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Should Missionaries Focus on Unreached People Groups? Yes.

Should Missionaries Focus on Unreached People Groups? Yes.


Missiological interest in unreached people groups (UPGs) has seen a resurgence over the last half-century. Although the vast majority of cross-cultural workers from the West still don’t minister among UPGs, many missiologists and practitioners have argued that we must refocus on people groups where the church is smallest.

Jesus commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), and UPGs lack sufficient intra-cultural resources to make disciples on a widespread scale. Therefore, we ought to focus most of our cross-cultural resources on UPGs.

I want to develop this argument around two questions raised in a recent article by Darren Carlson and Elliot Clark.

Two Big Questions

1. Does Jesus’s use of panta ta ethne support a focus on UPGs?

Carlson and Clark argued that the emphasis on UPGs is grounded on an erroneous view that the Greek phrase panta ta ethne (“all nations”) in the Great Commission refers to every ethnolinguistic people group of the world. To view panta ta ethne this way, they suggest, is to adopt “a modern anthropological definition over a biblical-theological one.” Instead, they argue, the understanding of Jesus’s first-century followers would have “derived from Scripture itself.”

Interestingly, although Carlson and Clark argue Jesus’s original hearers would have interpreted panta ta ethne with the Abrahamic covenant in mind, they don’t account for the strong ethnolinguistic undercurrent that surges throughout the early Abrahamic narrative.

To understand the Abrahamic covenant properly, we must examine the Table of Nations, which serves as the covenant’s biblical-theological backdrop. In Genesis 10, at the end of each of Noah’s sons’ genealogies and at the conclusion of the table, a refrain sheds light on God’s subsequent promise to Abraham. Genesis 10:5, 20, 31, and 32 repeat a refrain around the words “clans” (mishpachot), “land(s)” (artsot/erets), and “nations” (goyim), all of which reappear in Abraham’s call in Genesis 12:1–3.

The promise to Abraham is directed toward all the rebellious multi-lingual groups dispersed from Babel and outlined in the Table of Nations.

This literary connection between the table’s refrain and God’s promise to Abraham indicates that this redemptive declaration is directed toward the groups outlined in the table. The table’s divisions include both tribal and linguistic dimensions, evident…



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