Great Commission

Peoples and Places

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The following is an excerpt from Peoples and Places: How Geography Impacts Missions Strategy.

Jesus commands his followers to make disciples of all “nations” (ethnē). A persistent question in contemporary missiology is: Who are the ethnē? It has been assumed and accepted in the last few decades that ethnē refers to ethnolinguistic people groups. The argument is made primarily on anthropological grounds rather than on a scriptural and theological foundation. Scriptural evidence exhibits a broader definition of the ethnē, however. The Bible indicates that several factors are taken into consideration when defining the ethnē. While language and family/ethnicity are included among the characteristics, geography is also an important aspect of how the Bible classifies the various ethnē (Gen 10:1–32; Deut 32:8; 1 Chr 14:17; Isa 37:18; Jer 12:17; Ezek 5:6; Luke 24:47; Acts 1:8; Rom 15:19; Rev 21–22).

Geography as a facet of human identity must be reincorporated into a scriptural understanding of the nations.

One of the first questions asked when meeting someone in many places in the world is “Where are you from?” It is difficult to separate humanity completely from its geographical location. When contemporary people group research defines ethnē primarily or exclusively in ethnolinguistic terms with little or no attention given to geography, it overlooks a critical component of how humanity defines itself. Geography as a facet of human identity must be reincorporated into a scriptural understanding of the nations.

While geography must be considered when distinguishing people groups, one must ask “Whose geography?” Geographical terms and the importance associated with geographical features are usually culturally-informed. What may appear to be an insignificant landmark to an outsider may appear as an inviolable barrier to an insider. For evidence, one need look no further than the often-invisible borders that demark geopolitical entities. Concepts of what are important and unimportant geographical divisions cannot be imported from the outside (etic) but must be considered from the perspective of the people groups themselves (emic). Contextualized geography is geography taken from the emic perspective for the purpose of understanding significant cultural distinctives leading to the development of a localized missions strategy.

This book will attempt to show that a scriptural missions strategy must take into account a biblical-theological definition of the nations which includes geography as a major category, and, more specifically, should take into consideration local contextual views of geographical boundaries.

Why Geography?

Geography is an important aspect of the biblical definition of the nations. First, the biblical origin of the nations included geography as a significant category by which the nations were divided. Genesis 10:5, 20, and 31 stress that the descendants of Noah were divided according to their nations (gôy), families (mišpāḥōṭ), languages (lešōn’), and lands (’ǎrṣōṯ). The descendants of Noah, constituting what would later be referred to as the ethnē, were complex in their divisions. While language was certainly one of the factors, it was certainly not the only defining, or even primary, characteristic.

Missions, as depicted in the New Testament, does not neglect any of these categories, but it does tend to focus extensively on geography. Paul makes frequent geographic references in his letters.[1] While Paul used ethnic designations in Rom 1:16 (Ioudaios and Hellēn), he used geographic designations to describe the extent of his missionary activity in Rom 15:19 (“apo Ierousalēm kai kyklō mechri tou Illyrikou”) Roland Allen observes that Paul constantly speaks of the Roman provinces regarding his missionary endeavors.[2] Eckhard Schnabel similarly argues, “The basic strategy of Paul was simple: he wanted to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles in obedience to a divine commission, particularly in areas in which it had not been proclaimed before.”[3] Schnabel specifies “areas” in contrast to Allen’s “provinces” allowing for a broader understanding of geography. Provinces were strictly Roman geopolitical divisions, but other areas such as Arabia/Nabatea were distinct geographic entities but not Roman provinces.[4] Since geography is a significant category in the scriptural definition of the nations and in the early mission of the church, the matter of contextualization needs to be taken into consideration.

Geography is not isolated from other cultural factors. While geographic features can be empirically observed, the way that geography is understood arises within a cultural context. J. B. Harley urges, “Any appreciation of the historical importance of maps depends upon a clear conception of their nature, of the factors that have shaped their making and transmission, and of their role within human societies.”[5] In order to develop a scriptural missions strategy that accounts for geography, the local geographical factors must be taken into consideration. Concepts of what are important and unimportant geographical divisions cannot be imported from the outside (etic) but must be considered from the perspective of the people groups themselves (emic).

If geography is culturally informed, as much as maps are visual representations of geography, then a missions strategy must develop methods of contextualizing strategy according to local geographical views. Dean Flemming defines contextualization as “the dynamic and comprehensive process by which the gospel is incarnated within a concrete historical or cultural situation. This happens in such a way that the gospel both comes to authentic expression in the local context and at the same time prophetically transforms the context.”[6] In order to incarnate the gospel within a specific culture, all aspects of the culture must be carefully considered. Robert David Sack asserts, “We humans are geographical beings transforming the earth and making it into a home, and that transformed world affects who we are. Our geographical nature shapes our world and our selves. Being geographical is inescapable—we do not have to be conscious of it. Yet, realizing that we are geographical increases the effectiveness of our actions, the clarity of our awareness, and the inclusiveness and generosity of our moral concerns.”[7] In order to develop a missions strategy that has a scriptural foundation, is theologically relevant, and can be applied transculturally, geography (but not necessarily geopolitical entities) must be recovered as a major factor in distinguishing people groups.


[1] Rom 15:19; 1 Cor 16:1; 2 Cor 1:1; 9:2; 11:9; Gal 4:25; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; 4:14; Col 1:1; 4:15; 1 Thess 1:7–8; 2:1; 3:1; 1 Tim 1:3; 2 Tim 1:15, 17–18; 3:11; 4:10, 12, 20; Titus 1:5; 3:12

[2] Roland Allen, Missionary Methods, 14.

[3] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, vol. 2, 1299. Emphasis added.

[4] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, vol. 2, 1299–1300. Nabatea was annexed by Emperor Trajan around 111. Griffin, “Nerva to Hadrian,” 123.

[5] Harley, “The Map and the Development of the History of Cartography,” 1.

[6] Dean Flemming, Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), 19.

[7] Sack, Homo Geographicus, 1.

  • Great Commission
Matthew Hirt

Matthew has missions experience on three continents culminating in over a decade of commitment to making disciples in both frontier and legacy church contexts. He earned his Ph.D. in International Missions from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (Wake Forest, NC) in December 2020. He currently serves as a theological education catalyst with the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he teaches missions at the Nigerian Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Heather have served as international missionaries together in Nepal and Nigeria as well as training and equipping US churches to engage their communities in effective evangelism and disciple-making.

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