Indigenous Movements: How To Reach Entire People Groups

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indigenous movements

National pastors perform a baptism at a small rural church in South Asia. Photo courtesy

At Go. Serve. Love, we get a ton of interest in reaching the 4.13 billion, particularly those in Unreached People Groups (UPGs.)

Wondering how not just to reach a few of the unreached–but actually go reach an entire people group?

We’re stoked to welcome mobilization strategist Robby Butler, who explains a key strategy of modern missiology (the study of missions). 

Indigenous Movements: The Study

By 1975 Donald McGavran and Ralph Winter had guided 1,000 experienced missionaries in studying “How are peoples reached?”

Their answer: indigenous movements.

However, few outside their direct influence saw either:

  •  the biblical model and mandate for indigenous movements, or
  •  the historic significance of indigenous movements.

Yet McGavran, Winter, and their colleagues concluded: We cannot say we have evangelized a person until that person can join an indigenous movement in their own society.

Furthermore, this era of collaborative study revealed that:

  •  The Bible (e.g. Matthew 28:19-20) calls us to disciple peoples (ethne).
  •  Peoples are discipled only through indigenous movements.

The World Consultation on Frontier Missions (Edinburgh 80) birthed the watchword “A Church for Every People ….” (meaning “a church movement in every people”).

In 1981 McGavran clarified this intent, elaborating:

  •  Peoples are only reached by movements, never one-by-one.
  •  90% of work among the unreached ends up with one-by-one.

Today’s Reality

Mission researchers are now tracking more than 1400 indigenous movements, most having developed just in the past decade. And many of these movements are growing faster and stronger than anything Winter or McGavran saw in their study of past movements.

Yet in retrospect, McGavran’s concerns appear prophetic—and as relevant today as when he first wrote them:

  •  In 1985, McGavran estimated that 50% of the world lived among unreached peoples—2.5 billion people.
  • Today IMB researchers estimate that 57% of the world lives among unreached peoples—4.3 billion (nearly double).

So what’s the most effective way to “reach the unreached”?

  •  Shall we work toward just one or more growing congregations?
  •  Should we aim for a minimal percentage to become believers?
  •  Or shall we seek indigenous movements of multiplying ekklesia?

This goal of indigenous movements shapes our methods.

The One-by-One Method

Starting a congregation where none existed is relatively easy.

Missionaries arrive, pray, worship together, learn the language, preach the gospel and pray. They love Jesus, talk about Christ, help others in their troubles, and pray. They share Scripture portions and practice “friendship evangelism,” and they pray.

Over time a few locals follow Jesus, and a church grows around the missionaries, who urge them to become “a new family.” A new social structure is formed, and a building may be erected.

Such extraction evangelism typically draws the marginalized from several peoples and segments of society—the elderly, youth, orphans, mission helpers and ardent seekers. The result is often a foreignconglomerate church, alienated from the local peoples.

Locals observe, “You are no longer part of us,” and they are right. This is a new social unit which, if it survives at all, becomes a new people group by the second generation.

Such conglomerate churches usually struggle and fold, but the Bible and recent experience reveal a more fruitful approach.

Extraction evangelism makes people groups more resistant to the Gospel.

Extraction evangelism into conglomerate congregations actually hinders indigenous movements. How?

Most unreached peoples place a high value on their group identity. Any group of individuals coming one by one from different peoples and segments of society looks to such peoples like an assembly of traitors who have left “us” to join “them.”

In marriage most such “high identity” peoples insist “our people marry only our people.” Yet when converts join conglomerate churches one-by-one they often feel forced to take a spouse from another group. This alienates the couple from both groups, and their kids are born into “no man’s land.”

New believers who join such churches are often rejected by their relatives—sometimes thrown out or even killed. And when a new believer leaves (or is forced out of) such a tightly-knit segment of society, the Christian cause wins the individual but loses the community. The family, the people group, and even neighboring peoples may be fiercely angry at the new believer, saying: “You have abandoned us. You are no longer one of us.” When this happens, we may win individuals but lose millions.

Conglomerate congregations grow slowly.

Worse, they make the pursuit of indigenous movements doubly difficult among the people groups from which the congregation comes.

“The Christians misled one of our people,” the group says. “We will make sure they do not mislead any more of us.”

McGavran wrote in 1981:

Perhaps 90 out of 100 missionaries who intend church planting get only conglomerate congregations.

Such missionaries evangelize anyone they can. But they get only those willing to endure the disapproval of their people.

In tightly-knit unreached peoples—where converts are shunned and Christianity is seen as an invading religion—winning and gathering a congregation from different peoples and segments of society erects barriers rather than builds bridges.

One-by-One Can lead to indigenous movements.

The one-by-one method sometimes does result indirectly in indigenous movements. This can happen when believers break with a conglomerate church (and usually from the missionary’s influence) to “revert” (re-adopting their original identity) in order to spread their new faith in a culturally relevant way.

When this happens the faith may spread very rapidly. However, in the process it may also lose its mooring in the Bible and become syncretistic.

Unfortunately, rather than working with such “renegades” toward grounding such indigenous movements in the Bible, missionaries generally resist such “reversion.”

indigenous Movements: the KEY to Reaching the Unreached

Jesus’ disciples and Paul’s teams modeled multiplying ministry in which existing relational networks and households (oikos) were introduced to the gospel together.

This engaged—rather than competing with—existing groupings, then spread to other groupings to enfold and transform whole people groups.

Thus Winter quipped, “the ‘church’ (i.e., the ‘committed community’) is already there, they just don’t know Jesus yet.”

[In Acts,] ‘the church that is in their house’ [was] … where family ties and church worship went together, where church … and family authority were often indistinguishable, where church discipline and family respect were one and the same thing, where ‘honor thy father and thy mother’ were … spiritual accountability in the church. … the synagogues of the New Testament period as well as the Gentile-run churches of the New Testament period mainly consisted of a cluster of extended families guided by the elders of those families.

[In] traditional societies around the world [an indigenous] movement … reinforces, not dismantles, natural families ….

indigenous movements

A Russian house church prays before baptizing five youth at a lake in Izhevsk, the capital of the federal subject Udmurtia in Russia. After the baptism, the believers took the Lord’s Supper. Photo courtesty

7 principles that lead toward INDIGENOUS movements

  1. Keep the goal clear.

From the beginning the clear goal must be an indigenous movement of multiplying ekklesia (church groups) through receptive oikos (households) in ways that leave relationships and social structures intact.

Those familiar with winning and incorporating individuals into existing churches must give special attention to this:

  •  Don’t seek to win and gather individuals with relative strangers.

  •  Do seek to win whole oikos, or help individuals win their oikos.

As Christ transforms existing oikos, they may become ekklesia,

  •  enjoying natural social cohesion,
  •  fulfilling the “one anothers,”
  •  experiencing God’s blessing, and modeling the good news for other households in their people.

In Luke 10 Jesus directs pairs of disciples to seek those who:

  •  welcome the message and messengers into their households, and gladly share what they learn with their family and community.

Jesus told His disciples not to go “from house to house,” but to stay with the household that welcomed them. When the disciples left, this household could become an ekklesia.

When we join “God already at work” in this way, we are far more likely to see extraordinary fruit. And when we train new believers to join God at work in the same way, we open the door for an indigenous movement to reach that whole people.

  1. Concentrate on just one people

Work with nationals to find responsive individuals within just one people, like the Nair of Kerala. As the gospel is proclaimed to Nairs, say quite openly,

“God desires that thousands of Nair follow Jesus Christ, yet remain solidly Nair. You whom God calls will become more beautiful Nairs, loving your Nair neighbors better than ever.”

Train new believers to bear persecution with this attitude:

I will be a better son, daughter, father or mother than I was before. I will love you more than I used to. You can hate me, but I will love you. Exclude me, but I will include you. You can force me out of our ancestral house, but I will live on its veranda or get a house across the street. I am still one of you, more than I ever was before.

Build into new believers this consciousness:

1) God’s love for their whole people and its unique culture, and

2) God’s promise to bless all the clans of the earth—starting with theirs.

  1. Encourage the movement to remain indigenous

In indigenous movements, new believers remain one with their kinfolk in clothing, marriage, etc. They continue to eat with their people, and to eat what their people eat.

If their people are vegetarian, new believers do not say, “Since I follow Jesus I can now eat meat.” Rather they become more faithfully vegetarian.

New believers cannot remain one with their people in idolatry, drunkenness or other habitual sin. Nairs who follow Jesus will not worship their old gods; but many Nairs already ridicule their old gods. All Nairs can remain Nairs while abandoning idolatry to follow Jesus.

Indigenous movements empower the lost to join a worshiping community of their own people without embracing western theology, traditions, culture or individualism. For collectivistic societies this may mean an honor/shame-enhanced gospel.

  1. Pursue group decisions regarding “distinctive” obedience

Unreached peoples are typically collectivistic—making decisions as a group rather than as individuals. (See the Cultural Iceberg: Collectivist vs. Individualistic Societies.)

When first believers in such peoples are baptized individually, their family may reject the new believer as “abandoning us to join them.

Train first believers to love and share with their oikos while seeking the Holy Spirit as a group about obediences that will not lead their people to see them as joining a foreign religion.

Disciple individuals to reach their family and community; discuss Bible stories for them to share and discuss with others.

Say, “Let’s work to lead your oikos to follow Jesus, so that when you are baptized you may all be baptized together.”

The Gospel must involve whole families early, and as much as possible, as with Cornelius, Lydia, the Philippian jailer, etc.

Ostracism is highly effective against an individual, but weak against a dozen. And against 200 it has practically no force.

  1. Aim for trusting obedience, not just theological instruction

Leaders often think, “If our people become theologically mature, they will attract others to church.”

Yet Jesus’ command was to “teach obedience” (Matthew 28:20). When obedience to Jesus does not match or exceed our understanding, we are spiritually immature and become a poor witness.

We must follow Jesus’ and Paul’s example: modeling the gospel alongside preaching, and immediately engaging new disciples in multiplying. (Remember the Samaritan woman and the Gadarene demoniac.)

“But,” some may say, “won’t swift engagement of new believers in trustingly obeying and sharing the gospel produce believers who don’t know the Bible? Isn’t this a recipe for creating shallow or nominal believers?”

Both Scripture and today’s movements demonstrate just the opposite. People learn far more from teaching than from being taught.

Those who actively share their faith and see the gospel changing lives come to a richer and deeper experience of God’s grace much faster than those who simply listen to the best theological instruction.

Consider the brief months or even weeks of instruction Paul gave those oikos which were becoming ekklesia. We must trust the Holy Spirit, and believe God still calls, equips and sends people out of darkness into His wonderful light.

For an indigenous movement to flourish, its leaders and new believers must actively train others to obey the Holy Spirit as He convicts them through discussing the Bible (ideally whole books).

How the Holy Spirit leads may surprise us! Yet when new believers are taught trusting obedience to what they see in Scripture—and teach themselves by teaching others to trustingly obey—they mature and reproduce much more rapidly.

  1. Cultivate new believers as pioneers to reach their people.

Urge new believers to adopt the attitude:

God has given me the privilege of showing my relatives and neighbors a better way of life. This will be good for thousands of my people who have yet to believe. Look on me not as a traitor, but as a better member of my family and society—a pioneer to bring my people to the fullness of God’s blessing.

Successful indigenous movements lead whole families and communities to see the gospel as good news for their people.

Indigenous movements in China began only after the Chinese stopped seeing the Church as a competing, foreign religion.

  1. Lead those on the church fringes to reach their people.

Missionaries often look diligently outside the church for “persons of peace” through whom the gospel can spread.

Yet wherever conglomerate, westernized churches have been established, such “persons of peace” may be right under our noses, on the fringes of the church—drawn toward God, yet still too connected to their community outside the church to fully fit in. These may be seeds for additional movements.

Rather than fighting to break these individuals free from their community to become part of a new “church family,” let’s follow Paul’s example with the God-fearers in the synagogues of the Roman Empire. McGavran called these “bridges of God.”

Let’s equip and encourage them to start indigenous movements among their own oikos and people.

Is one-by-One Evangelism a Bad Thing?

No way. One precious soul willing to endure severe ostracism to follow Jesus has repeatedly been blessed by God toward starting an indigenous movement among his or her people.

Extraction evangelism into conglomerate churches is an approach God is blessing to the increase of His Church.

But one-by-one evangelism is a slow approach, and usually hinders movements by increasing resistance to the gospel.

Indigenous Movements are another approach God is blessing.

According to McGavran, “The great advances of the Church on new ground … have always come by people movements, never one-by-one.”

Jesus modeled this in speaking to synagogues, Samaritan villages and crowds, and in sending His disciples to find households open to the gospel.

As Jesus called individuals to become full-time workers, most worked within their group identity to become bridges to whole families, communities, and towns where they brought the blessing of God—the gospel of Jesus Christ. Others, like Paul, were sent to start indigenous movements in other cultures.

Let’s seek God for indigenous movements while accepting what He gives.

  • Where only individuals are coming to faith, train them to start new ekklesia within their oikos rather than separating them from their family and friends into a “church” family built on the missionary.
  • Pray and work for indigenous movements, adapted to the local context and working within existing social structures to lead multitudes out of darkness into His wonderful light.

P.S.: A Few More Observations for the Die-Hards out there

  • McGavran championed watching for seekers on the fringes of existing churches, then pursuing movements through these seekers (rather than fighting to incorporate them into the church).
  • Winter promoted the complementary idea of sending laborers to pursue indigenous movements in peoples where they don’t yet exist.
  •  Laborers today in nearly 1400 movements worldwide are finding that movements spread fastest when (as in the New Testament) stories of Jesus are freely shared, without reliance on dedicated buildings, paid staff or weekly sermons.
  • Once one indigenous movement is established, it’s often worthwhile to help the leaders become informed and pray for nearby peoples where similar movements are still needed.


A beloved son of God, Robby Butler is a Jesus-follower and mobilization strategist serving networks, ministries and individuals toward more effectively multiplying movements of Jesus followers until there is No Place Left where Jesus isn’t preached and Matthew 24:14 is fulfilled.

He is General Director for Mission Network, production manager for Steve Smith’s “No Place Left” saga, editor for James Nyman’s “Stubborn Perseverance,” and a consultant with, a matching service to facilitate collaboration between missionaries and senders.

He helps out with Mission Frontiers occasionally, and mostly researches what is working best to advance God’s kingdom then distills this to equip others for greater fruitfulness.

A version of this piece originally appeared on, and is gratefully used with permission. 


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