What are unreached people groups anyway?

Have you heard your pastor or a missions leader reference the term "unreached people groups?" If so, it might be a confusing term. In fact, much of what we call "missions" might be confusing for many of you. I do not consider myself an expert on all things missions, but I do want to help you understand what "unreached people groups" are a bit more.

At First Baptist Church, we just had the privilege of hosting many of our missionaries for our Missions Weekend. It was amazing to have so many missionaries in Minneapolis at the same time. Through the weekend, and through conversations with people at my church, I was reminded that not everyone knows what a people group is, let alone an unreached one.

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Make disciples of All Nations

At the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, he gave his disciples some final instruction that is often termed The Great Commission. Matthew 28:18-20 reads like this:

And Jesus came and said to them, β€œAll authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

When Jesus says, "make disciples of all nations," what does he mean? Specifically, what are "nations?" Does Jesus mean the 206 sovereign nation-states that are currently recognized by the United Nations? No, I do not believe that is what he meant.

The original Greek for "all nations" is panta ta ethne. What is the meaning of ethne? I believe that the meaning of ethne (nations) is similar to what we understand a people group to be today. You could maybe say that Jesus' command was to "make disciples of all people groups." Far more could be said to explain this, but I will leave it there for now. 

What is a people group?

A definition for a people group that I find helpful is the product of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization gathering in 1982. It says that "for evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance." A people group is a group of people that share similar culture, ethnicity, language, caste, etc. Because they have so many characteristics in common, it is easy for the gospel to be shared from person to person, family to family and village to village. But when the gospel runs into a barrier of understanding or acceptance, then you see a line that separates one people group from another.

Barriers of understanding or acceptance are things like language. As someone who only speaks English, it is difficult for me to ask for simple directions, much less share the gospel with someone who only speaks French. This would be a barrier of understanding. Another example would be if someone from one ethnic group who has a sordid past with another ethnic group tries to share the gospel, even if they know the same language and might understand the message, their ethnic histories are a barrier for acceptance.

It doesn't mean these barriers of understanding or acceptance are impossible to overcome, but they are just more challenging and help us to distinguish between different people groups.

Why do people groups matter?

This matters, because we believe that the primary call from Jesus in the Gospels (Mt 24:14, Mt 28:18-20) to make disciples of all nations is to make disciples of all people groups. And there are still many people groups that have no sustainable gospel witness among them. Which means that unless someone crosses a barrier of knowledge or acceptance, they will have little to no change to hear about the life saving message of Jesus. They will live and die without ever having heard about Jesus and having the opportunity to give praise and worship to God.

Depending which characteristics you use, there are about 16,400 people groups in the world. Of those 16,400 people groups, 6,600 of them remain unreached. The number of unreached people's is shrinking, but there is still much work to be done. So, we pray as Jesus taught us, asking that the Lord of the harvest will send laborers into his harvest (Mt 9:38).

When you hear people talk about unreached people groups, it is very important. And it is worth your time to listen and ask yourself how you can contribute to the mission.

Additional Resources


This is a great website to help you understand people groups more. They have great resources and articles that help to explain these concepts. They also have profiles of all the known people groups in the world, so you can read about them and pray for them.

Perspectives on The World Christian Movement

The Perspectives course is led by the U.S. Center for World Missions and is a 15 week course, designed to teach you about the Biblical, historical, cultural and strategic perspectives on missions. Throughout the 15 weeks, you will have 15 different instructors who are primarily pastors, professors and missionaries. Find a course in your area and consider investing the time to learn more about missions.

David Platt's address at the 2013 TGC National Conference

This is an hour long plenary by David Platt about why the Great Commission is Great. It would be well worth your time to hear his instruction about this important topic.