What is a People Group?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

A "people group" is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity.

Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history">

What is a People Group?
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

A "people group" is an ethnolinguistic group with a common self-identity that is shared by the various members. There are two parts to that word: ethno and linguistic. Language is a primary and dominant identifying factor of a people group. But there are other factors that determine or are associated with ethnicity.

Usually there is a common self-name and a sense of common identity of individuals identified with the group. A common history, customs, family and clan identities, as well as marriage rules and practices, age-grades and other obligation covenants, and inheritance patterns and rules are some of the common ethnic factors defining or distinguishing a people. What they call themselves may vary at different levels of identity, or among various sub-groups.

Multi-Ethnic Language Groups

At the same time there may be different peoples who speak the same language but distinguish themselves because of different histories, other factors causing enmity, an endogamous marriage pattern, differing political alliances, or separate self-name or loyalty to a different common ancestor or leader of a common source people group in history.

Gospel Strategy

For gospel strategy purposes, a key principle is to define a strategy for the largest ethnolinguistic segment or affinity group within which the gospel can spread through "natural" social networks. Where barriers are identified which would hinder or prevent the further spread of the gospel, we have identified the effective boundary of the ethno-linguistic segment, or people group.

Thus, a group of separate peoples who speak the same language might need to be identified separately for strategy purposes, because the other factors of self-identification and social organization for internal communication would keep the Gospel from naturally being spread from one group to the other even though they speak the same language.

In other cases, the self-identification of the specific people group might be flexible enough that they would freely exchange cultural knowledge across their other ethnic factors so that the gospel could spread from one group to the other. To some extent that is the case with Swahili in the coastal regions of East Africa, because of the strong positive association with the language across otherwise separate peoples.

Nevertheless it is usually more effective to conduct gospel access in their own tribal language. It is in that deep, mother-tongue level where personal identity is developed and life decisions are made. But again, leadership training of believers can be effective in a shared language, because you are dealing with expansion of the accepted Christian worldview that they are already committed to sharing.

Multi-lingual ethnic groups maintain, or will develop, mechanisms or strategies for the transfer of information or cultural change across the language boundaries within their own ethnic groups, and perhaps for closely-related groups in the broader affinity groupings.

Ethnic Identity

In summary, ethnic identity does largely depend on a people's self-identity. This centers in relational and social groupings, not just naming systems. Further, language is a key factor in this group self-identity.

The western access worker or strategist brings a cultural problem to this task. Because of the western cultural thought-forms, we take a "systems" approach, which is abstract in approach.

We take a name for a people and proceed to define who can be called by that name. In investigating people group identities in the Horn of Africa, one access worker was reporting some initial findings. His comment read "the people themselves ... believe they are ...." The problem with that phrase is that it is a circular argument. This assumes already that they are a people by a certain name, so that we can refer to members of the predefined group.

Inductive Investigation

An inductive approach would be more valid, starting with the individuals to determine who they feel related to. This approach begins with the concrete relationships and natural social groupings of individuals, families and the larger society. So the operative question is "Who does this individual, family or social group feel related to?" What other families or groups do they consider themselves related to and in what ways?

It is necessary to ask (by observation, investigation and direct questioning where possible) how individuals or smaller communities commonly identify themselves. Then following that relational path, what is the largest such relational grouping within which ideas are exchanged and social obligations are maintained. Find out what the group call themselves at each relational level. A clue to the primary grouping for self-identity and the larger affinity groups is the various names that related sub-groups call themselves and each other.

This investigation of relational groupings will be the starting point for the strategic access person to determine the people group.

A major factor to keep in mind is the relationship of individuals who speak the language to the larger group identified with the language. Similarly, it is necessary to verify whether smaller groups speaking the same language share any supposed universal identity.

This is a simplified scenario of a very common and very complex pattern of human social ethnolinguistic identity.


Church Planting and people groups

It is the goal of church-planting movements to plant churches among every people group on earth. A church-planting movement is a rapid multiplication of indigenous churches within a people group.  Church-planting movements seem to be God's way of racing ahead of the exploding number of lost people that are being added to the world's population every day. With church-planting movements, there is a genuine hope of seeing an entire world come to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

Increasingly, the So. Baptist International Mission Board is looking at these ethnolinguistic people groups as it formulates its strategies and plans of action. It allows for more strategic and effective use of our resources. Developing and implementing a mission strategy aimed at a church-planting movement is a costly process. It requires deployment and support of missionaries, translation of Scripture, training of leadership and multiplication of churches. By ensuring that each of these endeavors is language-specific and worldview-specific, we are able to maximize the chances of their being understood and accepted by the people we are seeking to reach. 

Missiologists have long noted that church-planting movements are a distinctly homogeneous phenomenon. This means they tend to sweep through a common ethnolinguistic people group. Every church-planting movement we've identified thus far has erupted among a people who share a common language and ethnic identity. Likewise, the missionary efforts which launched these church-planting movements were language-specific and worldview-specific. In short, they were people-group focused.

Finally, a people-group focus ensures that we don't miss anyone! Everyone in the world can be linked to some ethnolinguistic group or groups. This is why regional strategists are busy segmenting their regions into individual people groups. If the people group is still too large to be manageable, they are further subdividing it into homogeneous population segments. As we pursue church-planting movements among people groups and homogeneous population segments rather than randomly ministering among the lost, we stand a much greater chance of reaching all the lost of the world.

How is this new people-group focus impacting the way we do missions? It is giving us a much sharper focus on the fields we are seeking to reach. With people-group specific strategies, we can look more closely at a country and see all of the diversity within it. We can determine which groups are reached, yet remain in need of discipleship ministries; which ones are unengaged, calling for mobilization of missionaries; and which ones are particularly responsive. This sharper focus is helping our missionaries develop new ways of ministering to the people to whom they are called. Growing numbers of missionaries are demonstrating this new perspective as they sense the necessity of learning the people group's heart language rather than the more generic trade languages.

This people-group specific focus also is leading missionaries to go the extra mile to develop ethnographic studies of their assigned people groups in order to better understand their worldviews. This enables missionaries to identify issues that are unique to the culture and to devise ministry models which account for these distinctives.

http://www.imb.org/core/missionspartner/somethingnew/somethree.htm