*Q. Greetings from across the water… I’m writing to pick your brains? I’m wondering what you would consider to be in your opinion the top 10 most challenging or hardest to reach people groups? I’m struggling to find a term that covers in a sense what I am looking for. I’m not looking for the biggest and I’m not looking for the most remote. There is not one factor, but in a sense, it would be the most challenging and that could be the challenge of size or geography or politics or whatever. Anyhow, would love to hear your thoughts when you get chance.”
This question almost immediately started generating names of large people clusters in my head. Then I started arguing with myself over those, mostly over anecdotal reports about work among them. Why should a people group be on a Top 10 list; or, alternatively, why should it not be? Outlining criteria was the best first step. Here are some of the things I look for in my District Survey:
- While population isn’t the sole determinant, the more challenging groups will be the larger groups, because scale introduces challenges and complexity. A small team could handle a group of 1,000 people. A strategy team can handle 100,000 over a period of time with a local network. Handling a group of a million or more requires networking, coordination, collaboration, and significant investments of time and resources. So, I’m restricting my people group list to peoples that have populations of a million or more.
- While remoteness isn’t the sole determinant either, difficulties of access will always figure in – whether those are “remoteness” (e.g. 4 plane flights and a long car drive), or “barriers to entry” or “warfare” or “difficulties of climate” etc.
- While some of these groups will doubtless be engaged, more challenging groups will have fewer available workers (in ratio to the people group) and fewer available indigenous believers. (A lot of movement strategy DEPENDS on mobilizing local believers or near-culture believers; if there are few of these, it raises the challenge significantly).
- The church can thrive in areas of persecution, because of the persecution. (We’ve all heard the old saw, “The blood of the martyrs…”) But the reality is, significant levels of surveillance, persecution, and oppression can suppress church growth. This is especially true in areas where the government can exercise significant control either through technological levers (think Xinjiang, China) or because the populations involved are small (think Albania during its close days, and Central Asia today).
- Groups that suffer from significant structures of sin – be it organized crime, systemic violence, addictive industries, and so on – will find opposition to the Gospel from the groups perpetrating those structures. In some places, drug cartels are a far bigger threat to gospel work than governments would be.
- Groups that feature a single overwhelming majority religion (e.g. Islam or Hinduism), with attendant festivals, pilgrimages, shrines, holidays, and what have you, have a strong network bias against newcomers. (Groups that have a slim majority religion with minorities of other religions have more opportunities for newcomer growth.)
- Economics do tend in some cases (here I’m thinking of China, mostly) to suppress church growth – materialism can lead to apathy. But strong economies can also open a place and a people to the world, and lead to various platforms on which people can enter and be a blessing. So I’m not sure we should always say that poverty leads to church growth (although the church can grow in situations of poverty) or any other hard conclusion.
So, based in part on this list, here is my current “Top 10” list (and some of my thinking for them). All of these are classically unevangelized groups – I’m intentionally omitting any culturally Christian groups. Others will have different lists, for different reasons, and that’s obviously fine.
- Pashto – the majority people found in Pakistan/Afghanistan, staunchly Islamic, Gospel access is extremely low and evangelistic activity is dangerous. Government oppression, poppy farming, logistically hard to access regions, mob violence – all of it combines to make this group hard to engage. (Note that I didn’t say they are unengaged, or there wasn’t any fruit.) There’s a lot of Pashto diaspora in Europe from which fruit is being seen.
- Turks – on a nationalistic upswing, Gospel access being limited by limiting access to Turkey, where the vast majority of Turks are, most of the work is in the West of Turkey; very little in the East; warfare; some mob violence, but certainly strong families that stick strongly to Islam. The work in Turkey has already cost martyrs. That said, there are good things happening on behalf of the Turks, and even with some of the increasing individual challenges, several of my sources believe the situation is not as “bleak” as it was even five years ago.
- Somalis – like the Pashto, strongly Islamic. Their nation is obviously very poor, a failed state, with rampant warfare, suffering, violence, hunger, disease. A lot of mob violence; working here is very dangerous. There’s a lot of expat Somalis and Somalis across the border of Somalia in other places, where fruit’s being seen.
- North India – I’m conflicted about this one. As most people who are familiar with the region know, there’s a lot of activity happening and has been for some time. The region as a whole does not deserve to be on the list. There are massive church networks, decade-long work going on by bold Indian evangelists. However, the region is huge in terms of population – 300 million plus, comparable to the United States – and a “home base” for fundamental Hinduism. Certain subsets of N India definitely do deserve to be on a Top 10 List: there are many smaller peoples and many districts and subdistricts that are only lightly touched, or not touched at all. Plus, India is in a nationalistic upswing and is making it very difficult for Westerners to enter (both business types and missionaries). It’s becoming more challenging (though not impossible). My assessment is that the further you get from the Delhi region and the border of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the more you will get into less engaged space. Still, anyone who wants to serve this area must be connected to national networks already engaged here: there is absolutely no reason to be a “lone ranger” not serving the Indian church. (Note that I have similar thinking to this about Indonesia–parts are very reached, and parts are very unreached.)
- Central Asia – Uzbeks, Turkmen, Tajiks, Kazakhs. There are pockets of openness in this region, but overall, it’s an extremely difficult work environment, in terms of access, government oppression and surveillance, and cultural Islam.
- Xinjiang – the enormous government surveillance and oppression of the Muslim culture makes the local group tend to cling to their culture even more. Work here is frighteningly difficult to enter into, and super sensitive.
- Tibet / Tibetan Buddhists – for much the same reasons, work in Tibet is also difficult. While there has been significant fruit in Nepal, the areas of Tibet and Bhutan remain very difficult to enter, stay in long-term, and see fruit out of. Very creative strategies are required.
- North Korea – another obviously challenging place due to the political climate.
- Southeast Asia – Buddhists ranging from the Tibet/Bhutan area down into SE Asia have seen very little movement fruit, and have very little movement engagement. In this region, I would pick Laos as the most challenging place to work (even to enter, and work here has cost lives). Buddhists, in general, need much more focus.
- N Africa – There has been very little engagement or fruit across this area (up to but not necessarily including Egypt), and significant challenges of access due to government objections, warfare, tribal issues, and fundamentalists. What effort there was in Libya has been nearly decimated by the war there, insofar as has been reported to me (in fact, the Arab Spring was not friendly in many ways to Christian work). There are many light engagements in the area, but far more needs to be done.