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The Nations

DSC05819Summary: This article discusses how we gradually developed an understanding of the scriptural terms describing the nations, and how this was then used internationally to assess our progress among peoples, languages, countries, and cities. These four facets were seen by us as concrete and accessible ways of approaching the general term “nation” (ethnos). The text distinguishes peoples from people groups and explains why we did not prioritize what were often called “unreached peoples.” Seven attachments sample various ways in which our database was used.

“May the peoples praise You, God; may all the peoples praise You.”
Psalm 67:3


Historical Perspectives on Reaching the Nations
Navigator Biblical Study of the Nations
Pursuing Missions Priorities and Focus
Perspectives on “Disciple All the Nations”
The Future of the Nations
The Nations: Summary Observations


The pursuit of God’s glory among the nations was built into the fabric of The Navigators from our earliest days.

In 1931, Dawson Trotman spent forty-two days praying in the hills above San Pedro. During this time, he began praying for the US states and worked outward into countries and continents, eventually covering the world with sustained prayer for God to raise up men and women of faith who would plant the Gospel among their own peoples. Daws wrote later, “God answered our prayers absolutely and there was the beginning of the work called today by the name Navigators.”1

Crying out to God for the nations, therefore, came before the idea of any organization2 for pursuing this goal. Prayer was the strategy.

The nations are part of God’s design for humanity. They contribute to his plan of redemption. Yet God also wrestles with the nations: they come under his judgment. Confronted with his holiness, they are found wanting. And he continues to bless each nation until it has no light left for redemption.

The nations are distinct and diverse.3 They reflect God’s commitment to humanity in all of our cultural variety and particularity. God loves the full spectrum of the nations and has entrusted them to his Son. Therefore, we must be careful not to import foreign customs and cultures into how we represent Christ. The only transcultural message is the Gospel of God’s Kingdom.

The redemption of the nations requires a pure Gospel, shorn of the cultural barnacles which cling to us and which we call ethnocentricity. Thus, by respecting the uniqueness of each nation, we contribute to the purity of the Gospel. In fact, the nations condition the ways in which we are to do missions.

As John Stott has emphasized,

The fundamental basis of all Christian missionary enterprise is the universal authority of Jesus Christ . . . If he had not decisively overthrown the principalities and powers, we might still proclaim him to the nations, but we would never be able to ‘turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God’ (Acts 26:18). Only because all authority on earth belongs to Christ dare we go to all the nations. And only because all authority in heaven as well is his have we any hope of success.4

Karl Barth paid much attention to the Matthean version of the Great Commission. He comments that just as “going” points to Christ’s kingly rule over the nations, so “baptizing” reflects the priestly function of objectively introducing others into the realm of God’s reign, and “teaching” mirrors the prophetic function. This prophet-priest-king motif is basic to the entire structure of his Church dogmatics.

The focus of this article will be to trace how we have thought about and understood the challenge of the nations. Our actual progress and initiatives are addressed in the article on “Cross-Cultural Missions.”

Historical Perspectives on Reaching the Nations

The terrible conflict of World War II had the effect of exposing young American believers to cultural and social diversity far beyond what most of them had seen prior to the war. Sin and suffering were ubiquitous, the world was desperately needy and the Gospel was the only comprehensive solution.

The war had been among countries. Then and subsequently, we naturally thought of the nations as countries.6 This was the customary practice; although it is perhaps surprising that we did not see the founding of the United Countries rather than the United Nations in 1948!

Even though the borders of quite a few countries had been artificially drawn by the colonial powers without much attention to the spread of the indigenous ethnic peoples, such distortions continued. Their cultures and their natural affinities were of little account, when it came to political bargaining.

Thus, in his excellent essay “The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years,”7 Ralph Winter marveled at the speed of political change from 1945 to 1969. He writes in early 1970 that young people were inheriting “a world torn by racial strife, weary in morale, uneasy about traditional morality, unprecedentedly wealthy in some sectors yet massively hungry and destitute in others, and in some ways more sobered and more mature.” Yet, in Africa, for example, twenty-five new countries had joined the United Nations in the short period between 1958 and 1963. Many of them desired to remain neutral in the grand tension between Communism and Capitalism. There was, in those days, an impression in the minds of most people that the religion sweeping the world was Communism.

He soon followed this with The World Christian Movement, 1950-1975 which, in formal terms, was written as chapter 62 in the revised edition of LaTourette’s A History of Christianity.8 This was intended as “an interpretive essay” and provided an almost indispensable corrective to much of the gloom and unproven assumptions that swirled through Christian churches and agencies in the West during that period. He wrote that:

The most useful generalization about what happened to Christianity in the Western world between 1950 and 1975 is simply that it continued (and even speeded up) its gradual, painful withdrawal from entrenched legal and cultural establishment.

[However] . . .we are forced to distinguish between the admittedly widespread evidences of the decline of the Christian establishment and the springing up of a vast plethora of new movements, contrasting sharply with the decline of the settled Christian past.

Christianity as it expanded across the world displayed the capacity to become clothed in the language and culture of all peoples accepting it, and at the same time to bind those diverse peoples into fellowship with other Christians in other parts of the world.

Winter was one of the few voices to see the changes in population and the rise of indigenous leaders as anything other than a problem for Christianity. Many took it for granted that Christianity was dying out, perhaps confusing our faith with the previous dominance of the so-called Christian nations of the West. For example, in 1969, Kenneth Cragg wrote:

In so far as religions have their relative importance determined by numbers, Christianity is rapidly losing ground. . . . In very few Asian and African societies does population increase allow the Christian communities anything but a sharply declining percentage. If the objective of the Christian presence in the world is to possess all nations in their masses, it is manifestly succeeding less and less.9

The truth was very different. We now know of the rapid spread of the Gospel within China. Indeed, evidence from elsewhere corroborates the frequent strengthening impact of suffering upon the spread of our faith. One is reminded, in a different context, of 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” In many countries, forms of Christianity were emerging that paid little heed to the European battles that had animated the Reformation and that, because of the cultural diversity of the new countries, seemed in part irrelevant. Understandably, therefore, syncretism was a concern, when viewed from the perspective of traditional western missionaries.

However, the missionary zeal of young Americans was not to be denied. In our case, it was fueled also by the investment in prayer for the world during the 1930s. Many new agencies were founded in the aftermath of World War II. The torch of missions was passing inevitably from Europe to the New World. The Evangelical Foreign Missions Association10 grew from forty member agencies in 1946 to 104 in 1969. In addition, there were at least another one hundred agencies founded in North America after World War II which were not affiliated with any association.

What were Navigators to do? When World War II ended, Dawson faced a strategic decision: Should we disband as the servicemen who had been our core disciple-makers were discharged from the military, or should we steer many of them to opportunities11 in other agencies, or should we ourselves select a new focus, or . . . ? Daws’s initial approach was to send them with other agencies prior to sending them overseas under our own flag.

It was not hard to discern God’s leading. What Daws experienced in his trip around the world in 1948 was an abundance of opportunities, bolstered by urgent requests for Navigators. This was deepened from his considerable experience of interacting with the leaders of other evangelical agencies. Because many such agencies were in their infancy, personal relationships among their leaders were easier to sustain. The North American evangelical world was compact and interdependent.

For example, in 1950-1951, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship had only thirty-five field staff (though coaching more than five hundred student chapters).12 Yet, it was barely a decade old, having arisen from “a merging of two strands of evangelical student witness: the first, the alive and growing movement of students in Britain called the InterVarsity Fellowship, and the second, the frayed threads of a long history of evangelical student witness in the United States.”

Daws had developed especially strong relationships with Youth for Christ, to whose delegates he spoke at their first World Congress on Evangelism, in Switzerland (Torrey Johnson).

When Daws made his world tour of assessment, he was overwhelmed by the needs of the nations and saw how men and women whom we had trained could make significant contributions. Sanny recalled later how Daws concluded on his return that “from now on we are going to beat our own drums.”13

Therefore, one of the three reasons put forward for the purchase of Glen Eyrie by The Navigators in 1953 was that it should be a training center for those preparing to be foreign missionaries. Our embryonic regional offices were hardly equipped for such preparation. In 1954, Daws was also persuaded by a perceptive article14 by R. E. Thompson who had served as a leader in the China Inland Mission and was then with the Far Eastern Gospel Crusade (FEGC).

Thompson’s thesis was not new. He argued that “the mission fields of the world have proved to be places of physical, mental and spiritual testing . . . but the greatest strain is in the realm of the spiritual.” Recognizing that immaturity was the most common cause of breakdown on the field, Thompson’s burden was to prepare men and women to live Christ. He insisted that “we should have evidence here at home that a candidate is a witness before we are justified in allowing him to go forward.”

Thompson had tried several methods of preparing candidates, concluding that a “longer period of intimate relationship with the candidates should give us a deeper knowledge of them as we have many opportunities to observe the candidates at their work. When weaknesses show up, directed by the Spirit of God, we ought to be able to assist. At the end of such a period, we will be in a much better position to give our leaders on the field more definite information regarding the candidate’s spiritual condition and common reaction to life situations.”

This made much sense to Daws and underlined his sense of the Lord’s provision of Glen Eyrie. Thompson, for his part, requested that each of his candidates receive instruction in the Nav emphasis. Consequently, Bill Fletcher moved to Detroit for several months to give hands-on instruction to the nearly fifty FEGC candidates in the Detroit area.

Even though we assumed (or at least hoped) that personal ministry in the countries we entered during the 1950s could be carried out in English, sometimes through an interpreter, our emphasis on materials recognized the importance of distributing the Scriptures in the receiving languages. In China, from the beginning, Roy Robertson had the TMS printed in Mandarin.

Our commitment to the nations grew15 during the 1950s. In Jim Downing’s formative paper for our Overseas Policy Conference in 1961 on our objectives and strategy, he writes: “In the light of past history, I conclude that the long-range objective of The Navigators, under God, is to raise up reproducing Christians for a witness in every nation.”16

However, during the 1960s, we preferred not to give an exact definition of the phrase “every nation” from Matthew 28:19 that provided the missionary vision and heartbeat in our Primary Aim.

Although aware of the exegeses of the Greek phrase panta ta ethne, we chose not to commit ourselves to a precise list of nations. Scholarly debate revealed diverse views and we took the simple position that—whatever the specifics—our task was very large.17

However, given our unyielding obedience to the Lord as regards advancing into the nations, we soon accepted a growing need to reflect on what we understood to be the nations and how we should analyze and stimulate our progress among them.

In FOM 2,18 distributed in 1982, we therefore used a working definition of nations as “those groups into which mankind gathers—such as languages, nationalities and ethnic groups.”

Later, as we went on to develop our use of blocs as “large ethno-religious segments of mankind,” we were prompted by the reality that, as one looks at very large aggregates, languages are less relevant than the major religions.

Especially among Western evangelicals, the focus changed in the early 1980s from the most receptive to the least-reached peoples. Many agencies spread their resources thinly into small and resistant groups in order to be sensitive to the plight of the “unreached.” However, our internal motivations as Navigators were more persuasive in light of our Aim. We saw that many countries that were considered “reached” because their Christian heritage largely comprised unbelievers,19 and we were in any case pursuing the undiscipled as well as the unreached. Thus, we needed to stabilize our approach in order to:

  • Give us clarity on the size of the task
  • Bring into sharper focus the cross-cultural demands
  • Help us identify the types of missionaries we need
  • Enhance the relevance of our bloc strategies
  • Identify motivational prayer targets
  • Help us to recruit people to our disciple-making vision

Starting from the simple reality that Matthew’s version of the Great Commission uses the phrase panta ta ethne which is traditionally translated “every nation,” we studied the various biblical terms. Ethnos itself is perhaps the loosest and broadest20 of the NT terms:

  • It is a loose term because it is variously used for the Jews, for the Gentiles, and for the new Christian community. In the plural, in the NT, it usually means the Gentiles.
  • It is a broad term, because units such as Jews, Gentiles, and Christians have sub-units within them. For example, the tribes of Israel.

On the one hand, ethnos is not used in the NT as “country,” for which the normal word would be basileia (kingdom). On the other hand, ethnos had little connection with the emerging emphasis on “people groups” (see later).

It is our commitment to every nation that imbues us with urgency and forces us to engage in strategic global planning. Indeed, concern for the nations runs like a golden thread through the Scriptures.

By 1982, the need for a consistent and updatable global view of the nations was pressing in on us. We had chosen to plan at a macro-level in terms of blocs, “large ethno-religious segments of mankind.”21 So, what were the principal peoples and languages indigenous to each bloc? Also, in an urbanizing world, which megacities had we not entered? Which countries were more than fifty percent Muslim? What should be our priorities, for prayer and surveys?

Navigator Biblical Study of the Nations

Donald McGilchrist produced several editions of a paper entitled “Towards Every Nation: Developing our Approach to the Nations,” which explored the various Greek and Hebrew terms. He made recommendations on how The Navigators should work towards a presence in every major nation, defining “major” as a population of at least one million persons22 by the year 2000.

He was acting as sponsor of our Global Project 3 which had the objective of giving content to our commitment to every nation and helping us in our strategic global planning.23

In depicting the mosaic of mankind, at the end of time, the book of Revelation provides four classifiers24 in each of seven references. Thus, using the NIV translation:

Table 1: Classifiers of People in Revelation

5.9 – Tribe, Language, People, Nation
7.9 – Nation, Tribe, People, Language
10.11 – Peoples, Nations, Languages, Kings
11.9 – People, Tribe, Language, Nation
13.7 – Tribe, People, Language, Nation
14.6 – Nation, Tribe, Language, People
17.15 – Peoples, Multitudes, Nations, Languages

The apostle John, writing to urban fellowships within a province of an empire, did not pay much attention to countries.25 Nor did he address those frequently small units which were now being called people groups.

A clear distinction should be maintained, for Navigators, between “peoples,” which are ethno-linguistic (e.g. Hausa, Kurd, Welsh, Han), and “people groups,” which are sociological (e.g. butchers or balloonists or prostitutes or handball players). A person belongs permanently to his ethnic people, but he or she will often have a shifting allegiance to several people groups.26 Many people groups are also localized, geographically, as befits the underlying concept of groups throughout which the Gospel can spread without external barriers.27 Perhaps the deepest penetration of our staff into such a group is seen among international students in the US.28

Although we focused on peoples internationally, we understood well that our field staff would often focus on people groups locally. For example, we wanted to be present among the Afrikaners in our overall Africa strategy, but our pioneering team might begin among students at the University of Stellenbosch.

Unfortunately, the preamble to the UN charter (San Francisco, 1945) provides some extra confusion by opening with the words: “We the Peoples of the United Nations . . .” The signatories were countries, not peoples, and the members have also continued to be countries, not nations.

Later, in his 1993 book Ethnonationalism,29 Walker Connor commented:

In this Alice-in-wonderland world in which nation usually means state, in which nation-state usually means multination state, in which nationalism usually means loyalty to the state, and in which ethnicity, primordialism, pluralism, tribalism, regionalism, communalism, parochialism and sub-nationalism usually mean loyalty to the nation, it should come as no surprise that the nature of nationalism remains essentially un-probed.

For some observations on the nations, see the final section of this article.

Pursuing Missions Priorities and Focus

So, we decided to focus, not exclusively but helpfully, on major nations to which we gave the arbitrary definition of those projected to have at least one million persons by the year 2000.

Within this global system, for simplicity, we sought to measure our progress at only two points:

  • Nav presence, where we have a sustained ministry commitment
  • Nav fruit, where we have at least one active indigenous disciple-maker

It will be seen that these two metrics are rather minimal. This was deliberate because we wanted to be alert, internationally, to the emergence of our ministries in many countries and because local or country plans would provide much more detail.

We then selected peoples and languages and countries and cities as four principal facets30 of the nations for which reliable external data was accessible.

We sourced each of the four segments from external data streams that could provide global rankings, as well as supplemental data in a form that we could process, without charge. These were the sources:

  • Peoples: World Evangelization Database
  • Languages: SIL Ethnologue
  • Countries: Population Reference Bureau
  • Cities: UN Population Division

This sounds easy, but it became clear that our needs were unique. Lists of peoples, for example, typically offered only unreached peoples or data for a specific country such as India. Curiously, a people was usually counted separately in every country in which it was present so that, for example, there were some 140 peoples called Japanese! For us, globally,31 this was not helpful.

This analytical system was robust. It was fully operational32 by the late 1980s and enjoyed peak usage among our field leaders33 and in our missions strategies during the 1990s, subsiding gradually in the early years of the new century.

McGilchrist’s estimate was that there could be some 440 major nations by the year 2000. This was a notional concept because successfully integrating the four chosen segments was never practicable; but it did provide us with a motivational and intuitively plausible prayer target which served us well for some twenty years. However, as the year 2000 passed, refreshing our database provided somewhat larger numbers of major nations. The final year for which we used our four sources was 2010, and the data showed our presence in:

  • 199 out of 539 mega-peoples
  • 146 out of 444 mega-languages
  • 104 out of 157 mega-countries
  • 177 out of 428 megacities

To illustrate a range of outputs from this database on the nations, several random samples of the output at various dates can be found by using the attachments link at the end of this article. They include:

  1. Languages, a page from our table of the mega-languages of Asia
  2. Nav presence by segment
  3. Nav fruit by segment
  4. Most populous nations without a Nav presence
  5. Advancing the Gospel into the nations, 2010
  6. The Navigators and the nations, 2010
  7. Major nations, simple visual for the year 2010

Our system was most successful as regards languages34 and countries, the two variables that can be traced back to Roy Robertson’s ministry in China. Peoples required more sensitivity and judgement: for example, some African staff were reluctant to think in such terms because of a harsh history of inter-tribal conflict.35 The colonial powers had often set arbitrary boundaries to their new countries.

It is prudent to ask what practical influence the output from this database had for Navigators. It was certainly well-used, being routinely featured, for example, in US missions strategies guided by Marvin Smith and Ray Hoo. It led us into highlighting what we now call the “Nations Within,” so that we began to collect data on staff who were pursuing cross-cultural ministries within their own countries. It led us to think more carefully about the growing diasporas of several internationalizing Peoples. It reinforced the importance of contextualizing. It was especially helpful in Asia where a few very populous countries contained many languages and peoples. It supplied a measure of our progress (presence and fruit) in an era when we no longer counted such variables as new disciple-makers. In a word, it put flesh on the pursuit of the Great Commission.

The Fundamentals of Navigator Missions (FOM) was published in November 1998. The first and longest of the six Bible studies in the FOM was on the nations, and provides significantly more information and reflection.

Perspectives on “Disciple All the Nations”

It is important to realize that, in Matthew 28:19, the Greek is literally “disciple all the nations” (panta ta ethne). Typically, we have reduced this to make disciples of or among or in every nation, which invests a comprehensive command with a fragmented ethos. Let’s look at this.

The periodical Mission Frontiers produced a special issue to explain what the Greek communicates. From page 8:

All modern translations of Matthew 28:19, beginning with the Revised Standard Version, have translated this verse, “Make disciples of all nations” rather than disciple or teach all nations. These modern translations reflect our individualistic worldview and, although the Great Commission is certainly applicable on the individual level, which makes these translations partially correct, they also can lead to a simplistic or reductionist view of our Lord’s global assignment. All early translations of this verse remained faithful to the Greek’s natural emphasis until recently. The Latin Vulgate, for example, reads euntes ergo docete omnes gentes (going therefore, teach all nations) . . . The early Protestant Reformers also saw the significance of this and emphasized the importance of Christian education in fulfilling the mandate of Christ. John Calvin wrote of Matthew 28:19: ‘The meaning amounts to this, that by proclaiming the Gospel everywhere, they should bring all nations to the obedience of the faith.’36

In the IJFM for Spring 2009, in describing YWAM’s understanding, we read:

As far back as the mid-1970s, YWAM founder Loren Cunningham preached about influencing nations (not just individuals), a strategy God has simultaneously given him and Bill Bright of Campus Crusade. They named seven spheres of influence: Economics, Government, Communication, Arts, Education, Family and the Church.37

Jun Vencer, writing in 2000 as International Director of the World Evangelical Fellowship, observes that:

. . . to disciple the nations has a more expanded content than just people . . . the Gospel is to be preached to every person, to the whole inhabited earth. But the preaching is to people who live in their communities with their structures, relationships, values and culture. The Gospel is to transform not just sinful people but also unjust structures.

He goes on to affirm that,

. . . in a community or country where the Lamb is the center of life or where kingdom values are inculturated in people and institutions, that community or country would have economic sufficiency, social peace, public justice, national righteousness, and increasingly acknowledge Jesus as sovereign.

This is what a discipled nation would look like. “It moves the Gospel beyond the private claims of a highly individualistic evangelical culture and liberates it to touch peoples and nations. It also provides a legitimizing and integrating vision for the ministries of God’s people.”38

Lastly, Andrew Walls in his essay on “Culture and Conversion in Christian History,” writes:

Discipling a nation involves Christ’s entry into the nation’s thought, the patterns of relationship within that nation, the way the society hangs together, the way decisions are made. This has several implications. For one thing, it means that discipling is a long process—it takes generations.39

Blessing the peoples, as Abraham was promised in Genesis 12:1-3, is very much equivalent to discipling the nations in Matthew 28:19. Both are comprehensive and generational.

In 1980, Donald McGavran published The Discipling of a Nation in which he wrote:

Soundly Christian men and women, worshipping God in soundly Christian congregations, serving men as The Master did and changing society again and again as the Gospel has always done, are powerful instruments of social advance. Evangelization is the best friend of all reformers who desire the reconstruction of the social order along righteous lines.

More dubiously, McGavran identified seven early cases40 in which, for reasons good and sometimes less good, his view was that an entire country declared for Christ and became Christian. Thus:

  • Armenia between AD 290 and 310.
  • Ireland between AD 420 and 470, during which 127 tribes evangelized by Patrick and others declared for Christ and were baptized.
  • England between AD 597 and 686, through missionaries from Rome led by Augustine of Canterbury but mostly through evangelizing by believers coming south and east from Ireland and the west of Scotland.
  • The Saxons under Charlemagne around AD 800.
  • Norway between AD 950 and 1030, by Tryggvason and Haraldson who “traveled through the land to see that conversion was completed, churches were built, and priests set over them.”
  • Iceland in around AD 1000, deciding to become Christian at an all-island assembly.
  • Kievan Rus, also around AD 1000, under Vladimir, a Viking who had conquered the tribes of what is now Russia.

I say “sometimes less good” because, in those earlier days, a certain amount of compulsion was often applied in the conversion of one’s people under the rubric cuius regio, eius religio.41 Nevertheless, these are notable cases taken, however, from an era in which societies were simpler and had fewer members.

The seventh example is especially notable. Prince Vladimir commissioned some market research before telling his people which religion they should adopt! His emissaries traveled south to inspect Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Islam and to recommend which faith would be most suitable for the Rus. They opted for Orthodoxy as a result of entering the church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople. As they reported to their Prince, “We know not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

The above way of understanding the text of Matthew 28:19,42 which is not (yet) widely digested among Navigators, leads into a practical question: What would a blessed people (Genesis 12) or a discipled nation (Matthew 28) look like and what steps toward this might be required?

From the table of nations in Genesis 10 through the Abrahamic promise of blessing the nations in Genesis 12 to the Great Commission and onwards to the “multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language” before the throne of God, the Holy Spirit constantly affirms the significance and need of the nations.

The Old Testament thrust was largely toward the nations going up to Jerusalem, whereas the New Testament has the Gospel flowing out from Jerusalem into the nations. However, in both Testaments, God is progressively revealed as having the whole world on His heart. It is “too light a thing” to limit ourselves to our own people: with the apostle Paul, we bow in obedience to the Lord’s command to “bring salvation to the ends of the earth.” God has nothing less in mind.43

Who are these nations, that are to be blessed and discipled? As we have seen, they are not merely countries, which are often modern political inventions. Indeed, as Origen (fl. 240) wrote: “Peace began at the birth of Christ, God preparing the nations for His teaching that they might be under one prince . . . and that it might not be more difficult, due to the existence of many kingdoms, for Jesus’s apostles to go and teach all nations.”

The Future of the Nations

Returning to the book of Revelation, we may end by considering the future of the nations.

When the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven (instead of trying to rise toward God, like the Tower of Babel), a paradigm of grace instead of works, we are told in Revelation 21 that the nations will walk by its light. There is considerable evidence that the term “people” is plural44 in verse 3: “He will live with them and they will be his peoples.” This is such an encouraging reading because it tells us that our diversity will not be crushed and that the God who built it into the structure of creation continues to relish it and will enjoy our cultural and other distinctives, as we enjoy worshipping Him.

Missionary work was born in the counsels of the Triune God where it was decreed that, by the preaching of the Gospel to all, there should be brought to eternal glory a great multitude which no man could number from every tribe, people and language.
Confession of the Waldenses, 1573.

The Nations: Summary Observations

  1. God designed, arranged and separated the nations.
    He made them and controls their destiny.
    He gave them their inheritance and borders.
    He enlarges and disperses them.
    They are his agents.
  2. The nations reflect aspects of the triune God.
    His diversity.
    His concern for the particular.
    His collective and relational nature.
    We are more than individuals, in Adam.
    His image.
    His varied grace.
    Therefore, they are to be preserved.
  3. The nations have become evil and are judged.
    They conspire to oppose God.
    The Gospel challenges cultures, all are fallen.
    God judges all the nations.
  4. The nations protect humankind.
    From excesses of pride and ethnocentricity.
    From the unchecked spreading of sins.
    They limit the virus, lessen the contamination.
    They are like a “species barrier.”
    Language, in particular, separates.
    Note: culture as a barrier.
  5. The nations draw us towards God.
    They reveal our incompleteness.
    They cause us to seek God’s completeness.
    All echo God and the Gospel irradiates cultures.
    Note: culture as a carrier.
  6. God set apart a particular physical nation to reach the nations.
    A nation to bless all peoples on earth.
    A kingdom of priests, assigned for others.
    He set Israel in praise, fame and honor above the nations.
    He blessed Israel, they blessed the nations.
  7. Contiguous nations were judged, as God preserved His nation.
    Drive them out, because of their evil practices.
    Because of their commitment to idols.
    Because God had chosen the land for His nation.
    Until God’s name was established.
    God judges and raises up nations.
  8. God gave the nations to His Son.
    They are the inheritance of the Son.
    Therefore, they are to be preserved.
    And they are to be redeemed.
  9. The nations will last forever.
    Around the throne of God.
    None will be missing.
    All will be valued.
    Their glory and honor will enter the holy city.
  10. Now, God is forming a spiritual nation among the nations.
    We are Abraham’s seed, a new family, a new community.
    Christ’s Body is formed out of the nations.
    The Gospel transforms our ethnic and cultural histories.
    Together, we are God’s priests for the nations.
    The people of God exist for the nations.
    We represent His love to the nations.
    We disciple the nations.
  11. This spiritual nation is being called out within every physical nation.
    We are called to assemble people from all nations.
    This new nation is for the nations.
    The bride of the Lamb is emerging from all nations.
    Our triune God is a relational unity, gathered in diversity.
    The nations are to reflect His unity in diversity.
    The Gospel must speak to the distinctives of each nation.

By Donald McGilchrist

7753 Words

See also articles on:
Overseas Policy Conference: 1961
Global Planning: 1966-1975
The Kingdom of God
Fundamentals of Navigator Missions
Cross-Cultural Missions
Allocation of Cross-Cultural Missionaries

Link to Attachments

1. Nav Languages: a page from the mega-languages of Asia
2. Nav presence by segment
3. Nav fruit by segment
4. Most populous nations without a Nav presence
5. Advancing the Gospel into the nations: 2010
6. The Navigators and the nations: 2010
7. Major nations, simple visual for the year 2010
8. Languages in Asia-Pacific


  1. Betty Skinner (page 106 of Daws) records that “Dawson considered the name ‘The Navigators’ and late in 1934 had stationery printed with that name, the subtitle being “A Bible Club for Service Men” and the motto “To Know Christ and to Make Him Known.”
  2. Until 1943, The Navigators was an unincorporated association. On February 25, 1943, Dawson submitted an affidavit to the State of California in which he explained the name of The Navigators and what he called “the plan of the work.” See article on “Boards of Directors.”
  3. The table of nations in Genesis 10 describes the distinguishing marks of the groups descended from Japheth, Ham, Shem. In each case, the classifiers are clans, languages, nations, territories. Verses 5, 20, 31.
  4. Source: Langham Partnership Daily Thought, January 2, 2015, taken from Authentic Christianity (IVP, UK, 1995).
  5. See Waldron Scott, Karl Barth’s Theology of Mission, IVF, 1978, p. 17.
  6. Walker Connor, Ethnonationalism: The Quest for Understanding, Princeton, 1994, helpfully defines a nation as “a group of people who feel that they are ancestrally related. It is the largest group that can command a person’s loyalty because of felt kinship ties; it is, from this perspective, the fully extended family. . . . It is not chronological or factual history that is the key to the nation, but sentient or felt history” (page 202). Connor’s work is outstanding in sorting out the semantic muddles into which popular understandings have slipped.
  7. Ralph D. Winter “The Twenty-Five Unbelievable Years: 1945-1969” (Wm. Carey Library 1970), pages 74, 29, 34.
  8. Published in 1975 by Harper and Row and reproduced by the William Carey Library 1975 as a booklet, pages 6, 8, 27.
  9. Cragg, Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem 1970-74, p. 66.
  10. Global Cross Link and The Mission Exchange merged in February 2012.
  11. For some time we did this, functioning as an “allocations service” for placing “our people in other agencies.” See more detail in my article on “Cross-Cultural Missions.”
  12. Keith & Gladys Hunt, For Christ and the University, IVCF, 1991, p. 392 and 17.
  13. OPC 1961, notes of session 12, January 12, 1961.
  14. “The Preparation of Accepted Candidates for the Mission Field” which was made available to our staff by Daws with his “Dear Gang” letter on April 15, 1954.
  15. Four days before Daws drowned, he preached on the Big Dipper illustration, the final star being world vision: “We teach world vision on the basis of the whole Bible, on the basis of the last words of Jesus Christ and on the basis of Acts 1:8. The Great Commission is to get the Gospel to every creature. God wants us to have more than a casual interest in every nation of the world, so we will be concerned about what impact we can have.” Source: Melody Cantwell, July 24, 2017
  16. Paper for OPC on “Objectives and Strategy,” p.8.
  17. For further study, see essays in Walker Connor loc cit. Also, Nationalism by Ernest Gellner, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997.
  18. Distributed in April 1982. However, as early as the DDC in November 1969, the divisional directors set their sights on eventually “making disciples and developing disciple-makers in all the world” defining the world as “cultures, races, nationalities, languages.”
  19. For example, the World Christian Encyclopedia (Oxford, 1982) showed professing Christians as 84 percent of the population of Italy in 1980 (p. 403).
  20. In classical Greek, such fluidity is apparent. Meanings given by Liddell & Scott (Oxford, 1940) include company, band, swarm, flock, nation, people, club, province, class, caste, order, association, guild, tribe.
  21. As noted earlier, we included the religious element in this definition because, when we looked at the very large aggregates that we call blocs or regions, languages become less relevant than the major religions.
  22. Edition 12 produced in September 2001: ten pages plus attachments.
  23. By December 1986, his project report showed that we had identified 258 peoples and 135 countries of at least one million persons, with indicators of Navigator progress.
  24. Tribe = phule; Language = glossa; People = laos; Nation = ethnos.
  25. An exception is the term kings = kingdoms in Revelation 10:11.
  26. See Unreached Peoples: Clarifying the Task, Schreck & Barrett, MARC, 1987; “Towards Every Nation,” FONM, November 1998, page 1.5. Unfortunately, much missiological literature displays a haphazard and careless mixing of the terms “people” and “people group,” sometimes within the same paragraph!
  27. An early example given by the MARC unit of World Vision was race-track dwellers in the San Fernando Valley!
  28. See article on “International Students.”
  29. Page 73.
  30. Not to be confused with the Four Quadrants which we introduced to better understand the spread of ministry within each of our countries, in the late 1990s.
  31. For local planning, of course, knowing the number of Japanese in Kazakhstan or Singapore was beneficial. However, we were reaching for a global system.
  32. The system was constructed, refined, maintained by McGilchrist. When he moved on to other responsibilities, the accuracy and thus the value of the data declined. After 2010, it was defunct, although our publicity channels continued to appropriate statements such as “we minister in more than 170 languages.”
  33. A classic example was a briefing on “The Nations of Sub-Saharan Africa” which included supportive tables on variables such as debt and human suffering (McGilchrist February 2000, thirty pages including maps).
  34. The Ethnologue distinguished between languages and dialects.
  35. The Biafran War in Nigeria was especially painful. The division in South Sudan is a current example.
  36. Mission Frontiers, September – October 2009, US Center for World Mission.
  37. International Journal of Frontier Missiology 26:1 Spring 2009, p. 16. This approach to the transformation of culture is now often framed in terms of what are called Seven Mountains which need to be recaptured for the Lord.
  38. “Churches Transforming the Nations: the DNA Vision,” Jun Vencer, WEF Theological Commission, 2000, published in the Evangelical Review of Theology. Vencer is expounding what the OT calls shalom.
  39. Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Orbis, 1996, p. 51. Earlier in the same volume (p. 27) he notes, “Matthew 28:19 . . . it is the nations, not some people within the nations, who are to be discipled.”
  40. Published by Donald McGavran and Jim Montgomery (1980) quoting from p. 22-23, 28.
  41. Roughly: “If I’m the leader of this region, it should embrace my religion!”
  42. One should note that as important an authority as Karl Barth disagreed. In his The Theology of Christian Mission (McGraw-Hill, 1961), he conducts what he calls an “Exegetical Study of Matthew 28:16-20” which includes this comment: “Note the autous, which occurs twice. It cannot refer to ethne. Not the nations as such are made disciples. This interpretation once infested missionary thinking and was connected with the painful fantasies of the German Christians. It is worthless.”
  43. Isaiah 49:6 quoted by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:47.
  44. The plural laoi is used in the American Standard Version, English Revised Version, Weymouth New Testament, Young’s Literal Translation and is supported by Jamison, Fausset, and Brown, and the Pulpit Commentary and Vincent’s Word Studies. The United Bible Society’s text (Aland, Metzger, et. al) Edition 3, corrected, (Stuttgart, 1966) agrees with the 26th Edition of the Nestle – Aland text in adopting laoi. Of the three prominent uncials, Sinaiticus (4th c) and Alexandrinus (5th c) read laoi, while Vaticanus (4th c) reads laos. The singular reading laos is supported by the Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic versions.
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