Problems, and prospects of Missiology (American Society of Missiology).

The Best Overview of the Great Commission

If you are looking for a short, readable and cheap overview of one of the key Bible passages relating to mission, you could do far worse than get The Great Commission for your Kindle. Then again, if you don’t have a Kindle or if you are really mean, you can get the same work for free here.

Closing Thoughts

This is a somewhat updated version of earlier posts on the best books in mission and missiology. It is undoubtedly as flawed as those earlier posts were, but I hope it will give you something to think about. Meanwhile, if you have suggestions of books I’ve missed, feel free to suggest them in the comments – even better, buy me a copy! If you think the whole list is hopeless, then this is probably a good time to start your own blog and make your own list!

People Groups: Why Bother? No, I Really Do Mean It!

You know what? I’m far from convinced that the idea of ethno-linguistic groups is a useful one for most Christian mission thinking. Before you call in the missio-heresy police, let me explain.

In a recent post on Mission in the 21st Century (which I unpicked here) Al Mohler made the following statement:

The new vision for world missions is directed toward the reaching of people groups rather than nations. Missiological focus upon the nation-state is a remnant of the nineteenth century, when nations were conceived as singular units and national identity was paramount. This paradigm was long out of date by the end of the twentieth century. Christians now recognize that there are thousands of distinct people groups, each identifiable by culture, language, and social structure–and they are not always divided neatly by political boundaries.

The problem for Dr. Mohler, is that the paradigm of people groups was running up against its “sell by date”  by the end of the twentieth century. He has discarded one long out of date paradigm to replace it with one that is (at best) on its last legs.

Firstly, the notion of people groups identifiable by culture, language and social structure is far too simplistic. You can’t divide people up this way any more than you can divide them into neat, homogeneous nation states. Let’s take a nice easy example, the Kouya of Ivory Coast; there are only about 14,000 of them, so things can’t be too complex, can they?

There are twelve or thirteen Kouya villages, but in three of them very few people speak Kouya; mostly they speak the neighbouring language, Gouro. Then around 10% of the Kouya population live away from the area in cities and towns where the linguistic and cultural situation is extremely complex – we will return to this. Even within this small group you can identify at least three language and culture groups. Things get even more complex if you try and classify bigger groups as having shared language, culture and structure. Sorry, it just doesn’t happen.

Singapore Sunset

Secondly, such homogeneity as  does exist is being eroded by urbanisation. Over 50% of the world’s population now live in cities where ethnic and linguistic identity is thoroughly up for grabs. I have Kouya friends who are married to people from other ethnic groups and who are bringing up their children as French speakers. The kids’ “mother tongue” is not actually the language of their mothers. This sort of thing happens over all the world; cities are melting pots where ethnic and linguistic identities are lost and redeveloped within generations. The classic case of this is the “melting pot” of the United States; it is strange therefore that it tends to be Americans who propagate the idea clearly defined ethnic groups.

OK. I realise that I have overstated my case somewhat. Despite the pressures that I have mentioned, it is still possible to identify a Kouya as a Kouya; at least in the rural areas. It’s also true that some ethnic groups manage to maintain a distinct identity despite living in a large, multicultural setting. That’s why I said this paradigm is near it’s “sell by date”, it hasn’t quite got there yet.

What does this mean for mission strategy? It seems to me clear that Bible translators will always need to have some sort of linguistic criteria to work with; but BIble translation is a fairly specialised – not to say unique – sort of mission work. It isn’t typical.

One of the sadder things that I come across in mission literature are the check lists of ‘unreached people groups’ (or UPGs). These purport to be lists of every ethno-linguistic group on the planet, with information on whether there is a Christian witness in those groups, often accompanied by the implication that when every box is ticked, Jesus will return. So what’s the problem?

  • As I showed above, the classification of the groups is blurry at best.
  • The information about which group has been “reached” is incomplete at best. I remember seeing one list which described a particular group as having ‘no Christian presence’ which was a surprise as Sue was working on Scripture translation with the local church at the time.
  • More importantly, by fixating on ‘ethno-linguistic’ groups, we are likely to miss the spontaneous urban “tribes” and new groupings which arise in different settings. Martin Lee of Global Connections wrote this:

I personally have a huge problem with how some people deal with the issue of unreached people groups and  the focus on ethnicity as if that is the only problem. Yes this is  important but middle class Buddhists in Japan have few Christians among them, middle class Hindus and Sikhs seem almost impossible to reach. We need something more nuanced now people are mixed up in an urbanised world. I leave in leafy Leamington Spa and we have one of the largest Sikh temples in Europe. Yet I personally have little contact with them. (read the whole presentation)

A paradigm which thinks only of “people groups” doesn’t deal with our rapidly changing, rapidly urbanising world. Sadly, there is a vast mission industry devoted to promoting this way of thinking. We need to break out of the box.

People Groups: Why Waste Our Time?


A few years ago a prominent British Christian leader (names withheld to protect the guilty) told me that he couldn’t take Wycliffe Bible Translators seriously because we wasted so much time translating the Bible for tiny little people groups.

I might just have ignored this as the ramblings of someone who didn’t know what they were talking about, but the person in question had just given the weekly missionary talk at a well known summer gathering.

So what was the problem with my friend’s statement?

Well, firstly, it was a rather ignorant caricature. We do work with some very small groups (the Kouya number not much over 10,000), but we also work with some groups of several millions.

However, and much more importantly, the person in question really hadn’t grasped the nature of God’s mission to the world.

  • It isn’t all about size and bang for the buck. Our culture values efficiency and making the best use of resources in order to have a maximum impact. Now these aren’t necessarily wrong, but the Kingdom of God is a place where the shepherd leaves 99 sheep in order to go and look for the one who is lost; it is the smallest of seeds or the little bit of yeast lost in the dough. Just because a people group is small doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t invest time and energy to bring them the good news. After all, many clergy in the UK invest their whole lives serving Churches of less than 100 people.
  • It is about all peoples. The Scriptures make it plain that we are to take the Gospel to every people group on the planet and that every tribe, tongue and nation will be represented before the throne of God. There is no get out clause that tells us that we don’t have to worry about tiny people groups hidden in the forests of PNG or the Amazon basin.

Of course we have to be wise in our use of resources; a balance has to be reached between our vocation to reach all people groups and the people and finance available to us. However, in the upside-down world of the Kingdom of God, we simply can’t say that some groups are too small to deserve our attention. Our God is a God who continually reaches out to people wherever they are; we, his people, can do no less.