A Simplistic look at Mission Research

Jan 17, 2023 | Uncategorized

Today, there is more qualitative and quantitative research on the core missionary task than ever before. Those not involved in research or directly receiving the information often do not fully understand the purpose, benefit, or process of good missiological research. The role of missiological research is to inform and support the greater Christian community with relevant and accurate data to see the Great Commission accomplished. This post will outline the four foundational questions that motivate mission research, provide a brief overview, demonstrate the beneficial uses of research, and introduce how ministry teams contribute to mission research. 

Mission research seeks to answer four foundational questions:

  1. Who are the people?
  2. What are they like?
  3. How can they be reached?
  4. How are we doing?

1. Who are the people?

This question is probably the most important and likely the most divisive of the four. “Who are the people?” seeks to define the harvest field and what is considered a success. Who are the people segments or groups that make up the geographical harvest field the ministry team is seeking to enter? Then, which people segment will the ministry team prioritize or focus on engagement? 

Defining the focus of the ministry is important because, ultimately, it requires the ministry team to say no to things that do not fall within the focus. It is potentially divisive because opponents of people group thought (Homogenous Unit Principle) will project that creating divisions among people is contrary to the unity that God desires. God does desire unity among the body of believers. Although, defining people groups is for evangelism and church planting purposes. 

Defining a focus people requires three key aspects. 

  • Who are the people segment of focus?
  • Where is the geographic focus?
  • What is the extent of desired gospel transformation?

An example is our team trusts God for healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches among Behdini-speaking Kurds in Northern Iraq. 

  • People segment – Behdini-speaking Kurds
  • Geographic focus – Northern Iraq
  • The extent of gospel transformation – healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches

Defining these three key aspects allows the ministry team to determine high-value activities, metrics to track, and the ability to communicate a clear vision cast for the work that God has commended the team to accomplish. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

Research or mission organizations provide people group lists to help ministry teams identify strategic opportunities for ministry engagement. Most people group lists give a status of the evangelical witness or a priority score to highlight the people with the least chance of hearing the gospel in a culturally relevant way without outside influence. This data aids in making informed decisions on how to use precious resources. Beyond a static people group list, the ministry team on the field will need to further segment beyond ethnolinguistic groupings to population segments within the ethnolinguistic group for further research, strategy, and engagement. Ultimately, the people group list is the starting point for answering the question, “Who are the people?”.

2. What are they like?

Once a focus people segment has been prayerfully selected, the ministry team must begin to understand the people’s worldview, culture, and language. A few scientific disciplines, like anthropology and ethnography, help the missionaries answer this question. There are many volumes written on the concept of understanding culture. In short, the missionary team needs to know the focus people well. Some key categories are language, history, family relations, religion, leadership, customs, common vocations, communication method, learning styles, etc. 

There are three ways to learn about a focus people. First, the ministry team learns about them by reading and researching online publications. Learning about them is a limited but essential exercise. This research lays a foundation and prepares the researcher for the next step. Second, the ministry team learns from them by observing and interviewing people from your focus people segment. It is a combination of being a cultural observer of their festivals, traditions, and practices alongside interviewing cultural insiders that this process yields the best results. There are three types of people you should seek to interview: religious leaders, community leaders, and people off the street. 

Another post will deal in detail with ethnographic interviewing. In general, your interview should be conversational. Although, you should go into your interview knowing the questions you need to ask to clarify your understanding of your focus people. There are four general types of questions to ask.

  • Grand Tour – asking for a broad overview of some subjects – “What are the religious beliefs of Bangladeshis?”
  • Mini Tour – exploring a more complex subject – “You mentioned that the Bangladeshi Muslims have different beliefs than the Hindus. What are the religious beliefs of the Muslims of Bangladesh?”
  • Experience – ask for illustrations from the interviewee’s first-hand experiences – “You mentioned that a good Muslim prays five times a day and attends mosque on Fridays. When did you personally start participating in the prayers and mosque day? What influenced you to do so?
  • Native Language – requesting explanations of language-specific terms – You said your goal is to go on the hajj one day. What is the hajj? 

After concluding your interview, it is important to go immediately somewhere where you can write out a long version of your notes. Ensure this is done right away so that most details can be expounded. Review your notes and determine things you need to clarify or ask at your next interview. 

In engaging your focus people with a strategy and learning their culture and worldview, there will come a time to learn with your focus people. The process of learning with them is coming alongside them and the Word of God to determine what it looks like for them as a people within their culture to follow Jesus, be obedient disciples, gather as believers, and multiply to new peoples and areas. The learning process takes a lifetime because culture is complex, and outside influences always shift culture. Continue to learn about, from, and with the people throughout your life. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

Published people group profiles provide the initial foundation for learning about a people segment. Those who have gone through the work of doing in-depth worldview studies can provide additional insight. Beyond that, the ethnographic process provides ministry teams with the tools to implement a season of cultural observations and ethnographic interviews. 

3. How can they be reached?

With a focus people segment and an understanding of their worldview, we apply the information to develop a plan for seeing the people segment in the geographic area transformed by the gospel. In developing a plan, there is research to find best practices and resources that have been effective among the same or similar people segments.

Research serves the ministry team by identifying existing gospel resources. Does scripture exist in their language translated in a relevant way to their worldview? Are there evangelistic websites, videos, tracts, etc.? There are examples of scripture translations into a native language that does not relate to a focus people’s worldview. Translations can use dated vernacular or are framed with a worldview different from the focus. Audio and video resources often are specific to a certain dialect and will not likely have the same impact for all people segments among a language group. Research and mission organizations catalog these resources to serve as a starting point. Once current resources are identified, resources that need to be modified or created are discovered. 

Similarly, the ministry team should research best practices. Who is engaging the people segment in your city or a different city? What are the best practices that have already been implemented with receptivity? Suppose there have not been best practices tested. In that case, the ministry team will seek God’s wisdom in determining culturally informed methods for evangelism, discipleship, church, and leadership development that may be a best practice or a modification of a best practice among a similar culture. At times, best practices do not currently exist for a people segment. It then becomes an exercise of being informed by the culture to develop and test approaches to discern receptivity. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

People group websites and private servers catalog gospel resources according to language and people segment. Other sites, such as Scripture Earth, track the progress of scripture translation. Best practices are less accessible through public channels, but through networking and relationships, the ministry team can learn best practices. 

4. How are we doing?

There has been an identified people segment focus and a growing understanding of worldview and culture, with an implemented strategy using best-known practices. In that case, progress should be tracked to gauge how the work progresses. There are innumerable ways to track progress. Below are a few examples of monitoring progress.

Starting with the macro, we want to track overall progress among the people segment. This is as simple as the number of followers of Jesus compared to the total population. The percentage of evangelicals among a people group feeds into people group lists. This metric is one of the critical components that help gauge how much and what kind of outside influence the Christian community needs from a cross-cultural worker. This also helps inform what to track in the micro. 

For example, if there are no known believers among a people segment, the ministry team will not be tracking the generation of churches. The ministry team will need to track things like prayer, engagement, gospel shares, mobilization, and relationships. A helpful tool for monitoring progress is the seven phases of engagement. These phases range from people group adoption to sustained gospel presence. Following a phase or stage, the approach can help the ministry team track relevant metrics for their current phase to measure (health) and to track metrics that will lead to the next stage (expansion).

Tracking progress allows the ministry team to establish model zones to trial new resources or best practices to gauge receptivity and effectiveness. Although, rather than implementing the tool among all of the ministry team or network, the tool can be trialed by a few people in a specific area to track understanding and receptivity. 

Answering the question, “How are we doing?” should be considered often and among all activities of the ministry team to continue to grow in practice and inform the larger body of Christ about the work among your focus people segment. This information will update data found in people group lists so that as new ministry teams seek to identify a focus people segment, they are informed with the most recent and relevant information. The ministry team is both a recipient of and contributor to mission research.

In conclusion, The role of mission research is to inform and support the Christian community with relevant and accurate data to see the Great Commission accomplished. Four foundational questions guide the ministry team that engages new people and places. The whole body of Christ benefits from mission research and should grow in its ability to be a data contributor. 


100,000 Yemenis

Statistics Canada 2016 counted 6,645 people whose ethnic origin was Yemeni. The 2019 American Community Survey counted 58,627 people born in Yemen now living in the United States. Counting U.S.-born children and typical undercounts of Arabs in the census, it is safe to assume there are at least 100,000 Yemenis in North America. The Wikipedia article on Yemeni Americans claims "there are an estimated 100,000-200,000 Yemenis living in the United States as of 2018,” but no source is given for that statistic.

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350,000 Bosniaks

The Congress of Bosniaks of North America estimate 300,000 Bosniaks live in the United States and 50,000 in Canada.

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300,000 Somalis

The America Community Survey 2019 estimated 182,951 people reporting Somali ancestry in the United States. Statistics Canada 2016 estimated 62,500 people with Somali ethnic origin in Canada. Census figures tend to undercount groups like Somalis who are suspicious of government authorities and census takers. Community estimates of Somalis in the Greater Toronto and Edmonton areas alone number 100,000. An estimated 300,000 Somalis in North America is a conservative estimate, and their population number could be much higher.

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670,000 to 1,000,000 Sikhs

In the 2011 Statstics Canada census, 454,965 Sikhs were estimated to live in Canada. The United States does not count religious affiliation in its census, and the language of Punjabi is also spoken by Hindus and Muslims which makes "language spoken at home" a difficult category for measuring Sikhs. However, the 2012 Pew Religious Survey indicates 5% of Indian Americans are Sikh. The 2019 American Community Survey estimated 4,240,466 Asian Indians living in the United States, and 5% of that population equals 212,023. The Sikh America Coalition, however, estimates 500,000 Sikhs living in the United States. Therefore, low estimates of Sikhs in North America are around 670,000 people and high estimates are around one million.

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400,000 Afghans

The diversity of the people groups who identify as Afghans contributes to the difficulty of using census information to estimate the number of Afghans in North America. The American Community Survey 2019 counted 156,434 people in the United States with "Afghan" ancestry. However, some Afghans would identify their ancestry as Tajik, Pashtun, and so forth. Statistics Canada 2016 counted 83,995 people with Ethnic Origin as Afghan, 4,810 as Pashtun, 2,905 as Tajik, and 1,515 as Hazara. So, adding those number together gives a good idea of a low estimate of the number of Afghans in Canada. Allied Media Corporation, who has worked extensively with the Afghan American Community, estimates 300,000 Afghans live in the United States. With adding Canada's number, a reasonable estimate of Afghans in North America is 400,000 people.

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Estimated 40,000 Kurds in the United States and 16,315 Kurds in Canada

A 2019 BBC article estimated 40,000 Kurds in the United States, as did a much earlier NBC News Report. A 2009 Kurdish Herald aricle estimated 50,000 Iraqi Kurds were living in the United States. The estimates of Kurds we have found in various cities seem to coincide with the more conservative 40,000 number. However, many Kurds from Turkey mix into the Turkish population and are harder to identify. Statistics Canada 2016 estimated 16,315 people in Canada had a Kurdish Ethnic Origin.

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Between 275,000 and 350,000 Turks living in North America

The Turkish Coalition of America gives a conservative community estimate of 350,000 Turks in the United States. According to American Community Survey 2019, 212,489 Turkish people were estimated to live in the United States. Statistics Canada 2016 reported 63,966 with a Turkish ethnic origin.


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Pakistan makes up the largest single country of origin of Muslims in North America, with 769,000. 554,000 (2019 ACS) reside in the United States and 215,000 (2016 Census) in Canada.

Statistically, it is estimated that 370,000 Indo-Pak Muslims in North America originated of Indian descent. 270,000 reside in the United States and 100,000 reside in Canada. A Pew Research study found that 10% of Indian descent in North America identify as Muslim. It is by using this 10% and total Indian population numbers that the Indo-Pak Muslims from India are calculated.

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Estimated 66,000 Wolof in the United States

According to ACS and the Senegalese-American Association estimates listed in articles in previous years, it is safe to assume there are at least 60,000 Wolof in North America. The previous population and community estimates within NYC have listed the Wolof population around 20,000 not including the Wolof that live in Chicago, Seattle, Raleigh, Montreal, etc. Information from Peoplegroups.org lists the population around 66,000. 

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Approximately 972,000 Gujaratis call North America home

20% of all Indians in the United States are from Gujarat state. According to the 2019 5-yr table ACS Census Data, there are 4,240,466 Indians in the United States. Statistically, there are approximately 848,093 Gujaratis in the United States. The 2016 Candian Census indicates that 124,030 speak Gujarati in the home. 

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The U.S. Census American Community Survey 2019 estimated 3,995,755 people with Asian Indian ancestry in the U.S. Pew Research indicates that 36% of all Indian descent population in the U.S. identify as Hindi. Therefore the estimate of Asian Indians who identify as Hindi is 1,438,472. Statistics Canada 2016 counted 433,365 Hindi Knowledge of Language in Canada. Using census information instead of community estimates helps compare populations of people groups in various cities. However, the population is likely more extensive than this number.

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approximately 67,000

According to the American Community Survey 2019, 65,126 Uzbek people are estimated to live in the United States. Statistics Canada 2016 reported 1715 with an Uzbek ethnic origin.

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There are 132,477 people estimated to be born in Israel living in the United States (ACS 2019) and 21,155 in Canada (Stats Canada 2011; the 2016 count seriously undercounted Jewish populations). Community estimates are often much higher than these official census counts.

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Statistics Canada 2016 counted 103,940 people whose ethnic origin was Morocco. The 2019 American Community Survey counted 83,842 people born in Morocco and now living in the United States. Counting U.S.-born children and typical undercounts of Arabs in the census, it is safe to assume there are at least 150,000 Moroccan Arabs in North America. 

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The 2019 ACS 1-year estimates report over 249,000 individuals of Iraqi descent in the United States, and over 70,000 people reported Iraqi origin according to the 2016 Statistics Canada. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine the exact number of Iraqi-Americans. Actual numbers are likely much higher. 

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50,000 Tunisian Arabs

Statistics Canada 2016 counted 25,645 people whose ethnic origin was Tunisian. The 2019 American Community Survey does not count Tunisians.  Based on this article published in a Tunisian magazine, the number of Tunisians living in North America in 2016 was 44,195. We assume that the number has increased since then and approximate the number of Tunisian Arabs living in North America to be around 50,000.

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The United States has a population of 168,000 Palestinian Arabs while Canada has a 44,800 strong Palestinian Arab population.

The 2019 American Community Survey counted 139,398 people of Palestinian ancestry. A report by the Arab American Institute showed that the Arab populations in the US are undercounted by 179.56% and approximately 67% are Muslim resulting in approximately 168,000 living in the US. Statistics Canada 2016 counted 44,820 people whose ethnic origin was Palestinian. 

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280,000 Thai in North America

Statistics Canada 2016 counted 19,010 people whose ethnic origin was Thai. The 2019 American Community Survey counted 260,820 people born in Thailand and now living in the United States. Counting U.S.-born children and typical undercounts of Thai in the census, it is possible that there are over 400,000 Thai in North America. This Pew Research article estimates 343,000 Thai in the US as of 2019. 

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245,00Arabs of Egyptian origin in North America

According to the Arab American Institute Foundation, Arab populations are undercounted by 79 percent in the United States. According to Pew Research approximately 40% of Epyptians in the US are Muslim. Approximately 44% of Canadian Egyptians are Muslims. These percentages and the total Arab population from the American Community Survey 2019 1-year estimates and 2016 Statistics Canada provide the most accurate estimate while excluding Egyptian Coptics. There are approximately 201,000 Egyptian Arabs in the US and 44,000 in Canada.

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nearly 600,000

Statistics Canada 2016 counted 210,405 people whose ethnic origin was Iranian. The 2019 American Community Survey counted 385,473 people of ethnic Persians living in the United States. Using census information instead of community estimates helps compare populations of people groups in various cities. However, the p is likely larger than the number given.

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