Are you a missionary?

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

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

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

More curious was this statement:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Questions about whether a group is reached

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

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

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

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

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

What is the outsider/insider dynamic?

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

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

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

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

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

Defining a missiological breakthrough

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

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

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

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

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

For the kingdom to spread

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

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

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

Investment times

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

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

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

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

Festivals of Thanksgiving

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eternal perspective

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

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

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

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

Strategies in the midst of quasi-Christian, post-Christian, non-Christian environments

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

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

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

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

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

A simple calculation

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

Divide the population by the the number of new believers.

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

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

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

Sum, do the calculation over again.

Now: is what we’re doing enough?

“What’s it going to take?”

Another view of people groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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