Missionary martyrdom isn't unusual

Recently, John Chau's martyrdom has made the headlines, both in flattering and unflattering ways. Many people - even Christians - were shocked: partly that he went to a place where the language was less known, and partly because he went to a place that was openly hostile to Christians.

But missionaries go to these places all the time, and are occasionally killed--more often than mainstream news headlines let on. An instance of a martyred missionary is not unusual: nearly every year has at least one published case, and many years have more than one.

Some brief examples:

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They are what can easily be found with a few minutes of Google searches. Other agencies have had people martyred, but their names haven't made the headlines, and the agencies in question haven't pushed it into the press. I know several agencies have formal policies about what will happen if a person is kidnapped, or killed, that missionaries have to sign in agreement in advance.

Mission work is not always safe. Jesus didn't promise safety for his followers. The same Lord who offered healing and protection from scorpions and serpents (Luke 10:19) promised "when you are brought before rulers and courts" the Spirit would give us the words to say (Luke 12:11). Jesus said "if they persecuted me, they will persecute you" (John 15:20).

The point isn't for us to be safe. The point is for us to pick up our cross and follow him. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it..." (Matthew 16:25)

Are you a missionary?

While skimming some articles related to the Chau case, I came across this by TGC. It said in part:

Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.

I note in passing that this and several other related questions was cleared up by interviews given by All Nations, particularly this one with Christianity Today.

More curious was this statement:

Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries [emphasis added].

This suggests a belief that the thousands of new workers who are deployed to the field by all sorts of agencies are not "really missionaries" until they finish their time of language learning. Isn't learning the language part of the missionary task?

What about Wycliffe translators who have worked in people group A for years, and finished a translation, and now begin to work in people group B - were they once missionaries, but now not missionaries, because they have not yet learned the language?

Or, is it necessary to learn "the language of the target people group," or simply a language that they know? For example, if the people group is very small, is it sufficient to learn the major trade language they are fluent in?

What about missionary support staff - for example, myself. I am not communicating in the language of a target people group - should I no longer call myself (as some in my field of work do) a "missionary researcher"?

I suspect that a great many people in field and global leadership with major organizations still refer to themselves as "missionaries sent by..." even though they are not on the field speaking a local language.

I think the thrust of this point is that language learning is important. If the Gospel isn't communicated in ways that people can understand, whole people groups can be cut off from Gospel resources - and that is the heart and soul of unreached people thinking. We can certainly debate about whether it is more strategic to communicate in a specific language. And I applaud that idea.

But I think we need to be careful about filtering who is or is not a missionary, or who is performing a "missionary function," based on what specific (often Western) approach they have or have not yet done. Remember "the missionary function" is not clearly defined in the Bible. We infer a lot of it, but Jesus didn't send missionaries.

Chau: failure, martyr, or what?

The news of John Chau's death while attempting to bring the Gospel to a very remote, hostile, restricted-access region hit the mainstream news some days ago. Since then, there's been quite a lot of chatter about it, with lots of people trying to make sense of it. I am trying to hold myself back. My natural inclination is to write and tweet and talk, but I am reminding myself of this: we don't know the whole story. And we may never know it.

We, as people, want to "judge": either in the best or worst sense of the word. Our brains want to categorize, we want to put things in boxes, because that's how we make sense of it, how we understand it.

We could classify Chau as a martyr - a person who died, almost gloriously, for the sake of the cause. Similarities to Elliot are obvious.

We could classify Chau as a failure - a person who rushed headstrong into the situation without adequate training or preparation or effective strategy.

It would be easy to do either. But we don't know, and we don't have enough data to know.

Let's take a different example. What if someone trained and planned to be a Bible translator in, say, Africa. They prepared for years. They were expecting to spend decades on the field, working on learning language, translating Scriptures, etc. They arrive on the field, excited--and were killed two days later in a freak accident.

Knowing these additional details - the length of preparation, the length of time they planned to stay there, the scope of the work they envisioned, the nature of their death - how does this change our opinion of what happened? Were they martyrs? Were they failures? Or is this just a tragedy - a life cut short?

What if they were killed in a robbery gone wrong? Are they martyrs? What if you knew that in the midst of the robbery they were witnessing as best they could to the robbers? Would they then be martyrs, because they died in a situation of witness?

What if they were assassinated by radicals bent on killing Christian translators in the area? What if they knew the danger and yet went there any way, and were killed? Were they foolish?

There are many details we don't know, and likely never will this side of heaven. This much we can know:

  1. I think, hard as it is, that many times we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume personal failure. Many of the articles about the incident tend to color Chau's effort as a personal failure. Yes, Chau's first efforts to communicate weren't successful: one could say they "failed." I have failed many, many times. Chau just had the unfortunate situation of not being able to learn further (in this world, anyway) from the failures, while I've learned a lot. If Chau had had more time, what might he have done? He might have gone on to build relationships, share the Gospel, make disciples, and end up with an "Eetaow" story rather than an "Elliot" story. The failure of individual efforts is not the same as the failure of the overall project, and certainly not the same as a personal failure of character. I have failed, I am not a failure.
  2. We may need to forcibly remind ourselves that here was a man who earnestly believed in God's calling and to the best of his ability followed it, regardless of the cost. That willingness to obey is something that should be applauded.
  3. I think we need to be careful about establishing overall mission policy and strategy around a single event that is clearly an outlier. Several have used Chau's "example" (with what little is known) to articulate what they believe to be "good" or "bad" mission strategy. But few people go to these very very hard places, and it looks to me like most "good" mission strategies wouldn't send to them either. This is not the norm of mission experience, and I don't think we should judge policies or strategies based on "way-outside-the-normative-curve" events.

(For more, I recommend Ed Stetzer's excellent article posted yesterday after I drafted this. Link.)

Questions about whether a group is reached

Is there an indigenous church? Is the indigenous church able (sufficient size / resources) to evangelize the group without outside assistance?

Does the indigenous church think itself able, vs. do I think it is able, and how do I judge which of us is right, and am I judging rightly?

Given that the indigenous church could evangelize the group, is it doing what it should do?

Am I defining "what it should do" on the basis of my culture and outsider perspective? Who gets to define "what it should do"?

If the indigenous church is doing what it should do, but it is not yet reaching all the segments within a country, is there a role for an outsider?

What is the outsider/insider dynamic?

When does the role of the outsider "end"? What does it mean to "end"? What does it mean to "leave"?

What if the indigenous church is not doing things "fast enough"? Who gets to define "fast enough"?

And for really thorny issues... if a group is spreading fast, how do we know it is spreading "well"? Who gets to judge theology?

And for really, really thorny issues: what happens when an indigenous church starts eyeing Western countries and asking the same questions back?

There are more questions than these, obviously. The main point here is: do we question our own questions?

Defining a Missiological Breakthrough

What is "the goal" of missionary effort? If we have a list of x thousand "unreached people groups," what does it take for each group to no longer be "unreached"?

One of the best discussions of "the goal" (in the context of the definition of unreached) in very recent history was Dave Datema's excellent paper: "Defining Unreached: a short history."

Three things to keep in mind when reading about goals and mission:

  1. Unreached and Unengaged are not the same thing. A group can be "engaged" and yet "unreached"; it can even have a substantial number of believers and still be unreached. So we need to be clear and precise with what we mean. Engaging a group is the first step to reaching a group.
  2. Reached and "All Have the Opportunity to Hear in their Lifetime" are not the same thing. Depending on the definition of "unreached" (and there are many - pg. 2 of Datema's paper highlights 14 different definitions alone), "unreached" can be used by anyone to mean anything from "the Gospel is available in the people group in their language" up to somewhere around "20% of the group is Christian." As an example, right now probably at least 10% of Han Chinese are believers, and there are still tens of millions (perhaps hundreds of millions) of Mandarin-speakers who will not hear the Gospel in their lifetime. The strategy to get to "missiological breakthrough" (depending on how it is defined) may not be the same as the strategy required for all individuals to have an opportunity to hear.
  3. "Heavily Evangelized by Cross-Cultural Missionaries" and "Reached" are not the same thing. For similar reasons, a group could be heavily evangelized (e.g. told by missionaries) but not have a missiological breakthrough (e.g. the Gospel contextualized/inculturated/"implanted" into the culture). If all the missionaries are withdrawn and Gospel spread ceases, then they were not reached.
  4. Missiological breakthrough, however it is defined, involves same-culture believers moving into the forefront of spreading the Gospel. For this to happen requires handoffs that are tricky to successfully achieve. In my experience, in most cases that's mostly because the cross-cultural workers (e.g. missionaries) don't really want to succeed at handing things off...

Jargon can sometimes be the enemy of clear goals and definitions. If we're going to use insider terminology, let's at least be sure everyone who's reading what we're writing understands what we're saying.

Investment times

Depending on the agency and the worker and the field, it usually takes “about” a year for a worker to pass from initial expression of interest through application, vetting, fundraising, and on to the field. (More pre-field training requirements—like college or seminary—will of course stretch this time.) Once on the field, it can take a year or two (or more) to become proficient in the language and culture.

Once a movement strategy is being pioneered, it can take several years to reach 4th generation in multiple streams (sometimes far longer—note theological assumption Only God starts movements).

Therefore, all attempts to initiate a movement amongst a new people group or segment should be predicated on a minimum 5-year investment before any fruit is expected, and likely 10 years before fruit/harvests are “very large” (such as 10 to 100 thousand believers).

Anything “shorter” is very probably not going to be sustainable transitioned into something “longer”: in other words, you can see fruit in a shorter time (from a short-term trip, or a quick church planting), but these strategies aren’t multipliable, don’t see the extended ramp-up that defines an exponential curve, and so won’t be long-term sustainable or reach very large numbers.

4 types of people critical to movements

Here are 4 types of people critical to any kind of movement, whether it's a scalable startup or a disciple-making movement:

  1. Early Adopters - the people who are already seeking what is being offered, and willing to take a minimum viable product: anything presently functioning. They want it so badly they are very forgiving of bugs/errors/problems; and, they want it to endure and be successful so badly, they'll give you feedback for how the MVP can be improved. Early adopters are bent toward finding a solution--in CPM/DMM terms, we can think of these as the people who are Googling for the Gospel. However, they are not necessarily interested in passing the solution on to others. It's a mistake to think just because you have Early Adopters, this translates into a movement. It may only translate into Generation Zero.
  2. People of Peace - Network Introducers - these are the people who will "open the doors" into their social network. They are sometimes the same as Early Adopters, but not always. For example, among the Persian cluster (and especially in Iran) many seeking the Gospel, listening to Christian programming via satellite television, but only a small percentage are willing to "open the doors" for the Gospel into their network of family and friends. There are many reasons why someone would be leery to do this - at least at first. Try to understand those reasons without prejudging them. People of Peace are actively looking for things of value to pass on to their social network (and one side effect is to increase their value to their social network). When looking for PoPs, seek people in a position to take a risk for the Gospel within their social network. Think about the common fears in the community, and then look for the people who for one reason or another are immune to the causes of those fears.
  3. Multipliers & Disciple-makers - In the gaming world, these are the people who teach the game to others, or maybe even build a business on top of the game (as a coach or the like). In the business world, these are the people who build businesses on top of social media platforms. They take your "product" and run with it to do something more. They want a reliable product, something reputable, easy to pass on, worth passing on, something with most of the "bugs worked out." In the church planting world, they not only make disciples, they teach disciples to be disciple-makers as well. Multipliers are not necessarily the same as People of Peace, and rarely Early Adopters.
  4. Hubs - these are the respected people who evaluate information before passing it on. I'm a Gatekeeper because I evaluate emails shared with me, and check them first with Snopes.org. If they are urban legends, I don't pass them on. The Gatekeeper or "Hub" person in a network is the key to its scalability: most people are not Hubs, but nearly everyone is connected strongly to at least one "Hub" person. Hubs, in addition, are "weakly connected" to a lot of other Hubs--they make the "six degrees of separation" possible. If a message is stopped by most Hubs within a cluster, the Gospel won't make much of an advance. Gatekeepers will almost never be Early Adopters or PoPs. Their strong evaluative function means they are tilted more toward keeping things out than passing things on, whereas Early Adopters and PoPs are focused more on introducing new things of value to the network. Gatekeepers are most likely going to be older, more respected members of the community, especially where spiritual values are concerned. (If we were talking about tech, then the Gatekeeper would more likely be a young-to-middle-aged person with an evaluative bent.) Many people have the tactics of witnessing & asking people to join a Discovery Bible Study down. Strategy comes in when you begin considering these types of people, their connections to other less-socially-connected members, and how you can engage with these types to promote the spread of the Gospel in a community.

As an example, in Iran, many family Gatekeepers are less opposed to the Gospel, so the Gospel flows pretty quickly through families. In Turkey, on the other hand, Gatekeepers are very opposed to things Western and things Christian - so the Gospel has a much harder time flowing through families. Theory: where Gatekeepers are hostile, PoPs are be less visible (because the social risks are higher). Thus most of the converts are more likely "early adopters" but there is less replication and spread.

Festivals of Thanksgiving

In America, it's Thanksgiving Day. I'm not actually writing this post on Thanksgiving Day. I'm writing it prior to. Because on Thanksgiving Day, I won't be anywhere near this computer. It's important - but sometimes hard - to take time for Thanksgiving. Not just the American holiday, but for the spiritual discipline. Fasting is somehow holy, while feasting is somehow - at least in my mind - often connected with "unholiness."

We must remember that God commanded feasts. No, not the American feast of Thanksgiving, but there were definite feasts in Scripture, and they each had a purpose. Feasts are times of celebrating the goodness of God, and the blessings he has bestowed upon us: times of joy and reflection.

It's hard for me, sometimes, to celebrate all God has done in the "world of missions," when I see the unreached and how many remain outside access to the Gospel. My dream is Revelation 7, when every tribe stands before the throne. But while I mourn the fact that, as things stand today, over 2 billion people will not hear the Gospel in their lifetime, today I celebrate the fact that the world was 50% unevangelized in 1900, and today it is more like 25 to 29%.

In other words, the number of people with no access to the Good News could be a lot higher.

And, I celebrate the fact that there are over 650 movements - some small, I grant, but still there - in over 150 of the 255 people clusters. The Gospel is--perhaps--more distributed today than ever before. I celebrate the fact that more of the world believes in a God today than don't - atheism is on the decline.

Yes, there is much to do. But it is good to stop and reflect on how much God has done. His world is even more on his heart than it is on ours, and the Great Lion is on the move.

An eternal perspective

Given that you will always have more days ahead than behind, it is absolutely certain (for believers) that your "best" days are yet to come.

Those days will be better than these not just because they come later (especially in the light of eternity), but because we must build upon the things we learn today.

The biggest thing that separates yesterday from today and today from tomorrow are the people in them: who we can interact with, who we can help, who we can serve, who we can bless, who may be in our far-distant-future because of the Good News we brought them today.

The only treasures we bring into the farthest future are the character we have grown, the lessons we have learned, and the people we have built (1 Corinthians 3).

Strategies in the midst of Quasi-Christian, Post-Christian, or Non-Christian

One of the big issues in prioritization, on a global scale, always boils down to how people in various streams of Christian theology "handle" people in "other" streams. To put it more baldly, if Protestant evangelicals are estimating which parts of the world are "reached" or "unreached," "engaged" or "unengaged," "priority" or "not priority" - how do they handle Catholics? (and vice-versa). This happens no matter the scale that we are looking at. My own Stage scale (elaborated on a bit in the previous posts) assumes "Christians of all traditions" - but some may say "Europe really isn't Stage 3 or 4 or 5" because "Catholics and Orthodox don't count."

I would suggest a different view, however, in which the Stage approach very much does matter: places that are at Stage 5 (e.g. "greater than 90% Christian of any tradition") require a vastly different approach than places that are at Stage 0 (e.g., "less than 0.1% Christian of any tradition").

In other words, reaching definitely non-Christians (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Sikhs, Atheists, Agnostics, etc)--and especially large masses of non-Christians--requires a different strategic approach than reaching "nominal" Christians or people who perceive themselves to be Christian but in fact may not be so in practice.

I would really be happy if equal resources were targeting each of the stages. The problem right now isn't really so much one of prioritizing Stages over each other, but that the lower Stages (e.g., 0, 1, <2% Christian) get so little in the way of resources, while the upper Stages (which are easier to reach and tend to be in languages that have a lot of Christian resources) tend to get far more.

(See also "Good, Bad, Non, Anti Christians and missions")

For the Kingdom to spread

Here are (some? All? of) the basic things that have to happen for the Kingdom to spread. These functions are intentionally written “agnostic” of church or mission structures, and cultural structures. They are also intentionally written as close to the bone as possible, devoid of any flesh, skin or muscle let alone makeup, jewelry or brand-branded clothing.

  1. People must come to know Jesus. They can’t follow someone they’ve never heard of.
  2. People must come to confess him as Lord and choose to follow Him.
  3. People must follow Jesus with other followers: disciples gathering become disciples gathered, in charity toward each other.
  4. People must, individually and together, be a blessing to the communities of people around them who are not yet followers.
  5. People must, individually and together, through both deed and word, be a witness to the communities around them and draw others to follow Jesus; this may require making a long-term investment (“sending,” in all its various forms) across community boundary lines.
  6. People must be willing to endure suffering and persecution for the sake of following Jesus.
  7. People must pass on to other followers what they themselves have learned.

Some will note that I have said nothing in this about disciple-making movements, or churches, or agencies, or translations, etc. All of these are just tools and strategies we use to accomplish these functions. Some are adopted because of speed and sustainability; others are adopted because of the necessity of translating the Gospel across linguistic and cultural boundaries so that step (1) above can be accomplished.

A simple calculation

Google the population of your city. Count how many non-Christians came to faith as a result of your ministry/church/whatever's efforts in the last year.

Divide the population by the the number of new believers.

That's how many years it would take to reach your city.

(And... that doesn't account for population growth through nett births-deaths, or through net migration.)

Now: how many other churches are there in your city, and how many are they likely to have grown by in the past year?

Sum, do the calculation over again.

Now: is what we're doing enough?

"What's it going to take?"

Another view of people groups

Looking at the Joshua Project's catalog of people groups, here's two different views. The first is by JP's own internal levels. These are based on % Evangelical (Ev) and % Christian of all kinds (C).

  • Level 1 (Unreached, Ev<=2%, C<=5%): 7,075 groups = 3.1 billion (41% of world)
  • Level 2 (Minimally reached, Ev<=2%, C>5%,<=50%): 1,213 groups = 294 million (3.8% of world)
  • Level 3 (Superficially reached, Ev<=2%, C>=50%): 1,774 groups = 534 million (7.0% of world)
  • Level 4 (Partially reached, Ev 2% to 10%): 3,726 groups = 1.9 billion (25% of world)
  • Level 5 (Significantly reached, Ev >10%): 3,224 groups = 1.7 billion (22% of world)

Careful note: these are the populations of the groups at the stage. Within each of these levels are varying numbers of believers. For example, I estimate based on JP data that Level 1 (Unreached) contains some 16 million Christians and 5 million evangelicals. But, as we might expect, the vast majority of believers and evangelicals are found at Levels 4 and 5.

Now, by contrast, I'm experimenting with a different approach these days, based in part on some of Hans Rosling's (posthumously published) work in Factfulness. Using 5 stages based on % Christian of all kinds:

  • Stage 0 (0.0% Christian, none known): 4,107 groups = 755 million (9% of world)
  • Stage 1 (<2% Christian): 2,295 groups = 2.1 billion people (28% of world)
  • Stage 2 (2% to <8% Christian): 1,194 groups = 374 million (4.9% of world)
  • Stage 3 (8% to <32% Christian): 1,742 groups = 1.7 billion (22.5% of world)
  • Stage 4 (32% to <90% Christian): 4,917 groups = 1.6 billion (21.6% of world)
  • Stage 5 (90% and up): 2,757 groups = 963 million (12.6% of world)

I use this latter appraoch because it's somewhat simpler and relies on a doubling of the percentages, which lends itself well to tracking exponential growth.

It is interesting to me that in either approach, there is a 'dip' between the 'very unreached' (Level 1 for JP, and Stage 0/1 for my system) and the 'more reached' (level 4/5 for JP, and Stage 3 and up for me).

In the JP system, Level 2 (Ev<2%, C>5%) is the smallest, with a population of 294 million. In mine, Stage 2 (2% to 8% C) is the smallest by far, with a population of 374 million.

What to make of this? One theory of mine: once a people group has the gospel, it tends to progress rapidly to higher levels of % Christian. Another theory: we put a lot of work into groups that have the gospel, to 'bring them up' to higher levels of % Christian, while Stage 0/1 languish.

Counting Movements 4: goal posts

In the last two posts, we talked about counting small movements and small portions of movements, as well as counting larger representative chunks of movements. One way of attempting to verify these counts is to use a different lens, where we look at the geographic and ethnographic contexts of the movement. The way I usually do this is to think in terms of a playing field and goal posts. Here's a hypothetical scenario: someone tells me there is a movement happening in the United States. My next question is going to be: where in the United States? It's a big country, but there are 50 states. My source now tells me that the movement is mostly in Texas and a little bit in Oklahoma.

I now have "two goal posts": I know the movement must be bigger than 1 person, and must be smaller than the combined populations of Texas (28.3 million) and Oklahoma (3.9 million). The next step is to start moving these goal posts closer to each other.

Are they in particular counties? Perhaps they are in the Dallas Metroplex (7 million) and blending over into southern Oklahoma (Bryant county (46,000). The maximum size of the movement is, therefore, likely not more than 7 million.

I can then begin asking questions about where in the Metroplex the movement is, and move the goal posts yet further. Some places have geographic organizations: provinces, districts, sub-districts, villages. Each of these have different order of magnitudes in terms of population. We can begin asking local experts questions like: "So, how widely distributed are churches in these movements? One per district? One per sub-district? One in every village?" These kinds of questions can get us to rough percentages of the populations.

While these rough percentages and populations won't be very precise censuses, they should be within the same order of magnitude as what's being reported elsewhere.

We can further use this to begin comparing the generally known % Christian of each of these places with what we are learning about the movements. I am presently using four categories (Stage 1, <2%; Stage 2, 2% to <8%; Stage 3, 8% to <32%; Stage 4, >32%). Places in each of these four categories are generally similar to each other the world over. Movements can be "less visible" in some places, but if a movement were to "tip" a place from one stage to another, it would be slightly more visible because that place would start to take on the characteristics of the next stage (e.g. if it was at Stage 2 and tipped to Stage 3, we would start to see some of the frictions of that tipping, even if the movement weren't as visible because it was still a very small movement).

Asking these kinds of geographic questions can help us understand the movement better. Some movements "sound" big to us, and we think, "why can't I see that?" But, if such a movement is geographically dispersed over a large area, or over numerous people groups, it will in fact be far less visible because it's only a small percentage of certain areas. Parts of the Bhojpuri movement in India - one of the largest in the world - are well over 10 million in size -- but they are often less visible because they are dispersed, and 10 million within Northern India is still a very small percentage. (Plus, of course, much of this movement is underground.)

Counting Movements 3: pots, bushes, Sycamore

Our yard is home to several different kinds of growing things, ranging from weeds to trees. For the purpose of this post, let me use three things by way of analogy: potted plants, bushes, and the big Sycamore tree in the front yard. First are the numerous potted plants that my daughter is pouring time and attention to. She has a large cherry tomato plant, two pepper plants, and two small trees - a blood orange tree, and a lemon tree. All are in pots. (Actually, the tomato plant is dead; last night she replaced it with flowers.) The pepper plants, oddly enough, bore very little fruit during the summer, but as temperatures cooled off in the fall, they started producing--we've gotten a number of peppers off both of them. The lemon and the blood orange tree are both in their "childhood."

Plants in pots are very controlled. They either (a) bear fruit for a season, and then die, or (b) are nurtured along until they are hardy enough to transplant into the ground. If and when bad conditions come (storms, freezing temperatures), we can move them off the deck and into the garage (or even into the house). We can preserve them through things that would normally kill them--but the very thing that helps them live also means they can't spread wild over the yard.

Some churches can treat their small groups like "potted plants"; some movements are treated likewise by the organizations and leaders that wnt to see them grow. They are kept in very controlled environments. If they bear fruit, it's for a season, and perhaps the fruit is used to start new plants elsewhere (or to add to the "mother church"). Some groups are just for preserving fruit ("community groups" in a lot of Western churches). We watch over them, fret over them, observe each little individual branch, watch for worms and blight, prune them, pluck the fruit and the bad leaves, and so on. They get a lot of our attention, monitoring, and measuring--but the level of care required of every group means they can't "run wild in the yard."

Our backyard is also home to some runaway hedges. In the front, we've been pretty good about them. Once or twice a year we go through them with a power hedge trimmer and cut all the extraneous branches off. We don't let them run amok: we carve them down to nice, solid, dense little rectangles. We gather up all the branches and toss them away. But the hedges in the back - well, there's a small group of them that I didn't bother to trim one year, and they grew and grew. The next year, they were "too big for me to trim back"--so they grew and grew some more. Now they are essentially small trees. If I tried to trim them down, I'd probably kill them - so I just leave them. They shade the house, so they're fine where they are.

Some collections of small groups in some movements are like these hedges. Left alone, they're not going to "run rampant" all over the yard like dandelions. They're going to grow to a typical and certain size, and they're probably not going to get much bigger than that. Some movements have called these "palm trees." They count leaders, assuming each network started by a leader will be like these hedges--they will grow to a certain size (whether it be 100, 1,000, or 10,000 believers) over a certain time period. Knowing what leaders "do," they They concentrate more on raising up leaders than on the specific numbers. Numbers change constantly, anyway, until these "palm trees" or "hedges" reach a certain threshold and level off. This leads to round numbers that are in the right order of magnitude and a leader-focused strategy.

Finally, our front yard is home to a towering Sycamore tree. This thing is huge. It's far and away taller than our house. If you're going to trim it, ideally you bring in a locally-owned tree-trimming company--guys that are braver than me, who will scale the tree with power tools and trim the right branches. If the tree ever toppled, it would destroy the house. (Thankfully I think the odds of that are pretty slim.) It's a beautiful sight to behold: an awesome reminder of what things can grow into, given enough time.

These trees remind me of what church planting movements, too, can grow into--given enough time. Most movements in the world today are just a few years old. Some are not much more than tomato bushes or potted trees. Others are like the hedges: they're a bit taller than the house, but nowhere near a massive sycamore. A few are enormous, in the millions of members, with decades of experience.

Sycamores, it's true, don't "fill up the yard" like grass. But they do dominate a space, and for the purposes of our analogy sycamores do one thing that potted plants and hedges don't: they put out seeds, that float on the wind. Admittedly, my family and I are not especially enamored with the seeds from our front yard: these little bits of puff-and-fluff get into everything. But it is amazing to consider: thousands of sycamore trees are found within each these little puff that each sycamore puts out. Sycamores are sycamore-starters. And that's what the biggest, most established movements are.

Once these movements get to a certain size, it becomes almost impossible to measure the exact scope of the movement. How would you count the leaves on a sycamore tree? You could, but it might be more productive to count the number of sycamore trees in a forest or the average number of seeds a sycamore puts out. That would give you a stronger sense of what's coming.

Counting Movements 2: grandparents to grandchildren

When movements are very small - that is, they are five generations or smaller in size - they can be fairly easy to count. You can even track the generations on a big piece of paper or a computer spreadsheet.

A simplistic diagram might look like:

Now, in reality, if I saw a movement that diagrammed out like this, I'd be suspicious - it's "too perfect." Movements are messy, and are very rarely (and only randomly) exactly like this. But this illustrates the point: a set of churches can be diagrammed on a page. Globally, the average is about 15 to 18 per group; so we could round to 20 and say this diagram represents between 250 and 300 people.

We can know a lot about this group: the names of the leaders of the groups, the locations of the groups, when they meet, and so on. It's not likely we'd know all the people in the group--once you get past 150, it's not easy to hold that kind of information in one's head--but it is possible to track this on a regular basis.

This kind of graph can also be the 'nucleus' of a larger movement: that is, movements are made up of smaller "4 generation" collections. We can track these "families" within larger extended families; any single individual within the "family" can easily describe his family using five relationships:

These are "spiritual" relationships (which is why I only identify one parent and grandparent--although obviously your "spiritual parents" might be a couple etc). The point here is that you can articulate who mentors you, and who mentors them - and you can articulate who you mentor and who they mentor. Doing so places you in a "five" generation stream, and brings all of the generations into view. (Some of these relationships will obviously parallel "demographic" or "birth" relationships; some will be purely spiritual.)

This is one easy way to begin "counting" within a movement. It also brings in an element of "self-assessment": Anyone who looks "up" and "down" in a demographic family would be able to know where the spiritually mature and spiritually immature are. The same can be said in a spiritual family. And, it begins to introduce the idea of leaving a legacy and generations that are outside your view: great-grandparents won't always know all of the great-grandchildren; we have to leave the future to God.

For most movements, this form of "counting" would be enough - many movements are within the scope of this size. In the next post, I'll look at how we can begin to count tomato plants, bushes and Redwood forests.

Counting Movements 1: how we count believers and churches in many denominations

One of the questions we have to address in documenting (and even assessing, auditing, evaluating, etc.) movements is how to count the number of people in them.

Movements are another form of a group of churches--a network or denomination. Movements have some unique characteristics, chiefly around rapid growth. Most would probably never want to be called a denomination, but the term is not entirely without validity.

The word denomination originated somewhere around the 14th century and comes from the two roots de ("completely") and nominare ("to name"). A denomination from the mid 15th century was "a class name" or "collective designation of things"; which rapidly became (a) a religious sect ("Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, etc") and (b) a monetary classification ($20 dollar bills or $100 bills, etc).

Christian denominations are made up of churches, which are in turn made up of people. How do we count the number of churches and people? It's not as simple as going from church to church and counting up the number of people "in the church."

To begin with, which people within the church count?

1. Some churches count Sunday morning attendance ("We have about 1,000 people in Sunday morning worship"). The flaw with this method: there can be non-believers in the service, so you're not getting an exact number of Christians.

2. Some churches count baptized church members. The challenge with this, in a denomination as a whole, is that some people are baptized and then, for one reason or another, leave the denomination.

a) they may no longer go to church. It might be a case of backsliding, or it might be a case of advancing age, or it might be a case of a health crisis or some other stage in their life.

b) they might transfer to a different church, or transfer to a different city, state or country, but not be struck from the membership rolls.

3. Some churches only count adults, while others count both adults and children. This can lead to a significant difference when comparing two denominations.

Further, the numbers of members are constantly in flux. New people are being born. New converts are being baptized. Children are becoming adults. Some people die. You can have a more or less "exact" number as of some specific day in some specific year, and 24 hours later that number could very well have changed.

Some denominations have a specific methodology for taking a count, and they ask their churches to turn in that number as of a specific date of the year. Other denominations have a much more haphazard approach. But the discussion above illustrates why we should never consider "number" so obtained to be very exact, and why we should always be aware of the methodology of counting when comparing one denomination to another. I'm not saying the "numbers" are invalid: we just need to know how they are obtained and what they mean. Some denominations will have to have their numbers adjusted to make for an "apples to apples" comparison (e.g. churches that count only adults will have to be adjusted to compare to churches that count both adults and children).

Obviously, there are theological implications of these points. As an illustration of such discussions, check this article (I just Googled quickly for it; I'm sure other denominations have other examples).

The task is yet more complex. Denominations have to count the number of churches, and these, too, change over time. Churches are planted, and churches die. In some cases churches can leave one denomination and join another; in other cases, churches can be disfellowshipped from one part of a denomination, yet remain part of a larger denominational network (e.g. a Southern Baptist church could be disfellowshipped from a State convention, yet retain its name, and remain part of the National denomination). So simply asking 'how many churches are in the denomination' is not always a straight-forward thing.

In movements, this whole process is far more difficult than in many Western denominations, because:

1. Movements are aggressively growing through outreach. What is the line where a person moves from being a seeker to being a believer? Especially in contexts where baptism might be postponed for a while? In some countries, some groups have a theology that insists only a certain type of minister can baptize people, and this mean that hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of believers are still waiting for baptism. In some movements, there are long periods of time where people are discipled, and their commitment seen before baptism is "offered"; are these people believers even though they have not yet been baptized? Movements have to deal internally with these theological issues.

2. In many places, there are significant family issues that affect counting. In most Western environments, if the "father" becomes a believer, that doesn't mean the wife or the children are automatically counted. In other environments, if a Christian woman with children (e.g. perhaps a widow) marries a Muslim man, her children (and often her) are automatically counted as now "Muslim." If the head of house becomes a Christian, what happens to families? These are thorny issues that impact counts.

3. Many movements feature "seeker groups" that eventually become "house churches." What is the line where a "group" becomes a "church"? When do they get counted? Different movements will deal with this in different ways.

4. Given the enormous numbers of groups/churches being planted through viral reproduction, how do they get counted? When a movement consists of just 4 generations, it's usually easy to know how many groups there are. When a movement reaches 6th generation or higher, it becomes exponentially more difficult.

5. Further difficulties arise as churches split (divide-to-multiply), migrate (as people migrate to different areas for work), die (stop meeting for any of a variety of reasons), etc. Tracking all of these popping and moving bubbles of activity is obviously very challenging.

6. Another issue is security - simply collecting data on lists can be very problematic in some areas.

Even though movements face big challenges in counting these numbers, we shouldn't think that they are somehow more challenging or less accurate than Western churches. For the reasons noted above, it's well known that many Western denominations have difficult counts as well. For an interesting but more academic look at some of the methodological difficulties the Southern Baptists face (and I chose this just because it showed up first on a Google search), see this research paper.

Counting is a difficult process, but if the basic challenges are understood, they can be methodologically dealt with. Having surveyed some of the issues in this background post, I'll be writing about some approaches to counting churches in movements over the next few blog posts.