The method that we use to measure the completion of the task (‘closure’) is critical: in determining the requirements for finishing, we determine the kind of race we are in and our strategy for running.
We are hampered in part by the fact that Jesus didn’t exactly give us a hard-and-fast rule for when we are done. Kids told to clean up the kitchen often want checklists; parents want kids to learn to do the job well, to completion, as it should be done. Checklists can be useful tools, but they can also be crutches: we can get to the point where we do the job for the checklist alone. We in the missions community have our own checklists–generated by different definitions.
I have written about the difference between unreached, unevangelized and unengaged before (and the concept of closure in general). I was happy to see my colleague Jim Haney’s recent article, “Hitting the Mark,” in the May-June issue of Mission Frontiers. In it, he notes:
while the population of unengaged UPGs (UUPGs) decreased from 9% in 2005 to 3% in 2015 (as we engaged those groups, and they became no-longer-unengaged), the population living in engaged-UPGs has increased from 50% to 55%. …during the last 10 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in people groups no longer unreached [that is, for whom the missionary task is “finished” -Ed.] has increased by only one percent (41% to 42%)… …there can be only one conclusion–we are far more successful in engaging than reaching.
It is easier, given the way we are presently defining things, to move people off the unengaged list–just send a long-term team. This is the equivalent of getting the first runner in a marathon off the starting line. But it does not mean the overall race is won (as the folks at Finishing the Task have said to me many times). We have to be very careful that we do not equate winning the “start” with winning the “finish.”
The definition of “unreached” is a little challenging. The original definition, decided by consensus at the Chicago meeting in the 1980s, was: “A people group lacking a church with the resources to evangelize the group to its borders without cross-cultural assistance.” In simpler terms: a people group with a local church that can do the job on its own.
Deciding when there is a local church with this ability is the crux of the conundrum. It’s a qualitative evaluation, and kids seeking to clean the kitchen want a binary checklist: Yes/No, I have swept the floors. Yes/No, I have loaded the dishwasher. Yes/No, I have washed the big pots by hand.
To make matters a little simpler, the big lists have gone from a qualitative criteria (“can the local church do the job”) to a quantitative one: “surely a church that makes up 2% or 5% of the local population can”). And there are good reasons for this–I fault none of the listmakers for doing this, it’s a useful tool, just as a checklist is a useful tool for kids learning what it means to have a clean kitchen. But eventually, the tool shows its limitations. Haney, again:
For example, IMB shows the French in France as less than 2% evangelical (unreached), but there are reports of new house churches planted each week. IMB’s website, peoplegroups.org, shows that there is widespread church planting among this people group. Metrics alone should not be used to evaluate whether a people group is reached. It’s time to embrace a model which considers the qualitative essentials of what it means to reach a people group.
What might this measure look like? Haney suggests that we measure what we want to see happen. I suggest one way to tackle this is to measure both church size (% Christian) and church growth rates (over time). If the church in a particular place among a particular people is growing slower than the overall population growth rate (or, especially, not growing at all, or declining), this might be a very strong signal that the group is not reached.
Now, I did make a transition of my own in that measurement. Obviously, I’m not using a straight qualitative measurement–for one thing, it would be far too rude to ever be done (a white guy making an assessment of whether an African or Asian church is “able to reach”? I don’t think so), and second, qualitative measures don’t scale to every people/place.
But there’s another transition: The original definition is “a church having the resources to reach”; and in measuring growth, I am actually measuring “reaching.” But I think that measuring the actual doing of the reaching (even if it is small) is a better correlation to the definition than church size is. Measuring this is not an easy thing: we have to have numbers of Christians at two different times. Joshua Project does not presently track that, but it could begin to do so. The World Christian Database tracks it, but only at a national level. I think it might be easiest, at a start, to track it amongst Affinity Blocks and Clusters rather than all 12,000 peoples.