Powers, wrestled with

Ephesians 6, structures that we struggle against:

Powerlessness: blindness, apathy, satisfaction, worldliness, things that neutralize power & activity.

Prisons: bondages that lock you in Patterns of behavior that use you as fuel for cycles of relational damage, where people give and receive pain, preying on each other Power structures, where people prey on others and multiply evil control, domination, oppression of many Pervasive spiritual wickedness: cultural systems promoting long-term sustained evil behavior Redemption & Resilience is about helping communities build spiritually healthy, redemptive disciplines, structures of justice, and pervasive spiritual holiness and righteousness.

Jesus never advocated military action.

He was less concerned about political powers and more with spiritual powers.

3 kinds of growth, and when each is important

Nov 05, 2014

One of the diagrams I am always careful to go over when teaching Perspectives Lesson 9 is the Global Religious Dynamics diagram. You can see it online here.

This diagram highlights two forms of growth globally: demographics (the newly born minus those who die) and conversion (those who become Christians minus those who defect).

When you look at a specific place (e.g. a country, province, city, whatever) you can add a third form of growth, immigration: those who move in minus those who move out.

Church structures generally optimize for one form of growth, be it demographic or conversion (with care for immigrants often a kind of middle point). Both are important.

If Christianity in an area has conversion growth, but loses demographic growth, its share of the population will steadily erode. If it has demographic growth but no conversion growth, its share of the population will likely remain steady but it will not increase; thus, people with no access to the Gospel will slowly drip away into a Christless eternity (this being the general case today–the % of the world that is Christian has remained a steady 33% for over a century, with little change).

Some forms of church growth are optimized for building the Christian family: essentially, helping children of Christians choose Christ themselves, grow in maturity, marry believers, and in turn raise believing children. 

As already noted, this function is not to be downplayed. Right now globally there is a very high defection rate (15 million converts p.a. vs. 12 million defectors); if the defection ”back door” were “closed,” we would see a significant jump in % Christian worldwide. (15 million per annum would add 33% to the total growth rate.)

Other forms of church growth are optimized for conversion and discipleship of new believers, and the rapid expansion of the church. This is especially necessary in view of the fact that the total number of non-Christians is twice Christians.

What I’m thinking about today, however, is this: we need both kinds of growth, but sometimes we need one kind more than others. For example, in low-% Christian countries, we need to focus on conversion and rapid expansion.

But when the church reaches a certain size – say, more than 60% of the population? – demographic growth becomes very important for maintaining stability over the long run. Births become the primary engine of growth for the future of the church in that place, and the church should begin investing in conversion growth in distant places.

A church that optimizes on demographic growth (seeing most of its baptisms, for example, be the children of believers) when the % Christian in an area is low, is a poor strategy (at least in terms of the fate of the lost). But a church that optimizes on conversion growth when % Christianity is very high may be risking the loss of its children (if little emphasis is given to internal discipleship).

Disclaimer: I’m not saying churches should do one to the exclusion of all else, but in my experience the reality is churches will generally do onekind of ministry really well. Megachurches may be an exception to this, as they have more resources.

Relationships are more difficult than presentations

Nov 03, 2014

I often read statements about people who have no knowledge of the Gospel, who have never heard the Gospel, who have never received a Gospel presentation. We say “why should anyone hear the Gospel twice when some have never heard it once?”

But, Biblically speaking, salvation isn’t about knowing the Gospel or even God so much as it is about following and obeying Jesus (James 2:19). Research indicates people need multiple exposures to the Gospel before they decide to follow.

Further, Rodney Stark’s research on the process of conversion indicates the bigger influence in someone’s decision to follow Christ is relationships with other Christ followers: they do what their friends do (be it church-going or Christ-following) before they ever come to express belief in specific doctrines. Most typically obedience precedes belief, and relationships that model what to obey predate obedience.

Therefore, the factor we should be concerned with is not how many times (or lack thereof) a person has heard the Gospel, but how many relationships with Christians a person has. That 86% of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists do not personally know a Christian is a big deal. Those who have access to the Gospel–those who have heard the Gospel–are mostly people who know Christians (and most of those are due to Christians in their family).

Getting Christians into the daily lives of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists requires intentional action that is far more challenging than simply purchasing radio broadcast hours, donating to the distribution of Bibles, or leaving tracts in bathrooms.

Vanity Metrics

Nov 01, 2014

Our church has 1,000 members!

Measuring numbers of the current moment alone (a snapshot) is a vanity metric: any number looks good, but the number alone tells you little. Often, the number is just used to make you feel or look good. Two numbers over time can give you growth rates, which show the reality of the situation. Our church had 500 members in 2005, and 1,000 in 2015–we doubled in a decade. 

To calculate the exponential growth rate, the formula is ((Present/Past)^(1/(years))-1. Or, in the above example, ((1000/500)^(1/10))-1, or 0.071, or 7.1%. The rule of 72 (72/AGR, or 72/7.1, or 10.1, tells you how long it will take to double again at the present growth rate.

Numbers without growth rates can hide the reality of stagnation. Growth rates without numbers can hide the reality of small numbers. 

We grew by 100% per year! (We went from 2 members to 4.)

Measuring numbers against a goal gives you scope of task remaining. Our church has 1,000 members, and there are 100,000 people in our city. 99% of the task remains. It took us 20 years to get to 1,000 members. At that rate, it would take 20 * 99 or ~1,980 years to get to the whole. 

Measuring current position against position last year and against goal in the future gives you strategic critique: Do we want to take two millennia to see our city largely Christianized? 

Anything that isn’t (and, most likely, can’t be) measured against a goal: I suspect it’s a “vanity” metric meant to look good on a report.

Early Adopters

Oct 21, 2014

I have often compared pioneer missionary efforts with business startups. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries defines a startup not as a company designed to make and sell things, but rather “a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

I suggest a “pioneer missionary startup” does not exist to plant churches, make converts, or even make disciples. Rather, it exists “to go into a new place and culture, understand it, and learn how a sustainable, contextual expression of the Gospel–the local church–can be built.” Note the difference: not existing to make disciples itself (although they would), but to learn how a multiplying movement of disciple-making might best be started and sustained.

Pivotal to any startup are “customers.” But who are the “customers” of a church planting movement? John 6 contains one of the key concepts in church planting movement thinking. The story in this chapter begins with the feeding of the 5,000. After this miracle, the people wanted to make Jesus their political Messiah. He withdrew from them to the mountain, and sent his disciples across the lake toward Capernaum. A storm blew in, and they were afraid they would sink, but Jesus came walking to them on the water. (The account in John does not contain the bit about Peter).

The next day the well-fed 5,000 wanted to find Jesus, and eventually went around the lake to Capernaum. There, he remonstrated them, telling them they were seeking him because of the miracles he did–basically, because he provided for their needs, not because they truly followed him. He wanted them to do the works God required (namely, to believe in the one sent–Jesus); they wanted him to give them a sign (namely “manna” or daily bread). He told them instead that the bread he provided was himself. The crowd grumbled because they could eat Jesus (he was speaking metaphorically while they were speaking literally, and apparently had no interest in being cannibals).

Then came the pivotal line, in vs. 44-45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”

Plenty of theological thinking can be done here. I don’t pretend to understand all of it. How you come down on the whole sovereignty vs. free will debate can color your interpretation of the text. That said, one thing seems clear: the “customers” of a church planting movement are not the people we have argued or persuaded to adopt our product. 

Businesses understand this. You can pay, persuade, or politically require people to use a product once. (Governments can force use.) But you can’t buy or argue or regulate people into appreciation, desire, or love for something. People passionate about your offer are the ones who started out desiring something like it–who had a need that needed to be filled.

By way of analogy: people had phones. And they had desktop computers and laptops. Many wished for a “marriage” of the phone and the computer. When the iPhone appeared, people didn’t have to be persuaded or argued into adopting it. It was what they had secretly wished for all along–even if they couldn’t articulate the desire specifically. No one secretly dreamed of an “iPhone” but once they saw it, they knew it met a need they had.

The “customers” of Christianity are not those persuaded by services or pummeled by convicting messages of guilt and shame. Those things may provide fuel but the “customers” of a church planting movement are those whose hearts have already been conquered by God. 

We can’t see into the spiritual realm, but we know that a spiritual dynamic has taken place when a person comes to faith. We don’t understand the whole God-draws/I-respond thing, but we know if someone is actively resisting the “drawing” of God, they’re not going to say “yes” to us. And if someone is actively “seeking out” the call of God, they will be attracted to whatever smacks of Him and His Kingdom.

The evangelist is thus not so much the “arguer for the Gospel” but rather the one who proclaims a confirmation of the news that the customer wishes were true.

Business terms describe a difference between early adopters and mainstream consumers. Both desire the product, but early adopters are seeking it out and willing to accept something a little rough, while mainstream consumers want something a bit more clarified, refined, and debugged.

In terms of church planting movements, we shouldn’t think of mainstream consumers as less passionate about God–as people more sinful or more resistant to the Gospel. In most cases “early adopters” (or People of Peace) are in positions where they can “experiment” religiously with fewer concerns for the impact of their decisions. Rodney Stark has described this in The Rise of Christianity. This is why businessmen, political heads, heads of respected families and even imams and religious leaders sometimes come to faith first–because they are insulated from the impact of their decision. (Likewise, some on the margins of society come to faith–because society couldn’t care less about their decisions–but they have little influence.)

“Mainstream consumers” aren’t actively seeking a product like early adopters are, and are less willing to live with “rough edges.” However, they will readily adopt a product if enough of their friends are using it, and it meets a need, it is useful and relatively bug free. In terms of Christianity, “mainstream consumers” (or perhaps later adopters) might need the gospel communicated in their own language and contextualized to their culture, perhaps in a simplified form, and may need to see other respected members of the community adopt it first as a stamp of credibility (and in some cases as insulation against negative effects).

The task of a startup team is to find, as quickly and efficiently as possible, the early adopters (People of Peace) in a community, and start transmitting the Gospel through them by making them into transmitters of the Message. But we must keep in mind that as the message is transferred it will have to be contextualized and clarified into something the Mainstream of the culture can understand and adopt readily, if it is to spread widely. This is the task of the startup.

The question, “Who, specifically, accomplishes this task?” raises the question of how we define the “startup team.” This deserves its own post, but I’ll address it in passing. A pioneer missionary startup team consists of the whole team concerned with catalyzing a church planting movement. In the very early days this team may consist solely of “outsiders.” In every known case of a movement, the team grows in the next stage to include near-culture outsiders or same-culture “insiders.” These fellow believers become part of the team, using movement principles as the basis for their work.

The work of de-contextualizing (deculturalizing) the gospel is the responsibility of the whole team, but it will likely be done mostly by those furthest from the culture being engaged. Meanwhile the work of in-culturating (contextualizing) the gospel within the new culture must be done by cultural “insiders.”

The effectiveness with which these tasks take place depends on at least three factors: the way outsiders coach insiders in work with early believers, the way insiders coach early generations to reach later generations, and the kinds of responses the startup team makes to early adopter questions (i.e. do they encourage people to “go to the Scriptures” rather than instructing them). While the early believers must do the work of in-culturation, the startup team must facilitate and insist on them doing the work.

As insiders come to faith, these early adopters will likely come to play a role in the startup team–and some of them will eventually grow into the primary leaders of the movement.

The nations are coming to us

The nations are coming to us. Some are coming to escape oppression at home, some for work, some to study, some to take advantage of opportunity, some to move their money. In this incredible wave of migration, individuals from some previously staunchly unreached peoples have moved right into the same neighborhood as Western churches.

Obviously, we need to reach out to them, and encourage others to reach out to them as well. But we need to hold some things firmly in view as we do. This week, I hope to explore some of these ‘issues, and look forward to your feedback.

1. Just because they come from an “unreached” country doesn’t mean they are non-Christians. In fact, the fact that they moved to a more-Christian region may mean better odds that they are less like their homeland. For example, there has been a mass exodus of Christians and more liberal, secularized people from the Middle East. The Iranian down the street from you may in fact be a Christian, not a Muslim.

2. Different segments of the Diaspora have different positions in society, and may only be here a limited time. Strategies ought to take this into account. Consider the different categories: visiting professionals, students, entrepreneurs, migrant workers, asylum-seekers, illegals, and the trafficked. Each of these are in significantly different situations which require different approaches. These different types may equally have different levels of influence or connectedness back to their home culture.

3. Multiple generations of a diaspora acclimate to be more like the culture around them, requiring different strategies. You’ve probably had the experience: you hear Indian parents talking, and they sound like Indians; but then their children start talking to you–and they have the same accent as your kids. The first generation (who immigrated in) will have one set of cultural ideals (perhaps a large family, or trouble specking your language, for example); but their children and their grand children change, adopting the local language and cultural norms. Reaching the older generations will likely require a completely different strategy than reaching the youngers.

4. Reaching the diaspora requires some training in cross-cultural ministry. You would not go to the foreign mission field without some level of training and preparation. Understanding worldview and culture is as important to reaching the diaspora as it is to reaching the least reached in their home countries.

5. Reaching the diaspora “here” does not automatically mean impacting their home culture.Think of the Persians of America and the Persians of Iran. Reaching Persians in America may lead to some connections to their families in Iran–or maybe not. It’s not an automatic given that the Gospel will flow over that distance. It may be more likely with students and other itinerant workers who return home. Another situation is the person who goes to a foreign country, builds a business, gets rich, and then has influence back home.

6. Reaching diaspora peoples in Christian countries can be good training–provided the community you are engaging is similar to the one you’ll be working with in their homeland. Reaching a 5th or 6th generation Korean American, for example, may be little different from reaching any other American, and tell you next to nothing about reaching Koreans in North Korea. (Do they even speak Korean?) Obviously, there are communities where life is lived mostly like the culture they left behind.

7. Reaching the diaspora does not solve the problem of the unreached. There are over 200 million first generation migrants in the world. There are over 2 billion unevangelized individuals who have no access to the Gospel. Even if all the diaspora were unevangelized (and they’re obviously not, see #1 above), they would only represent 10% of the challenge (and the easiest 10% at that). We obviously should reach the diaspora among us. And it would be very strategic to not only reach them and disciple them, but equip them to be disciple makers if and when they should return home. But we need to keep in mind that diaspora ministries are only one of the strategies in our ministry toolbox. 

Additional Resources 

What we look for in a missionary candidate

I agree with David: “Just because you’re a Christian doesn’t mean you’re a missionary.” I believe that we are all commanded to be disciples, witnesses, disciple-makers, and baptizers (regardless of whether we face the ultimate price or not; I disagree with a few others on this): this is the commission in Matthew 28.

And, yes, sometimes this means we “go into the world” (some have told me Matthew 28 is better translated “as you are going”).

Sometimes this is due to circumstances and sometimes it’s intentional.

But being a missionary – crossing cultural boundaries, learning new languages, enduring culture shock, etc. – isn’t the same, in my book, as being a witness.

Paul, for example, was a Hellenized Jew, and he mostly stayed within the Hellenized culture. He didn’t go to Britain, India, or China – he stayed primarily within the Roman world. I’m sure he encountered different languages and different cultures but it would have been similar, let’s say, to modern New York, England, or Dallas – different cultures within a common overarching culture.

Was he a missionary? What do you think? I think the answer is “Yes–sort of.” It would be similar, perhaps, to the situation that many churches in America find themselves in today, with lots of diaspora people around them.

Representing Jesus to one’s neighbors and co-workers isn’t being a missionary, but rather being a witness.

Being a missionary means intentionally seeking out and reaching out to people who don’t have Christians around them at all.

There are many pockets of such people within our Christian cities, true.

But there are even larger pockets in places that are largely non-Christian, for the obvious reason that there are no (or few) Christians there.

It takes a different set of skills, talents and giftings to be a missionary – more than simply being a witness.

At the most fundamental level we look for people who aren’t afraid to speak up for Jesus, and who have shown the desire to strike out and make disciples.

They are willing to take a risk: more than simply being willing to speak up if their Christianity is threatened, they are willing to speak out and risk making a fool of themselves.

But beyond that, there are additional skills:

  • being a self-starter.
  • Being accountable to others.
  • Living a life of purity in the midst of temptation.
  • Being able to endure when no fruit is immediately to be had.
  • Listening to the Holy Spirit.
  • Being obedient, even when it seems crazy.
  • Being able to raise the funds required (which shows skills of organization, communication, followup, etc).
  • An appreciation for other cultures.
  • A willingness to leave what is comfortable and go into the uncomfortable.
  • A willingness to learn another language and culture, not just work through translators.
  • Cross-cultural friendships.
  • Boldness.
  • Humility. And so on.

To use an analogy, there are people who go to work for large companies, and do a job, and do it well.

  • They take care of their family.
  • They are good to their neighbors.
  • They go to church.
  • They take part in outreaches.

All of that is good – we need that. But there is a different set of skills required to start a new business on your own, and to grow it to a substantial size. Beyond (like other mission agencies) has many people in the field. They are wonderful people who I greatly enjoy being around, and I learn from. They are not saints, but they are learners, and they are being obedient to the calling of Christ.

So if you feel like you are called to something far away – then we’d love to talk to you. But be aware that mission agencies don’t take anyone, because not everyone is a missionary.

Different kinds of mission structures

When I was younger, most missionaries went out through a traditional sending agency (parachurch or denominational). However, there were a small handful who “didn’t fit the traditional agency board” and went a different route. They were tentmakers or missionaries who had enough resources to form their own “501c3 charitable organizations.” They were few and far between.Today, their number is vastly increasing. With the plummeting costs of vision-sharing (email, websites, blogs, social media), connection (sms, Internet chat, social media, email groups, VOIP, phone, meetups), collaboration (message boards, agreed upon action, flashmobs, cheap donations, etc), it has become easier and easier to form “mission structures” of one kind or another to send people on mission.

  • Tentmakers go on their own or with a placement agency overseas, to work a job, and thus need little/no fundraising.
  • Business as Mission is being increasingly dominated by true entrepreneurs who need little agency or church backing–and who are often in places where they don’t want the ties to traditional sending structures.
  • Large churches are able to send their own workers, fully funded, to the field, without any intervening mission structure.
  • Smaller churches are banding together and using services like Kinnexxus to send workers, some of whose support is spread over multiple structures.
  • Traditional agencies and denominational sending boards are having to rethink their relationship with churches – to make sure the proper attitudes are maintained! – and to build partnerships with lots of other folks on the ground in order to get a sizable enough team to do something.

I don’t think any of these sending structures are inherently bad. I’ve written quite a lot about swarms and decentralized structures, partly from a desire to help these new forms become more effective.

However, I do think these structures face one significant challenge, which larger and historical agencies do not possess: they are new and cheap. These two factors–a lack of history (legacy, longevity, desire to sustain) and a lack of cost (=cheapness, easy-in/easy-out)–can lead to a “testing of the waters” or a short-term mentality.

It can lead to evaluations based on cost-effectiveness, profitability, return on investment, or even a “project of the month” idea. Many mission efforts require a very long time in order to see a sustainable, indigenous, reproduce church planting effort start. Yes, you can go in, “plant seed” with widespread evangelism (some of which can be risky or even downright dangerous), and you can even make some converts. But doing the hard work of language learning, cultural adaptation, inculturation, finding people-of-peace, translation, cross-cultural discipling of disciples who make disciples–all of this takes time.

A recent study quoted to me showed many agencies are seeing significant turnover at the 4-to-8 year mark–which is unfortunate, because as Stan P., VP of Global Ministries for MUP noted, it’s at the 8-year-mark that most missionaries start to be really effective. Sustaining workers in the field until they become really qualified and effective is a very big challenge.

Unfortunately it seems to me that most of the nontraditional sending structures do not think in terms of placing people on the field and doing the hard work of keeping them there for up to 10 years. I think this longevity is something strategic which we need to encourage. I am reminded of the line in the old movie, “Hello, Dolly”: “A man is not worth a cent until he’s forty.  We just pay him wages until then, to make mistakes.” There’s some wisdom in that. 

Edit: as one reader noted, this does not address “boutique missions” or “mom-and-pops” – the very small 501(c)(3)s set up largely to cover one person’s individual ministry. They face another challenge, which I’ll address in a later post. See Also