“You’re not called and commissioned to attend a service once a week. You’re called to make disciples.” ~@ToddAdkins
Yesterday on social media I ran across a podcast that decried what I think is a “straw man” argument: that missionaries were being pulled from “more reached” areas and sent to “less reached” areas – before the more-reached areas were adequately reached/evangelized/finished/trained. Worse, in the “less reached” areas, these missionaries/agencies were practicing a kind of “lift-your-hand” evangelism, seeking rapid converts and then leaving them without adequate training or preparation.
While I appreciate the passion of the speaker, whose primary concern was that people have adequate training and that theological error be corrected, in my experience this “problem” is just not the case. I don’t pretend to speak for every agency out there, but I know numerous agencies and hundreds of leaders representing thousands of workers seeking to start movements amongst the unreached. None of those would go for a “lift your hand” kind of “come to Jesus” moment. They are all intent on the intense ongoing discipleship of workers.
The primary nuance of “movement” thinking is that believers aren’t asked to wait to share their faith or make other disciples until they are somehow “fully trained.” Instead, they are simply asked to share what they know with others in their circle: to be a witness now. “Disciple-making,” in this context, can be as simple as sharing the Bible story I read this morning with someone else over lunch time, and the two of us thinking through how we’re going to obey the story today, tomorrow, and this week, and who we are further going to share it with. It is the living, breathing, “walking together” of people in the faith, “one-anothering,” holding ourselves accountable to each other, praying for each other, etc. It is 2 Timothy 2:2 in action: what we receive, we pass on to others.
Missionaries can’t teach everyone, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t teach anyone. (Or evangelize, or disciple, or…). The missionary task among the unreached is about setting in motion the processes that lead to all hearing, sharing, discipling, training, pastoring, teaching, etc.
That task takes a long time. Recently, for one of Beyond’s discipleship nuggets, I shared what I called the “13 stages of a missionary career.” I’m including the Powerpoint below, because I think it’s helpful to highlight just how long, involved, and committed the process of reaching an unreached people group actually is.
Journey Stages: 13 phases (PDF)
Stop me if you’ve heard this story:
A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.
She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”
The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!”
This story – or rather, this particular version of the story – is fairly well known. I think we like it – especially in this version – because it contrasts “cynical old” with “innocent young” and claims that every little thing we do (no matter how seemingly hopeless) matters. But there are actually two debates in the story:
- whether acting actually matters
- whether what we are doing is enough.
The second insidiously slips in.
The most obvious question of the story is whether it’s worth it to act at all. The cynical old man thinks not: if you can’t save them all, why bother to save one? The innocence of the child says the value of the one is enough to act. But the question we must then ask is: is it enough to save one by one? Shouldn’t we get better at saving starfish?
Is it better to spend one’s time doing “the simple, innocent things of life” – the “most that we can” – (e.g. throwing starfish back out to sea), or is it better to grow our skills, increase our network of laborers, and get better at saving starfish? Is it better to be the innocent, simple child (“become as a child”?) or to “professionalize”?
This is not a “should we act or not” question, but rather a “good to great” question.
Another version of the story adds this to the end:
The old man looked at the girl inquisitively and thought about what she had done and said. Inspired, he joined the little girl in throwing starfish back into the sea. Soon others joined, and all the starfish were saved.
This adaptation speaks to the idea of inspiration leading to exponential growth. But again, note how in the story it is the “innocence” and “simplicity” of the child which inspires the old man, and in some nameless way leads to a sudden party on the beach.
I appreciate innocence and simplicity. However, big, complicated problems don’t really work this way. You can’t share the Gospel with millions, or clothe the hungry, feed the poor, care for the orphans, eradicate diseases, etc., “one by one.” Scalable strategies that reach millions require strategies that are–yes!–simple in execution yet infinitely scalable. The reality is, you can teach someone to share the Gospel or hold a Discovery Bible Study or make disciples in fairly simple ways. But getting tens of thousands of people do it is far more complex than the simple individual action itself. The higher you scale, the more complex the interplay of “simple actions.”
Throwing Starfish one by one is all well and perhaps good, and makes a difference for the one – but we must admit that in the context of all the starfish, “it’s not great.”
This is the insidious bit. “It’s not great, but it makes a difference to one,” says the innocent child.
We equate I can’t reach all the starfish in the world (physical impossibility) with I can’t reach all the starfish on this beach (logistical challenge).
We equate what is a difficult task with the larger impossibility, and we fall back to one-by-one: “what I perceive that I can do makes a difference.”
There is a middle ground between “one by one” and “you can’t save them all.” Unfortunately we can use this story as an excuse to avoid getting better and doing bigger things.
But this story gets stranger yet. The version we know is a stripped down and simplified retelling of a larger essay by Loren Eiseley, in a book published in 1979. I don’t have the original book, but I’ve found a large part of the story online. It’s an odd, tortured, near hopeless meditation on issues of death and the part we play. At the end of it, the poet becomes a “star thrower” himself–but more out of a desire for his own salvation rather than out of love for starfish:
I flung and flung again while all about us roared the insatiable waters of death, the burning sun, for it was men as well as starfish that we sought to save, a thrower who loved not man, but life.
In this story, throwing the starfish is a metaphor similar to “raging against the night.”
I wish we would stop using (or at least hesitate to use) stories like these, which have their roots in hopelessness. The best moral of the story seems to be, “What I’m doing makes a difference to at least one person, and that’s enough.” The worst lesson of the story is, “Your efforts will make no visible difference against the onrushing darkness, but are an action of some kind of mystical faith, without much certainty, thrown in a protest against death.”
Jesus calls us to follow him in obedience, and promises the whole world can hear the Good News if we do so. He tells us to “lift up our eyes to the harvest” and to “pray for more workers.” We don’t have to be alone on the beach, moving from starfish to starfish, from man to man and woman to woman and child to child in some hopeless beating of our heads against the wind. We have a promise of eternal life and Jesus’ call to make disciples of others – to make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind, who will make fishers of mankind – an exponentially exploding Kingdom-party spreading throughout the world. There is no shame or loss of innocence in thinking bigger than a single starfish saved.
Globally, Pew Research notes that “babies born to Muslims will begin to outnumber Christian births by 2035”:
This top headline gets a lot of press. What is less looked at are the drivers of rising Muslim birth rates.
In an average year, Christians and Muslims both have about the same number of babies worldwide: ~210 to 220 million. Christians are often the majority in “older” population regions, however, and their average age is older: there are a lot more deaths among Christians than Muslims. In an average year, Christians have about ~100 million deaths, vs Islam’s ~60 million. This means the net demographic increase for Muslims is much higher. Any upward tick in the Muslim birth rate will, therefore, have sizable effects.
Both religions are being impacted by regional trends:
- In Europe, where the number of Muslims is low and the number of Christians is high, Christianity follows the European demographic trend of falling populations, while Muslims are benefiting from immigration and high birth rates among first-generation Muslims. Later generations of Muslims in multi-generational families see falling birth rates. Muslims do not have a high enough birth+immigration+conversion rate to “take over” the continent, despite scary videos to the contrary.
- In Asia-Pacific, both Islam and Christianity are seeing falling demographic growth rates as the population as a whole sees declining AGR. This area was a high-growth region for Islam up until now, but the changing pattern will reduce this.
- North America and Latin America both see stagnant demographic growth rates among both Christian and Muslim populations.
- Middle East/North Africa, too, sees falling demographic growth rates: most populations in the MENA region are seeing crashing growth rates and emigration out, and conversion in the region has largely suffered due to wars and rising persecution (although there are numerous outlier situations of conversion movements etc).
- The big story is Subsaharan Africa: where rapidly rising population growth is impacting both Islam and Christianity. As it happens, for a variety of factors, demographic growth in Subsaharan Africa is leveling off for Christians, while continuing to increase for Muslims.
Unfortunately the two reports on which the data is based, “The future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010-2050” and “The Changing Global Religious Landscape” are somewhat limited reports. While they explore demographic patterns in detail, they (1) in my estimation seriously underestimate % Christian in some places (such as China, estimated at 5% Christian), and (2) seriously underestimate the role of “religious switching” (conversion). The reports state they modeled “religious switching” in only 70 countries; they do not “model” (count) religious switching in either India or China. This is a significant flaw: the population of Christians in both places has grown primarily through switching over the past several decades. Further, the report goes on to estimate the growth with and without switching, and concludes switching makes no appreciable difference (but I doubt this outcome because of the flawed methodology of only modeling switching in 70 countries). (I also find it humorous that Pew’s “Future of World Religions” report, on p. 187, says “Since religious change previously has never been projected on this scale…”–completely ignoring the work of the World Christian Encyclopedia/World Christian Database, which projected religious populations for every country and every religion to 2050 nearly two decades ago).
So, while this “headline” on Muslim vs Christian births gets a lot of press, I’m not giving it a lot of credibility. The numbers between birth rates are so close and the factors driving them–and their calculation–are so variable and uncertain, that I think the headline has just as good a chance of being untrue as true.
Today is the first International Day for the Unreached. See the official website here. See the live event here.
Beyond has put together a resource page here, which includes a pair of new videos (I think this one is really powerful), links to articles and books that may be useful.
Kent Parks (CEO, Beyond) and I were on Point of Network to talk about the day – you can watch our interview here (now in full video!)
For more information about the unreached, you can search this website for the phrase. I use it a lot.
Eric D on the Traveling Team talks about the “hijacking” of unreached: how it’s used for lots of things it’s not intended for
Globalcast Video: Pastor Chris Lazo talks about the opportunity and what the church should do about it
Lausanne post: https://www.lausanne.org/content/lga/2017-05/finishing-the-remaining-29-of-world-evangelization
Ywam Organic least reached video.
Here are two Bible.com reading plans on missions/unreached:
Are we getting anywhere in mission? https://missionexus.org/are-we-getting-anywhere-in-mission/
God’s Big Heart for the Least: https://missionexus.org/gods-big-heart-for-the-least/
Great Commission quotes: https://missionexus.org/great-quotes-on-the-great-commission/
Perhaps the key thing to do on this day is to join with other believers in prayer, but also to use this day to make people at our church aware of the day – so that next year, an even greater participation can happen.
And, we can build networks of people working on this. In fact, this blog post is in large part the beneficiary of such a network: many of the links were recommended to me by my friend Jon Hirst. He is a Generous Mind.
I looked at the projected growth rates of Christianity by country based on data from the World Christian Encyclopedia/World Christian Database.
To determine whether Christianity is growing or shrinking in individual countries, we need to look at two factors:
- the population’s annual change, which is the net of: births – deaths + immigrants – emigrants
- the Christian population’s annual change, which is the net of: births – deaths + immigrants – emigrants + converts – defectors.
Let’s consider a number of scenarios (I won’t list all of the specific countries because the data is proprietary to WCE/WCD, and also the list would be too long):
1. Pop+/C+/Pop Greater. This is by far the most common scenario. In 154 countries, the net change in population and Christianity are both positive (both are adding people), but the population’s annual change is greater. The largest example is India: the population is adding 61.6 million per year, and Christianity is adding about 1.4 million per year. The exact rates of change can determine whether % Christian increase or shrinks; in a little over half the countries, % Christian is projected to decrease.
2. Pop+/C-/Pop Greater. In 36 countries, the population is growing while Christianity is shrinking. The largest example is Turkey, where the population is growing by 20,000 per year, while Christianity is shrinking by about 20,000. The difference between +20,000 and -20,000 is actually 40,000, and this speed difference will greatly shrink the % Christian in the country. The cause: the conversion rate in Turkey is greatly outstripped by the number of Turkish believers who defect or immigrate.
3. Pop+/C+/C greater. In 12 countries, both population and Christianity are growing, but Christianity is growing faster. Zambia is the largest example: its population is adding a net of 549,000 yearly, while its Christian population is adding a net of 552,000 yearly. This is a very slim lead, but it always leads to an increase in % Christian.
4. Pop-/C+/C greater. In 5 countries, the population is shrinking but Christianity is growing. The largest example is Belarus, where the population is shrinking by -17,000 yearly, but Christianity is growing by +42,000. This will lead to a significant increase in % Christian. Since Belarus is already largely Christian (Orthodox), it means the high % Christian will be stable and grow. Likely some mix of conversion and immigration is causing this.
5. Pop-/C-/C Greater. In 14 countries, both the population and Christianity are suffering net losses, but Christianity’s loss is less. Russia is the largest example: the population is shrinking by -128,000 per year, and Christianity by about -100,000 per year. Some mix of deaths, conversions and immigrations is at play. the result: in most instances, the country’s % Christian will grow.
6. Pop-/C-/P Greater. In 13 countries, a similar situation–population and Christianity are suffering net losses, but Christianity’s loss is greater. Italy is the largest example. It’s losing 88,000 per year from its population, while Christianity is losing -222,000 per year. Obviously, there is a significant loss to defection. In these scenarios, % Christian always declines by a significant amount.
Understanding the exact scenario of growth, and the reasons for it, can inform strategy. In scenario 1, for example, there is growth in Christianity–it’s just not fast enough. That’s an issue of scale. In scenario 5, there is also growth, but it’s being impacted by other factors (aging, death, immigration, demographic crash, etc). One shouldn’t assume that just because the church is growing that the strategy is appropriate; nor should we assume that just because the church is shrinking, the current strategies are wrong.
Globally, the 2018 Status of Global Christianity reports Christianity is growing at 1.3%, outstripping the global population growth rate of 1.2%. Christianity is the third fastest growing religion in terms of annual growth rate: Islam at 1.94% and Hinduism at 1.33% are both faster in terms of annual growth rate.
However, the times are changing, largely driven by changing demographics (nearly all religions gain ten times or more new members through births than through conversion, and Christianity is no exception to this). Here are the changing annual growth rates for the periods of 2000-2018 and 2018-2025:
This is further clarified by looking at the raw number of people added per year for each of the major religions:
Right now, Hinduism is second fastest in terms of annual growth rate (AGR), but third in terms of the number of people added per year. The AGR growth rate is a bit of an anomaly. By 2025, Islam and Christianity will be #1 and #2 both in terms of % AGR and raw population gains.
Now and through 2050, in any given year, Christianity and Islam are responsible for more than half of the religious growth in the world; with Hinduism, nearly all of it. The world is getting progressively more religious, and mostly either Christian or Muslim (the vast majority of Hindus are in South Asia alone). Agnostics and atheists may be increasing in some parts of the world, but globally they are losing “market share.”
The top position, both in terms of numbers added and annual growth rate, belongs to Islam–but by the thinnest of margins. Those margins are likely to be maintained through 2050, however.
Further discussion: who is growing faster: Islam, Christianity or Evangelicals
- Invitation: “Tell me your story”
- Gentle challenge: “So, if I could wave a magic wand and solve all the problems of getting there, would you want to be on the field?”
- Four areas we probe to discover what kind of calling they have:
- Would you say you’re more interested in a short-term involvement – a contribution you can make now – or a long-term involvement on the field? How they define long-term isn’t as important as the self-declared choice between these two ideas.
- Would you say you’re interested in blessing more unreached peoples and places? Again, how they define unreached isn’t as important in the early stages, although it becomes critical to be on the same page later on.
- What do you think about rapidly-multiplying movements? Are you interested in (or committed to) those? to seeing “everyone” reached?
- What about ___agency X___? (In my case, would you be interested in serving with Beyond?)
- What’s the biggest challenge/question/issue that you face in pursuing your missions commitment?
This last question is the big one early on. Listening is the key skill: discover the question, help them solve it, and then repeat this whole process if (with the solution) they move further down the road.
Note how there is very little argument in this interview. People who are argued or persuaded onto the field, I theorize, won’t last as long on the field (if they actually get there) than people who discover their calling, and who are helped/mentored onto the field.
God knows how to give good gifts to His children, just as fathers do.
But fathers know not every “good gift” is thought “good” by children.
It’s not all peaches and ice cream: sometimes God gives us vegetables and hard chores.
“Building character” isn’t always the same as how we define prosperity. And God’s “good things” for others may result in some discomfort or pain for us (short-term, at least in the light of eternity).
What keeps us from Decisions – for example, “Should I commit to long-term mission” – isn’t a lack of ability to make a decision.
It’s the decisions we have made (past Decisions) or the Decisions we might make or want to make.
Many (most?) of these decisions come out of Defaults or Desires.
- Example of a Default: Our culture, parents, peers, etc., told us we need to pursue a degree at a big-name, pricey college, and we came out loaded up with Debt. Now the next step in our “career path” is obvious – a high-paying job to pay of the debt.
- Example of a Desire: We want to get married, settle down, have a family – and the most likely “options” for that are here, in our town, and aren’t interested in going overseas.
We can decry the Defaults and Desires that lead to choices that deny the Decision we’d like to see people make. But that won’t get them to change their Decisions.
Instead, I suggest we need to help people engage with past decisions and their existing desires, and see how these might still “work” in the context of mission.
If people don’t want to commit to 20 years, then let’s frame a mission career as a succession of 2-year “terms,” for example.
If people are afraid of not finding a spouse, let’s talk about point to successful courtships and marriages.
If people are afraid for their children, let’s talk about the good and bad of children growing up on the field.
Don’t give into the temptation to denigrate someone’s desires or decisions.
Beyond is working on a strategy based on the idea of “hubs”. In brief, this strategy is:
- Go to a “phase 1” hub – learn to make multiplying disciples in your home culture. (This doesn’t necessarily mean in the United States). P1 usually lasts about 15 weeks or so.
- Sign up with Beyond (this is our application phase): onboarding, ministry partner development, and everything else that happens before you go to the field.
- Transition to the field, “land” at a “phase 2” hub
- “Phase 2” – primarily language & culture acquisition for first year or two (or longer, depending), while serving with a cross-cultural strategy to engage a people group. This is where you take what you learned about DMM/making disciples in phase 1, and add the cross-cultural component.
- Once you are finished with Phase 2, you can decide either to continue serving that hub, or pioneer something new – a new strategy team engaging an unreached/underserved/unengaged/pioneer people group or city.
The “hub” strategy is not new. You can see echoes of this in many existing agencies, as well as many historical ones. (There are dangers–the stereotypical “missionary compound” was a base or hub, but did not multiply out.)
What makes us different: we’re working on starting movements. What’s critically important about hubs:
- the ability to learn-and-do solves the balance between too long a time in training (“years in training”) and getting to the field without any training at all. Just-in-time training means you get what you need, when you need it, plus ongoing coaching and mentoring while you implement.
- the idea that hubs are constantly raising up teams to send them out to new unreached places helps us avoid the “evil Matthew effect” by intentionally designing times with hubs to be short-lived, and the optimum goal to be the sending of strategy teams to new places.
- solves the calling problem incrementally: most people, when they first sign on, have only the most nebulous idea of where they want to end up. We need to be flexible in our exact missionary focus. Most people tend to know they want to be in this region, not that one; but out of 16,000 people groups (more, perhaps, if we count “dialects” that really are people groups themselves), how can you know which specific one you will be focused on 5 years from now?
- solves the time commitment problem: you can go and serve in a hub for 2 to 4 years, learn a language, experience a culture, make a contribution–and if you come to the conclusion that “missions isn’t your thing,” you can return home having made that contribution. It’s an easier “off-ramp.” We make much of how the modern generation isn’t ready to commit the rest of their lives to missions; we need to engage with that and offer commitment timeframes and strategic objectives for those time frames that feed into an overall strategy.
(Want to talk to me about hubs and Beyond? Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Read more: this post by Steve Smith in Mission Frontiers, also talking about hubs