Frequently posed complaints over people group theory

An old article, reposted because it was lost in the move between web servers but is still relevant. Slightly edited for grammar & the like. This is a long read on technical issues having to do with people group theory, and relates to an old article as well. Skim it or not, and after skimming it, read it only if it interests you. -J.

Following in the vein of E. Goodman and E. ArthurSimon Cozens, a missionary to Japan, has now written a long post entitled “Rethinking people groups.” He says it is essentially a rant in response to Paul Eshleman’s “truly extraordinary paper” for the Lausanne Global Conversation. He’s clearly very passionate on the subject. He makes a number of points which I’ve heard before, so I’ll address each in this as a kind of reference point for the future.

Before starting on specific points, let’s focus on a common misconception highlighted by Cozens’ section titles. With each, Cozens alleges “people group theory does not —x—”.

People group thinking is a broad collection of ideas. This collection is inanimate: it is not alive. Of itself, it cannot do anything. I might as well say people group thinking does not sit up straight or eat proper food. We know what Cozens means: that this body of thinking does not, in his view, encompass certain ideas or accomplish specific goals. But that allegation is hard to hold up.

Here’s why: there is a very wide range of theory, opinion, and application of people group theory by thinkers, strategists, leaders and administrators–people who think these thoughts, share them, and develop and implement strategies. Two other similar examples are creationism and eschatology. There are many views within those wide umbrellas, too. Creationism, for example, encompasses Young Earth, Old Earth, Intelligent Design, Theistic Evolution, and probably numerous other ideas I’m not familiar with as well. Eschatology encompasses pre-Trib, post-Trib, pre-Mill, post-Mill, a-Mill (and as one old pastor of mine used to say, pan-Mill: it will all pan out in the end). Each of these individual subdivisions of the broad theory tends to think of itself as the only legitimate theory—but in fact each has arguments (some strong, some weak) for it.

So to say people group theory as a whole is “—x—“ (and Cozens’ rant tends unfortunately to highlight caricatured extremes) is to do a vast disservice to the debate. Cozens unfortunately sets up straw men and torches them. So, I guess I’m wading into the debate in the defense of the straw.

1. “People group thinking is not biblically sound.”

1.1 “All” doesn’t mean “all”. 

I’m not being sarcastic. There are different ways to think of the statement “go into all the world.”

Here’s what Matthew 28:18-20 says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Let’s “rewrite” this in our own words to emphasize one way of looking at it:

All authority has been given to me, and I’m giving it all to you. So go! Get out there! Get into the world! I’m not just concerned with the Jews, I want them all! So go out into the nations and find people in them and make disciples of them, just as I did with you. Baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey all I’ve taught you to obey. And—don’t worry. I am with you, in all ways, in all places, and in all times—even to the very end of time.

Or, here’s another way to look at it:

All authority has been given to me. I’m giving it to you. Go to every single nation, every last tribe, every last ethne, every last city. Make sure none are left out. I want them all—every place on Earth that the enemy is occupying, take it back. As I discipled you, you are to disciple the nations. Baptize them all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to obey all that I’ve taught you to obey. I’ll be with you, to the very ends of the earth, to the very end of time.

One way is to say that “go to all nations” emphasizes action—“get out there, into the whole world!”–“all” as the picture of the whole pie. Another way to say it is it emphasizes completion—“reach every last one of them”–all means each individual slice. I think it means both. The Bible clearly shows us God’s heart is for the whole world.

I don’t think we should be legalistic about people group lists: lists are imperfect (and I recently wrote about this too). We can get legalistic about lists and forget Jesus wants the whole world. Moreover, new peoples form, and old people groups die off. We know there will be some lost and some that fall into the cracks. It’s unfortunate, terrible, awful, and when I am melancholy I cry over it.  But if a people group dies out before we get to them, it doesn’t seem in character to me for Jesus to say, “Oh, sorry, you missed one. I can’t come back now.”

Lists of people groups are a tool to help us do our part to ensure “the whole earth is filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” There should be no ethnic group with cultural or linguistic dams holding back the flood of the Good News. We must see that they are all covered.

1.2 The Great Commission can’t be completed because the process of making disciples never ends.

(Or other variants of the “it can’t be finished” argument.) I understand the process of discipling an individual person is life long. But we can establish the processes in every people group. That’s what the church, among other things, does. By planting a church in every ethne capable of evangelizing and discipling that ethnic group to its borders in an ongoing basis, the goal will be seen achieved—for this generation, and every generation to come—assuming that the church does its job. I think we just have to read the Scripture and assume that if Jesus said go and make disciples of all nations, there’s a way to achieve it. (See this article in which I delve deeper into this topic.)

1.3 Finish it to bring Jesus back—NOT!

Cozens doesn’t bring this up, but I will. There have been many unfortunate statements made—statements which I think are theologically and Biblically incorrect—to the effect that if we just finish the Great Commission, we can “bring back the King.” This is, to me, ridiculous. He is God, sovereign, and there is nothing we can do to force his hand. I think if He wants to come back, He will, and it doesn’t matter whether the Commission is complete or not.

I read Matthew 24 both as a prophecy and a promise: a statement of hope. It wasn’t a statement to say “this is what you can do to bring about the end.” Jesus was looking forward and making a statement to reassure his disciples and us. He was saying, “Don’t worry—all of this will happen. And, by the way (in a foreshadowing of the GC), the Good News will go out to the entire world—and then the end will come.” Jesus knew what would happen and gave us a picture. All we have to do is step into the picture. Maybe ours is the time, and maybe not—but one day the time will come for the fulfillment of his words.

2. People group thinking and prioritization judges my calling to be irrelevant.

2.1 No mission mobilizer should judge a person’s individual calling on the basis of a formula of prioritization.

Cozens’ argues those who prioritize people groups where no one engages do a disservice to those called to engaged people groups:

When I taught a class on UPG theory, I decided to take a different approach. I played the class a video from Lausanne, and asked what they felt about it. Challenged? Excited? Those were the kinds of words I was expecting. I was quite surprised by the first answer I got from one of the students: “Really rather angry actually.” Why, I asked? I’m paraphrasing slightly but the answer was not far from this: “I feel that God has called me to be a missionary in Spain, and I’m being meant to feel that this calling is invalid because according to some statistic that someone’s cooked up, Spain is a reached country.”

This appears to me to be a “straw man” argument. No mission mobilizer, administrator or team leader should (would? maybe they would, but they’d be wrong) tell someone their calling is invalid because they aren’t called to an unreached place. My agency—as well as many others—have recruiters trained to interact with potential candidates, exploring and discovering with them what their calling is, and helping them find the place where they best fit. We never tell someone their calling is invalid. That is not ours to judge. We might say their calling doesn’t fit our organization. For example, we don’t go to Latin America. But in that case, we would recommend other organizations that do—not tell them they haven’t heard God. (I have sent numerous people with a calling to Europe to GEM, WEC, OM, and other places, for example.)

It’s true, I’ve encountered people who say priority disproves perceived calling—but the statement was made in the heat of passion and later regretted and retracted. If ever an individual strategist uses a people group formula to evaluate the worth or validity of a person’s calling, take the blunt instrument of their writing and beat them over the head with it. But don’t move from the particular individual situation to a universal statement about people group theory.

2.2 Mission research tells us a fair number of people are either ignorant of or actively disobeying their calling.

On the other hand, we must speak up and prophetically challenge the church to reach out to the unengaged! Why? Because we have people volunteering for places like Spain—but we don’t have people volunteering for places like Saudi Arabia. Does that mean God doesn’t care about Saudi Arabia? I doubt it. Some people are called there, but are not obeying the calling.

Here’s what should be said:

a) if you are called east to Nineveh, you better not go west or you might encounter storms and whales.

b) there are a whole lot of people called to Spain, and that’s great.

c) where are the people called to Saudi Arabia? to Afghanistan? to Iran? Either: i) God doesn’t care about the least reached or ii) there are a ton of deaf or disobedient people.

As for Cozens’ statement:

And before UPG folks get all pearl-clutchy and declare that they would never judge people like that, here’s Paul Eshleman again: “If we know what the priorities are, we can “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24) – to do what hasn’t been done thus far.”

I think Cozens is reading a lot of judgment into this statement. I know Paul and others who have said similar things. They would never judge a person’s individual calling. There’s only so much that can be said in a brief presentation. You cannot get from “let’s challenge the whole church to do the whole task” to “God must have got it wrong when He told you to go to Spain; there’s more important things you should be doing instead.”

3. People group thinking—lists, checklists, goals, speed, efficiency—is the product of the American manager and not godly.

Cozens writes: “There is a fundamental clash between the manager of the American enterprise and the God of the Christian Bible. The American manager is interested in achieving goals as quickly and efficiently as possible; God is not.”

3.1 The manager of the American enterprise dehumanizes the task into a series of lists.

I don’t recognize this—it’s a caricature. I know many “American mission managers”—I have spent time with them, ate meals with them, prayed with them, wept with them, defended them, supported them. Mission managers are not like this. They cajole, challenge, coach. They rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. They make do on little and strive to see more people hear the Good News.

3.2 Checklists are bad.

If you are going to reach all nations—as Jesus commanded us to do—then you need to make sure all nations are reached. You need to know which ones are covered and which ones are not. This demands lists. I don’t think checklists are ungodly. I use checklists every day for tasks that need to be accomplished.

3.3 Speed is bad.

Would we say this to a paramedic or an ambulance or a fire truck heading to a fire? People are dying. Without the Gospel. They are separated from God for all eternity. Are we to go slowly to them? Waste money due to inadequate controls, lack of accountability, and lack of innovation? Speed is not bad.

3.4 God moves slowly.

I think it is more accurate to say God moves on a time scale that is not ours. But in the case of the unreached, there is a ton of stuff that could be done if the people called to the unreached were obedient. The lack of evangelistic activity among the unreached has less to do with God’s timing and far more to do with a rebellious, disobedient church.

3.5 Slow is the language of love.

Tell that to anyone when the task is disaster relief. Or what about the father of the prodigal, who ran to his son on the horizon? Or what about the child flying home to a dying parent? You just can’t make a universal application of statements like “efficiency, hurry and haste do not effectively communicate love.”

4. Missions should be a process, not a goal.

Cozens writes:

Following on from the last point, I think it is clear from the process of the unfolding of mission in the Bible that God is more interested in mission as a process than as a goal. If we accept that God is a missional God, then the idea that mission could somehow one day be “done” (leaving aside the obvious fact that people keep making more people) is equivalent to stating that God will one day no longer be God.

This is roughly the same argument Goodman made. I’ve dealt with this argument before: Briefly, there I argue the task can be finished by putting into place missional structures which reach future generations. And if so, the task would be “complete” both now and on an ongoing basis, and God would still be God.

But I think Cozens is generally wrong in this statement, because the simple fact is that one day mission will be done (Revelation 7:9, etc). One day we will be in heaven, and everything that could be done in terms of the unreached will be done.

And God will still be God.

5. On resistant peoples.

I’m not sure of Cozens’ point. Here he seems to be writing from his passion for Japan:

God made the people that we are trying to reach. Also, He loves them. As a missionary in Japan, I have always fought against the idea that the Japanese people are “resistant” or “difficult” or any of the other negative words that missionaries love to throw around when they don’t get their own way. It is not the Japanese people’s fault that they don’t want to buy what we’re selling. The Holy Spirit is responsible for changing hearts, so if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s His, although I dare say that the praxis of missionaries could welcome a little bit more scrutiny as well.

Generally, I agree with him here, and I don’t think he’d find any argument from people-group thinkers on the whole. There is a huge range of thinking on the idea of resistant or difficult peoples. I, for one, have argued against the idea any people group is resistant. In fact there has been research which indicates one of the most responsive groups are the Saudi Arabs. The challenge is not resistance but the lack of opportunity. I personally have a theory that Japan is right near a tipping point.

6. Lists, goals and objectives dehumanize people:

More on lists! Cozens writes:

I have the same problem with UPG theory. To talk about closure, to talk about finishing the task, to talk about unreached peoples, is to reduce the objects of God’s love to a set of goals and objectives. They become little boxes for us to tick on our merry way to bringing Jesus back. It dehumanizes people and, to borrow Buber’s categories, places us in an “I-it” relationship with them rather than an “I-thou” relationship. Koyama believed that dehumanizing and mechanising the work of God is to reduce it to demonic idolatry, and I’m not far behind him on that.

If you talk about the Pashto, Tajiks and Hazara of Afghanistan, you’re most likely thinking in terms of a list of individual people groups, not individual people—because you don’t know personally any Pashto, Tajiks or Hazara. It’s thus hard to think personally about people when you don’t know any of them. In fact, I tend to think more about the people I’m mobilizing to reach them and less about the people groups themselves. That doesn’t mean I’m dehumanizing them. But you can’t try to mobilize hundreds of new workers without thinking in terms of lists.

We pray for these people. We read profiles of about these people groups. We pray personally for more workers to reach them. When we know of potential workers, we pray for them by name. When we know of individual people among the group, we pray for them by name. This is just a caricature of “mission managers” that is not in any way reflective of the many mission managers that I know.

7. “People group theory does not take the present situation seriously”

Cozens writes:

With that in mind, the whole UPG project strikes me as thoroughly fundamentalist, in two senses. The first sense is that it is an extremely modern approach to mission, reducing God’s mission to a matter of achieving goals and objectives and focusing on ends rather than means. That just isn’t how we do things any more. It is an attempt to establish the ultimate metanarrative for mission, and we’re just not that keen on ultimate metanarratives these days, and are likely to question the motives of those pushing them.

That may be the case for you—and I’m not sure who “we” is—but it’s not for me and not for a large number of people. I believe the task can be done if only the church were obedient. I’m focused on mobilizing workers for all of the remaining people groups. We need a lot more workers to engage those who presently have no opportunity to hear.

Cozens writes:

This is because it is fundamentalist in a second sense, in that it is an essentially top-down approach. Eshleman’s paper is an attempt to sign up the global church to agree on one particular set of objectives and actions, and more broadly each organisation pushing the idea of finishing the task generally has its own (mutually incompatible) set of estimates about which people groups are most in need of reaching and which are done – which they want the global church to sign up. That just isn’t how we do things any more either, and even if it were, it would be a very obvious power play. One key feature of networked organisations in a postmodern world is that a network is not a pyramid; command and control is no longer an effective mechanism for leadership in networks, which often use diverse strategies to achieve common goals, and thus “priorities” cannot be imposed upon the network from one part to another.

I’m sorry, Simon, I’m laughing about this. There is nothing (well, perhaps very little) about reaching unreached peoples that happens in a hierarchical fashion! Paul, myself, and most organizations work in an extremely decentralized—not hierarchical—fashion. We do push for standards and agreements but no one has to agree to them. We try to build networks and partnerships and swarms.

Further, to say we have mutually incompatible sets of estimates about which people groups are most in need is in my view incorrect. There are several major lists which are largely in complete agreement (mostly differing in details about how the languages & castes of India are handled). As a missions researcher I network monthly (and sometimes weekly) with all of the major lists that are in use, and one of my tasks is to figure out where lists don’t agree and help resolve it.

8. “People group theory does not take anthropology seriously”

Well, I’m not going to address this very much except in passing.

8.1 The goal is not to be anthropologists but to be Gospel-bringers and Gospel-doers.

Probably not the best statement, but the best I can do at the moment. The point of the lists is not to be completely anthropologically correct. The point is to try to ensure that everyone in the world has access to the Gospel in a language they can understand, in a context they can understand. The missionary anthropology may indeed be very simple. We are mostly simple people.

8.2 The whole argument on the deaf—I know the guys doing research work on the Deaf. There are reasons why they say “Deaf Americans” and not “deaf Koreans in America.” The area is in debate. There are good reasons for why things are organized the way they are right now. Most if not all Deaf Americans in the United States do, indeed, use the American Deaf Sign Language.

8.3 Reachedness doesn’t mean someone has heard the Gospel or has accepted it.

Cozens’ comments on the unreached nature of a particular area are a misrepresentation (or a misunderstanding) of the idea of reachedness. Reachedness isn’t about whether a particular people group has heard the Gospel, or whether it is discipled, or whatever. Reachedness is about whether the resources are in place to reach the group without cross-cultural assistance. Is the US reached? Definitely. Why? Because the church within the United States is fully capable of reaching everyone in the US without needing Chinese or Nigerian or Korean missionaries to come help. Would they do good if they came? Of course. Can the US church do it without them? Definitely. Should we? Maybe not. Could we? Yes. Are they reached? Yes.

Reached is probably not the best word, but it’s the one we have, and it is precisely defined.

9. “People group theory does not even take itself seriously”

It appears that I agree with most of what’s said here.

In conclusion

I hope that this little article can serve as a reference piece and perhaps a jumping off point to discuss some of these issues. These seem to be common complaints—I’ve heard the issue of the dehumanization of lists and prioritization vs calling so many times—that it seems wise to have this post as a kind of “Frequently Asked Questions on People Group Thinking.” If you disagree with me or have a better clarification, comment below. Obviously, I don’t mind debate!