Top 10 Most Challenging People Groups

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. North Korea – another obviously challenging place due to the political climate.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.


Does mission recruiting overlook the poor?

Q. I’m curious to know the socio-economic background of people who are mobilized into missions from North America. In the back of my mind, I wonder if a whole section of believers is overlooked who come from lower class families with little to no financial means. And I wonder how our current missions systems affect this reality.

A few people have asked a similar question of me over the years. I’m not aware of any studies on the subject, although three items have been pointed out to me by friends on Facebook:

(I have not read any of these items, so they may address the topic in far more detail and accuracy then what I am going to here. I recommend availing yourself of them.)

I don’t have any broad research on the subject, and I want to avoid availability bias. Still, we can make some assessments based on observable evidence: the people in our own agencies, and the people we run into at various mission conferences and mobilization events. Based on this, it seems obvious “less well off” or impoverished believers–especially minorities–do not tend to make it into most Western mission agencies.

Why is more difficult. It’s most likely a variety of factors. I have a few theories, outlined below, and I’m sure more can be identified.

  1. In reality, very few mission agencies are large; the vast majority of agencies are small. For these, most recruitment is done by the founder through a close network of relationships. Unless the founder is fairly unique, this circle will be more like them than not. For a founder to be able to sustain an agency, financial resources are required; a founder is more likely to be middle or upper class (in terms of his/her country) than not, and thus the recruits are more likely to come from this strata as well. I honestly think this is the largest factor.
  2. Few mission agencies fund their workers; most use a “faith-based” (donation-based) model. No matter how much an agency might wish for people of all strata, the people who actually make it to the field are the people who can raise the funds. If an individual’s network of relationships does not represent enough finances to make this possible, they will almost certainly drop out. It’s an unfortunate reality.
  3. The limits of the donation-based model is the expected budget. A lot of Western agencies expect their people to have/raise significant operational budgets as well as personal support. Travel, trainings, education, medical insurance, life insurance, retirement: all of these add up. Plus, many workers are being sent places which are considerably more expensive than where some economically poorer people live; Beijing and Tokyo and Singapore etc. can have significantly higher costs of living than suburb America. We can debate about whether this budget is needed or not; I will say Westerners, with this budget, can do a lot of “cross-pollinating” kinds of work others cannot do.
  4. People who are less well off economically may never apply to an agency. They may simply be too busy with work, or think themselves unqualified, or think they could never get the money together for a mission trip. When churches advertise short-term mission trips costing several hundred or thousand dollars, they may reinforce this idea. Most (all?) agencies simply cannot recognize potential talent without an application to reveal it; just as Walmart or Target etc. can’t recognize potential workers until they apply for a job. That application is a strong signal of initiative; but the reality is there are people  who would be good candidates, and just think themselves incapable, and so never apply.
  5. Larger agencies with a lot of short-term people, and agencies that look for a lower monetary bar, do seem to me to be more diverse. Some agencies have a huge number of people, many of them young. Some of these also tend to recruit for a lower financial perspective: they work with the poor, the oppressed, the addicted, etc., and they have a culture that reminds me of the monastic societies and intentional vows of poverty. Communal living spaces, bases, and so on are the norm. In my observation (no research here), WEC, OM and YWAM tend to conform to this model (some have told me YWAM stands for “Youth Without Any Money”). I’m not saying this is bad; in fact in some ways I think it’s quite good. YWAM, OM and WEC also tend to be multicultural, with strong non-North American influences, and many of these are what some Americans would consider to be poorer in monetary terms.
  6. A correlating (not necessarily causal) factor is that many non-White groups in America tend to be less represented in mission agencies. There are many opinions on why this is. Many have told me that for a variety of reasons mobilization of the African American churches in America seems to be difficult. Asians and Hispanics seem to be more represented (even though they are small numbers) in missions. I find this interesting because many Latinos are sent from South America on mission (witness COMIBAM and the like), and Africans (especially Nigerians?) in Europe are among the most vibrant church planters there. I’m not convinced the lack of certain minorities in America is a money issue; while clearly minorities can be less well off than Whites in America (plenty of research on inequality bears this out), there’s still wealth in the minority communities and a lot of missionaries sent out in America don’t have high net asset values in their network of supporters.
  7. Finally, a lot of recruitment is done in churches and through church networks. Mission agencies don’t have the budget or staff to pursue recruits widely, so they work through word of mouth references. If you want to know who gets into a mission network, look at the demographic makeup of the churches they have relationships with. This, again, brings in some limits on the potential types of recruits.

We should remember that this is from a North American perspective, about North American missions. Many mission agencies send workers from other countries, and they would operate in vastly different ways, in locations North Americans can’t get to, on vastly lower budgets. Further, less-well-known North American missions may very well be sending less-economically-well-off people or even enabling them to serve diasporas here in America.

Our view of the field is limited, but what we can see of the medium-to-largish agencies appears to suggest there are some unfortunate situational limits on who can go, based on the model most use.


Concentrations of American Workers

Several people have recently asked me about the oft-cited statistic, “90% of our work goes on in Christianized/reached/finished places, and less than 10% among the unreached.” The question I’m usually asked is, “has this statistic changed? isn’t it old?”

Yes, it’s old. But getting it updated is difficult. I’m not going to try to answer with a new statistic in this blog post. I’m just going to describe some work I’ve been doing to try to “narrow the answer” or at least test out some methodologies for estimating it.

The newest North American Mission Handbook has been released, published by MissioNexus, with Peggy Newell as editor. They’ve been good enough to work with me to compile some data related to the question of missionary deployment. I began analyzing this data, and then decided to go through and update the country-by-country Mission Status column in my District Survey database (not publicly available on the Internet).

What I’ve run into is the same old problem:

  1. Precise missionary counts for the ‘unreached’ or ‘unevangelized’ are nearly impossible. For one thing, we generally measure unreached/unevangelized by people group within country (for all the reasons that Ralph Winter enumerated back in the 70s, sparking the UPG movement), but we measure missionary counts by country. So we can say there are hundreds of missionaries in any given country, but we don’t know how many are working with Christians and how many are working with the unreached.
  2. Due to the current security climate, many agencies don’t want to specify the countries their workers are in at all. For example, in the latest Handbook, the IMB puts all of their 2,000+ workers in the “Global Ministry” catch-all category, not even specifying regions.

So to try to get at something that’s “fairly accurate,” at least by country to start with, I use a scale instead. My scale of missionary engagement runs from 0 to 7.

  • 0) No mission engagement
  • 1) Only one agency or engagement, or just a tiny number suspected
  • 2) More than one agency, a small handful, probably less than 10 workers total
  • 3) Many agencies (but probably less than 15 engagements), nearly all teams very small, 2-3 workers each
  • 4) Lots of engagements, 15 to “20ish”, but mostly small teams with a few big (5-10 workers)
  • 5) 25 to 40-ish engagements, lots of big teams, several with double-digit numbers of team members, 50+ workers
  • 6) Many, many teams, over 100 workers in country in all
  • 7) Over 300 workers in country in many, many teams across many organizations

(Caveat: At present, I’m looking at international cross-cultural workers; and these numbers are updated for the Mission Handbook and do not take into account either, for example, Koreans or Nigerians or Indonesians, etc., nor do they take into account workers from nearby countries–for example, Nigerians going to Ghana, etc.)

There appear to be at least 14 countries at “level 7.” These include, in descending order of estimated number of mission workers:

  1. Mexico (with at least 1,000 long-term 4-year-plus American cross-cultural workers!)
  2. Philippines (600+)
  3. Thailand
  4. Papua New Guinea
  5. Spain
  6. Brazil
  7. Japan
  8. Kenya
  9. France
  10. UK
  11. Germany
  12. Laos
  13. Indonesia
  14. South Africa

(I’m not saying that all of these workers are engaging unreached peoples or are working for DMMs. I’m just saying that each of these countries has at least 300 workers in place, as reported to the Mission Handbook.)

The Mission Handbook reports 33,000 long-term (4-year) staff in all of the agencies. Altogether, these 14 countries probably represent about 6,000 workers, or about 20%. These are very rough numbers! What we can say for certain is that a large portion of the mission workforce is found in these 14 countries.

This shouldn’t really surprise us. Some of these are “Crossroads countries” and missionaries do tend to “clump at the crossroads.” Others have been traditional “training grounds” for short-term missions and thus draw long-term activity afterwards. Others are easier-to-reach regions of the unreached world. Still others are concentrations of agnostics that are now drawing global diasporas.

There are another 30 countries at level 6 (100+ workers). These include a lot of Latin America and European countries. Altogether they total another 3,000 workers, or about another 10% of the workforce.

How does this help us answer the question of whether deployment to the unreached has changed?

Well, it’s not (yet) an exact answer. But it is somewhat comforting to see some heavily non-Christian regions (Thailand, Indonesia, Japan) on the “top end” of the scale, with heavy mission deployment.

Still, most of the really strongly unevangelized countries are no higher than “level 3” (“multiple” engagements, though less than 15, and fewer than 50 workers). And many really hard to reach places (Yemen, Djibouti, Somalia) are only at level 1 or 2.

While I cannot say with authority precisely what percentage of the mission force is deployment among the unreached, the data does appear to indicate that significantly more than half of the mission force is at work in strongly Christian and largely reached places (which may be strongly Christian and largely reached mostly because so much of the mission force has been at work there for so long). As one example of the disparity, why does Mexico have 1,000 long-term workers, and China has slightly more than 100 (at least by the Mission Handbook stats)? Why do the Philippines and Brazil have hundreds and hundreds of workers, and Indonesia does not?

Although the “true picture” may be slightly better (because, first, agencies may not want to report their workers in Indonesia and, second, we are not counting local workers or non-American workers), I know from my own private data sets that the portrait of the imbalance is realistic. I’m not suggesting we need to take workers away from Mexico, but we do need to find some more who are called to the less-reached places in the world.

Is France “reached”?

Whenever we think about the question of whether Europe is reached or not, France is often the anecdotal story that floats to the top. Is France “reached”?

The classical definition of reached asks whether the French church could evangelize France without outside assistance. It’s a difficult question to answer because it can be very subjective, but  most people don’t realize “evangelical churches” (and that’s often what we equate with “can France evangelize itself”) are spread widely throughout France.

The French National Council of Evangelicals (CNEF) reports three new evangelical churches open in France every month, and the number of worship places has increased 10x in the past 60 years. There are now over 650,000 evangelical Christians in France. They have been growing for a long time, as this report from 2012 shows.

Every department in France has between 100,000 and 2 million in population, with most in the hundreds of thousands. According to CNEF, there is at least one evangelical church per 100,000 people, and about half of the departments (or more) have 1 evangelical church per 10,000. This is significantly improved over 1970. See:

Some of these churches are small, but some are quite large: one church in Paris gets nearly 6,000 attendees on Sundays. “In fact, French scholars says, evangelicalism is likely the fastest-growing religion in France.”

In 2012, French Protestants made up over 3% of the population. Of these 600,000, 460,000 identify themselves as evangelicals, and that number is growing all the time. It seems clear from these numbers that if France doesn’t fit the numeric definition of unreached now (generally, >2% Evangelical), it is not far off.

Here, TEAM cites 1 church per 32,000 as need for more missionaries. Don’t get me wrong, I like TEAM, I’ve sent people to them. But 1 per 32,000 strikes me as a church that could evangelize its own. My own studies suggest a small team (3 to 5 people) using a movement strategy can easily take an audience of 100,000. My friend Roy Moran’s church (Shoal Creek) is taking on 300,000.

So before we take it as given that Europe is “unreached,” let’s be sure to check the real situation out!

Huge populations

The following are the largest population concentrations in the world, each with over 100 million people. These concentrations are a mix of countries and provinces; I allow this because some of the provinces, due to populations, have nearly the same impact as countries. I do not include China (1.3 billion) and India (1.2 billion) on the list because “huge population” subsets are already there. As such this is a little bit of an arbitrary list, but I think it has value.

Together these concentrations represent nearly 2 out of 7 people on our planet. I list them here because, although they each contain within themselves numerous people groups and sociopolitical subsets, each of them also represents something of a “hard boundary” between other population concentrations. Each has characteristic geographic, political, economic and religious situations where the subsets they contain have more in common with each other than with others outside. Strategies that seek closure will have to be able to scale to reach the geo/political/ethno/linguistic boundaries of these concentrations. (The concentrations are a mix of countries and provinces; I allow this because some of the provinces, due to populations, have nearly the same impact as some countries!)

  1. United States – 308 million
  2. Indonesia – 237 million
  3. Pakistan – 207 million
  4. Uttar Pradesh – 199 million
  5. Brazil – 190 million
  6. Nigeria – 159 million
  7. Bangladesh – 144 million
  8. Russia – 142 million
  9. Japan – 128 million
  10. Mexico – 112 million
  11. Maharashtra – 112 million
  12. Guangdong – 104 million
  13. Bihar – 103 million

It would behoove every mission agency, church, denomination, and student of mission history to at least be familiar with these 13 populations and reflect on how their strategies impact them. There are enormous disparities of ministry resources between these, and strategists and students could reflect on (a) the imbalances, (b) the obstacles, (c) what can be done to redress these. If any single one of these populations were dramatically changed, it would transform the region they are in and the world in general.

Festivals and stories

  1. The annual Water Festival in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, along the Tonle Sap River, is expected to draw 1 million people to Cambodia’s capital. The US State Department warns of “increasing possibility of crimes of opportunity” – but the inverse is also true: increased possibility of blessing opportunities.
  2. The largest Diwali festival in America is in Dallas, Tx, this weekend (November 4). It will have an increased size because many of the Houston Diwali celebrants will come here instead after the impact of the hurricane.
  3. Djibouti wants to show up on the radar of 2018 travel agencies.
  4. Up close with the tribes of Ethiopia’s imperiled Omo valley.
  5. The shepherds of the Tusheti mountains of Georgia.
  6. Down from the Mountains in China: while the parents are away at work, the children are raising themselves.
  7. Out West: a visual narrative of China’s westernmost region, Xinjiang

Festivals and travel agency specials are excellent opportunities for entry into otherwise restricted spaces, and for contact with people visiting a festival who might otherwise be difficult to contact. Short-term trips can be organized on tourist platforms, for prayer-walking and other casual contact opportunities. Research trips into unreached areas can also be conducted in the context of these opportunities.