Peoples of China

Discipling the Unreached Peoples of China

The Adopt-a-People concept has caught on, and many individuals, churches, and agencies are making a focus on a particular people group the heart of their mission strategy. Here are some suggestions relating to the challenge of actually reaching the peoples of China with the gospel.


Always first, always foremost, we must seek God’s direction and blessing upon our efforts. The Holy Spirit is the Lord of the Harvest. If we do not seek His strategy and His power first, our best plans and our most diligent efforts will be doomed to failure from the start. We must pray as we begin, pray as we plan, and pray as we go.

God wants the unreached peoples of China to have access to His Word, and He will do mighty works in answer to the prayers of His people. But we must pray!

Long-term commitment

Another critical component in effective China ministry is long-term commitment to the task. Short-term mission trips are all the rage today, but the unreached peoples of China will not be discipled by short-termers. The task is too complex to yield to quick-fix approaches. Short-term workers can be effective at particular stages of the task, but there must be individuals committed to seeing it through from beginning to end. We must be willing to pay the price of long-term commitment if we want to participate effectively in discipling the unreached peoples of China.

Part of long-term commitment is learning to see the parts in terms of the whole. Discipling a people group is a multi-phase project. We must learn to discern where the people are with reference to the goal and understand the phases through which they must pass to move from where they are to where God wants them to be. We must then, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, develop strategies and engage in activities that have a high probability of moving the people group systematically towards that goal.

Experience has shown that the most critical component in effective people-group discipling strategies is a key individual who will give his or her life to seeing a people group reached. Interest in a particular project on the part of a church can wane over time. Priorities in agencies can change with resources being pulled out of a people-group project. A key individual who has given his or her life to seeing a people reached will take the responsibility to keep the attention of a church focused on the project and to find other agencies or individuals to step into gaps left by those who have not persevered.

Gathering information

In his short, but powerful book, Focus! The Power of People Group Thinking, John Robb underscores the importance of research as the starting point in developing effective missionary strategies. Coming to understand the people group we want to reach is critical for planning and for ministry itself. If we are to meet their deepest needs in the power of Christ, we need to do our homework.[1] Effective ministry flows out of good strategy, and good strategies can only be developed on a foundation of adequate information.

The movement in people group research is from general to specific. It is important to get specific enough that effective strategies can be developed. Simply focusing on the Han Chinese is far too general to be useful. Choosing one of the 56 official nationalities (55 minorities plus the Han majority) is a step in the right direction, but the categories are still too general to be very helpful. The right kind of people group research will lead us to distinguish people groups by both ethno-linguistic and sociological factors. The goal is to discover the natural groupings within a people within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.

It is important to seek out both primary and secondary sources in our research efforts. Much ethnographic research has already been done in China, and it is wasteful to send teams in to do primary research before acquainting ourselves with the work of those who have gone before.[2] On the other hand, there is no substitute for information gathered through first-hand contact with the people we hope to reach. John Robb’s book, referenced above, gives some very helpful pointers to those new to this process.

It is important to look at the potential harvest force as well as the harvest field. Discipling an unreached people group is a complex task that will require many different resources, and we would do well to begin looking for those resources from the beginning.


As adequate information is gathered, decisions concerning our ministry focus will need to be made. The first decision is whether to focus on one people group or engage in ministry that makes a strategic contribution to reaching many people groups. Churches will generally be best served by selecting a particular people group, while agencies will tend to focus on a specific type of ministry which may be applicable to many different people groups.

If the decision is made to focus on a people group, other decisions will need to be made. Obviously, a group will need to be selected. Once a group is selected, additional research may reveal that the selection is too general to be useful. A commitment to reach a specific sub-group of one of the official nationalities of China will probably be more effective than the adoption of one of these official nationalities as a whole.

If the decision is made to focus on a particular ministry that could help reach many people groups, it would still be good to consider which people groups to focus upon. It is important to balance realism with vision. We want to see the world reached for Christ, but real progress towards that objective will not be realized until we get specific enough in our selection of target peoples to be able to apply our resources in a meaningful way.


We must also consider how our ministry relates to that of others. No matter how big we are, we all need partners. If the task of discipling the unreached peoples of China is to be accomplished, churches, agencies, and training institutions must join together in well-designed partnerships focused on various aspects of that task. Strategic partnerships will include both an on-field component and a sendingcountry component. The latter is often called a Resource Partnership.

A final thought

There is a great cartoon that summarizes the dilemma I often feel when I consider the complexity of the task of discipling the unreached peoples of China. It shows a young man surveying two T-shirts lying on his bed, one says “Just Do It;” the other “Just Say No!” The caption underneath says, “Sometimes it took Joe all day just to get dressed.”

There is an urgency to the task of world evangelization that tends to make us want to “just do it,” and then there are the challenges inherent in doing it right that can tend to paralyze us. The Great Commission requires both zeal and knowledge, balancing urgency with long-term thinking. Let’s respond to the Lord of the Harvest with both great zeal and carefully-developed strategies focused on discipling the unreached peoples of China.


  1. ^ . John D. Robb. Focus! The Power of People Group Thinking (Monrovia, CA: MARC, 1989), p. 29.
  2. ^ One of the primary goals of our ministry at the Institute of Chinese Studies is to make the best of the research that has been done on the unreached peoples of China available to the China ministry community.
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Jim Nickel

Jim Nickel was vice president of ChinaSource from 2000 to 2004 and was involved in promoting work among the unreached Chinese peoples for many yearsView Full Bio