This week, Wade Burleson has provided his readers with another summary of the IMB trustee meetings. One part was of particular interest to me. Burleson reports concerning Jerry Rankin’s report to the board: “[A particular trustee asked Dr. Jerry Rankin after his address to the trustees], ‘Dr. Rankin, I only ask because I'm curious and have heard this said before. Is your focus on the unreached people groups driven by an eschatalogical motive?’ Dr. Rankin answered by quoting Matthew 24:16 [sic], 'The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached to the whole world, and then the end shall come' and said that eschatology does not compel the IMB's mission (or his), but obedience does. Dr. Rankin said the timing of the coming of the Son is up to the Father and nothing we do will define when He comes. It is up to God. We are simply to obey His commission."
This trustee’s question is pertinent because if a particular policy of the mission board is in place because of theological reasons, and those theological views prove erroneous (or at least questionable), then the board is on shaky ground. Indeed, one of the perennial problems of missions and evangelism methodologies is that the supporters of those policies often attempt to justify their chosen model as mandated by Scripture – often using less that sound hermeneutical principles.
The Unreached People Group (UPG) strategy has been a topic of continued discussion among my missions buddies. Of particular concern has been the theological justification made for such a strategy. There are those who do in fact find theological support if not a mandate for a UPG strategy. For some, an interpretation of Matt 24:14 which suggests that the Lord will not (or can not) return until the Great Commission is fulfilled; i.e., the last people group is reached. This is based also on an understanding of the Greek phrase panta ta ethne in the Great Commission as referring to ethnolinguistic groups. (I personally hold neither of these views, though a number of my colleagues do).
There are good reasons to question this view:
Assuming that Matt 24:14 is speaking of the second coming of Christ (which is not universally accepted, as some scholars believe this is a reference to the destruction of the temple in 70AD -- see Matt 24:2), note the following:
1. Even if the spread of the gospel is a prerequisite to the return of Christ, but this does not mean that we can in any way hasten the return of Christ. God may be waiting for those who have already heard the gospel to respond, for yet unborn future believers, or waiting until his own appointed time and good pleasure. (cf. 2 Pet 3.9)
2. What does it mean that the gospel will be preached in all the world.. to all nations? – every region? Every geo-political entity? Every people group? Every individual? – How will we know when we have completed the task?
3. Jesus told us that it is not for us to be concerned about the timing of the second coming but to be his witnesses throughout the world (Acts 1:6-8).
All this is to say, that in my opinion, (echoing the answer given by Dr. Rankin) it is much more important to obey the command of Christ and be about the business of taking the gospel to all than it is to focus on the timing of the second coming and how we might hurry it along.
As far as panta ta ethne in the Great Commission, despite my respect for men like Donald McGavran and John Piper, I think it is in error to translate this as "people group." I am more inclined to agree with those exegetes who see the phrase as a general reference to the whole world -- i.e. all of humanity. A better case for people group strategy might be made from passages like Rev. 5:9. In any case, it is difficult to make a real case that the UPG strategy is Scripturally mandated.
While I believe the UPG strategy is a good one, I don't believe it is necessarily mandated by Scripture. What IS commanded is that we take the gospel to the world. The real reason to adopt the UPG strategy is on pragmatic grounds. That is, we should focus on UPGs because this strategy is the best way to be obedient to the Great Commission in this period of Christian Missions. This focus is the best way today to bring the gospel to as many people as possible in a way that they can hear, understand, and respond. In this era of missions, a focus on UPGs makes sense. Of course, things may be different in the future. In the wake of globalization and the seemingly constant (if gradual) change in the number and makeup of ethnolinguistic people groups, there may be a need in the future for a change in strategy. For now, I personally believe a focus on UPGs is the best way to be obedient to the Great Commission.
Finally, regardless of how one views the particulars of the UPG strategy or the reasons behind it, it is important for missionaries, practitioners, and their supporters to continually be in dialog about how we can be obedient to God's command to reach the nations.