Rethinking people groups

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So Ernest Goodman and Eddie have both weighed in on the people group theory of mission, and apparently George Verver gave quite a critical appraisal of it at a Lausanne circuit meeting recently.

A while back I wrote a rant in response to Paul Eshleman’s truly extraordinary paper for the Lausanne one-way “conversation”, which I softened up for academic publication and then promptly did nothing with. Now the time seems right to dust it off, convert it back into rant format and post it here.

People group theory does not take the Gospel seriously

Ernest points to some of the Biblical challenges with UPG theory, but I want to throw in another one: by centering on the “of all nations” part of Matthew 28:19, UPG advocates take the words totally out of their context, which is (a) broadly, a declaration of Jesus’ universal authority and presence in the mission (“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore… And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”) (b) the call to make disciples.

As Mounce puts it, a disciple is “to simply one who has been taught but one who continues to learn.” Discipleship is a never-ending process. It is impossible to fulfill the Great Commission.

Further, the Great Commission is achieved through (“make disciples” is the main verb, the others are attendant participles) going, baptizing and teaching. Baptism is a call to renewed allegiance to the purposes of Jesus and also initiation into a new family and new responsibilities. (See Carter, “Matthew and the Margins”) Teaching is not meant to merely pass on information but is meant to result in obedience to Jesus’s commands - it is teaching of primarily an ethical character. The Great Commission is not a matter of merely producing more Christians; it cannot be fulfilled apart from the producing of better Christians. This, again, is a process with no finite end point. It is impossible to fulfill the Great Commission.

The only way that the Gospel can propagate the whole world and then be done is if what we propagate is a watered-down, reductionist version of the Gospel, which sees conversion as the goal. But that is not the goal of the Great Commission.

People group theory does not take God’s calling seriously

When I taught a class on UPG theory, I decided to take a different approach. I played the class a video from Lausanne, and asked what they felt about it. Challenged? Excited? Those were the kinds of words I was expecting. I was quite surprised by the first answer I got from one of the students: “Really rather angry actually.” Why, I asked? I’m paraphrasing slightly but the answer was not far from this: “I feel that God has called me to be a missionary in Spain, and I’m being meant to feel that this calling is invalid because according to some statistic that someone’s cooked up, Spain is a reached country.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. To the extent that UPG theory inspires those who are not currently involved in mission to get involved in an area of need, I think it’s fantastic. But when it is used as a blunt instrument to evaluate the worth of other people’s ministries, it is disrespecting God because it is disrespecting the call that He has placed on people’s lives.

And before UPG folks get all pearl-clutchy and declare that they would never judge people like that, here’s Paul Eshleman again:

If we know what the priorities are, we can “stimulate one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews  10:24) - to do what hasn’t been done thus far.

So, there you have it. Love and good deeds equals doing new evangelism. If you’re not doing what hasn’t been done thus far, what you’re doing is not a priority for the Church. God must have got it wrong when He told you to go to Spain; there’s more important things you should be doing instead.

People group theory does not take God’s character seriously

There is a fundamental clash between the manager of the American enterprise and the God of the Christian Bible. The American manager is interested in achieving goals as quickly and efficiently as possible; God is not.

Even at the birth of mission, when his disciples are ready (or we would expect them to be ready) to head off into Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the Earth, the message from Jesus was not go, but wait: “And look, I am sending you what my Father promised. But stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Forty years to deliver a chosen people from Egypt; four thousand years (at least) between Fall and Redemptor; forty days to kick off world mission.

These things do not suggest to me a God who is interested in finishing “the task”, or indeed any task, as quickly as possible. As Koyama puts it, God moves at three miles an hour because walking pace is the pace of love. Efficiency, hurry and haste do not effectively communicate love, and so a vision of mission centered around haste cannot be carried out according to the character of our God.

People group theory does not take God’s mission seriously

Following on from the last point, I think it is clear from the process of the unfolding of mission in the Bible that God is more interested in mission as a process than as a goal. If we accept that God is a missional God, then the idea that mission could somehow one day be “done” (leaving aside the obvious fact that people keep making more people) is equivalent to stating that God will one day no longer be God.

The Son is sent missionally by the sending God; the Church is sent missionally by the sending Son. A strong understanding of the mission of God sees mission not just as a task to be finished, but as the arena for God’s love, as the outworking of His character upon the world.

People group theory does not take God’s creation seriously

God made the people that we are trying to reach. Also, He loves them. As a missionary in Japan, I have always fought against the idea that the Japanese people are “resistant” or “difficult” or any of the other negative words that missionaries love to throw around when they don’t get their own way. It is not the Japanese people’s fault that they don’t want to buy what we’re selling. The Holy Spirit is responsible for changing hearts, so if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s His, although I dare say that the praxis of missionaries could welcome a little bit more scrutiny as well.

I have the same problem with UPG theory. To talk about closure, to talk about finishing the task, to talk about unreached peoples, is to reduce the objects of God’s love to a set of goals and objectives. They become little boxes for us to tick on our merry way to bringing Jesus back. It dehumanizes people and, to borrow Buber’s categories, places us in an “I-it” relationship with them rather than an “I-thou” relationship. Koyama believed that dehumanizing and mechanising the work of God is to reduce it to demonic idolatry, and I’m not far behind him on that.

So things are bad for the unreached, but what are they like for the reached? If unreached people are the priority, how precisely do we communicate the love of Christ to those four billion people who live within supposedly “reached” people groups by telling them that they’re not a priority for us? Would, I wonder, they not be a priority for him?

People group theory does not take the present situation seriously

I’ve said before that fundamentalism is a last-ditch attempt to keep hold of modernist faith in a postmodern world while control of the narrative is slipping away.

With that in mind, the whole UPG project strikes me as thoroughly fundamentalist, in two senses. The first sense is that it is an extremely modern approach to mission, reducing God’s mission to a matter of achieving goals and objectives and focusing on ends rather than means. That just isn’t how we do things any more. It is an attempt to establish the ultimate metanarrative for mission, and we’re just not that keen on ultimate metanarratives these days, and are likely to question the motives of those pushing them.

This is because it is fundamentalist in a second sense, in that it is an essentially top-down approach. Eshleman’s paper is an attempt to sign up the global church to agree on one particular set of objectives and actions, and more broadly each organisation pushing the idea of finishing the task generally has its own (mutually incompatible) set of estimates about which people groups are most in need of reaching and which are done - which they want the global church to sign up. That just isn’t how we do things any more either, and even if it were, it would be a very obvious power play. One key feature of networked organisations in a postmodern world is that a network is not a pyramid; command and control is no longer an effective mechanism for leadership in networks, which often use diverse strategies to achieve common goals, and thus “priorities” cannot be imposed upon the network from one part to another.

People group theory does not take anthropology seriously

Eddie’s and Ernest’s criticism of UPG is basically that it has sold out to anthropology. I’m afraid my critique of it is that, unfortunately, it hasn’t. I really wouldn’t mind some of this stuff if it actually had sound anthropological backing to it.

Instead, the whole concept of dividing the world into distinct people groups is one that anthropologists have quite a bit to say about - and what they say about it is “you can’t.”

The first serious attempt amongst anthropologists to define a distinct ethnic unit was Naroll’s 1964 concept of the “cultunit”. In his original paper, Naroll accepts that his definition was “an arbitrary definition whose justification is its convenience” - a pragmatic view that I’m sure the UPG people will appreciate - but it was swiftly critiqued as oversimplistic. (see Moerman’s wonderful Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization.)

Many of the categories presented by the likes of the Joshua Project and others are simply ethnic glosses, about which anthropologists have less than kind words. For example, my favourite ‘ethnic cluster’ according to the Joshua Project is “the Deaf” - an ethnic group which has apparently spread throughout the world, with unknown population but with shockingly precise figures for Christian adherents and Evangelicals. (The Deaf are 16.9% unreached!) Thus the Joshua Project refers with specificity to, say, ‘Deaf people in the US.’ Not, say, Deaf Americans, or Deaf Koreans in the US—just Deaf, as if all deaf people in the US spoke American Sign Language. Or would deaf Koreans count as mixed-race—another concept that the Joshua Project does not appear to recognise? One could go on. The point is that, as anthroplogists accept, the world is considerably more complicated than our simple categorisations can model.

For instance, most of the people group distinctions made are entirely ad hoc. Some are purely geographical, some linguistic, some ethnic - some a combination. (And, generally speaking, all different.) One cannot have it both ways, even though speaking in vague terms—“people groups, language groups and geographic locations”—is an attempt to do so. If one claims to be scientific, then one must also be precise.

Even geographical distinctions are equally arbitrary, at the level of the nation state, a relatively recent invention; is the UK “reached”? Sure. (For instance, Rene Padilla said that according to papers given out at Cape Town, there are no unreached people groups in the United States.) So the UK is a reached country, and thus not a priority for those following, say, Operation World’s view of mission. But is Southall “reached”? Ah. Why prioritize the nation state?

Dwight Heath’s reminder “that the ways in which people define and maintain the social boundaries between or among self-identified categories are often far more important and revealing of sociocultural dynamics” is timely - the way we cut up the world into units reflects a lot about us, but very little about the world.

People group theory does not even take itself seriously

Human beings are brilliant at gaming systems. By this I mean, every time you equate objectives with metrics, people find great ways of achieving the metrics by playing the letter rather than the spirit of the law. (See, for instance, the study of metric gaming in British public services.) Turning diagnostics directly into strategy is just a bad way to motivate people; distortion effects - “hitting the target but missing the point” - are too strong.

And, as Coote points out, if we do motivate people by turning evangelism into a system that has metrics and objectives, we run a large risk if we fail - and let’s face it, the odds are not good - of a generation of missionaries who walk by sight and not by faith.

Postscript 2011-08-28: Ed from Wycliffe writes to remind me that there are various flavours of UPG theory, ranging from the “strong” (let’s reach all the people groups so that mission is Done and Jesus comes back) to the “weak”. (let’s find a good way to organise our efforts) I’m obviously taking aim here at some of the stronger expressions of the idea, particularly those promulgated by Eshleman, by MUP, by “Finishing The Task”, by the Joshua Project and the like, as seen in alarming strength at Cape Town 2011.

Naturally my arguments here apply in varying detail to the various expressions of the theory. In the case of Wycliffe, which has a clearly defined agenda within the broader mission of the Church, UPG theory makes a lot of sense: the aim is to provide Bible translations for the whole world, it’s a good idea to break up the world into linguistic units and work out where you need translators. Since the work is linguistic, the scope of your people group subdivisions naturally falls out of that, rather than being an ad hoc slice-and-dice. Eddie also highlights the role of partnership within Wycliffe’s vision, and the way that adopting the vision of a Bible translation project for every linguistic group has focused and sharpened the way they operate.

But in a sense I think the Wycliffe example strengthens some of what I am saying, in particular the point about the present situation, because it shows the futility of a one-size-fits-all set of goals and objectives for the world church. The principle of contextualization states that one size does not fit all, and I do not believe this principle applies purely to local expressions of church; I think our models and strategies of ministry need contextualization at a higher level as well. Different ministries have different needs and require different approaches. Creative diversity can be godly strength.

So when Ernest asks what I would propose as an alternative to UPG theory, I think we first need to take a step back and take a longer look at the state of world mission first - I would rail even harder against the idea of displacing one ultimate metanarrative for mission only to replace it with a different one.