A Simple Guide to People Group Lists for World Mission

How many people groups are there in the world? How many are unreached? Which numbers are correct and which list of people groups is “right”? The varying answers to these questions can cause confusion in the mission community.

The Lord has graciously provided the global mission community with several sets of people group information. Each has great value and none are right or wrong. Each has unique perspective, definitions, criteria, and sources which cause variation between the lists. These variations cause a degree of disagreement, which encourages healthy dialog.

The following are key definitions, a brief history and an overview of the comprehensive global people group lists, several subsets, and other important collections of mission data.


People group: A significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity with one another. For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church-planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.

Christian adherent: Anyone who claims to be a follower of the Christian religion in any form. This definition is based on the individual’s self-confession, not his or her ecclesiology, theology, or religious commitment and experience. The term embraces all traditions and confessions of Christianity and includes Protestant, Roman Catholic, Other Catholic, Orthodox, Foreign Marginal, and Indigenous Marginal.

Evangelical: All who generally emphasize the following: (1) the Lord Jesus Christ as the sole source of salvation through faith in him; (2) personal faith and conversion with regeneration by the Holy Spirit; (3) recognition of the inspired Word of God as the only basis for faith and Christian living; and (4) commitment to biblical witness, evangelism, and missions that brings others to faith in Christ.

Ethno-linguistic: An ethnic or racial group defined primarily by language. Groupings of individuals based on language spoken, but with the possibility of sub-divisions based upon dialect or cultural distinctives. Using this method, one language group equals one or more ethnic groups. This assumes that the “understandability barrier” to the gospel message is higher than the “acceptance barrier.”

A Brief History
The foundation of all the global peoples lists is the excellent language research of SIL International over the last seventy years. In addition, much of the content of the ethno-linguistic peoples lists is derived from the work of David Barrett. We acknowledge his significant contribution as the original editor of the World Christian Encyclopedia.

The CPPI (Church Planting Progress Indicators) database had its beginnings in the World Christian Database in the early 1990s and has been significantly modified since by IMB (International Mission Board of Southern Baptist Convention) field staff.

Joshua Project was birthed in 1995 and owes much of its genesis to Patrick Johnstone and his connection with the WCD, Omid research of South Asia, and Hattaway research for China and the Buddhist world.

Comprehensive Global People Group Lists

World Christian Database/WCD: The World Christian Database provides statistical information on countries, cities, languages, world religions, Christian denominations, and people groups. Data sources for the WCD include published and unpublished sources, field work, interviews, questionnaires, and officially published reports of government-organized national censuses. The WCD peoples list is ethno-linguistic, meaning that a people group is primarily defined by language and then by ethnicity, and then by country of residence. Within a language group other factors such as race, tradition, history, and culture sometimes define a subsection of peoples. The WCD classifies peoples by Worlds A, B, and C. World A peoples are groups with over fifty percent of the population unevangelized. The WCD is available in print or online by annual subscription. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

IMB/CPPI: The IMB/CPPI peoples database is a global list of ethnic people groups from a church-planting perspective. A private, secure, online system is used by regional and national IMB researchers to gather and submit people group data to the IMB central database. Outside data sources are also considered. The CPPI list is generally ethno-linguistic and allows for subdivisions of language based upon cultural or dialect distinctives. In some cases, other criteria such as religion are used to define a people group. “Unreached” is defined as less than two percent evangelical; % Christian adherents is not considered. The CPPI uses Affinity Blocs and People Clusters for grouping peoples. A unique feature of the CPPI is the tracking of unengaged people groups—peoples without any active church planting occurring. A people group is considered engaged when church-planting methodology is underway or being implemented. Suggested updates for review by IMB regional and national staff can be submitted to [email protected].

Joshua Project/JP: The Joshua Project database is a global ethno-linguistic and ethno-cultural people group database from a church-planting perspective. Joshua Project is an open system gathering data from a variety of sources including field missionaries and researchers, national and regional initiatives, census data, and published sources. People groups on the Joshua Project list are defined by language, religion, culture, and caste primarily based on on-site definitions. “Unreached” is defined as less than two percent evangelical and less than five percent Christian adherent. Joshua Project also uses Affinity Blocs and People Clusters for grouping peoples. A distinctive of the Joshua Project list is defining people groups in South Asia primarily by caste/community rather than by language. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

Why Three Lists?
How many countries are there in the world? The answer depends on who you ask. Should there only be one list of countries in the world? Different perspectives on the same situation are a healthy thing. Looking at a picture from several angles often yields greater appreciation. Using different definitions and criteria can help clarify a task and highlight areas needing further research. People group database compilers are confronted by questions such as: Is language always the primary definer of a people group? Should caste be considered when defining a people group? Should Christian adherents be considered when setting the criterion for unreached? Should unreached be defined by exposure or response to the gospel? What are acceptable sources for input and edits? The three global peoples lists answer these questions slightly differently and thus provide different but valuable perspectives.

Encouraging Cooperation
In the last several years there has been a significant increase in the communication and cooperation between these three global peoples lists. Initiatives such as Global Trends Fruitful Practices/GTFP (see below) have provided the impetus for what has emerged as a peer-group of researchers and collaborative efforts to share and adjust information as much as possible. May the Lord continue to enhance and strengthen the developing connections between the World Christian Database, the IMB Global Research Office, and Joshua Project.

Comprehensive Global Language List

Ethnologue: The Ethnologue is a listing of the languages of the world. It provides language information by country and includes estimates of the number of speakers, alternate names, dialects, and general language background information. It is the compilation of SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) field staff research. The three-letter Ethnologue language codes have been adopted as the ISO and Registry of Language (ROL) standards. The global people group lists use the Ethnologue extensively for their language information. The current Ethnologue is the 16th edition. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

Other Important Lists and Subsets

HIS Registry of Peoples/ROP: The Harvest Information System Registry of Peoples is an effort to standardize coding (but not content) of ethnic people groups. ROP is a basic code set and is not intended to include additional information about people groups. A six-digit code is assigned to particular people groups without reference to countries. The original ROP list came from Joshua Project and is now managed by the IMB. ROP coding is partially incorporated in the global peoples lists outlined above in an attempt to facilitate cross-referencing. The latest ROP release was August 2010 and there is currently extensive effort underway to incorporate updated ROP coding into the CPPI and Joshua Project databases. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

Etnopedia: Etnopedia is a wiki-based, multi-lingual people group online profile system. Etnopedia is an editable website for the global Christian community to translate ethnic people profiles into other languages. Many research efforts and researchers representing different ministries and organizations contribute to the information found on Etnopedia. In general, Etnopedia uses people group information primarily from Joshua Project and field inputs. In some cases, information from the IMB and WCD peoples lists is also used. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

YWAM (Youth With A Mission) 4K Project: 4K is a system that uses geographic areas to provide a lens to understand the overall mission task. Approximately four thousand geographic regions called “Omega Zones” have been identified based on civil divisions using an “ABC – 369” system. World “A” Omega Zones are three million in population and are where the gospel is widely unavailable, World “B” Omega Zones are six million in population and are where the gospel is moderately available and World “C” Omega Zones are nine million in population and are where the gospel is widely available. The focus is on where the gospel is most needed. 4K seeks to gather and provide geographic, demographic, language, and people group information by Omega Zone. 4K uses people group data from the three global lists. Contact email is [email protected].

Call2All and Finish the Task/FTT: Call2All is a worldwide movement calling the Church to a renewed, focused collaborative effort to fulfill the Great Commission. Finishing the Task (FTT) is a related association of mission agencies and churches that want to see reproducing churches planted among every people group in the world. Call2All and FTT both use a subset of the IMB/CPPI peoples list focusing on the unengaged, unreached peoples greater than fifty thousand in population. Statistical data on the Call2All and FTT list is updated mainly from the overall CPPI list. Engagement status is gathered from the CPPI list, national networks, denominations, and other sources. Call2All and FTT list use the IMB definition for “unengaged” meaning no active church planting is occurring. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

Global Trends Fruitful Practices/GTFP: GTFP is a network of mission organizations focused on pioneer church planting among unreached Muslim people groups. The current GTFP list of people groups is a subset of the IMB/CPPI and Joshua Project peoples lists focusing on the unengaged and unreached Muslim people groups over 100,000 in population. According to GTFP, a people group is considered engaged when a people group meets the following criteria: (1) a pioneering effort in residence; (2) commitment to work in the local language and culture; (3) commitment to long-term ministry; and (4) sowing occurring in a manner consistent with the goal of seeing a church-planting movement (CPM) emerge. Suggested updates can be submitted to [email protected].

These people group lists and subsets are valuable strategic tools for the global mission community. May the Lord continue to grant wisdom and discernment to all the efforts seeking to help clarify the remaining task of the Great Commission.

Dan Scribner has been on staff with the U.S. Center for World Mission since 1988. He currently serves as the director of Joshua Project. Dan and his wife Mary have four children and reside in Colorado Springs, Colorado.