A Biblical Paradigm Is Needed for Unreached People Groups
By Andrew Herbek
Andrew is a member of Frontier Ventures where he serves on the Perspectives National Staff. He is also an instructor and former coordinator for the course, Perspectives on the World Christian Movement. He is currently working on a Masters of Divinity and Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This article was originally part of a group email discussion about identifying and reaching Unreached People Groups (UPGs).
I’m more than happy to talk numbers and strategy but what is missing in most discussions about remaining UPGs is a robust biblical paradigm of frontier mission. Why is the Godhead and his revealed Word so rarely at the forefront of our discussions in recent times?
We are wasting our time if our labor is not embedded in the eternal purpose of God. Our strategies may endlessly come and go but God’s promise does not until it is fulfilled; and that is not something done by us but rather he himself fulfills it. If we lose sight of this being God's mission before it is our mission than “mission,” and all the other language that goes with it (as well as ourselves as an organization) can die the death of a thousand qualifications. Frontier mission especially does not arise out of the pure needs of the world whether in proclamation or social action. It does not arise out of the deficiencies of the church to “do her job.” It does not arise out of a dualism of good against evil. It arises out of the very being and doing of God Himself. It arises out of the eternal purpose of God in relationship—in the blessing of all “peoples” and in the receiving of loving obedient worship from all “peoples.”
We can and should press into the meaning of a “people" biblically before we go back and forth attempting to define a people with our scientific Enlightenment categories. We can and should also continue to press into the “eternal purpose of God.” The sort of approach we take with that is what will determine our approach to verbiage and definitions in missiology—and all the way down to the administrative operations of our organizations. I find today there is a broad temptation to either jettison any notion of finishing anything in history for the sake of mere progress, or the other extreme is thinking that our own effort is what will get the job done. Both are shaped more by Enlightenment assumptions than by Scripture.
I find there will never be a perfect definition to “the task” or “people group” because mission has less to do with a task and more to do with a very real person(s), the God who is Father, Son, and Spirit. Let’s not leave him out of this discussion. Now this does not deny that there is a very real work to do. The biblical paradigm is one in which a real point in history will be reached where Jesus is loved and obeyed by a people from “within” all peoples (as Roberta Winter used to say) as they are blessed in him. That is a promise in the biblical reality and what missiologists of past generations have attempted to describe as “closure.” Whatever the word we use, the biblical reality remains. This is something God himself will finish within history and it is something that we as the church are freely invited to co-labor towards. We are neither utilitarian pawns in a cosmic chess game, nor has God simply checked out to leave us a job to do in His absence. Frontier mission is a relational work driven by a love for Christ. The more we move away from that I pray the Lord in His grace ends our work to spare us from shame.
In focusing on this relational reality I find it tempering on two extremes. This both means we need not have a perfect definitions of things like people group, UPG, closure, the task remaining and so forth. the way we will know what a people truly is and when the task is finally done is when Jesus comes back and so we gladly continue to co-labor till it happens. that is a reality we as the church will neither speed up nor slow down because it is something God does before it is something we do.
Likewise the second extreme this tempers is that we will refuse to sit unengaged and inactive. Not because there is a job to get done but rather because there is a person in whom our entire being is joyfully wrapped up, and who is himself at work fulfilling a great promise. This means that we can indeed pursue real though humble (and imperfect) definitions of words like closure, UPG etc. because the core concept is a divine reality—no matter how much we struggle to articulate it as finite creatures. I find if we focus with biblical minds we will both account for the complexity of the work with humility while also humbly approaching the simplicity of the outcome of that work. All of which re-aligns our priorities.
The “enlightened” mind says simplicity is bad because complexity is more progressed and evolved. The colonial mind says complexity is bad because simplicity is operational and do-able. The biblical mind says simplicity and complexity both find their place and purpose in Christ because He is both the initiator, worker, and the finisher of mission. Since Paul’s day, the bride of Christ has been more worried about the wedding ceremony and the guest list, though both are very real, than she has been about the Groom. The church down through the ages has been a mixture of faithful and faulty people. Yet there is Christ, true to His word—“lo I will be with you always, even till the end of the age.” Have we in this day lost our first love?
So please, let’s continue this discussion, but let us frame it not in pragmatics but in Christ himself. I don’t think we could ever regret putting extra time and effort into that.