The difficulties of defining "closure"

"Finishing the task" is a phrase that is widely used in some of the mission circles that I travel in. I've used it myself. The technical/missiological term sometimes equated to "finishing the task" is "closure." Both of these phrases are more or less missiological terms with eschatological underpinnings. In our culture, however, most of the people who talk about "closure" aren't using the word in this sense. When people speak of "closure," they might mean:

  • abandoning personal baggage - a sense of freedom
  • a sense of achievement that gives validation of purpose and meaning
  • a cessation of work
  • a necessary transition step between "chapters"
  • the feeling something bad has ended, and normality may now resume
  • a comforting sense of finality
  • or perhaps a less comforting sense that something has ended forever
  • a sense of completion, solution of a problem, or resolution of an issue
  • a sense of evaluation, lessons learned, understanding gained
  • revisiting something that feels 'unfinished' in order to 'gain closure' or 'permission to move on'

To seek "closure" in anything might, for any given individual, be colored more by these emotional meanings than by any textbook definition of the phrase. When we use the term missiologically with people who aren't familiar with this technical definition, we have to remember it carries a lot of implied cultural and emotional meanings.

If "finishing the task" or "closure" carries these meanings with it, how might that affect the strategy we use? If we say we are setting out to "finish the task" or "seek closure" - what might we be implying to those who hear the phrase?

And, moreover, in what sense can the Great Commission be "finished" - and in what sense might it be "unfinishable"?

Why is the remaining task not getting finished, when...

One of the questions I am frequently asked is, "Why are the numbers of unevangelized not going down (or % unevangelized) when I know that ... [x] ... is happening?" "X" could be a lot of different things, including these examples I've heard recently:

  • Broadening Internet access
  • Globalization, trade connections
  • TV / Satellite / Internet broadcasting / Youtube
  • Cell phones
  • Diaspora
  • Church planting movements
  • Dreams and visions

While it is true all of these are happening in various parts of the world, it doesn't mean the Gospel is being brought to all of the unevangelized. The Gospel in unique new ways for some doesn't automatically translate to the Gospel for all. Or, as William Gibson put it: "The future is here, it's just not very evenly distributed."

To begin with, although the Gospel is available for more people than ever before in many languages, it isn't in a lot of local languages that cover a lot of people. Let's take just a few examples from the Joshua Project's dataset:

  • Out of 7,090 Languages, 548 (<10%) have a complete Bible, 1,313 have at least the NT, and 970 have only portions. That leaves 2,752 with no translated text and a definite need.
  • Out of 7,090 languages, just 1,378 have a JESUS Film available (because it requires Luke to be translated).
  • Out of 7,090 languages, 4,035 have some portion of audio Scripture recorded, and 910 have YouVersion languages (which could be used to correlate to availability of the Bible on the Internet).

Second, Gospel availability in a language doesn't automatically equate to 100% distribution. Bibles are translated but not necessarily printed in sufficient numbers. The JESUS Film may be available and seen by many, but is it seen (or can it be seen) by all? The gospel is broadcast by satellite and the Internet, and seen by many (this is a driving force in church growth in Iran, for example), but not by all. Many have Internet access on their phones, but this access is often limited and walled off by government firewalls. But even more: are they searching for Gospel resources? Do they encounter them? How will they even know to search for the Gospel if they've never heard it? To get a mental picture of the variance between availability and distribution, picture some illustrative scenes:

  • The dangerous provinces of northern Pakistan and south/west rural Afghanistan
  • The densely populated yet disconnected and rural provinces of Bangladesh.
  • North Korea, with its political, economic and electronic 'firewall'
  • The logistically distant western provinces of China, remote from people and blocked by the 'Great Firewall'
  • The Sahel desert regions of Africa.
  • The isolated and war-torn nations of the Horn of Africa: eastern Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea.
  • The closed nations of Central Asia.
  • Populous yet remote regions of eastern Indonesia.
  • The closed off east of Turkey and the closed off regions of Iran outside of Tehran
  • Even in much of urban China, densely populated, there are many who have no encounters with Christians or Christianity.
  • Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the north of India, where there are significant Gospel resources yet they are such a small percentage of the 300+ million people in the region.

Third, in some places and languages there are more tools and connectivity, but disciples are made and churches planted person-to-person and group to group. CSGC studies indicate 86% of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a believer. Even in high-density Christian nations, migrants and immigrants are not being welcomed and reached by the existing church (with some wonderful exceptions that are nonetheless a small minority).

Fourth, about the miraculous: we've all heard reports of dreams and visions, and those reports have been verified. They are certainly happening. But dreams aren't happening to every unevangelized individual - the number of dreams is fairly small compared to the overall population - and further, every dream/vision testimony I've encountered always sends the individual to (mostly) a person who carries the gospel or (some) to a Bible. What happens when neither a person or a Bible is available?

Fifth, church planting movements: they exist, of course, and we are thankful for them. We are excited about the new ones that have started, and are working to start more. (That's all we at Beyond do.) But we need to be realistic. By my tabulation, there are at most 120 to 140 movements. Most of them are small - thousands and tens of thousands each, with very few (probably less than 10, maybe less than 5, depending on how one counts the movements) having over a million members. The largest movement I know of is in northern India, where despite having millions in the movement it makes up less than 3% of the region. We believe movements are the key--only movements can get ahead of population growth--but they have not solved the problem yet. We need more workers to go and start them.

So let's celebrate: we are making some headway. The % of the world that is unevangelized dropped by half between 1900 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2025, the Christian "world" will grow by about 29 million people per year. And the evangelized non-Christian world - those who have heard the Gospel but not yet chosen to follow Christ - will grow by about 32 million per year. So in a sense we are "finishing the task" at a rate of at least 61 million people yearly. This is cause for rejoicing.

But at the same time, let's be concerned: due mostly to population growth, the unevangelized world is growing by a net (births - deaths - newly evangelized) of 19 million per year. While the % of the world that is unevangelized dropped by half, the *number* of unevangelized rose from 800 million to over 2 billion.

The cause is simple: we are doing a lot but we are not doing enough. Very few gospel workers and even less money is going to reach these hardest to reach people. It would be nice if internet, satellite, phones, dreams and indigenous church planting movements reached the world without our having to worry about it... but nothing can replace God's command to GO and make disciples of every ethne - GO in person and not by try to do it by remote control.

The reality is these people are unreached because we as the global church do not care enough nor are willing to sacrifice enough to reach them.

Can the task be finished?

Last night I saw a twitter conversation going back over a subject that is near and dear to my heart: can the Great Commission be finished?Eddie Arthur says no--but if you read closely what he's saying, he's just saying there are parts that "go on" until Jesus comes. I tend to agree with him, mostly. Here's a way to think about it:

  1. Jesus gave us a task, and I don't think he'd tell us to do something that couldn't be done.
  2. References to the task are in Matthew 28 and Matthew 24. There are, of course, lots of discussions about what Jesus meant in Matthew 24. But to me, the disciples were asking Jesus about the "end of the age," and Jesus clearly said in verse 14 that the preaching of the Gospel in the whole world was tied to the end.  Verses 15 and on are very apocalyptic in nature. I don't think we can completely understand this whole passage, but it seems to suggest that this task is "finishable" (it "will" be done).
  3. I argue in Sustainable Closure that "closure" or "finishing" must be done day after day after day in each place until it is done day-after-day in all places. In this sense, the local task can be completed for local people for this day, but yet need to be done again in the future. The simplest form of this is discipling the next generation.
  4. Finishing the Task will not bring Jesus back. Not in the sense that we usually mean it. We don't control Jesus. (We can see this obviously if we invert it: not finishing the Task will not keep Jesus away). God already knows when the task will be done.
  5. Finishing the Task does not mean everyone will believe. The Rich Young Ruler seems a warning parable in this regard.
  6. I resist the idea that some percentage of each people group being believers ("make disciples of every ethne"--"oh, how many disciples?") is finishing the task. Jesus wants the whole pie.
  7. Here's what I think we must do to count the task finished. Here, we are only talking about the cross-cultural missionary task - not the ongoing work of the church.

The end of the task is getting further away

Simply put, 93 million children are born into non-Christian homes, and 45 million are born into Christian ones. Aside from the births, Christianity gets 15 million converts and loses 12 million defectors per year. Yes, "evangelicals" (a subset of Christianity) is growing at a faster rate (new members per 100 old members)--so Christianity is growing more evangelical.

BUT--evangelicals are not gaining more than 3 million nett per year.

At most Christians are gaining 48 million (births + nett converts) while the non-Christian world gains 90 million (births - nett converts).

Those new non-Christian babies will generally only be evangelized from the outside. Yet the vast majority of them do not know believers who will evangelize them.

This is not a recipe for closure.

If anyone is going to change it, it requires getting out of our Christian circles and into non-Christian circles.

Closure: don't rush it

Trying to finish the Great Commission "impossibly fast" can lead to failure and abandonment of the project altogether. What is "impossibly fast"? Let's think about the idea of "closure" (e.g. the task is finished) at three levels.

First is the "micro" level - me and my house. "Closure" is complete when everyone in my house has ready access to the Gospel. Generally, if I'm a believer, you could say the house has reached closure because they have me. Obviously there are some households where someone is a secret believer, so we might argue about whether the others actually have access to the Gospel. Most conservatively, let's say that if I'm an open believer, the house has reached closure.

Next, there's my neighborhood - the immediate web of relationships around my household. This could include people who live in the same area, people I work with, people I buy goods from, people who regularly come to provide services. How long would closure take with these people? If I'm an open witness, we could estimate anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to a year. (This doesn't mean they would all become believers: finishing the task does not mean everyone will believe.)

Third, there's the wider area around me. This might include 2nd and 3rd order social connections - perhaps as much as my town or community. My own city of Garland, Texas has a population of about 250,000. By my research (see "a task too big for loners" as an example), this requires at least 2 movement strategy teams, and perhaps as many as 20 to 30 local worker teams (each with ministries covering about 10,000 people!).

This third level of closure requires another order of magnitude of responsibility, thinking, planning, and strategy than either the household or the neighborhood. While my neighborhood might take a year for me to individually reach, this third level requires time to identify the Strategy Teams, and then time to identify, recruit and train the Local Teams, and then time for those Local Worker Teams to implement whatever strategy (perhaps 10 local houses each covering 1,000 people...) to reach "closure."

It's no wonder when considering the third level of closure that planning and execution could take up to 2 to 5 years before any significant movement is seen. It takes time to recruit the workers, not just to evangelize the lost. It takes even more time to disciple converts. ("Not being able to capitalize on widest exposure is the illest of omens"--read this examination of the Peach social network, which this analyst feels is dead, and see the lessons for movements).

If we try to rush an evangelistic program and "mass evangelize" 200,000, we'll probably have to use "brute force" industrial methods. These will not result in an organic movement capable of seeping into the total audience, nor an organically-grown church capable of reaching the next generation. At best, they will result in some converts and simply have to be repeated in a few years time when the next generation is older. At worst, they will be ignored as easily as advertising.

When people try to rush the task, and we don't give enough time to put in place the kind of resources necessary to reach 100,000 or more people, early failures will lead to discouragement and quitting. All sorts of reasons are given. But the simple fact of the matter is, as parents tell their children everywhere: effectively doing a job means taking the time to do it right. Jesus took time to train his disciples - at least one and maybe two before sending them out the first time. Why should we think it won't take time for us?

After the task is finished, Jesus will return

Finishing the Task will not bring Jesus back - in the sense that it will force him to return (or, inversely, not finishing the task will not keep Jesus away). I recognize that some interpret Matthew 24 very differently - as a prophecy more to do with the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.

But while I want to avoid the "tying-together" issues, I also want to remind us that Jesus himself tied together the two ideas - "the Gospel will be preached in all the world" and "then the end shall come." The Gospel has not yet been preached in all the world. And, The end has not yet come.

But we can rest assured of Jesus' words - which are as much promise as prophecy.

These two things will come to pass: the Gospel will be preached, and the end will come.

But they may not happen soon, in our lifetimes, or on our timelines.

We are on God's timeline. He is patient with us, not wanting any to perish. We must be patient, too.

The task requires discipleship, which requires time

There are several aspects to the task ("The Great Commission") Jesus gave us. Matthew 24:14 is often cited by those passionate about finishing the task - "This Gospel shall be preached in all the world, as a witness to all the nations."

The term "preaching" when spoken in English contains more of the "proclamation" aspect (above) - and some of the "witness" aspect above - but it does little to communicate the "making disciples" aspect.

The Great Commission itself is given in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20, and Acts 1. Each of these verses focuses on different aspects.

  • Matthew 28: Go, Make Disciples, Baptize, Teach-to-obey
  • Mark 16: Go, Preach, Baptize, (and some mss, the miracles portion)
  • Luke 24: Proclaim (passive, would-be-proclaimed), witness, (be-filled-with-power)
  • John 20: (be-sent), Receive (the Spirit), Forgive (or not)
  • Acts 1: Receive, Witness, Tell

We focus a lot on Receive-the-Spirit, Forgive-Others, Do-Miracles, Proclaim-with-Power, Baptize, and Teach. We seem to focus less on making disciples (although this is shifting, thankfully).

But we cannot forget that simply preaching the Gospel is not enough to call ourselves obedient to the Commission we have been given. What is said in one verse (Matt. 24:14) does not negate what is said in other verses. To call the task complete, we must offer the opportunity of community, of discipleship, of following Jesus together, to everyone.

This is not an easily measured or easily accomplished task, but it is the task we must be about.

Finishing the Task will not bring Jesus back

There is a fairly addictive idea, which we get from reading Matthew 24:14. Matthew 24 is all the signs of the end. There's a long litany that are called "birth pangs," so many have concluded that (like birth pains), the more intense and the more frequent the signs, the closer we are to the end of days.

Verse 14 says, "And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come."

And from that we get the idea "finishing the task" of the Great Commission will also "bring Jesus back." It seems to me (and to many others) that this can lead to greatly impassioned mobilization calls, but it is a very bad idea, as it is very poor theology.

First, it implies that by linking the two things together ("the task is done" and "Jesus will appear") we can know when Jesus is coming. But this is something Jesus said specifically we could not know ('no man knows the day or the hour, not even the Son of Man'). Some get around this by suggesting we might not know the precise hour, but we could know the general time. 2,000 years of trying to predict the day and the hour, even generally, have proven our utter failure to do so. Sure, one day, someone will "guess right," but that will be pure coincidence.

Second, it could go so far as to imply we "control Jesus." We determine, not God, when Jesus will come back. Very, very bad theology.

Third, it could imply that we could keep Jesus from returning. Yes, I know, you think no one would want to do that. But I suggest the theoretical possibility alone is enough to disprove the interpretation.

As Lewis so quotably said, and as I am fond of quoting: He is not a tame lion. Clearly, the verse links the two things. In this sense, it is both prophecy and promise (and many disagree about the specific interpretation of the verse). But while it can be hopeful inspiration to us, it should never be taken to be some kind of control over history.

We don't work to finish the Great Commission in order to bring Jesus back. We don't have any power over that.

We work to finish the task because he gave it to us, and because we love him, we want to obey him. That's it. That's all.

Does discipling the nations mean each individual nation or all the nations, generally?

I am writing an ongoing series about Closure Conundrums. Here's the original post, with links to the individual articles. This is Closure Conundrum #3: “Ethnos” in Matthew 28:19 shouldn’t be interpreted as “tribes” but rather “all the rest of the world” – sort of like saying “Gentiles.” (Mark 16:19, for example, says “go into all the world [kosmos], preach to every creature [ktisis]”).

I'm not a trained theologian. Like C. S. Lewis, I am a layman who has found a weak spot in the line where God is calling me. So my comments on the interpretation of this Scripture are from that perspective, and wiser heads than mine know more about the Hebrew and the Greek involved. From my perspective, however, "ethnos" in Matthew 28:19 doesn't have to mean one or the other - it can mean both.

For those of us who've spent a long time thinking of "make disciples of all the nations" equating to "make disciples of each individual nation from a list of nations," this is perhaps a hard interpretation to wrap our brains around.

A useful analogy might be pointing to a table of 20 pies, each sliced into multiple slices, and the command, "Make meals of all the slices." This could mean either:

  • Take a bite out of every slice
  • Eat every slice, entirely (=eat all the pies)
  • Considering the "slices" as "one whole set," eat "of the set," which means you can eat out of any, some, many, most, or all of the slices.

Nitpick? Yes. But of these differences are big arguments made.

Most of the time, when I hear this conundrum or argument, it's because someone's reacting against a list mentality.

We want to define the remaining task. So, we make lists. We see the many peoples without workers, and too few workers available. Rather than sending lots of workers to one place so that everyone in one place can hear, we say, "Why should anyone hear the Gospel twice when some have not heard it once?" And we take the workers we have and divvy them up as best we can over multiple peoples on the list.

When we get frustrated -- too few workers, too many peoples on the list -- we start getting angry. When someone comes to our agency with a sense of where God is calling them to serve, we may slip into judgement mode. We judge people's perception of their calling and judge the church based on the list. Obviously, we don't have enough workers to reach the peoples on the list. Someone's not obeying. It might be.. YOU! Maybe you think you're called to France, but let me suggest... you're actually ignoring God's calling on your life to Afghanistan and martyrdom! Yes, we know what you really want--a life of ease in Paris... you terrible would-be quasi-missionary...

And then comes the inevitable response: Wait, the Great Commission is to go into all the world to all the nations, and French people are a nation too! I'm out there among the nations just as much as you are!

Let the arguments commence! Bring out the tar! pitchfork! feathers!

We can take both these arguments too far. The list-side can rapidly become an idol to be followed over the leading of the Holy Spirit. But the non-list side can rapidly say "He just meant to get out among the nations, not that every single individual nation needs to be reached."

Two question seem to present themselves: 1. Did Jesus mean reach every single individual nation? 2. How do I know my calling is valid? If I'm called to someone who has heard lots of times, am I as important and valuable and loved as someone who's called to people who haven't heard once?

My answer to the second question is, YES! The real problem isn't that some have heard twice, or three times, or ten times, or a hundred. The real problem is, some haven't heard once. The solution is not taking from those who've heard a hundred times and giving to those who haven't heard once, or telling people their calling is somehow worthless because they are going to a people who've already heard lots and lots of times. Taking someone gifted as a Billy Graham - a home evangelist - and redeploying them somewhere else (e.g. Pakistan) is not necessarily going to solve this. All that means is people back home will hear less (than they might need to), and the person in question may not be a gifted cross-cultural missionary. This is a scarcity model. God has enough supply to meet the need, so we need to mobilize His supply.

We need to seek his abundance for the unreached. ("If you know you are called to France, I'll help you find an agency that will get you there. But if you don't know where you're called yet, can I ask you, beg you, plead with you to pray earnestly about whether you might be called to those who have never heard once?")

Likewise, my answer to the first question is: YES! We must never use lists as filters for judging people, but we should use them as a sketch of where we are in the process - of what we have left to do. To me, "...of all the nations..." is both a nod to the many slices of the world, and to the whole - French and Fulani, Germans and Gujarati, Americans and Assamese. By way of analogy: the point isn't to eat a bite out of each slice, but to have the pie! The slices aren't important, the pie is. Whether the pie is cut in quarters, eights, or sixteenths, Jesus wants the whole pie. I don't think Jesus is concerned as much for our lists as for the world described by the lists. God loves the whole world - people, not languages - birds, not flocks - and wants every last sheep to be found.

Finishing the Task does mean everyone will be able to hear

“Closure” is the missiological technical term for “finishing the task.” Not everyone, however, thinks the Great Commission is a task that can be “finished” at a single point in time. And some have defined “closure” in such a way that it makes it difficult to think it’s possible. Closure Conundrums is my series of blog posts (and maybe a book) on the challenge of understanding what “completing the Great Commission” actually means. This post is the second conundrum on the list. I welcome comments about aspects of this conundrum I haven’t addressed (as it will inform the book). Conundrum #2. We will NOT have reached closure when everyone has heard the Gospel message.

This is pretty tricky but bear with me. Romans 10 says (v. 8-15):

What does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

This mirrors the Great Commission of Matthew 28 (and other passages) where Jesus commands us to "go" into all the world and proclaim the Gospel, making disciples of all the nations.

While we realize that "Finishing the Task" does not mean everyone will become Christian, it does mean we must give the opportunity to follow Christ. And since we don't know who will accept this opportunity, no one can be left out of the giving.

Therefore, all must hear. Which means they must have something to hear, and someone to hear it from.

The problems we face in making sure every single individual alive on the planet right now has heard the Gospel at least once in their lifetime are enormous. They have, in fact, kept us from achieving this goal so far.

But "everyone hearing the Gospel at least once in their lifetime" isn't (probably) the "Finish the Task" line--not technically. Because we can't be just about the people alive on the planet right now. We have to think about the people who will be born in the future!

I've written about the idea of sustainable closure before. Boiled down, it's simply this: we can't expect to easily reach a point in time where everyone has heard - at least not in the near future. So, let's say a mission effort "evangelizes" all of Nepal. Tremendous! Everyone has heard the Gospel! Now, a parallel effort is working to do the same thing in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But, the challenges are far greater in those places (persecution, restriction, larger populations). In the same year that Nepal was evangelized, babies were born. In the years it took for Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan to be evangelized, those babies have grown up. If we rely on a successful one-time mission campaign to evangelize a place, the campaigns will have to be repeated every five to ten years for the children that were born in the interim.

This is why the definition of "unreached" is so important - it captures the idea that the job is done when there is a church able to evangelize each successive generation.

The "task" must be finished over and over again in each place until all the places are finished. This is why the missionary task is not evangelizing people but the planting of local, indigenous, contextualized ekklesia communities that are capable of evangelizing the people.

When we mix up the missionary task and make it all about presenting the message to the most people we can within the limited time we have (whether it is 2 weeks, 2 years, 4 years, 20 years or a lifetime), the net result is a missionary extracted from the big picture, who makes eternal difference to some but cannot make an eternal difference to the many who come after. This is good work for those he reaches but does nothing to the grand "finishing of the task" which will be important to billions.

I do not think this is all that Finishing the Task means. As this series continues, I'll be outlining a few other items and addressing a few other conundrums.

Finishing the Task does not mean everyone will believe

"Closure" is the missiological concept of finishing the task. Not everyone, however, thinks the Great Commission is a task that can be "finished" at a single point in time.

And some have defined "closure" in such a way that it makes it difficult to think it's possible.

Closure Conundrums is my series of blog posts (and maybe a book) on the challenge of understanding what "completing the Great Commission" actually means. This post is the first conundrum on the list. I welcome comments about aspects of this conundrum I haven't addressed (as it will inform the book).

Conundrum #1: We have reached closure when the world is _x_% Christian.

This seems obvious closure cannot be defined as 100% Christian. When Jesus said, "Go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations," we can't interpret this to mean "make everyone in every nation a disciple." Some chose not to follow Jesus (Pharisees, the Rich Young Ruler, the people in his hometown), and Jesus made it clear what happened to him would happen to us. The simple reality of promised persecution indicates not everyone would follow. To hammer it in, Jesus instructed his disciples what to do if the town rejected their message.

It also seems obvious that finishing the task must involve some people becoming Christ-followers. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, and he wouldn't command us to do something that was impossible.

So, we can know that when closure is reached, Christ-followers will number somewhere between 1 person and 100% of the world. And if that's the case for the world, it must be the case for any given place or people group.

Three alternatives might then be developed.

1) Closure is impossible since the world will never be 100% Christian. This is a straw man argument: we set up an unrealistic goal and use it to claim you can't interpret closure.

2) Closure is (or will be soon) finished, since we have 'made disciples' in every place/people. Usually this argument relies on some English rendering of a verse like Colossians 1:23, "if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant" (NIV). But these sayings don't mean that literally every individual had heard; another rendering is "the Gospel has been preached all over the world" which is just a big statement meant to communicate it's not just for you. There are plenty of places and people that have not heard yet.

But there's an easier refutation for this: Jesus hasn't returned yet. Matthew 24:14 can be interpreted to mean his return is somehow tied to this commission (although there are problems with this, which I'll deal with in another post). Other Parables, like the Faithful Steward, tell us we should be working to make a profit for the King until he comes. The bottom line is: if trumpets haven't sounded, we should keep working.

3) Closure defined as a certain percentage in a certain place... We know that 'closure' will involve a percentage of Christ-followers between 1 and 100%. The problem is, of course - we don't know how many or who will respond to the call of Jesus. Making judgments about individual people is dangerous. Muslim imams and Hindu Brahmans and Buddhist priests and shamanistic witch doctors and even hardened atheists have followed Jesus, just as Paul the chief persecutor once did.

...so we get the apparently responsive few from the place and move on. While we cannot define "closure" or "the task finished" as 100% Christ-followers - nevertheless because of this problem our plans and strategies must be able to reach 100%, so as to encompass every individual who might respond to the call. (Because it might, for example, be 99.999% - and that's short of 100% of the current world population by just 70,000 people). Moreover, our plans must scale not just to 100% of the existing population, but 100% of the future population, too. Because: babies! But I'll cover that in a later Conundrums post.

...or we wait until we reach 100%. We have this idea that "closure" is not reached and so we can't go on to another place. But while we wait to reach a certain percentage that might never be attained, others are living and dying without hearing once hearing Good News. The problem with this approach is the Myth of the Scarcity of Gospel Workers, which says we only have so many people and so we argue about where to place them. That, too, is the topic for another post.

percentage christian by continent 1970-2020

It nevertheless seems that we cannot define closure as a certain number or percentage of Christians, since Scripture gives no indication in the verses related to the Great Commission of what the response might be. The best we have is in Revelation, which has an image of every tribe, nation, and tongue before the throne (which is why we make lists). But we don't know how these "tribes" are defined. It seems language is important, and governments, and cultures. But more on this later.

Closure is not a Biblical term

Nowhere in the Bible will you find the term "closure." Nor will you find the phrase "finish the Great Commission." Nor will you find the number "2%."

You will not find "unreached" or "unevangelized" or "unengaged."

Moreover, you will not find "missionary" or "contextualization" or "chronological Bible storying" or "orality" or "Bible smuggling" or "creative access" or gasp "tentmaking."

I'm being completely honest. Something I think is incredibly important - something I advocate for, something I passionately beg the church for - is not exactly in Scripture.

These are technical terms that missionaries have created, defined, written up, passionately commended, argued from bits of Scripture, debated, called each other names over.

"Charity" you will find. "Gentiles" you will find. Even "ethne" you will find. But not closure.

Not finish the task. Not reach the unreached. Not 10/40 Window.

So why hold to them?

I do, partly because once upon a time I was given a vision of the unreached, one that marked my life, one that I do not fully understand but cannot argue with.

And, more to the Biblical point, because I believe that in Matthew 28 (and other places) Jesus gave us a task, and having given it to us, he expects that we should finish it. I tell my children to clean the kitchen, and I expect them to do the job. If I, as the head of house, expect this of my children, should I not expect the same of the one who is head of me?

Now, my idea of "finishing the task" is perhaps different from others. That's okay. I'll argue for mine, but with genteel charity and kindness (I hope). In my idea, I think "unreached" is important (and unevangelized, and unengaged) because of two logical things: first, that there are people who have not yet heard the Gospel (thus my task is not finished); second, because of the Paul's strategy of not preaching the Gospel where it is known.

And I think the other terms are important as tools, tactics and measuring rods.

So when someone argues with you--or me--that closure is not Biblical, don't argue. Agree. It's not. It's just a useful tool for defining part of the space, task, responsibility that Christ has called the church to, and the gap in the wall toward which I (and others like me) go. You may have another gap to fill, and that's good. The Body needs all parts.

Movies and short-term missions: the temptation to too easy closure

For most "summer popcorn movies" - great action films - closure is very easy. At the end of the movie, the bad guys are typically dead or all arrested and put away for a very long time. (Mostly, the former).

Check out, for example, most of the Marvel movies: in the Avengers, one well-placed explosion destroys all the income alien forces. In Avengers 2, a robot AI is the enemy, and it has to be completely eradicated by the end of the film. In all of the Iron Man movies, the bad guys are dead at the end. The same holds true for most parallel movies.

Closure, in this case, is very easy. There's no need for peace talks, reconciliation, justice, redemptive conversations, and the like.

We can fall for the same temptation to closure in our own lives. Just pull out. Just write someone off, stop talking to them, don't have any further contact. Unfriend, unfollow, block, change phone numbers, move with no forwarding address. Get on a plane.

This may be part of the temptation to really poorly designed short-term mission involvement: it's an effort that eases our conscience (we've done our missions duty) while offering easy closure (just go, do two weeks, get on a plane and come back and leave it all behind).

When closure is easy, what does that say about the relationships involved?

When people are easily left, are they truly people that we care about, love, are charitable toward - or are they aliens?

When closure is difficult, it says something about our perception of the value of those involved.

Closure twists beginnings and endings together

"Begin with the end in mind," famously wrote Stephen Covey as part of his Seven Habits, thus winding the ending up into the beginning. Yet the beginning gets wound up in the ending, too: because "closure" allows us to learn from the past, put it behind us, and start fresh. There are really two states of being, then: the ending/beginning state (or transitions, or time-between-time) and the work state, "working out" what has begun until it is ended.

"Closure" is really a kind of measure of how successfully we transit from ending to the beginning: no matter how bad you failed at the working-out state, you can "successfully wrap things up" by achieving closure. It's a chance to yank victory from the jaws of defeat, success from the midst of failure: if you just learn from it, you can draw the curtain down and move on. You can't have a good beginning without a good ending.

Closure gives us a fresh state through learning from the lessons of the past. You can't just walk away and still 'achieve closure.'

There's a bit of the Gospel in this: an eschatological message (seeking closure on this life), a salvation message (the clean start), the daily living message (each day a new day).

Closure, meanings of

"Closure" is used as a missiological term with eschatological underpinnings. Most people who talk about "closure," however, aren't using it in that sense. When we use the term missiologically with people who aren't familiar with this technical definition, we have to remember it carries a lot of implied cultural and emotional meanings. When people speak of "closure," they might mean:

  • abandoning personal baggage - a sense of freedom
  • a sense of achievement that gives validation of purpose and meaning
  • a cessation of work
  • a necessary transition step between "chapters"
  • the feeling something bad has ended, and normality may now resume
  • a comforting sense of finality
  • or perhaps a less comforting sense that something has ended forever
  • a sense of completion, solution of a problem, or resolution of an issue
  • a sense of evaluation, lessons learned, understanding gained
  • revisiting something that feels 'unfinished' in order to 'gain closure' or 'permission to move on'

To seek "closure" in anything (even missions), for any given individual, might be colored more by these emotional meanings than by any textbook missionary definition of the phrase. If "finishing the task" or "closure" carries with it these meanings--how might that affect the strategy we use?

The final 2,000 people groups

My good friend Paul Eshleman (a dear soul with an extreme passion for the lost and unreached peoples of the world) has done an amazing thing with Finishing the Task: he's gotten people to grapple with the problem of "getting to 1." A lot of people do nothing about the unreached, the unevangelized, the unengaged--the ones who have never heard. Finishing the Task has been about the process of engagement--of making sure that every people group in the world has at least one team.

They're down to the "final 2,000 people groups."

This sense of "closure" is a thrilling thing, but it is also dangerous. Paul would no doubt absolutely be the first to agree with me on this (he has in the past): this phase of "Finishing the Task" is not really "the task is finished." All the church has really done is "finish getting to 1."

An engagement team means there will be someone among that people group, telling the Gospel to them, and telling their story to others back at home. The peoples of the world will no longer be "unseen" because there will be workers among them (for as long as they last--and missionary attrition is a problem).

But we should not think that closure is done - that Jesus will be coming back - that the Great Commission is finished - just because every group has a team.

One team among a people group of millions is initial engagement but it is not adequate engagement. There is still more to be done.

My Top 40 Least Reached Places chart explores this in detail: a dozen provinces, representing over a half billion people, where less than 1% are Christians. They may be engaged, but there is no realistic scenario by which those provinces grow to more than 5% Christian in the next generation.

Finishing this round of engagement represents the closure of one chapter. We must successfully complete this task, and then we must successfully open the next. We must not only engage, we must see the group sustainably reached.

 

The key to reaching all the places

may very well be to reach the first place.By reaching one, you will very likely start a process capable of sending people like you, yet unlike you, to the next place over: people who have the passion to cross borders and boundaries, yet who are far closer to the local culture than you can ever be. We need to have passion for all the places, so that we work in such a way that what we do does not limit how far the work wil tech. But we shouldn't think only people just like us are equipped to extend the work to distant places we cannot get to.

What I think we must do to count the task finished

I've been doing a considerable amount of thinking about "the task" of missions and "when the task is finished." Some of my thinking has been very passionate, and not very structured. In this, I'm going to try and be a little bit more structured. Two comments on "Jesus wants the whole pie" are instructive in this.

First, John Lambert commented "closure is just the beginning" and "yet we have still not made initial breakthroughs in a large number of unreached peoples." This is very true, and it is the driving force behind the work of Finishing the Task and its related groups.

Every group needs to at least be begun in order to be finished. Or, to put it another way: if we don't begin, the task isn't presently "finishable." And there are still lots of peoples where this is the case. Second, Jim comments: "one of the unintended consequences has been the marginalization of Christianity in majority non-Christian populations." He goes on to use the Thai as a classic example (see the original post for a full read). Now, here's a people group - the Thai - that are clearly engaged: there are missionaries among them (although, as Jim notes, there are proportionally far fewer missionaries amongst the majority Thai than amongst the tribals). There's even an indigenous church among them (although quite small compared to other groups). So, are the Thai "reached"? "Finished"?

The classic definition of "reached" is a group having a church that can evangelize the group to its "borders" without cross-cultural assistance. The classic definition of 'reached' is really about whether the role of the cross-cultural missionary is finished. Can I count myself done?

Let's use the Thai church as an example. Is the task of mission done? Are the Thai "reached"? Can the Thai church finish the task without cross-cultural assistance? This is a hard and complex thing to measure. Let's start with a simpler question: Is the Thai church doing this? Jim argues no, and the data seems to me to agree.

Given its current methods and history, organized Christianity in Thailand is growing at 2.99% p.a., according to the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity. In fact, take this further: over the past century, Christianity has averaged a growth rate of 1.4%. The recent growth rate is faster than the population AGR of 2.16%--but only barely. Just because one population is growing faster than another doesn't mean it will catch up any time soon. (This is also an important principle to keep in mind when you're thinking about scary stories of the "Islamization" of _x_, where _x_ can be any place in the world.) Let's look at this growth rate charted for Thailand:

thai church growth 2010-50 The size of the church is very small: just 850,000. Remember "percent" means "per hundred." Every year, the global population is adding 216 people "per hundred" - but there are many more "hundreds" in 65 million people (the total population) than there are in 850,000. If the current growth rate is maintained, the two bars won't cross any time soon.

So, are the Thai "reached"? Is the task finished? If you define the task as planting a church that can reach the whole of the group, then the answer is yes: given the right strategy and enough time, this church could reach 65 million. If the task is a church that "will" reach the whole of the group, a church with the vision, resources, scalable strategy, etc., within a specific time frame (say one or two generations), this chart clearly says--no, the task is not finishable. Now, it is true that what appears to be unfinishable now might actually be finishable later if you are using an exponential growth strategy. Look at this chart as an example:

exponential-growth-curve

The bottom left section ("Looks like it won't be finished") looks remarkably similar in some ways to the Christian portion of Thailand in the chart above. And exponential growth looks like this: it goes and goes and goes and then suddenly achieves "lift off." It begins to "scale up." And then the task is rapidly finished. But this idea relies upon the kind of church growth strategy being used. To ascertain whether the task is finishable using this approach, we must assess whether the current strategy has the capacity of exponential growth, and how far it can scale. Can it reasonably scale to 100% of the population? What are the barriers along the way? If it can't scale, the task is not finishable.

We can measure this by asking what kind of growth rate would be required to "finish the task" (reach everybody) within a give time frame, and asking whether the strategy can achieve that level of growth. How to answer this for Thailand?

Here's growth at 8% per year. At nearly 50 years an upswing is being seen, but the two lines aren't close to intersecting--and this is with a church growth rate four times that of the population! thai-chart-8-percent

Here's 12% per year. This would do it by 2050--a growth rate 6x that of the overall population (and keep in mind these sorts of rates would also be needed for a small Muslim population, for example, to overtake a larger one).

thai-chart-12-percent

I'm not saying this is easy. All I'm saying is this: in many places, the good that now being done will not get Christianity to the end goal. It will only preserve the status quo in which the church remains stagnant at 33% of the global population (as it has for the last 100 years).

I think before we count a group as "reached" or the task "finished," we have to ask this question (which I posed another way in Jesus wants the whole pie): will the task be finished all the way?

The Whole Church may have very well finished the "engagement" part of the task. The Church may even have finished the "plant a church" part of the task. But if the way these tasks have been finished prevents the future tasks from being finished all the way--are we really finished? Have we done our part?

If a church has been planted, but planted in such a way that it does not have the capacity, will, resources, strategies, whatever, to actually reach the population (and this is evidenced in the results it is presently achieving and markers that it will scale up), then... is the population segment (of whatever form) reached? It may seem like I'm picking on the Thai. This is just one example. You could pick lots of other places and find exactly the same problem. This is why movements, and engaging lots of places, is so important to me.

How to finish the task: three key ideas for churches to achieve closure

How can we finish the task? What is the role of the church? How can churches and agencies better work together? These three questions are more intertwined than we might at first think. I want to suggest three simple ideas which every church can work on, and which I theorize (really, believe firmly) can lead directly to sustainable closure.

First, work on making the church resilient. Any given church needs to work on its endurance. "Resilience" can be defined as "able to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching or being compressed; able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions." Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written a lot on this (and much of what he's written, I don't yet fully comprehend!). His basic idea is that in a complex world much of the future cannot be predicted. The things that impact the most are the 'black swans' or 'outliers' - the things we could not have anticipated. Thus, since we cannot prepare for a specific future (because we cannot predict it), the way to prepare is to become "anti fragile" - to become more resilient. I think there's much in this idea for any church. Viruses spread based in part on how easily communicated they are (stickiness) and with how long they endure in the agent. A disease that is 100% communicable (spreads to anyone who comes into contact with it) yet only lasts 1 hour in a human host will (probably) not spread as far as a disease that is 10% communicable yet lasts for a month. Making the church resilient means increasing the length of time that it has contact with the people around it. Measure efforts to achieve resilience by how long the church lasts.

Second, work on making the church 'stickier.' This is probably not the best phrase, but it's the other half of the equation hinted at earlier. We need to help the church last longer among a community, but it's of little importance if it has no impact on the community. Rodney Stark has noted that nearly all conversions happen in the context of relationship, yet studies show 86% of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (all non-Christians, really) do not know a believer (and maybe more). Any individual church needs to work on changing this statistic--to increase the number of unbelievers that church members know, and to increase the stickiness or virality of their witness. Another way to put this is to make the church a bigger blessing to the community it is in the midst of. Measure efforts to achieve stickiness by what percentage of believers know unbelievers, and how many new unbelievers have joined the church in the past year (as a ratio to believers).

Third, work on making the church better at impacting the fringe. Every church has a domain of influence. Churches are made up of people, and those people of spheres of relationships. This "boundary of influence" can be mapped. Generally speaking, the church's influence is going to probably wane at about 2 or 3 steps from the core of the church.

For example, my mother-in-law doesn't live in my town. She doesn't go to my church except when she's visiting. I might share with her a particularly meaningful sermon or thought I got from church today: this is not as probable as my hearing it. It's even less probable that she will pass it on. From the church to me is one step; from me to my mother in law is 2 steps; beyond my mother in law, is a very low probability 3rd step. Obviously, some famous churches reach far into the 3rd step. But the vast majority of churches do not. There is a "fringe" or boundary to their influence.

To go back to the negative analogy of a virus, we don't worry too much about the common cold. It's not particularly destructive, even though it's a nuisance. What we worry about are diseases that can spread easily--and can be transmitted to far places by a plane. That's because those kinds of diseases are resilientsticky, and can impact the fringe. They can make the long jump to new places. Making the jump is important if something is to spread.

It's important to the Gospel if we are to reach the ends of the earth. If you could map all of the churches in the world, and their boundaries, the "unevangelized" or "unreached" would be clear -- those people who are outside the boundary of influence of any church. The way to deal with the unevangelized is to get better at extending beyond the boundaries.

There are two ways to do this. One way is to get more famous, more well known, so that the extent of your influence is bigger. I don't think that's valid, because "fame is fleeting." When people die, their influence is lost. Fame is not resilient. People have heard of John F. Kennedy, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa - but while we think of them as models (some good, some not so good), they for the most part do not shape actions.

Another way--and, I think, a better way--is to get better at "planting" new churches just where your influence ends. This is akin to taking the fire you have, and blowing the sparks over your fence to your neighbor, so he can have some fire as well. Then, he can pass it to his neighbors. Measure efforts to make the long jump by number of believers or Bible studies attended by people who do not attend your main worship service.

If every church were better at "jumping the fringe" then maybe agencies wouldn't be needed. But not every church is, and there's lot of unevangelized places and individuals who are dying without the good news. So, people who are passionate about the unevangelized have created agencies--missionary teams that have gotten very good at doing "long jumps" into lightless terrain. But even still those agencies can't tackle the job on their own. So, they're trying to get very good at starting churches that impact the fringe as well. I think these are the three most important things a church needs to do (and wound in these is much of the DNA of the Gospel). If we could do these things really well, we would see an explosion of light rippling across the planet.