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2. Reaching the Linguistically “Least of These”

Making disciples of all people groups requires using their heart languages in order to teach them to obey everything Jesus has commanded. The magnitude and complexity of this task is immense, and much remains to be accomplished. Merely working harder in world missions is an inadequate approach for accomplishing the Great Commission. Equipping every people group with adequate discipleship resources in their own language requires a fundamental shift in our approach to world missions.

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In July 1974, Christian leaders from around the world gathered in Lausanne, Switzerland for the International Congress on World Evangelization. One of the significant outcomes of that gathering came from Ralph Winter’s indictment of the missionary movement for “people blindness”:

The shattering truth is that four out of five non-Christians in the world today are beyond the reach of… evangelism. Why is this fact not more widely known? I’m afraid that all ou­r exultation about the fact that every country of the world has been penetrated has allowed many to suppose that every culture has by now been penetrated. This misunderstanding is a malady so widespread that it deserves a special name. Let us call it “people blindness”—that is, blindness to the existence of separate peoples within countries… In the Great Commission… the phrase “make disciples of all ethne (peoples)” does not let us off the hook once we have a church in every country—God wants a strong church within every people!1

The realization that four out of five non-Christians were still cut off from the gospel because of cultural and linguistic barriers, not geographic ones, resulted in a significant missiological change in the global world missions community. The task of missions came to be (correctly) understood as requiring a focus on unreached people groups, not merely evangelism in every country. A people group is defined as:

A significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity with one another. For evangelization purposes, a people group is the largest group within which the Gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding [i.e. linguistic differences] or acceptance [i.e. sociocultural differences].2

The exhortation by Winter to focus on people groups (or “ethnic groups”) as opposed to countries in the task of world missions was not a new, trendy idea of the 70s. It was, as Winter points out, a return to Biblical missiology and a more accurate understanding of Matthew 28:18-20. In The Supremacy of God among All the Nations”, John Piper agrees, saying this about Christ’s command to the Church:

These words of the Lord are crucial for deciding what the missionary task of the church should be today. Specifically, the words “make disciples of all nations” must be closely examined. They contain the very important phrase “all nations”, which is often referred to in the Greek form panta ta ethne (panta = all, ta = the, ethne = nations). The reason this is such an important phrase is that ethne, when translated “nations,” sounds like a political or geographic grouping. That is its most common English usage. But… this is not what the Greek means… the focus of the command is the discipling of all the people groups of the world.3

This task of making disciples of all people groups will someday be completed. A vision of the completed Great Commission is given in Revelation 7:9:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…”4

The renewed focus on reaching every people group with the Gospel has resulted in encouraging progress toward the completion of the Great Commission in the last thirty years. However, there is still much work that remains to be done before this task is complete. The total number of people groups in the world is somewhere between about 11,000 and 16,000 (depending on the criteria used), and the number of “least-reached” people groups is over 6,500.5

Least-reached people groups are not distributed evenly among the countries of the world. For instance, the Joshua Project lists Papua New Guinea as having 3 least-reached people groups, Mexico has 15, China has 428, and India has a staggering 2,216. Some least-reached people groups are comprised of millions, but many of them have only a few thousand people. Some of these people groups may be found in large, easily accessible urban areas, but many are among the most geographically distant, remotely located people in the whole world. Many of these people groups are economically disadvantaged, politically oppressed, and resistant to the Gospel. But the mandate to the Church is, as it has always been: make disciples of every people group.

The Spiritual Famine of the Global Church

Can you imagine spiritual life without the Word of God in your own language? Try to picture your bookshelves empty, no Christian radio, no sermon podcasts, no Bible on the coffee table, no Bible app on your smartphone, no devotionals, or study guides. Nothing. How would you grow spiritually? What if, in this context of total lack, you are trying to raise your children as believers who resist the advances of the dominant religion in your culture? What if you are the pastor of a church in a language that has nothing?

This kind of context is difficult for many of us to comprehend or even imagine, especially if we speak a language that has had access to a seemingly infinite number of discipleship resources for centuries. A total lack of discipleship resources in one’s own language, however, is the daily reality for followers of Jesus in many, if not most, people groups of the world today.

These Christians may have become believers through the preaching of an evangelist yesterday. But today they are watching the evangelist walk down the trail to the next village, knowing they may never see him again. As the evangelist leaves, so does their only source of theological guidance and spiritual instruction, because they have no discipler and no discipleship resources in their language. They desperately want to add to their faith, virtue and to their virtue, knowledge (2 Peter 1:5), but they have no means of doing so. Their spiritual famine is absolute.

It is all but impossible to accurately quantify the spiritual famine of the global church. Objectively proving that adequate discipleship resources do not exist in a given language is difficult to accomplish, because complete statistics do not exist. Perhaps the best way to begin to understand the breadth and severity of the spiritual famine of the global church is to see it firsthand.

Visit Christians in other parts of the world and ask to see what discipleship resources are available in their own languages. Ask Christians in China, for example, to take you to their local Christian bookstore (if one even exists) and see what is available. Ask them what Christian programs are broadcast on local TV or radio stations. Consider the hundreds of languages spoken in that country, and compare it with the number of languages in which discipleship resources are available.

Or go to other parts of Asia and ask pastors there how the Christians in their churches study the Word of God. Ask Christians how they grow spiritually and what resources they have available to help them grow in the knowledge of the Word of God. Then find out that as many as 80% of the people in the church are illiterate, and that the Word of God is either not available in their own language or, if it is, it is only available in print. You may discover that they have no other discipleship resources in their own language and only receive occasional spiritual nourishment from the pastor, and he has not had the opportunity to receive any formal training in theology or Biblical studies.

If you were to visit other parts of the world and assess the situation on the ground for Christians, here is what you could expect to find:

  • Some discipleship resources are available in some languages—almost always the national language, or the very largest languages having the most speakers.
  • Discipleship resources that exist in other languages are often very costly and beyond the means of the average Christian.
  • If discipleship resources exist in a given language, they are often intended only for pastors. In terms of access to the Word of God and having the ability to study and understand it for themselves, much of the global church is still in the Dark Ages. They are often dependent on those with a formal role and special training in the church to access the Word of God and mediate it to them. This is not to denigrate the role of these church leaders in any way! There is, however, a great need for both trained church leaders and discipleship resources that are accessible to everyone in the church, for their spiritual growth and maturity.
  • For Christians who speak the vast majority of the smaller languages, adequate discipleship resources in their own languages simply do not exist.

When I was in Papua New Guinea—a “Christian” country with over 800 languages—I remember noting that the shelves of the local Christian bookstore only contained the Bible in English, the Bible in Tok Pisin (the national language) and maybe one or two other materials. These are important first steps, but is nowhere near providing adequate discipleship resources in the hundreds of languages spoken by Christians in that country.

On a recent trip to India, I attended a pastors' conference and had the opportunity to interact with church leaders from all over India. They came from many different provinces, and spoke many different languages. These men love God and serve Jesus Christ with their whole heart. Interestingly, however, the concept of “discipleship resources” (theological content to promote spiritual growth and increase Biblical knowledge) was almost unheard of. Few had access to a Bible in their own language, much less additional resources to help them study it effectively.

I had a chance to visit the library on the campus of the training institute where the conference was held and was delighted to see row upon row of books, covering many topics. I asked what languages the books were in, and was told that they were all in English. For pastors who are able to read English (and live in proximity to the library), it is helpful to have access to discipleship resources in English.

The problem is that English was not the first language of any of the pastors there. The services were conducted in English, but were simultaneously translated into as many five other languages, because English was an inadequate means of communication for most of the attendees. They need their own discipleship resources in their own languages—books in English are not enough.

The need for discipleship resources in the languages of India has been observed by others, like author Tim Challies:

The church there is growing quickly, but it is lacking in depth. There are a growing number of leaders there who love the Lord, who are eager to serve him, and who are doing this very well. Yet they are lacking in training and in resources... This is their self assessment and by all appearances it is true. [Churches in the larger cities] have available to them all the teaching and training the English language offers; the church in northern India has only what is available in Hindi.6

Others have pointed out:

Christianity is growing at a staggering rate [in India]. Despite rising resistance and persecution, these new believers are also starting to take responsibility for the Great Commission. There are more churches being planted in this region of the world than ever before.

Good news, certainly, but it also presents a unique challenge. Young Christians are working to plant and multiply churches, reproducing new churches ahead of Bible training. Over 90% of them have no formal instruction and will never have the opportunity to get that kind of education.7

The immense lack of discipleship resources in other languages is not unique to India. Lack of adequate training and materials to promote spiritual growth and Biblical knowledge is the norm for most Christians who do not speak English as their first language. For them, there is no Amazon.com where they can instantly order even basic resources in their own language to help them grow spiritually.

Complete numbers to quantify this famine are not available, but these statistics may help paint the picture:

  • More than 1.2 billion people worldwide have no access to the Bible in their heart language, and there are 2,000 languages that have no Scripture translation efforts underway.8
  • Eighty-five percent of churches in the world are led by men and women who have no formal training in theology or ministry.9
  • If every Christian training institute in the world operated at 120 percent capacity, less than 10 percent of the unequipped leaders would be trained.10
  • The Jesus Film project is available in 1,168 languages, with over 5,500 languages remaining to reach the goal of sharing Jesus “with everyone in his or her own heart language.”11
  • The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis is generally considered to be the most widely read Christian book after the Bible and has reportedly been translated into hundreds of languages, leaving thousands without (precise numbers are not available).12
  • The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan—one of the most popular books in Christian history—has been translated into only 200 languages, leaving the vast majority of the world's languages without.13
  • Systematic Theology, which has sold more than 450,000 copies and is used as a theology textbook all over the world is available in 8 languages, with 8 more underway.14

Listing statistics like these is not criticism in any way. Many people and ministries are focused on helping end the spiritual famine of the global church and they are to be commended for their efforts. Numbers like these merely indicate that there is much still to be done in the task of “making disciples” of all people groups and equipping them with adequate discipleship resources.

People Groups and Their Languages

Making disciples of every people group includes equipping believers in these people groups with adequate discipleship resources in their own languages. Interestingly, the relationship between people groups and languages is not 1:1. There are “multi-ethnic language groups”, where many people groups speak the same language. According to Operation World, Hindi is an example of this, as there are 297 different people groups in India who speak Hindi.15 In other situations, there are “multi-lingual ethnic groups”, where one people group with a common ethnic identity speaks many different languages. The Dinka people group of Sudan is an example of this, as the Dinka people group is comprised of five different languages.16

The global linguistic situation that forms the context for the mandate “make disciples of all people groups” is complicated, to say the least. Regardless of how the lines are drawn between ethnic identities and language groups, every people group needs access to the Word of God, translated into whatever languages they speak, accessible to oral communicators, and explained with clarity through discipleship resources that communicate the Word of God accurately in their culture. In order to understand the magnitude of this task, it may be helpful to survey the linguistic complexity of the world.

The Linguistic Aftermath of Babel

Following the Flood, mankind spoke only one language. In addition to being united by language, they were united in their desire to make a name for themselves and keep from being scattered throughout the whole earth (Genesis 11:4). So God “confused the language of the whole earth, and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:9). But God’s confusing of the languages and His scattering of mankind over the face of the earth—where they gathered as groups according to the languages they spoke—was not merely judgment on the pride and willfulness of mankind. It was, and still is, God’s sovereign purpose to bring glory to Himself through each and every one of the people groups of the earth, and to receive praise in every one of the languages spoken by these people groups.

We are now thousands of years removed from Babel. Through the ongoing process of language change and shift, there are now nearly 7,000 living languages spoken in the world.17 The total population of the world is over 7 billion people, but the 7,000 languages spoken in the world are not evenly distributed among the 7 billion people of the world. This creates a complex global picture of “who speaks what, where.”

One of the best resources for helping to make sense of the linguistic complexity of the world today is the Ethnologue (www.ethnologue.com). It provides specific details about every known language in the world, from languages with huge numbers of speakers (like Mandarin, with over 845 million speakers18) to languages with relatively few speakers (like the Boor language of southern Chad, with a grand total of 200 speakers19).

In addition to providing details on specific languages, the Ethnologue also provides a means of better understanding the “big picture” of language use in the world. In order to break down the linguistic complexity of the world’s languages, it may be helpful to group the languages of the world into population brackets, as shown here:20

Number of speakers Languages Total speakers

100,000,000+

8

2,308,548,848

10,000,000 to 99,999,999

77

2,346,900,757

1,000,000 to 9,999,999

304

951,916,458

100,000 to 999,999

895

283,116,716

10,000 to 99,999

1824

60,780,797

1,000 to 9,999

2014

7,773,810

100 to 999

1038

461,250

10 to 99

339

12,560

1 to 9

133

521

Table 1: Languages and Speakers (source: Ethnologue.com)

This data is visualized in Chart 1 which follows, showing the number of languages in each of the above population brackets, as well as the number of speakers in each bracket. Note that the chart further divides the nine population ranges into 3 simplified population ranges to provide a clearer overview of the data:

  • Languages having greater than 1,000,000 speakers
  • Languages having between 10,000 and 1 million speakers
  • Languages having fewer than 10,000 speakers

Languages and People

The top half of Chart 1 (labeled as “number of speakers”) shows the total population of the world, distributed according to the number of speakers of each language.

Note how the vast majority of people in the world speak languages that have more than 1 million speakers (columns 1-3). By contrast, there are a relatively minuscule number of people who speak languages that have fewer than 10,000 speakers each (columns 6-9).

The bottom half of Chart 1 (labeled as “number of languages”) shows the number of languages in each of the language population ranges. Note that the vast majority of languages in the world have fewer than 1 million speakers (columns 4–9). Note also that there are only 8 languages in the world that have 100 million speakers or more (row 1)21 and there are fewer than 400 languages that have more than 1 million speakers (columns 1–3). By contrast, there are more than 3,500 languages that have fewer than 10,000 speakers (rows 6-9).

Languages and People, Simplified

The chart which follows (Chart 2) shows these same numbers, but merges the data into the 3 meta-brackets mentioned above: languages having more than 1 million speakers, languages having between 10,000 and 1 million speakers, and languages having fewer than 10,000 speakers.

Chart 2 shows the extreme imbalance between the large number of speakers of the 389 most populated languages and the relatively few number of speakers of the thousands of least populated languages. More than half of the languages of the world (3,524 languages) have fewer than 10,000 speakers each. By contrast, almost 95% of the people of the world (5.6 billion) speak approximately 5% of the world’s languages (389). To put it more simply: the majority of people in the world speak a tiny fraction of the world’s languages, and a small fraction of the people in the world speak the vast majority of the world’s languages.

The Danger of Playing the “Numbers Game” in Missions

If the languages of the world were distributed evenly among the people of the world, we might approach the task of translating the Bible and other discipleship resources with a degree of balance. If the number of speakers of each of the world’s language were somewhat similar, every language would logically appear to be relatively “equal” in terms of strategic importance, as defined by language size.

But because of the extreme imbalance between the number of speakers of each of the thousands of languages in the world today, there is a natural tendency to consider languages having more speakers as more missionally strategic and relegate languages with fewer speakers to the lowest priorities.

This tendency to focus only on the largest languages is often stated something like this: “If we can translate <our discipleship resource> into 25 languages, we can reach nearly 80% of the population of the world with solid Bible teaching.” This may be true, but it begs the question: “What will the other 20% of the world's population do?” The people who speak those 25 languages may be blessed to receive the resource in their language, but 25 languages is less than 0.4% of the languages in the world. How will the millions who do not speak those languages receive solid Bible teaching? Often, no provision is made for the linguistically “least of these” and the assumption is (apparently) that either they do not need discipleship resources or that someone else will account for them.

The sheer number of languages in the world and the massive amount of time, effort, and financial resources traditionally required to translate even one resource into another language presents an immense challenge. Organizations are required to make difficult choices and logically tend to choose the largest languages first. This is understandable, but it tends to create a problem in that the people groups who have the fewest number speakers of their languages are often overlooked by everyone when it comes to the creation and translation of discipleship resources.

We live in a world that wants to see results. Churches that support missionaries usually want to know that their financial “investment” is a good one. If the missionary works in a language with, for example, 200 million speakers, and 5% of the people in that language group get “reached” by the missionary’s work, the total “reached” is 10 million people. By contrast, if 5% of the people in a language having 10,000 speakers are reached, the total is 500 people. Which is a better use of resources? Are the people who speak these less-populated languages of different value? What factors do we use to answer these questions?

In the digital realm, this approach correlates to tracking analytics such as “number of hits”, “app downloads”, “video plays”, etc. If your website/app/video in a large language gets 20,000 times more use than your website/app/video in a small language, that not only feels good, it could also result in much more funding, as donors hear about how many millions of people your project is reaching. The economics of traditional missions favors the larger language, and all too often the smaller language is forgotten or left waiting, literally for thousands of years.

It makes sense that larger languages often get the missionaries and the discipleship resources first. After all, if 95% of the people of the world speak only about 5% of the world’s languages, then it makes sense to target the mega languages in that 5% first. But implicit in this logic is the assumption that “more Christians” is the highest goal of missions. Scripture suggests that God’s purpose in the world is not necessarily tied to the numbers of “people reached” or “conversions.”

To be sure, we all want to see the greatest possible number of people come to salvation in Christ. But we need to remember that God cares about the smallest, the least, and the forgotten. Jesus says he is the Good Shepherd, and that one of the things the Good Shepherd does is leave the ninety-nine to go find the one. The parable of the lost coin shows the same aspect of God’s heart. It was not enough that the woman had all the other coins, because there was one missing. She moved heaven and earth to find that lost coin and rejoiced greatly when she found it. In the same way, God cares deeply for the “least of these.”

God’s purpose, as put forward in His mandate to the Church in Matthew 28:18-20 (“make disciples of all people groups”) and evidenced by the vision in Revelation 7:9 (the great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language) is that the Bride of Christ be comprised not just of massive numbers of the redeemed, but that it include redeemed from even the smallest people group, speaking the least-significant language. The linguistically “least of these” are as precious in God’s sight as the massive mega-peoples comprised of hundreds of millions.

In light of this, there is a subtle danger in “playing the numbers game” in missions, as it can begin to corrupt our missiology. By emphasizing practicality in mission strategies (“biggest bang for the buck” or “return on investment”) over Biblical mandate (a mandate that is, by its very nature, highly impractical), we open the door to additional and more severe error. We should seek to be “shrewd as serpents” and make good use of resources in our missiology, but not at the risk of elevating our economic model for world missions above God’s sovereign purpose in world missions: bringing to His flock people from every nation, tribe, people and language. Even those with fewer than 10,000 speakers.

Translation and the Languages of the World

Many mission organizations, publishers, and churches realize the importance of translating discipleship resources into other languages so they can be used effectively by the speakers of those languages. So they hire translators or assign some of their people to start translating their materials, usually starting in a handful of the most widely-spoken languages of the world. As many different entities do the same thing with their own content, it results in many “parallel” translation projects in larger languages. The smaller languages of the world continue to wait for their first discipleship resource while larger languages continue to acquire more translated materials. It is a good thing that larger languages continue to get more discipleship resources! But the absence of even one discipleship resource in each of the smaller languages of the world perpetuates a significant hindrance to the spiritual growth of speakers of those languages who are (or will soon be) followers of Christ.

Given that many (probably most) discipleship resources are rarely translated into even one other language, it is a noteworthy accomplishment when one is translated into, for example, 500 languages. In the standard approach to translation of discipleship resources, it often takes considerable expense and decades to translate a resource into 500 languages. But even though it is a noteworthy accomplishment, 500 languages is only about 8% of the world’s languages. After all the effort, time, and expense of translating a resource into 500 languages, followers of Jesus who speak 92% of the world’s languages still do not have access to it.

Not only would the bulk of the world’s languages be left lacking in this scenario, but given the usual approach of targeting the largest languages first, one could reasonably argue that the remaining languages would be the hardest ones into which to translate. The speakers of these smaller languages are more likely to be geographically remote, with fewer potential translators who speak both the source language and the target language.

To illustrate this, consider the examples of Mandarin (845 million speakers worldwide) and the Boor language of Chad (200 speakers). Translating a discipleship resource from English into Mandarin might be relatively easy to accomplish because there are hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of people who speak both languages and many of them could conceivably translate the work from one language to the other. Of this large pool of potential translators, some of them might be found in any large city anywhere in the world, given how common English and Mandarin are today.

But this is not at all the case when translating into the Boor language. It is unlikely that even one speaker of a language as small as Boor is sufficiently bilingual in English to be able to serve as a translator for a discipleship resource written in English. If that is the case, then translating a discipleship resource into their language would need to involve a different approach. Either an outsider would need to learn their language well enough to translate directly into it, or the resource would first need to be translated into a language of wider communication, like French or Arabic. This would enable bilingual Boor speakers to translate from the translation in the common language into Boor. Translating discipleship resources into languages like Boor—the smallest, most geographically isolated languages of the world—will often be a much more intensive and complicated task than translating into larger languages.

So where does all of this leave us and the task of making disciples of all people groups? There does not yet exist a single discipleship resource (including the Bible itself) that is available in every language of the world. Or to look at it from a different perspective: there still exist thousands of people groups that have never received even one discipleship resource in their own language—not even a portion of the Bible.

Not only that, existing translations of discipleship resources are gradually losing their effectiveness over time.


1 Ralph D. Winter, “The New Macedonia: A Revolutionary New Era in Mission Begins,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1974), www.joshuaproject.net/assets/TheHighestPriority.pdf, 346.

2 This definition is used by the Joshua Project (“Definitions and Terms Related to the Great Commission,” n.d., http://www.joshuaproject.net/definitions.php) and is based in part on the 1982 Lausanne Committee Chicago meeting.

3 John Piper, “The Supremacy of God among ‘All the Nations,’” International Journal of Frontier Missions 13 (mar 1996), http://www.ijfm.org/PDFs_IJFM/13_1_PDFs/04_Piper.pdf, 16-17, 22.

4 The great multitude in heaven is from every people group and language, but the text does not suggest that they will lose their ethnic identity or language in heaven. This notion of many different cultures and “people groups” in heaven is consistent with Revelation 21:3, where Piper points out that “the standard Greek texts of the New Testament now agree that the original wording of Revelation 21:3 requires the translation: ‘and I heard a great voice from the throne saying, Behold the dwelling of God is with men, and he will dwell with them and they will be his peoples,’ and not ‘his people’ (singular).” Ibid, 23.

5 Two excellent sources of information and statistics regarding people groups are the International Mission Board: “Research Data,” n.d., http://public.imb.org/globalresearch/Pages/ResearchData.aspx and the Joshua Project: “Great Commission Statistics about Peoples, Countries and Languages,” n.d., http://joshuaproject.net/great-commission-statistics.php. At the time of writing, the IMB data lists the number of least-reached people groups as 6,651 (excluding the U.S. and Canada) and the Joshua Project lists the number of least-reached people groups as 6,997.

6 Challies, Tim. “Reflections on Leaving India.” Challies Dot Com, 16 nov 2012. http://www.challies.com/articles/reflections-on-leaving-india. Emphasis added.

7 “Missiologist Confirms Great Commission Trends for Ministry.” Mission Network News, 1 feb 2012. http://mnnonline.org/article/16768. Emphasis  added.

8 “Major Bible Translation Ministries Unite to Eradicate ‘Bible Poverty’.” OutreachMagazine.com, 13 dec 2012. http://www.outreachmagazine.com/news-and-stories/5110-Major-Bible-Translation-Ministries-Unite-to-Eradicate-%E2%80%98Bible-Poverty%E2%80%99.html.

9 Livermore, David A. Serving with Eyes Wide Open. Baker Books, 2006. 44.

10 Ibid.

11 “Languages Completed.” The JESUS Film Project, 13 jan 2013. http://www.jesusfilm.org/film-and-media/statistics/languages-completed.

12 “The Imitatio Christi Through Six Centuries.” Accessed January 14, 2013. http://www.smu.edu/Bridwell/Collections/SpecialCollectionsandArchives/Exhibitions/ImitatioChristi.

13 Bunyan, John. The Pilgrim’s Progress. Edited by W. R. Owens. Oxford University Press, 2003.

14 Grudem, Wayne. “Systematic Theology.” Accessed January 14, 2013. http://www.waynegrudem.com/systematic-theology/.

15 Jason Mandryk, Operation World: The Definitive Prayer Guide To Every Nation (IVP Books, 2010). Note that the number of people groups worldwide who speak Hindi as their primary language is higher. The Joshua Project lists 533 such people groups. “Hindi Bibles, facts, materials and people groups that speak Hindi,” n.d., http://www.joshuaproject.net/languages.php?rol3=hin. This number includes the four varieties of Hindi listed in the Ethnologue: “Ethnologue report for language code: hin,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=hin.

16 Some suggest that the languages are actually dialects of the same language, which they may be—the distinction between “dialect” and “different language” is often not a clear one. In the case of the Dinka, the languages (or dialects) are sufficiently dissimilar that three of the five language variants (Northeastern, Southeastern, and Southwestern) are listed as having their own translation of the New Testament. “Ethnologue report for language code: din,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=din

17 The Ethnologue lists 6,909 languages in M. Paul Lewis, ed.Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas, TX, USA: SIL International, 2009), http://www.ethnologue.com. More recent statistics put the number of living languages at 6,877, see “Scripture Access Statistics 2012,” 2012, http://www.wycliffe.net/resources/scriptureaccessstatistics/tabid/99/Default.aspx.

18 “Ethnologue report for language code: cmn,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=cmn. Note that Mandarin is part of the Chinese macrolanguage (ISO 639-3 zho) that also includes Gan, Hakka, Huizhou, Jinyu, Min Bei, Min Dong, Min Nan, Min Zhong, Pu-Xian, Wu, Xiang, and Yue, and has a combined population of over 1.2 billion. “Ethnologue report for language code: zho,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=zho.

19 “Boor of Chad Ethnic People Profile,” n.d., http://www.joshuaproject.net/people-profile.php?peo3=10945&rog3=CD. Note that the Ethnologue lists the language population as being 100 in 1999 “Ethnologue report for language code: bvf,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=bvf. It is assumed that the information in the Joshua Project profile is more recent.

20 The data and tables used in this chapter reflect the number of first-language speakers for each language and are taken from “Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries,” 2009, http://www.ethnologue.com/ethno_docs/distribution.asp?by=size. Note that the total population for all speakers of all languages in this data is listed as 5,959,511,717. The discrepancy between this figure and the 7 billion world population figure is due in part to the data being based on the 16th version of Ethnologue, which is the most current at the time of writing, but published in 2009. The smaller population size is also affected by the 277 languages for which the number of speakers is not known. It is likely, although not certain, that most of these languages are on the smaller end of the spectrum of language size, as information for languages with greater numbers of speakers is often more readily available. In the interest of simplicity, the numbers and calculations in this chapter do not take into account these languages for which the number of speakers is not known. Finally, it should also be noted that counting languages and speakers is a notoriously complicated task, and the numbers here should not be taken as absolutes, but rather as a very close approximation of the linguistic context in the world today.

21 These languages are, in descending order: Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Portuguese, and Russian. Note, however, that Table 3 on “Ethnologue: Statistical Summaries” lists a ninth language (Japanese) as having more than 100 million speakers. The reason for this discrepancy is not explained and the numbers in the charts here follow the numbers in Table 2 of the Ethnologue data.