If ethnos isn’t ‘people group’, what is it?
From countries to people groups
When the “people group” idea really got traction at Lausanne in 1989, the idea was good for mission. Instead of translating ‘panta ta ethne’ in Matthew 28.19 as “all the countries,” it was argued that there are ethno-linguistic groups within evangelised countries that remain un-evangelised, such as Turks in Germany or Muslims in Singapore. This call to focus on specific groups birthed more contextual approaches. A whole load of projects mapping ‘unreached peoples’ were originated, such as AD2000 and Beyond or The Joshua Project.
So why are some missiologists beginning to think that ethne should not be translated as ‘people groups,’ and that the fruit of this direction has not been as overwhelmingly good as anticipated? Here are some of my thoughts;
Ethne ad absurdum
- The absurdity of task-extremism
I have met people whose strategy has been so strictly to reach one particular ethnic group, that they ignore all others. If you were to ask them “what if people get saved from this other ethnic group?” they answer, “we will consider that a distraction. We are only reaching x…” That kind of focus can be commendable in language strategy – if lots of English-speakers get saved we won’t stop trying to learn Arabic! – but at its worst is racist or exclusivist – ‘the church is only for x group.”
Counting people groups and making them into numerical task carries the danger of triumphalism; “the number of unreached people groups will be reduced to zero and then the end will come” becomes our interpretation of Matt 24.14, making it sound like Christianity will have an upward expansionist trajectory until the return of Christ, making a nonsense of 2000 years of painful church history as well as that verse’s immediate context, such as Matt 24.9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” The task of world mission is not a game of numbers or about ticking peoples off a list.
Ralf Winter’s receptivity scale was the next step, seeking to demonstrate that some groups are more receptive than others. The danger with the “church growth school” is that it draws all those who want to be successful in mission away from reaching groups classified as unreceptive. Obviously, if there is an open door amongst a particular people or into a particular place, then this should be celebrated and resourced. But never to the neglect of the unreached! In the Parable of the Tenants, the landowner sends his son amongst a hardened and dangerous people already in full-blown rebellion (Luk. 20.13). If this parable is indeed a Christological story, then God sent his Son into the world when it was at its least receptive. Only reaching “open” places is the missional equivalent of only loving those who love you back (Luk. 14.12-14).
4. Not engaging with “place”
Ethnos as “people group” makes mission exclusively about saving the souls of people into heaven, rather than discipling people as part of the coming Kingdom. It preaches salvation from the world not salvation of the world. It treats people as de-contextual, rather than as part of their city, their culture, the world. This again is a strongly Western, atomistic view of the world, rather than a more holistic view. As we will see below, this can have toxic implications.
5. HUP and her daughters
One of McGavran’s most controversial observations was that “Homogenous Units Grow Faster.” This was a sociological observation, not a theological conviction. “McGavran’s point is simply that people cannot demonstrate a kingdom ethic until they come into God’s kingdom.” The danger with the homogenous unit principle, and with C.P.M.s (Church Planting Movements) more widely, is that where there exist cultural strongholds of racism or tribalism these are never confronted, that “One new man in Christ” is never attained, and that the church, where there is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free” is never truly established.
Prof. Johannes Reimer writes, “The church is not allowed to pick and choose the more receptive and leave the others out. Ecclesia can never be guided by a homogeneous unit principle (HUP)… Such a principle may help to sharpen our missionary communication, but never determine our task.”
On the other hand, a forced multiculturalism, “One new man in Christ must be expressed in the Sunday meeting,” can frustrate evangelism by creating unbiblical barriers to the gospel and prohibiting contextualization. This issue is complex, painful, and live today.
Ethnos in the Bible
If ethnos is better defined as “a people within their socio-cultural space,” then planting local churches to disciple people within their context is the order of the day. “Make disciples of all nations,” doesn’t then simply mean saving souls but discipling cultures. It gives the church a more holistic remit. Reimer writes;
“Ecclesia is a local agent of God, so planting will be done locally. A locality is clearly marked by a social space, a culturally and geographically defined territory called ethnos in Matthew 28: 19– 20. The church is called to disciple a social space and people living in a clearly defined locality, be it a village, town, or a part of the city.”
Jesus called us to makes disciples of panta ta ethne. Let’s get on and do that!
 McGavran, Donald A. Understanding Church Growth, 199.
 Terry and Payne, Developing a Strategy for Missions, 123.
 Gal 3.28
 Reiner, Johannes Church Planting Connected to Society In van der Poll, Evert and Appleton, Joanne (eds.) “Church Planting in Europe: Connecting to Society, Learning from Experience” (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2015), Kindle location 1622.
 Ibid., Kindle location 1618.