Changing the Conversation in Europe: From UPG to SPG

I am a missionary in Europe and find that the UPG conversation serves more to confuse our mission in Europe than it does to clarify it. So, for the sake of the work in Europe, I’m changing the conversation.

The unreached people group (UPG) conversation is extensive and has been championed by many as the purest form of Great Commission strategy — “make disciples of all ethnos” . This conversation has in recent years become not simply a facet of world missions strategy, but the lens through which we see (and judge) all world missions effort.

It is not my aim to address the breadth of that conversation, nor is it my aim to undermine the value of all it seeks to accomplish. I have many friends that consider themselves missionaries to UPG’s and I not only affirm their calling but am personally very proud of them. The UPG conversation and the strategy that is born from it is truly good. We have seen, however, that in its definition of the “unreached” and in its passion for reaching them, a truly unreached people has been neglected.

I would like to address one facet of the UPG conversation which I believe appropriately highlights my reasoning behind its exclusion in my European missiology. That one facet is what in the UPG conversation is called “access”. 

Access

The UPG conversation effectively hinges on a definition of “access”. The principle question in the conversation is (simply stated) “does this people group have access to the gospel?” Said differently, is it reasonable to expectthat members of a particular ethnic group can encounter the truth of the gospel without having to leave their community or geographic location? If the answer to that question is “no” (that answer is given through a study of the people group and a pre-determined standard of what reasonable expectation is), they are classified as a UPG. The goal of the UPG conversation is to determine missiological priority, i.e. what ethic groups have not yet had a fair chance at responding to the gospel message? UPG’s are therefore given the highest priority in the strategic deployment of missions personnel and resources.

We encounter a problem when applying UPG metrics to the present European situation. How does one classify the almost 495 million “secular” Europeans? How does one define “access” in Europe? Can we say that the existence of a church in a particular European village or city is truly providing access to the gospel? Is a community considered “reached” today because somewhere in its history the Christian church had a presence there, of which there are still remnants (i.e. statues and buildings)? It is my contention that UPG metrics are unhelpful, if not counter-productive in our developing European missiology and strategy for one simple reason:

By UPG metrics, Europeans are not considered to be “unreached”, even though all signs point to the contrary.

So, should we consider Europeans a UPG? I don’t believe so. The situation of Europe, its variety, vast sub-groups, character, uniqueness and history among other things would only weaken the UPG conversation and it lends no real strength to communicating and defining the task before us in Europe.

I do not believe that we should try to speak of Europe’s secular peoples with the words of the UPG conversation. I believe that when speaking of Europe, we need to change the conversation entirely.

From UPG to SPG

When speaking of Europe, instead of adopting the language of the UPG conversation, my colleagues and I believe we need to begin speaking of “secular people groups” (SPG’s). SPG’s are a category in their own right. They are people groups defined broadly by the following:

  • a rejection or indifference to institutional religion
  • a rejection of a meta-narrative based upon the existence of God
  • an affirmation that humans have the right, ability and responsibility to give shape and meaning to their own lives (IHEU)

If we are going to speak of Europe in terms of SPG’s and if we are going to affirm that the UPG metric of “access” is, at best, unhelpful, how should we then approach our mission in Europe?

A New Metric

I believe we must move away from a strategy of “establishing access” and move toward that of “extending presence” — the presence of engaging Christ-centered witness.

Why does this shift make sense? As mentioned above, the secularist is by definition indifferent to religion, rejects the existence of a meta-narrative of the world especially a religious meta-narrative and generally regards religious institutions as purveyors of private faith and therefore irrelevant to anyone who does not hold that faith.

If the secularist is to encounter Christ he or she will most likely do so not by stepping outside of the spaces of life they regularly inhabit in order to attend a religious service (a particular type of access point). Rather, they will encounter it through the engaging Christian witness within the spaces of life they already inhabit, if such a witness exists for them within those spaces.

To “extend presence” is to strategically engage SPG’s not only in their country, their city and their language; it is to strategically engage them on their cultural ground, as it were — within the physical and cultural spaces with which they are already familiar.

“Extending presence” as a strategy for mission opens up a new realm of possibilities for legitimate ministry. We are no longer required to think only in traditional terms of church planting or evangelistic events. But presence (of engaging Christian witness) can also be extended in a variety of other ways: through the arts, through business, through work with the marginalized, etc.

Case Study: The Gate

To illustrate the extension of presence as a strategy for mission in Europe, let me share with you about a ministry in the Netherlands called “The Gate”.

In 2007, a local church in the village of Lisse purchased a building that had formerly been a school. At the time of that purchase, the abandoned school building was in the evening used as a hang-out spot for troubled youth. These teenagers were alcohol and drug abusers, sometimes violent and a general nuisance to the community. When the church moved into the building the teenagers didn’t move away. Try as they would, members of the church (even young members) could not get those teenagers to show any interest in attending the church service on Sunday morning. Then one young church member came up with an idea to renovate one of the rooms in the building and from that room operate a youth center on Friday nights. They couldn’t engage them on Sunday mornings in a church service but maybe through a youth center on Friday nights they could. It was almost an immediate success.

After a few years, local churches who faced similar situations with troubled youth and frustrated by their inability to engage them began hearing about the work of The Gate. The leadership team of The Gate began meeting with these churches, teaching them what they had learned about engaging young, troubled people and helping those churches launch youth centers in their own cities and villages. At the time of this writing there are 7 locations of the Gate and at least 4 churches that are in the discovery phase of launching a Gate.

In every location, the launch of The Gate includes:

  • an informal study of the youth culture of that particular place including among other things popular hang-out spots
  • an evaluation of the capital and human resources of the local church
  • a professional design for the future youth center from a hired architect
  • an atmosphere (colors, furniture, activity options, music selection, etc.) developed to be familiar and attractive to those particular young people.
  • the development of a program based on the needs of young, troubled people; needs such as help with homework, personal life coaching, contact with peers in a safe environment, a listening ear, kicking unhealthy habits, etc.

The Gate leadership team identified a particular type of SPG, namely, troubled youth in the Netherlands. They then identified a cultural space in which they would be comfortable, namely, a club or bar-like atmosphere (albeit a toned-down version thereof). They then designed a new model of working with young, troubled people that serves them and does so from an explicitly Christian conviction and within the leadership of an explicitly Christian team.

Everyday, certified Gate project leaders and volunteers from local churches are extending an engaging Christian presence to unchurched teenagers, the result of which has begun to lead to conversions and baptisms.

It was not enough to provide an “access point” to those young, troubled people — the local church had indeed purchased a building and held Sunday morning services through which they proclaimed the gospel and offered others the chance to follow Jesus. These local churches in the Netherlands have committed to a strategy of extending presence to young unchurched people, a strategy from which we are just beginning to see the fruit.