Immigration and North America: Who in the World Is My Neighbor Anyway?

Of all the countries, by far the United States leads the world as a host country, receiving thirty-eight million immigrants in 2005 alone (approximately thirteen percent of the population). Although Canada did not receive nearly that many people, its immigrant population for the same year comprised almost nineteen percent of its overall population.1 Such global movements of people to North America provide an outstanding opportunity for local churches to experience the advancement of the kingdom among many unreached people groups.

Unfortunately, we do not know many of the characteristics of the people the Lord has brought to this continent. The following are some significant challenges that interfere with both our understanding of and our desire to reach our neighbors.

The Macro Perspective
Recognizing high evangelical percentages, missiologists identity most of the thirty-six countries and territories representing North America (see Table 1) as “reached.”2

Table 1. Countries and Territories of North America

Anguilla   Guatemala  
Antigua and Barbuda   Haiti 
Aruba (Netherlands)   Honduras 
Bahamas  Jamaica
Barbados  Martinique (France)
Belize  Mexico 
Bermuda  Montserrat (U.K.) 
British Virgin Islands Netherlands Antilles
Canada  Nicaragua 
Cayman Islands (U.K.)  Panama 
Costa Rica  Puerto Rico 
Cuba  Saint Kitts and Nevis 
Dominica  Saint Lucia 
Dominican Republic      Saint Vincent and Grenadines 
El Salvador  Trinidad and Tobago 
Greenland (Denmark)  Turks and Caicos Islands (U.K.) 
Grenada  United States of America 
Guadeloupe (France)  U.S. Virgin Islands 

The problem with such reporting is that we receive the macro-level statistics of various nation-states, thus not truly representing panta ta ethne (all the peoples) residing in those countries or territories.

For example, Joshua Project notes that some of the highest priority Unreached People Groups (UPGs) are residing in North America (see Table 2).

Table 2. Joshua Project's Highest Need People Groups Living in North America3

Name  Need Ranking Location  Est. Population 
Arab, Najdi Bedouin   92  United States  5,500 
Tay, Tai Tho   91  United States 600
Arab, Saudi-Najdi   91  United States  5,500
Arab, Ta'izz-Adeni   90  United States  4,900 
Berber, Arabized   85 United States  23,000 
Parsee  85  Canada  26,000 
Parsee  85 United States  76,000

Also, according to Joshua Project, there are several peoples listed as UPGs when scattered across the globe with populations of ten thousand or more members residing in North America (see Table 3).

Table 3. Joshua Project, UPGs with a Population of 10,000+ Living in North America

People Group Name  Country  Est. Population 
Punjabi   Canada  828,607 
Jew, English Speaking  Canada  303,477 
Japanese  Canada  61,473 
Jew, Eastern Yiddish-Speaking  Canada  51,789 
Hindi  Canada  46,753 
North African, generic  Canada  41,213 
Somali  Canada  35,165 
Bengali  Canada  31,073
Parsee  Canada  26,080 
Jew, Israeli  Canada  17,608  
Turk  Canada  16,707 
Khmer  Canada  15,722 
Indo-Pakistani  Cuba  34402 
Pocomam, Southern  Guatemala  40,959 
Arab, Palestinian  Honduras  54,434 
Deaf  Honduras  33,599 
Arab, Syrian Mexico   422,595 
Jew  Mexico  39,142 
Mixteco, Juxtlahuaca Oeste  Mexico 27,565 
Sarnami Hindi, East Indian   Trinidad and Tobago   523,393
Han Chinese, Cantonese  Trinidad and Tobago  20,282 
Jew  United States  4,763,719 
Khmer, Cambodian  United States  229,113 
Bengali  United States   154,848
Urdu  United States  151,811
Thai, Central   United States   136,630
Parsee  United States   76,195
Phu Thai   United States   51,478
Jew, Bukharic   United States   50,797 
Kurd, Northern  United States   48,579 
Pushtun, Northern  United States  47,335
Somali United States  24,290
Uzbek, Northern  United States  24,290
Berber, Arabized  United States  23,319 
Sindh  United States  21,568
Sinhalese  United States  20,798
Jew, Spanish Speaking   United States  14,349
Okinawan  United States  12,996
Burmese, Myen  United States  10,565
Tatar  United States  10,160

People Blindness
Related to the fact that many North American countries have high evangelical percentages, many UPGs are removed from the global UPG listings when they immigrate to North America. Joshua Project has a listing of 189 such people groups and Global Research Department of the International Mission Board has 133 people groups.4

For example, according to Joshua Project, the Japanese are designated a UPG if they are residing in Japan, Italy, Germany, Russia, and several other nations. However, if located in the United States, they are no longer considered a UPG, but rather a reached people group.5

According to Joshua Project, the Japanese living in the United States have a substantial evangelical population present that would rightly remove them from the UPG listing. However, if I only look at the UPG listing of those residing in North America, seeing a group as “reached” is not likely to cause me to consider asking whether they are “unreached” in other nations, thus not resulting in my attempt to develop global evangelization strategies that would give priority to reaching them “here” in order to reach them “over there.” Such a removal from UPG lists, without some “flag” to inform researchers and missiologists that this particular people group is unreached elsewhere in the world, creates a blindness to the unreached nations residing in North America.

The work of the researchers comprising the people group databases of Joshua Project and the Global Research Department have provided outstanding work, producing these two amazing resources guiding our understanding of the evangelical statuses of the thousands of peoples scattered across the globe. Although excellent information apparently exists for such peoples residing outside of North America, these two resources have large discrepancies when their North American data is compared. Joshua Project lists 113 known UPGs in North America; Global Research provides a number of 240 UPGs. Despite the fact that research of this nature is difficult, findings are always in flux, and some people groups can be identified by more than one name, there is a difference of 127 UPGs—a discrepancy much too large to develop effective global strategies. We must develop a better understanding of the UPGs in North America.

The Evangelical X-Factor
Closely related to people blindness is the question: How many of the world’s peoples living here are followers of Jesus?

One of the greatest ironies in missions today is the fact that although we have a good understanding of the evangelical status of many of the world’s peoples in other nations, for the most part, we are ignorant regarding the evangelical status of the peoples of the world living in our backyards. We have climbed steep mountains, forded rivers, and journeyed into dark jungles to collect data regarding the world’s peoples, yet we have failed to cross the street to understand our neighbors.

Hundreds of people groups living in North America, including those who are distinguished as UPGs living outside of this continent, have an evangelical status of “unknown.” For example, Joshua Project records as “unknown” 231 people groups in North America while Global Research lists a much larger number of 794 “unknown” people groups, with the United States and Canada having the greatest number of these peoples. I, therefore, suspect the actual numbers of UPGs in North America greatly exceed the present numbers of known UPGs as listed by Joshua Project (113 UPGs) and Global Research (240 UPGs).

Global Strategic Implications
If we fail to understand who our neighbors are, we will miss a strategic opportunity the Lord has given to North Americans. Especially in the United States and Canada, we have yet to value significant cross-cultural church planting. Part of this lack of value is derived from the fact that we lack a proper understanding of the peoples here. I do see encouraging signs on the horizon among some denominations and mission agencies.

Yet, for the most part, cross-cultural church planting is something to be accomplished “overseas.” The following words from Ralph Winter were shared at the historic Lausanne meeting decades ago; yet, the contemporary growth in annual immigrants to the West makes them even more relevant for today.

Are we in America, for example, prepared for the fact that most non-Christians yet to be won to Christ (even in our country) will not fit readily into the kinds of churches we now have?…. Present-day American Christians can wait forever in their cozy, middle-class pews for the world to come to Christ and join them. But unless they adopt E-2 methods and both go out after these people and help them found their own churches, evangelism in America will face, and is already facing, steadily diminishing returns. You may say that there are still plenty of people who don’t go to church who are of the same cultural background as those in church. This is true. But there are many, many more people of differing cultural backgrounds who, even if they were to become fervent Christians, would not feel comfortable in existing churches.6

Without knowing the peoples living here, we will not be able to integrate our local evangelization strategies with other brothers and sisters across the globe attempting to reach the same peoples elsewhere. If we do not overcome our ignorance regarding our neighbors, we will fail to develop local strategies to reach immigrants with the gospel, plant highly reproducible models of churches with those new believers, equip them in the faith, and partner with them as they return to their peoples with the gospel elsewhere.

Since the world is our parish, we must overcome these challenges and better understand who in the world our neighbor is.


1. “UN Statistics Show Migration as a Dynamic and Diversifying Force in Global Development.”

2. For example, the United States boasts of a twenty-six percent evangelical population, clearly above the two percent or ten percent (depending upon the source) evangelical percentages designating a “reached” area. For a full report of the evangelical study, see

3. According to the Joshua Project website, “The Priority-Ranking (or Need-Ranking) was developed to identify the people groups that have the greatest spiritual need and priority attention. The higher the ranking, the greater the need. The maximum score is 100 points.” Note: The Global Research Department of the International Mission Board reflects different names and populations for these groups.

4. For a listing of these peoples, see the appendices in J. D. Payne’s “In Through the Back Door: Reaching the Majority World in North America” at

5. Discussion of this shifting in status because of geography has been discussed by others. See Patrick Johnstone. 2007. “Affinity Blocs and People Clusters: An Approach toward Strategic Insight and Mission Partnership.” Mission Frontiers 29(2): 8-15. For the online version, see,%20Clusters,%20Peoples.pdf.

6. Douglas, J.D., ed. 1975. Let the Earth Hear His Voice. Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA: World Wide Publications, 221-222.

Dr. J. D. Payne serves with both the North American Mission Board and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is author of The Barnabas Factors: Eight Essential Practices of Church Planting Team Members.