If “nations” (ethne) in the Bible does not refer to “people groups,” sociologically-defined, what does this mean for mission strategy? How might our understanding of people groups be applied to the missionary task? Is our contemporary knowledge of “people groups” even useful? I suggest the terms could be useful as long as we don’t think they are biblically normative.
After a few clarifying remarks, I’ll offer an initial proposal about how we might adapt some practices and perspectives common among missionaries.
A Few Needed Corrections
We should first acknowledge an obvious but underappreciated observation. Paul’s context of ministry was quite different than ours. He did not engage in cross-cultural missions in the manner many missionaries do today.
Paul, born in Damascus, was a Roman citizen who moved with ease in a Greek-speaking world. Except for his brief stop in Lystra (Acts 14), Paul worked within what was functionally a first culture. (Given his Jewish heritage, we might say he was dual cultured.) He did not conduct a global, sociological analysis to identify each ethnolinguistic group without a population of 3-5% Christian.
Furthermore, the Gentiles who responded so enthusiastically to Paul’s message are quite different than most of today’s UPGs. As I’ve shown in a previous article, the overwhelming number of responsive Gentiles in Acts had a basic familiarity with Judaism. Accordingly, they had the background to make sense of Paul’s message. This is not true for the typical UPG of India, Malaysia, or China.
The point? We should proceed with caution before assuming Paul’s language and mindset reflects our own. At best, we can look for wise patterns and/or principles. But we still must distinguish the Bible’s description of his work from what it prescribes.
Paul’s Urban Arteries Strategy
What can we glean from Scripture?
Looking at the whole of Paul’s ministry, scholars have noted a few prominent patterns within his mission strategy. For example, Paul routinely began outreach efforts in cities. In these urban centers, he could find Jewish synagogues and/or God-fearing gentiles.
In one article, the author surveys the book of Acts in order to identify Paul’s church planting strategies. He says,
Paul considered the cities as the most strategic places and among his highest priorities for his church events. Paul’s strategies included preaching the gospel in the cities, and from there the gospel could spread to the rural areas surrounding each metropolitan center. As a result, the entire regions and provinces ultimately heard the gospel. Roger S. Greenway stated, “Paul proved himself as an effective urban strategist in evangelizing the towns and cities.” He established his goal to evangelize the cities and towns at every available opportunity.
Rodney Stark, in Cities of God, even summarizes, “Early Christianity was primarily an urban movement” (p. 2).
Paul’s ambition was that all would know Christ, regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles. Using urban centers helped accomplish this goal.
“People Group” Centers
Can we discern any similar pattern that could be applied among “all nations” and utilizes our knowledge of “people groups” (sociologically defined)? In what follows, I offer one suggestion, but I do not imply that it should be normative. I merely seek to apply the sort of wisdom evident in Paul’s strategy.
We’ve seen that Paul’s approach was to engage cultural epicenters. Within a particular culture, cities are melting pots for countless subcultures. Rather than think only of “urban centers,” perhaps we can begin to think of “people group” centers. Not all people groups are equally large or influential. Many people groups are share historical and cultural affinities. For example, the Joshua Project lists 71 people groups that fall under the category “Tibetan,” 15 groups are listed under the cluster name “Japanese”, etc.
I don’t claim that we can apply the same strategies to every group within the larger category. Instead, I suggest that we can strategically identify which are the largest, well-connected people groups, who are best positioned to reach other smaller people groups.
In effect, we would apply Paul’s city-first strategy to people groups. By identifying “cultural families,” we find centers for mission activity.
This is merely a brainstorm, an attempt to apply wisdom from Paul’s example. We not only want to get our message from Scripture; if possible, we should seek to derive our methods from the Bible.