Prophetic vs Strategic Listmaking

13 Jan 2023

This week, instead, I thought I’d write a bit about a question that arises multiple times per year - the question of what we measure when it comes to statistics about the unreached. Do we measure “people groups,” “languages,” or “places”—and how do we define those things? Are those definitions outdated? Is there something more current we should be using?

The current generation of thinking about unreached people groups—how we measure it, and why—was kicked off by the work of Winter, Barrett, and Johnstone. You can read Winter’s own thinking on this in [this IJFM article from 1984]( 01 789b60b3e8d248ad98af08daf599a317 a48774f925c042f2b6b98bf0d8bdf2f2 1 0 638092337491132271 Unknown TWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D 3000     &sdata=d6gft8m5mdAz1eiK70pXGmbwI2PHaUL%2FXTlCELawzkU%3D&reserved=0). Dave Datema, writing in 2016, [had a much newer]( 01 789b60b3e8d248ad98af08daf599a317 a48774f925c042f2b6b98bf0d8bdf2f2 1 0 638092337491132271 Unknown TWFpbGZsb3d8eyJWIjoiMC4wLjAwMDAiLCJQIjoiV2luMzIiLCJBTiI6Ik1haWwiLCJXVCI6Mn0%3D 3000     &sdata=rtSRhRltXw81OBtEiwWkqJ0QDt93X%2FoLhpeh019yOco%3D&reserved=0) historical review of how unreached thinking developed since then.

The motivation behind all this work, to put it perhaps over-simply, was that measuring whether we had completed the Great Commission by how many countries had a church was much too broad. Most if not all of you, my mission-aware audience, already have a deep understanding of this—that there were segments within countries (mostly people groups, closely correlated to languages) who were “cut off” from the Gospel due to barriers of language or cultural presentation. It wasn’t enough to have a church for every country - there needed to be a linguistically understandable and culturally acceptable presence of the Gospel so that every individual, as part of a people group, could hear and understand and decide about following Jesus.

So is the idea of ‘unreached’ outdated? Do I still use it? My response is that ‘yes,’ I do, but my own approach to lists and list-making is much less rigorous than some. Why? I suggest that through the the years, people group lists and list-making have moved from a prophetic function (pointing out the gaps) to a strategic function (planning, deciding who is sent where and to whom). The more we try to use lists for strategy, the more perfect we feel the lists need to be. The more we constrain our strategies by the lists, and the less able the lists are to live up to our expectations and desires.

Some fairly obvious examples of ‘cracks’ in the perfection of lists include:

  1. The problem of refugees and diaspora: as noted last week, notoriously difficult to track in any kind of list, and so often don’t appear on the lists at all, and thus invisible to many who only use lists. If we only send to people on the list, those not on the list never get people. When funders look at lists to decide what to fund, work amongst invisible groups can come up short.

  2. The problem of cities: which, by being an agglomeration of people groups, defy our lists. In some, peoples are separated; in others, they are all mixed in together. In some, it’s frowned upon or even illegal to make databases of the people groups present! Cities require a ‘reach all the peoples in this place’ sort of approach, which goes against our model of list-users. When people as ‘how do you make a list of people groups in a city?’ the answer, ‘you maybe don’t’ is confounding.

  3. The problem of when a people group on a list is done: Prioritize! Check them off! Get them all adopted! engaged! reached! Progress! Speed! ROI! These require measuring ‘done’ and ‘time to done’—and getting agreement on ‘done’ and ‘can it be done’ and ‘when is it done’ is hard. Winter’s original 1984 article talks about the issue of using ‘less than 20% Christian.’ The problem of ‘done’ and related issues like it remain unsolved with us today.

  4. The problem of the underserved vs the unengaged, which is absolute numbers versus percentages: some larger groups have large numbers of non-Christians and ‘unevangelized’ but because they have a % of Christians that is slightly over the threshold, they are not counted as ‘unreached,’ ‘frontier’ or ‘unengaged.’ But they could be strategic gateways to all the unreached peoples around them, and they still have large groups of individuals who need to hear. Which is a larger bit of the remaining task—the 10 million language that is 40% unevangelized and a trade language of another 5 million, or the 1 million less-spoken that is 99% unevangelized?

  5. The problem of people, teams, agencies who refuse to work with a group in an area because ‘they aren’t our focus group.’ This seems to be less common than the anecdotal stories would imply, fortunately. Most workers on the field will engage all groups in an area. But the idea of hyper focus still crops up from time to time.

  6. The problem of those who are generally opposed, either from a philosophical or a practical standpoint, to the use of people group lists. Sometimes, it’s just hard to be able to separate peoples in any meaningful way in a particular location. Other times, it’s just not appropriate. The practical on-the-ground reality can come up hard against the theoretical ‘ideal.’ Westerners I talk to sometimes don’t understand why some national workers don’t use the lists at all. Aren’t they “behind the times”? From their perspective, they aren’t behind—they are beyond.

To reiterate, to me these ‘cracks’ don’t suggest the lists are broken—I think they point to an over-rigidness in their use. A long-term field worker told me today, “There are UPG philosophers and UPG pragmatists. The philosophers will take you to the little groups. The pragmatists are asking the question - how can we get to all of them?” Are we driven to the peoples that specifically fit (our own made-up, with the best of intentions) criteria of unreached or are we driven to the question of how might we best reach all the lost people, especially those whom no one is trying to reach?

We know, intellectually, most of how lost people are reached is now less and less about outsiders—even local outsiders. In South Asia, several times I heard ‘it wasn’t a problem to bring the Gospel across a caste barrier’—it often happened due to desperate need and a miracle of healing. But once it was across, it was the person in the caste who carried it to others in the caste—not the person who helped see it across. It wasn’t the person who prayed for healing, but the healed person.

How lost people are reached is about incrementally, intentionally crossing barriers—not a superhuman crossing of every barrier by a sainted individual, but rather handing off a baton across each. When the baton is passed, the new carrier can carry it further, faster in ‘their zone’ of the race than the previous person—until they reach a barrier of their own, and they have to pass it on.

How lost people are reached is like a marathon in which the baton is progressively outside the line of sight of the early racers. Outsiders might get across the first barrier or two, and even help the next baton carrier across barriers of their own, with developed resources like translation or media. But as the baton is brought closer and closer to the finish line, it crosses barriers of geography, culture, tribe, politics, economic situations that take it further from where the earlier carriers could go, further outside our field of vision, away from where we can track.

Yet, we still want them to track—we want them to tell us what is happening. We strain to see. Why?

Because we want to cheer? Is it because we’ve grown used to ‘gamified’ life, and we have to know all the place the Gospel goes, all the subgroups it gets to? Do we really need to watch progress ticked off in real time? Do we have to put a GPS ankle bracelet on every runner, to track their progress in real-time? evaluate how fast they run, how many steps per minute, how they avoid stumbling?

This desire to track—is this something deeper? is it ego?

We sometimes say we need to know when (if?) the job is done—that the task is finished. But to my mind, no one will know the ‘job is done’ until the trumpet sounds, and to tie the two together is to enter pretty dangerous theological territory (for example, could we ‘put off’ the last few groups and therefore keep Jesus from coming back?—ha!).

We more often say we need to know because it inspires people… because donors need reports… because we need to know about the health of the effort… because we need to verify… because we need to prove… because we need to know strategies and processes are working… because…

We all have our reasons. #21 of my 99 Principles is: “We are reasonable people. We can find reasons for anything we want.”

I strongly suspect the systems we develop to track progress are not about ‘knowing when the job is done.’ Nor is it about cheering. We have moved from ‘lists pointing out the large groups of people who have no access’ to ‘lists as constraints’ to ‘lists as control.’ Using lists to define strategy and measure outputs gives us a justifiable, defensible, rational, measurable methodology for the allocation of budgets, resources, manpower. A controllable methodology… gives us control.

We end up making about reporting what should be about relationship. Try to command what we should be cheering. Require much data and accountability because we have little trust. Expect some amount of game-playing with grants and their use because we make investments instead of giving gifts. Seek control, not communion.

Yes, data can be useful—but useful to who? Most of the time people freely share information with me, often scribbled on pieces of paper, because the conversation and meal are the key, not because some app is easy to use. I believe that at the global level, we need to: (1) collect less data, not more—just enough to accomplish a purpose useful to those generating the data. (2) build data collection & reporting tools that are primarily intended to be useful to and used by those who are generating the data—concentrated at the point of its on-the-field use. And (3) when we’re given data, we need to be good stewards and turn that data around, make it immediately useful for their work, outside our own vision. We need to focus less on constraints and more on using data to empower the rapid spread of the Gospel. Identify the barriers, get the Gospel across the barrier, do whatever we can to help it spread toward the next barrier, and let it go free.

I’m not against transparency or reporting, but we have to be on our guard. These rapidly slip away from serving and building up, and into distrust, demands and power. To avoid this, we have to intentionally move away from control and lean in toward service. We don’t go to the end of the table in order to be noticed and promoted to the head. We need to genuinely go to the end, and pick up a basin and a towel. We could do worse than simply asking, “is there a person in this place who is passionate to see every individual in the communities around them in a vibrant relationship with Jesus? What do they see as being the next step in getting the Gospel to the lost? How can I serve them? or if there isn’t a person, what step might I take to help one be found?”