Massive ethnographic researches such as the Joshua Project constituted a strong impetus for evangelistic missions to reach a high number of unreached ethnic groups in countries such as Nepal. Missions created global strategic plans and regional networks focused on these people. These efforts would include ecumenical missions, prayer, church planting, and material support for missions abroad. The modern missionary era is founded in historical developments, such as early mission efforts in India and China. In addition, the Great Commission for believers to preach across cultures led to the formation missions such as the Baptist Mission Society. Ethnographic analysis of Nepal shows that the country has a high population of the unreached people groups (UPGs). This paper analyzes the Nepali people’s profile and examines a multi-pronged strategy for impacting Nepal’s UPG populations.
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Nepali People Profile
Historical and Geographical Background of Nepal
Historically, Nepal was a Hindu Kingdom. It is located in the Himalayas region bordered by China and India in the Central/Southeast Asia region. The country is home to 253 cultural groups with a total population of 28,735,000 with 60% illiteracy.1 Historians believe that Nepal’s first inhabitants were the tribal groups of the Tibeto-Burma origin that occupied the southern region of Tarai.2 One of these tribes is believed to be the Sakya clan led by Gautama Siddharta, a founder of Buddhism, born in 562 B.C.3 Until the 18th century, the country comprised of disparate kingdoms under different rulers. King Prithvi Narayan’s conquest in 1790s created a unified kingdom under his rule. He banished non-locals, including “Catholic monks who had built a church” in the northern part of the country.4 Subsequently, the country remained closed to foreigners for close to two decades.
The current inhabitants have diverse geographical and ethnic origins. The Himalayan Highlanders, e.g., the Sherpa and Magar, are believed to be of Mongoloid origin, as they resemble the Tibeto-Mongolians.5 The tribal group of Pahad comprises of people who traditionally occupied Nepali’s sub-tropical hills. They are the Newers and the Bahun-Chhetris of Indo-Aryan origin. The Tarai people are traditionally from the plains in the South of Nepal. They are believed to be related to the Indians of Bihar due to cultural similarities.
Historically, Nepal was closed to foreign culture and influence due to its geopolitical situation. The 1816 Anglo-Nepal pact effectively closed the country to all foreigners except Britons.6 The treaty also banned emigration to other countries except India. The Rana autocratic regime upheld this pact making it difficult for Nepalese to contact the West. The overthrow of the Rana dynasty in 1951 opened Nepal to the outside world, allowing Western missions into the country for the first time after 200 years.
A number of significant events have shaped Nepal’s modern history. On April 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Nepal killing over 9,500 people, injuring 20,000 others, and displacing 450,000 people. The massive quake also caused avalanches in Mt. Everest that killed mountaineers and destroyed historical buildings and monuments, such as the Dharahara. In 2001, a royal massacre took place at the height of the civil war. Another significant event is the promulgation of a new constitution in 2015, opening a new chapter in democratic governance after years of autocratic rule. Nepal’s history is also marked by the Maoist civil war that lasted for a decade (1996-2006). The violent insurgency killed over 18,000 people and maimed several others. The earthquake and civil unrest defined Nepal’s current state of affairs.
Cultural/Religious Background of Nepal
Demographically, the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal has a population of 28,735,000 based on the 2015 census.7 The Joshua Project identifies 253 groups in Nepal with 242 of them being the unreached people groups (UPGs).8 Nepal’s ethnic classifications/divisions differ in terms of religion, language, social class, and origin. Three major ethnic groups are recognized based on geographical origin. These include the “Indo-Nepalese, Tibeto-Nepalese, and the indigenous Nepalese”.9 The Indo-Nepalese are people of the Indian origin while the Tibetans in Nepal have Tibeto-Mongol origin. The indigenous Nepalese are the original inhabitants.
Nepal is a diverse country in terms of languages/dialects and cultures. Its people are known as the Nepalese or Nepali and the principal language is Nepali, which is spoken by 48% of the population or 17 million speakers globally.10 The written language uses the Devanagari alphabet. Other common languages include Maithili and English, which is the language of instruction in schools. Statistics show that Nepal has over 122 languages with two considered extinct.11 Regional dialects, such as Newari and Sherpa, exist in certain parts and constitute a marker of cultural/linguistic identity in Nepal.
The ethnic groupings also include over 100 castes that fit into five major groups based on common cultural features. The five main cultural groups include the “Hindus (about 59%), Janajatis (31%), Newars (5.5%), Muslims (4.3%), and others (0.2%)”.12 The last classification comprises of the Bengalis and Sikhs. The ethnic groups have distinguishing cultural and visual traits. Most of them have a darker complexion, much like the Indians, but are more weatherworn. The physique differs across the different cultural groups. The Tibeto-Nepalese resemble the Tibetans and Mongols while the Indo-Nepalese bear physical characteristics of the North Indians, especially in their darker skin.
The Nepali’s recent political landscape is characterized by instability. The downfall of the autocratic Rana rule, the 1980s tumultuous change, the Maoist-led civil war, and the royal massacre defined Nepal’s political history.13 The promulgation of a new constitution in 2015 bestowed democratic rule. Events since 2015 indicate political stability, widening of the democratic space, and good relations with its neighbors, China and India. As a landlocked country, Nepal depends on India to transport its imports/exports. In addition, the country is home to the Himalayas that attracts thousands of tourists/mountaineers from the West annually. To boost tourism, the regime removed travel restrictions for tourists visiting remote mountain sites, opening up 263 mountains to visitors.
Customs: Occupations and Lifestyle
The Nepalese society depends on agriculture with most people engaging in subsistence farming on the mountainsides. Traditional building materials for the Nepali houses were thick stones, bamboo stems, and earth.14 The Hindu architecture is holistic to cater for the farming lifestyle of the people. It includes a kitchen on the ground floor, upstairs bedrooms, an expansive store, a courtyard, and an animal shed.15 At Nepal weddings, it is customary for visitors to sit on “woven grass mats” set on the ground in the courtyard.16 The ‘seats’ are arranged in observance of the guests’ castes and status. Further, the guests are served food on special leaves during such occasions.
In rural Nepal, the father is the head of the family or paribar and manages an extended/polygamous household. Younger children are taught to respect older members and higher castes. Boys are raised to take over the household once the father dies. Early marriage for girls is common in traditional households. The Nepalese practice special rituals for marriage and festivals, especially the Newar people. Examples include Kumari Pratha (a temple worship of a girl) and Chaupadi Pratha (the banishment of a female in her menses).17
Religion: Traditional Religion and Basic Worldview
The traditional religion of Nepal, a former Hindu Kingdom, is Hinduism.18 However, in the mountains, there is a mixture of Hinduism and Tibetan-influenced Buddhism, indicating a strong syncretism of the doctrines. Some Nepalese practice animism and nature-worship. However, most Nepalese today profess Hinduism.
The first mission to Nepal was in 1821 by the Baptist missioner, William Carey.19 Carey translated the New Testament in Nepali for the locals. In 1835, Scottish Presbyterian Church built a church in Darjeeling before spreading to various areas in Nepal. The ‘Gurkhas’, the Nepalese servicemen serving in the British army’s mission in Southeast Asia, also contributed to the growth of early Christianity in Nepal upon their return. The reopening of Nepal’s borders in 1950s saw an increase in evangelistic activity with the Catholic diocese of India establishing a school in 1951.20 Current missions in Nepali include the Pietist movement, the Norwegian mission, Roman Catholic, and Baptist Church, among others.
The first time Christianity came into Nepal was in 1950s following the dethronement of the autocratic Rana rule that restricted foreign contact. Subsequently, a few American doctors were granted travel visas by the incoming regime to set up a mission hospital in 1953.21 This gave way to Christian missionaries to enter the country for an ecumenical mission under the umbrella of United Mission to Nepal, introducing Christianity to the Nepali. The current access to the gospel by the Nepali is considerably low. The percentage of Nepali people professing the Christian faith stands at 0.9%.22 Hinduism is the dominant religion in Nepal (practiced by 82.4% of the population).
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Strategy and Approach to Impacting this People Group
Reaching the unreached people groups (UPGs) in Nepal would need prayer mobilization strategies. The scripture talks about the power of prayer in God’s Great Commission. Psalms 2:8 calls on Christians to ask God the nations, which is their inheritance. In addition, Jeremiah 33:3 says, “Call unto me, and I will answer, and show you great and mighty things that you know not of”. Thus, God’s children should ask for His intervention in evangelistic activities. Further, these verses show that God seeks to draw everyone to him. Missions to UPGs in Nepal should involve intercessors, fasting, and special prayer sessions for the new converts.
There are many examples of the work of prayer in historical missions to UPGs. The German Moravians held a prolonged prayer meeting that resulted in a major revival and missions to the world in the 1720s.23 The Baptist Association of England also held evangelistic prayer meetings every month in the 1980s. Subsequently, one of its members, William Carey, set out on an evangelistic mission to India and China. His ecumenical mission ignited missionary efforts to reach the UPGs. Therefore, prayer is an important in establishing a church in unreached areas. It entails holding a conversational relationship with God, enabling us to know His plan for us (Psalm 32:8). We can use prayer as a tool for reaching the UPGs because there is authority in prayer. Psalm 2:8 tells us that the world belongs to God. As the disciples of all nations, believers have the role of ministering to the UPG populations in unreached areas for the advancement of His kingdom.
Word of God
Missions to reach the remaining UPGs across the world have a scriptural basis. In Romans 11:25, Paul tells us that the “salvation of all Israel will not come before the complete number of Gentiles come to God”. Therefore, the most urgent commission of Christians is to spread the gospel to give people an opportunity to return to the Lord. In the Old Testament, the Lord’s global vision is apparent when He instructs Adam and Eve to be “fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). This directive illustrates man’s spiritual stewardship and spiritual responsibility on earth. Afterwards, we see the Lord’s eternal plan of saving sinful humanity manifest through His prophecy to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Scripture also tells us that God’s name would be glorified all over the world. In Moses’ commission to Egypt, God commands him to tell Pharaoh, to free the Israelites so “that my name might be proclaimed in all earth” (Exodus 9:13). God’s deliverance of the Israelites is testament to His eternal redemption plan. God also sent out prophets to other nations and cultures. For example, in the book of Jonah, He sent Jonah to preach a message of salvation to the Ninevites. In the New Testament, God continues with His grand plan of redeeming humanity through the Apostles like Paul. Jesus embodied the qualities of a Prophet, King, and High Priest. In John 20:21, He tells His disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you”. Thus, there is scriptural basis for a mission to the least evangelized areas in Nepal as a strategy to win over souls to His Kingdom.
Evangelism has been used to spread the gospel to unreached populations throughout Church history. Ecumenical missions involving local churches could be used to reach Nepal’s UPGs. After His resurrection, Jesus met His disciples at the Mount of Olives. His mission to them was to be witnesses all over the earth. In the Old Testament, only the priests and prophets received the Lord’s spirit. However, at the day of Pentecost, the Spirit of the Lord was released to “all flesh; sons and daughters, and old men” (Acts 2:17). All believers received the power to proclaim God’s word. In other words, all the Old Testament barriers were removed, giving way to all people to rejoin God’s kingdom. The book of Acts chronicles the evangelistic activities of the apostles in different parts of the world.
Early evangelism arose after the day of Pentecost and brought together the Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews.24 To avoid persecution, some apostles went to Judean and Samaria. Subsequently, the church at Antioch welcomed the Gentiles into the ministry, marking the beginning of Christ’s world mission. Paul was the earliest Christian missioner who authored several letters to struggling churches in diverse cultures.
Paul’s missionary activities targeted the unreached, including “the Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). Paul’s message was that the Gentiles are joint heirs of God’s kingdom with the Israelites. The central aim of modern evangelism is to ensure the Lord’s glory is felt all over the world (Revelation 7:9). Evangelism by early missions in UPG areas has achieved significant progress. Highlights from the Joshua Project show that the New Testament is available to 80% of the global population in the local dialects.25 Christian radio is now available in local dialects spoken by 81% of the global population. In Nepal, in the pre-1950s era, there were no Christians. However, through foreign missions Christians numbered over 500,000 people by 2000.26 Therefore, evangelism through trans-denominational cooperation with Nepali churches is a strategy for bringing UPGs back to Christ according to His eternal plan.
Church planting is an effective strategy for reaching difficult to reach populations. Church planting is tied to mission (Luke 4). It creates “reproducing congregations” to drive the evangelistic mission in their communities.27 Therefore, in Nepal, church planting movements (CPM) could help to spread the gospel to UPGs. The CPM approach can create a movement within these populations to supplement foreign evangelistic missions. A spontaneous growth of the church in Nepal’s UPG areas can be realized through church planting movements.
In the 1900s, missionaries criticized the practice of establishing churches dependent on foreign leaders.28 They advocated for self-governing churches at local and national levels to facilitate a spontaneous spread of the gospel to UPGs. Ideally, a large proportion of the mission’s budget should support CPMs to establish more churches. In addition, a CPM strategy would ensure the gospel spreads naturally across ethnic and caste barriers. The CPM movement would be an impetus not only for establishing local churches, but also for ecumenical missions within Nepal.
Mobilization of Resources
Mobilization of resources can be a key strategy for supporting missions in Nepal’s UPG areas. Ecumenical missions may be constrained by the lack of financial and human resources. All believers are called to participate in the ministry through gifting. The ‘Body of Christ’ theology holds that all church members have “local and global responsibility”.29 Therefore, the church must mobilize resources and gifts to support ecumenical efforts. This also means that individual talents and assets of church members must be channeled towards the Great Commission in Nepal. The gifts can be in the form of administrative or missionary work to advance the gospel.
The resources can be the finances, labor, expertise, and vocations available in the church.30 Only the best of the resources should be given. The financial resources will cater for the needs of the missionaries and those of poor converts. Talents in church will be used to drive the evangelistic mission, according to God’s eternal global plan. Therefore, members should give generous donations to support the poor in the church and ecumenical missions. In addition, church leaders should encourage the congregation to support the missions in Nepal through their talents, skills, and expertise. The literacy level in Nepal is low (60%). Thus, missionary schools can help increase the literacy levels and support evangelism.
The number of the UPGs in Nepal is significantly high due to Nepal’s political situation. However, in the post-1950s era, the country is more receptive to foreign contact, presenting opportunities for ecumenical missions to reach the UPGs. Transformational strategies, including prayer movements, scripture reading/inspiration, evangelism, church planting movements, and resource mobilization can help reach more people in the UPG areas.
Blofeld, John. The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet. New York: Causeway Books, 1974.
Burbank, Jon. Cultures of the World: Nepal. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002.
Dhungel, Ramesh K. Nepalese immigrants in the United States of America. Contribution to Nepalese Studies 26, no. 1 (January 1999): 119-134.
Gilliland, Dean. Word Among Us – Contextualizing Theology For Mission Today. New York: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1989.
Joshua Project. “Country: Nepal.” Web.
Karan, Pradyumna P., and William M. Jenkins. Nepal: A Cultural and Physical Geography. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960.
Karan, Pradyumna P. and William M. Jenkins. The Himalayan Kingdoms. Princeton: Nostrand Company, 1963.
Lewis, Paul M. Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Nineteenth edition. Dallas: SIL International, 2016.
Lindell, Jonathan. Nepal and the Gospel of God. New Delhi: Thomson Press, 1979.
Lipner, Julius. Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge Publishing, 1994.
Nepali Count. “Global Nepali Count.” 2016. Web.
People Groups. “Country: Nepal.” 2016. Web.
- Joshua Project, “Country: Nepal,” Web.
- Jon Burbank, Cultures of the World: Nepal (New York: Benchmark Books, 2002), 51.
- Ibid., 72.
- Ibid., 82.
- Ramesh K. Dhungel, Nepalese immigrants in the United States of America, Contribution to Nepalese Studies 26, no. 1 (1999): 121.
- Pradyumna P. Karan and William M. Jenkins, Nepal: A Cultural and Physical Geography, (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1960), 44.
- Joshua Project, “Country: Nepal.”
- People Groups, “Country: Nepal,” Web.
- Nepali Count, “Global Nepali Count,” Web.
- Paul M. Lewis, Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig, Ethnologue: Languages of the World (Dallas: SIL International, 2016), 62.
- Joshua Project, “Country: Nepal.”
- Pradyumna P. Karan and William M. Jenkins, The Himalayan Kingdoms (Princeton: Nostrand Company, 1963), 72.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 106.
- Julius Lipner, Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (New York: Routledge Publishing, 1994), 93.
- John Blofeld, The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet (New York: Causeway Books, 1974), 121.
- Pradyumna P. Karan and William M. Jenkins, Nepal, 82.
- Ibid., 89.
- Jonathan Lindell, Nepal and the Gospel of God (New Delhi: Thomson Press, 1979), 54.
- Ibid., 92.
- Joshua Project, “Country: Nepal.”
- Dean Gilliland, Word Among Us – Contextualizing Theology For Mission Today (New York: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1989), 144.
- Ibid., 87.
- Joshua Project, “Country: Nepal”.
- Dean Gilliland, Word Among Us, 89.
- Ibid., 91.
- Ibid., 102.
- Ibid., 104.