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creation careFor decades, missionaries did not consider a people group “reached” until 20 percent of the population was considered “evangelical.” Today, the statistical benchmark is 2 percent.

What brought about this change of definition? And how has it impacted missions strategies?

A Course-Correction

Dr. Robin Hadaway, professor of missions at Midwestern Seminary recently wrote an essay for the Southwestern Journal of Theology, in which he recommends a “course-correction” away from the two-percent threshold and back to something like 10 or 20 percent. Hadaway relies on extensive missionary experience as he considers this question; he has been involved in a variety of mission efforts on three continents, and he is a fluent speaker of Arabic, Swahili, and Portuguese.

Hadaway shows how, for decades, missionaries went to geographic countries in order to assess the needs and then plan a course of action. They built clinics and orphanages, staffed hospitals and started schools alongside their church planting efforts.

In the 1950’s, Donald MacGavran’s work led to the rise of “individualized strategies for particular ethnic groups.” C. Peter Wagner and Edward Dayton applied MacGavran’s ethnic focus differently, with a shift away from the most receptive groups (the “Harvest” mentality) toward church planting among the “hidden” and resistant groups.

Over time, the threshold of considering a people group “reached” dropped from 20% evangelical to 2% (this is the statistic of the Joshua Project and Operation World). But Hadaway considers the 2% threshold to be too low, and he cites sociologist Boeslaw Szymanski to make this point:

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.”

Adopting Additional Criteria

Mission agencies must constantly weigh various factors as they decide how to best steward personnel and resources. The needs of unreached peoples to hear the gospel must remain an important factor in making these decisions, and yet Hadaway believes other criteria should be considered, including the receptivity of a people. “Rather than looking to receptive places to place missionaries, most mission groups are sending their personnel to resistant places,” he writes, and then wonders if mission activity may be making some of these places more resistant to the gospel.

Hadaway also worries that the discipleship dimension of the Great Commission can be neglected or lost if mission efforts are viewed almost exclusively as a pioneering enterprise. Is it wise to turn over all evangelism, church planting, and discipleship work to such a small group of believers (2%)?

Hadaway concludes by recommending mission societies “broaden their definition of missions to include not only reaching the last frontier, but also reaping the receptive in the harvest fields and teaching and discipling the new converts from both.” This would mean deploying new missionaries to the most receptive places, increasing discipleship by utilizing professors and trainers worldwide, and balancing efforts to minister among the Unreached and the Harvest.

Some Thoughts on Hadaway’s Proposal

This essay from Dr. Hadaway is full of insights worth considering, and since the International Mission Board has recently come under new leadership (David Platt), it is likely that these kinds of questions and recommendations will arise as the IMB considers the best strategies for the future. In the interest of furthering this discussion, I’d like to offer a few thoughts.

The Tension of “Unreached” and “Harvest”

As a former missionary to Romania, I resonate with some of Hadaway’s ideas. The evangelical population there is only 5%, and there are a handful of people groups considered “hidden” or “unreached.” But the smallness of their numbers makes it difficult to imagine major resources being devoted to any of these groups. Instead, I’d imagine a mission agency targeting these people groups in countries where they are more numerous, with the future intent of those people eventually reaching into Romania and other countries. All that to say, I have felt and still feel the tension of “unreached” and “harvest” missions, and I am not sure that this is a tension we should try to resolve in exclusively one direction or the other.

The Goal of Locals Reaching Locals

Moving forward, it will be important for those supporting missionaries with the International Mission Board to understand how ministry among resistant and unreached peoples takes place. Although mission strategies have shifted from Harvest to Unreached, the mentality of many people in our churches remains Harvest, such that we expect the number of baptisms directly attributed to missionaries to be ever-growing. But the goal in both Harvest and Unreached missions is not the greatest number of people possible that a single missionary family can reach, but the greatest number of people reached by that family’s initial converts. In other words, we want to see locals reaching locals, independent of the missionary’s presence, and for this to take place, our measurements must be willing to allow flexibility as missionaries fan the flames of the spark they have started. If church planting is a key measurement, we would assume that as more churches are planted, we would have less baptisms attributable “directly to our missionaries” than in the era when evangelism and social ministry were always connected to the individual missionary.

The Danger of an Arbitrary Percentage

I have misgivings about setting an arbitrary percentage for “reachedness,” whether high or low. Every country or people group is different, with various needs and histories.

It may be that the sociologists Hadaway quotes are right: 10% is the threshold for a group of people to make a significant impact on their society. But should we assume that missionaries are responsible for seeing that number reach 10%? At what point does a missionary step back and leave the next wave of mission work in indigenous hands?

Perhaps in some cases, depending on the amount of influence or status the converts have in their society, the missionary will leave earlier. Perhaps in other cases, the new converts need more time and attention as they approach the 10% threshold.

Leaving too early should be cause for concern, but so should leaving too late. After all, a missionary who stays in a country and continues to lead when there are emerging national leaders is only impeding the process, introducing the pathogens of our own cultural Christianity into a foreign context.

The point is, we should take care not to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to determining the best use of our resources. It is difficult to argue for extensive contextualization in our mission strategies among unreached peoples if we are unwilling to subject our statistical surmising to contextual factors “on the ground” so to speak.

Roland Allen’s influential work on Paul’s missionary methods is still relevant to this discussion. Though Allen saw little use in persisting in mission among a group that proves resistant, he wanted missionaries to understand the temporary nature of their task and then work with an eye to succession and replacement. Following Paul’s example, Allen encouraged missionaries to entrust new converts to the Holy Spirit and stop seeing themselves as essential in the ongoing discipleship process.

Allen’s “course-corrective” from a hundred years ago was to point us to the Apostle Paul, and it’s in Paul’s example where we can avoid “either-ors.” Though his ministry was generally brief in most locations, we do note how Paul stayed in different places for different amounts of time, considering the needs of each church or the circumstances of his own ministry.

Here are some of the questions a missionary and mission agency should ask:

  • Has God raised up capable, willing people to lead the movement?
  • Is there enough access to doctrinal and missional resources in the language of the people?
  • How antagonistic is the host culture to Western involvement?
  • If there is persecution present, how severe and debilitating is it?
  • Are institutions in place that train and replicate leaders?
  • Is our presence and our money creating any sense of dependency by national church leaders that keeps them from looking to God’s plan for their own resources?

Conclusion

In the coming months and years, I will be praying for Spirit to give wisdom and discernment to our missionaries and our agencies as they carefully consider the best way forward. The harvest is ripe, and the Spirit is on the move, bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth and using us to get it there.


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9 thoughts on “What is the Threshold for Considering a Group Reached?”

  1. Ken says:

    Interesting article. Thanks for writing and addressing this issue. I serve as a missions pastor and an IMB trustee so I am somewhat familiar with these different discussions going on and find them interesting. My question is “Do harvest fields really need us? ” I mean they are harvesting. Why do they need foreign people to go in there who do not speak the language and will not for several years. Discipleship maybe ? Or maybe we should step out of the way to allow a harvest to flourish and do not mess it up with our way of doing things. Or go there to learn how we can see such a harvest back home. :) You are so right about people back home expecting a harvest field especially on a short term trip.
    As to going to the unreached pioneer areas, not sure that is really a big concern from American churches right now . While the IMB does seek to focus on unreached and a few other M boards do also, my understanding is that the vast majority of missionaries , money, and churches are going to those harvest type places, or places that are “reached” . My hope is that more churches would begin to balance out their mission efforts and go to the unreached areas since I see so few in my own work who are willing to go to hard places. Again thanks for writing this.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      Good word, Ken. Striking that balance is always going to be a challenge. Praying for the IMB and the decisions ahead!

  2. I am excited about this opportunity. I hope this encourages mission boards to look at cities like Denver, CO as ones that need added resources to be reached, as they are 10% reached or less.

  3. John says:

    I find it interesting that you chose to mention C. Peter Wagner and Ed Dayton as the chief proponents of reaching the hidden peoples and not Ralph D. Winter, founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission. The 2% Evangelical threshold helps us to mobilize people to places where there is still little to no access to the Gospel. Since there are over 7,000 distinct ethno-linguistic people groups, totaling 2.89 billion people, who fit this criteria there remains a dramatic need to define them specifically as the unreached peoples and also to give distinct and sustained focus on reaching them until so that at least access becomes a greater reality. Over 3,000 of these groups still have no Bible, no known believers, and no church among them. This means they have no access to the Gospel. As Winter said over forty years ago, the unfinished task of world evangelization remains the unreached peoples. They remain our greatest priority in cross cultural missions today.

  4. Justin Lobg says:

    it should be noted that the original definition of Unreached as agreed to by the early architects in Chicago (Winter, Lausanne, EFMA et al) did not include a percentage threshold. Percentages have been incorporated later by various people for various reasons. You might want to consider the original definition and the implications of it versus a percentage and how strategies based on the original vs a percentage work out differently.

  5. I appreciate your post Trevin. Lots of good food for thought.
    It might be helpful for the readers of this, to know a few other thoughts on how these percentages and other definitions were made.
    You (and Hataway) correctly question the idea of ANY percentage determining that a group is reached. The Joshua Project list (www.joshuaproject.net)—which is one of our ministries—used percentage mainly because they MUST have something to make a decision as to how a group is listed. They work with the IMB, Wycliffe, SIL, Jesus Film, and many others to put down the best information they can get. AND it gives us a sense of need.
    But it isn’t a clear picture…and it is NOT intended to be.

    It might be helpful to give the accepted definition by mission leaders, since it no longer includes any percentage. (It has not included a percentage since 1982.)
    Instead, there are two key parts of it.
    • What is a People Group? and,
    • What is an Unreached People Group?
    (Those are capitalized because they are technical terms. They do NOT refer to your unsaved neighbor…unless the culture he/she is from is a GROUP that is categorized as Unreached.)

    Note these definitions are from the book: Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (4th edition, 2009) and in an article by Ralph D. Winter and Bruce A. Koch called: “Finishing the Task: The Unreached People’s Challenge (pages 531-546)

    So (quoting from the book, on page 536):

    1. A People Group is “a significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, or occupation, class or caste, situation, etc., or combinations of these.”
    For evangelistic purpose it is the “largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

    2. An Unreached People Group is “a people group within which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to evangelize this people group.”
    (end book quote…)

    Perhaps it is more simple. I like to say that the difference between a Reached and Unreached group is the “presence or absence” of the viable church.

    Note then that Reached does not mean they are all Christians. It merely means there is a “viable, indigenous, evangelizing church movement.” Lots of training, evangelism and other ministry needs to go on in any people group—Reached or Unreached, BUT:

    The KEY distinction is the TYPE of work that is needed. We have argued for years that missionary work should be the kind of work that is pioneering or going to Unreached Peoples, since it takes a special set of gifts and (learned?) skills. That doesn’t mean we can’t help, or that we don’t need to, where there IS a church. But as you and Ken note (in comments) it may be that we can easily mess things up by getting involved.

    I won’t take more space here to comment on how long workers should stay. Paul seemed to appoint elders after fairly brief times (three years at the most?). He entrusted them to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God to guide them.

    Here is my main point (and my main calling):
    What are we going to do with the major cultural (and sometimes called “religious”) groups globally where almost nothing is happening?
    That is why a focus on what is and is not Unreached is so important.
    And Joshua Project helps us to point that out, even if the percentages can miss-communicate.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      This is very helpful, Greg. Thank you for giving us some further information and for the good work that the Joshua Project does.

  6. Eric says:

    I’m glad to see this type of article on this site. One problem is that the point of the 2% criteria Joshua Project and others use for “Evangelical” was to expose the groups that are cut off from the gospel, frontier groups, unreached groups. The point was not show which groups are “reached”. Its a fallacy to infer that groups above 2% “evangelical” are “reached” , simply because they do not have the label “unreached”. This is not espoused by JP, IMB or any others, but could be fault of the way things have been communicated by other leaders.

    We need to remember the main purpose of terms “Unreached” and “Least Reached”: motivation, to turn the mission community’s attention to these groups.

  7. THANKS for this Eric. You’ve make several great points.
    Since Joshua Project is one of our ministries, I thought I’d reply. (Though they may also add their comments.)
    Generally, as I mentioned above, the need for %-ages is mainly because they are necessary in order to have a database. Depending on the size of the group 2% Evangelical (or even 5% Christian) can mean too little or too much. In the early days, before the 1982 definitions meeting/decisions, MARC used 20% as the threshold of Christians. But even that was too much for a small group and not enough for a big one–depending on many factors like geography, etc.
    A key way of looking at this is imbedded in the definitions I listed in my previous post, namely: a viable Church. (That does not mean one church or say anything about buildings.)
    As you note, Eric, the main reason many of these ideas have been used and worked on was for mobilization. Back in the 1980s, and early 90s, not too much was being done among the major blocs of peoples from Hindu, Muslim and Buddhists…so we were try to “raise the flag.”
    Beyond initial contact, evangelism, and full blow CP work, there are ALWAYS more things which are part of “teaching them to obey all things” (Matt. 28) or like Paul said it, “bringing about obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5).
    Using the idea of the Unreached or Least Reached is more about letting people know that the process of bring about obedience has not yet started in a particular culture or people (as best we know, of course, God can be doing things we don’t know about!

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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