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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.


When we become followers of Christ, we are set free.

But more than that, we become liberators: primarily, of the people around us – our friends, our families, our co-workers.

We liberate them from our pride, our arrogance, our anger, our hatred, our petty cycles of vengeance, our selfishness.

It’s not just a matter of liberating them from their sin. It is first a matter of releasing them from our sins.

“It is for freedom” – perhaps, for the freedom of others – “that he has set us free!”

People, more than peoples

The big missions push over the last few decades has been “every tribe, language and tongue.”

That’s a Biblical goal, mentioned in Matthew 24, 28 and Revelation 7.

Ethne are important because barriers of language and culture can keep the Gospel from spreading.

But we mustn’t forget our goal is not to disciple “nations” but “people from every nation.” People are the goal.

We know that some from every ethne will be before the throne. We know that not all will choose to follow Jesus.

But we don’t know how many will choose to follow, and how many will not, out of each people group.

Will it be 0.01%? 1%? 10%? 99.999%?

Since we can’t know, best to act as if it’s going to be 100%. And make all our plans for that.

Will our ministry scale to 100% of the country we’re focused on? If not, it’s time for a rethink. Because people, not peoples, are the goal.

The Demography of Islam: is it being hollowed out by falling birth rates?

On Twitter today, I was asked:

The article in question has an interesting analysis.

1. What is the “Muslim world”? In total, there are about 1.7 billion Muslims in the world today; 80% (1.37 billion) are found in a handful of countries (shown on the chart below). While Muslims make up the majority of many of these countries, several are not Muslim-majorities: India (14%), Nigeria (45%), Ethiopia (34%), China (2%), Russia (12%).


2. Is fertility falling in these countries? Fertility rates are measured as the number of children per woman. This data is tracked by the United Nations in its regular population forecasts. The Hoover article, in 2012, argued fertility among Muslims would fall to levels lower than non-Muslim counterparts–that the then-UN figures were overestimated. The new 2015 Population Prospects estimated the following fertility rates for 2010 (blue) and 2050 (red) for each of these countries:


What happens to fertility rates in the “small” Muslim populations really doesn’t affect the global result. Population trends among the Big 8 are the ones to watch. The estimate projects the total fertility rate in 2050 to be 1.9 in North America and 1.75 in Europe. While the estimate doesn’t seem to think fertility will fall across the board in all Muslim countries, it does estimate an equivalent fertility rate for five of the Big 8 Muslim populations (Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Iran, and Turkey), while projecting higher rates in Pakistan, Nigeria and Egypt.

What is the end result of falling fertility rates? Will Islam decline? The Hoover article did not project a result in terms of population. But if we use the UN’s new estimate and maintain the current % Muslim in each of the above countries, their Muslim populations in 2050 would total to 2.3 billion (this is in line with the projection of the Center of the Study of Global Christianity of 2.6 billion globally), out of 9.7 billion total (about 23%). Even with these declining fertility rates, then, we are not looking for a decline in the total number of Muslims. In fact, the current estimate is for an increase of nearly 900 million by 2050.

…and then the end will come.

I know many people reading Matthew 24 and Matthew 28 together take it to mean that, when Matthew 28 is finished, the clouds will part, the trumpets will sound, and the Lord will return. I suggest this reading might just be taking the passage too far and presuming a lot about Matthew 24.

When we take it “too far” we say things like “we can usher in the end” or “bring Jesus back.”

Let’s flip 24 the other way: do we think that, by refusing to bring the Gospel to the ends of the Earth, we can keep Jesus away?

Let us not read into these passages any sense that we can cause Jesus to do anything–but rather see them for the prophecy and promise of hope that they simply are.

Disruption: when to struggle through, when to quit/iterate

Yesterday, I talked about “missio-communities” (agencies, churches, businesses, etc) having two “functions”: to “be” in a place (spread-in, offer discipleship opportunities to everyone in the place) and to “go” to places with no Gospel presence (spread-out, move over borders into other places).

“Disruption” is what happens when one or both of these functions are prevented. When a function fails, we need to start doing a root cause analysis, asking ourselves “Why?”

I think most communities face two problems with disruption:

1. they don’t recognize when they are being disrupted, largely because they are measuring the wrong things;

2. they struggle with “The Dip.”

Seth Godin outlined “the Dip” in a book of the same name. This is the big question facing every startup: when to pivot. How to get to Plan B.

In other words, the essence of the question we face when confronted with problems is –

  • should we endure through problems (disruptions),
  • or should we try to iterate to a better model?

Is the problem a tactical challenge, or do we lack product/market fit?

We may become so “tied” to our model that we enduring when we should iterate (which involves quitting our current model). In my opinion, the only way to know when you’re at that bridge is to compare your current growth rate with the population growth rate. If you’re not exceeding the population growth rate, then you’re not going to successfully “spread-in.”

The challenge with that is that anything that leads to exponential growth (which is the only thing that gets ahead of population AGR) doesn’t look faster than population AGR at the beginning. In fact, exponential growth looks ice-berg slow at the very beginning.

I didn’t promise this was easy.

Mission Disruption 3, seeking simplicity and flexibility

The conversation continues. While I was revisiting my ongoing theological wrestling with marriage (one critique: the suggestion my theological position is apparently closer to Mormonism than I might be comfortable with). Eddie’s had two other great posts: one about global trends impacting missions (and so we need a bigger view) and today’s, a hypothetical example of a mission agency sending money to believers in another part of the world for mission activities.

I mostly see and agree with his points. I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t, although I am sure some would. When things are exchanged between two sides, one of which has more of the thing being exchanged than the other (be it money, knowledge, influence, connectivity, whatever), strings get attached.

In Eddie’s example, the UK agency raises funds to make grants to an African church, but the donors give specifically for a church building. The agency is now left with two options: (1) the African church must use the funds to build a building or (2) the charity must de-register, so as to give the money without condition. I realize absolutely Eddie’s example is limited and over-simplified. In a spirit of good humor I’m going to pick at it just a little bit. Are these the only two options? This may be a US vs UK issue (eg UK rules on fundraising may be entirely different), but two larger macro alternatives suggest themselves to me:

First, perhaps we as missions should limit what gets exchanged between parts of the body to just those things that can be exchanged with little or no strings attached at all?

For example, most of the people who participate in the same DMM “arena” that Beyond (my agency) participates in have a principle of not bringing money into the relationship (see also: Dependency). We will not pay salaries or build buildings etc. We have found money for trips to conferences when cross-pollination of DMM knowledge is occurring (we will bring an expert from the Majority World to a conference where they will participate as a plenary speaker or workshop facilitator). We have found donations for things like bicycles (which increase the range of workers), Bibles, media reproduction tools, and even (once) cell phones. We’ve done it–carefully–because things multiply the capacity of the DMM worker, and do tend to be one-shot things (not recurring monthly support).

Second, we change how we raise money so it is more general. (This may be a US vs UK thing). One of the things I appreciate about Beyond is: generally, when we raise money, it is either for a specific project which has been requested by and significantly vetted by the field (e.g. bicycles, Bibles) or raised “in general” for DMM work worldwide, or for a specific region (e.g. East Asia). This gives significant freedom to the field, but there’s still accountability: we report the stories, and statistics of churches planted. But we’re leaving the specifics of action to the field; we are not arm-chair generaling.

Rather than talking about agencies and churches and what not, let’s stop and think for a moment in a different way. I appreciate missio communities (agencies, churches, businesses, whatever) that are located in specific places, engaging specific peoples. These communities will vary in their strategies and tactics.

As I have labored on the District Survey, I have come to think of “mission” as being two basic processes that are practiced by each of these communities. I could be wrong in this, but here’s what I see:

  1. A be or “spread-in” function or mode: the “be a witness,” “proclaim the Gospel,” “make disciples” mode in a given place, among a given people.
  2. A go or “spread-out” function or mode: where the presence-function is “carried across” a significant boundary that it doesn’t naturally spread over. This boundary may be geographic, political, economic, cultural, ethnic, linguistic, whatever.

If a missio-community of any sort exists in a given place, it is at least partly their responsibility to “spread in and throughout” the place, to make sure everyone in the place has the opportunity to become a disciple. I don’t think there is one specific way to do this. However, if they are failing in this task, it is the responsibility of the greater global church to (a) help/challenge them, and, if that fails, then (b) bring in (“go” function) another community. (No one has the right to deny others the Gospel through inaction.)

If a “church” does not exist in a given place, it is the responsibility of others–those nearby, and those far away–to exercise the “go” function and bring the Gospel there. (It’s true those nearby who may share a similar culture and lower cost of travel may be more efficient, but they are not always either willing or more effective.)

These two functions – be (“spread in here”) and go (“spread out from here”) – are the core functions for the spread of the Gospel around the world. (Really, if churches did these two things, you don’t need a ton of oversight: the gospel will spread, swarmishly, from place to place. That’s how movements happen.)

The truth for this blog post: It is difficult for people in a distant place to know the local place well enough to tell the local community how to “be” and “go.” Obviously, there is nuance and complexity to this statement–sometimes, someone distant, with adequate study, and enough informants, and experience, can better “see the forest” than the locals who can only see the trees. Still, it’s not something to be attempted lightly.

When we bring outside resources into an area, on conditions that limit how a community can “be” or “go,” we may be a disruption instead of an amplifier.

In Beyond, we frequently say: “The question is not what I can do, the question is: what needs to be done?” This is the question that the local community must ask, and no matter how good a transfer of resources makes us feel or how much that transfer might accomplish, if it prevents what needs to be done from being done, we should say no.

Revisiting marriage in heaven

Yesterday, I ran across the post, “Will there be nations in the new creation?” In it was the line:

My instinctive reaction is to say that if we will not marry or be given in marriage at the resurrection, surely nations will be a thing of the past as well.

I wanted to revisit this idea simply because I wrestle with this, and I suspect there are other people who do too. Mostly because I love my wife dearly, and the idea of her not being my wife, and I not being her husband, in heaven, is, well… not heavenly.

The idea comes from the passage in Mark 12. The religious leaders are trying to trick Jesus. First, one group asks him the famous question about taxation and Caesar: “give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s.” Second, the Sadducees try to out-logic him with regard to the resurrection. They pose a hypothetical situation in which one woman ends up being the wife, in sequence, of seven brothers. So, in Heaven, they ask, whose wife will she be?

Jesus’ answer rumbles through to today: “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven.”

That seems to put the nail in the coffin.

Or, does it? After all, Jesus also said, just two chapters earlier in Mark 10 (speaking on divorce), “What God has joined together, let no man separate.” It seems odd that God, who makes a big deal about this commitment, would then “divorce” the two at death.

In the passage, Jesus says “will neither marry nor be given in marriage.” I may be reading into this my own personal thinking, but the whole example the Sadducees set up is very much from the viewpoint of “whose property” will the wife in question be? Who will she belong to?

I posed the question to N.T. Wright once upon a time, and his response (pointing me to his book, “The Resurrection of the Son of God”) was, briefly: the example in question was about the continued propagation of the family–and in the life to come there would be no need for further propagation. It’s not about the relationship between two people, and the Mark 10 passage seems to affirm this relationship so strongly there’s no reason to suppose it wouldn’t continue past death. (Of course, there’s sticky issues regarding people who have been married multiple times, and so a mystery to all of this.)

I write all this to simply say, if you wrestle with the idea of not having a relationship with your spouse after death, well, I don’t think the Mark 12 passage IS the nail in the coffin. God has this way of bringing “dead” things to life in greater and more real forms than ever before.

Mission Disruption, 2: random thoughts and four failure conditions

There has been some significant conversation regarding yesterday’s topic, and Eddie Arthur posted Corkscrews and Pomegranates, which highlighted some of the challenges agencies face in the UK (the original Bread and Pomegranates post was in NZ).

In summary:
Christina suggests new agencies with new forms are needed.
Eddie isn’t sanguine that, in the UK at any rate, new forms will be helpful.
(there are too many agencies as it is.)
Instead, he suggests existing agencies need to adapt, and
that “we” (UK) needs to recapture a vision for mission being a function of the church rather than the agency.

Like Eddie, I don’t have any solutions. But as a start, I have a handful of thoughts I’ll just lob out there:

  1. The really bad possibility is that the disruption is severe enough to impede agency functioning but not severe enough to force change or death. If agencies can “muddle through” during this time, very little might be achieved. I see this also in persecution issues: martyrdom can (or not) bring a spurt of growth, but a little regulation, harassment, imprisonment, etc. will nearly always degrade the growth of the church.
  2. It may be that some structures need to die. This may especially be true in the UK. If there are too many companies in the market, some won’t survive. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. A lot of great agencies have gone away over the course of history, but mission continues on.
  3. While I, generally, agree with Eddie that mission sending should be first and foremost the church’s responsibility, I have come to think there is a danger in this: that we think of church an agency as two separate things. Here we fall into the “church is” challenge. The church is the community of believers; any expression of believers gathered is therefore the church. I grant that’s a radical thought, but I think it’s Biblical. If so, the workplace can be just as much church as the Sunday morning service, and therefore the agency is just as much church as the Sunday morning service. If so, then mission is still a function of the church. I have no real problem with this. But if you take it to this extreme, you still have a number of questions to re-think through: one “arm” of the church is dependent on another, and individual congregations do tend to “outsource” their mission efforts to these apostolic teams.
  4. I really like this David Smith quote that Eddie mentions. I think the quote, capturing the difference between missionmissions, and the modern missionary movement illustrates something we absolutely must keep in mind.

Having tossed the thoughts out, let me go back and restate the original problem.

Here is what is being disrupted, in my mind: a set of circumstances and growing cultural attitudes (slightly different in different countries) is preventing the ability of the current crop of mission structure expressions to (a) carry out the mission and/or (b) sustain themselves to carry out the mission over time.

That “and/or” leads us to four possible situations:

  • If some set of situations keep mission structures from “a one-way movement from Christendom to the unevangelized world” (Smith), we have failed.
  • If some set of situations keep mission structures from enduring, we have failed.
  • If some set of situations or methodologies enable a mission structure to endure at the price of a one-way movement from Christendom to the unevangelized world–we have failed.
  • If some set of situations or methodologies enable us to move from Christendom to the unevangelized world at the price of being able to sustain ourselves–we are closer to success, but have still failed (largely failing future generations).

Sidebar: As a subject for a future post, it’s interesting to me that not all missionary institutions are being “critically” disrupted (that is, finding it difficult to get the money or manpower to continue to exist). For example, my organization (Beyond, previously Mission to Unreached Peoples) is, insofar as I can see, doing just fine with regard both to the one-way movement and the ability to sustain itself. Another example might be the funding challenges that the IMB faced: but it seems organizationally to be addressing it.

For me, I think it’s instructive to survey or inventory the broad number of expressions of Christian mission institutions throughout the centuries, and see which expressions might be more or less effective in the current climate. (Almost immediately to my brain, I recall monasteries, enterprises, lone pioneers, missionary bases/compounds, etc.; also, centralized vs decentralized vs individual) That’s how my brain works. There may be other questions that need to be answered, however, and I would welcome your voices in the conversation – either on Twitter (maybe with the hashtag #MDisrupt?), in the comments, on your own blog post, or elsewhere.

Disrupting Mission Agencies

On Sunday, Steve Schirmer pointed out a new blog post, “Mission is ripe for disruption.”

In the post, the author says:

Most NZ mission agencies were established to support a particular model of mission that began early last century… some of the ways that agencies are structured and the systems and processes involved haven’t changed for a long time. The result of this is that it is difficult for them to move with the speed and flexibility that the current pace of change requires.

After reading the article, I told Steve I wished she had gone into more detail about what kinds of changes might be made. What might a “disrupted” agency be like?

What is disruption like, to begin with?

I find the definition of disruption interesting, as a start: a “disturbance or problems that interrupt an event, activity or process.”

By this definition, we cannot “disrupt ourselves” (without stirring up problems)–the problems we face are the disruption.

Here’s a case example:

and here’s another:

In the Twitter conversation that ensued between Steve Schirmer, Eddie Arthur, Christina and some others, the disruption facing agencies in some countries (not necessarily in others) are primarily financial ones.

The response to disruption can either be to fight it, to ignore it and maintain the status quo, or to innovatively change in response to it. Nearly every writer on the subject of disruption and innovation will articulate that “ignoring disruption” by burying one’s head in the sand is largely to see one’s own demise.

Some people try to fight disruption by re-innovating around their core business. Bookstores have been doing this:

Fighting to maintain an old business model that has been disrupted is a serious challenge. The other response is to change the business model: to maintain the purpose but accomplish it in a different way. This is dangerous too.

What sorts of models might be used in response to this disruption is a conversation that has been happening for some time. Many people have been discussing it. One of the things I might do, with the help of others, is to compile some kind of index of articles written on the subject. Some sort of “classification” of new mission models – or some kind of collection of case studies or ideas – might be helpful.

This is particularly true because there are (at least) two big challenges with addressing the subject.

One: missions in some countries do not face this problem, and missions in other countries do. What works in one place may not work in another, but we are tempted to build “globally perfect solutions”–“everyone should do it this way.” (A fork of this challenge: some multinational agencies face challenges where a model that works in one place does not work in another, and vice-versa).

Two: we have to be careful to keep the whole subject in view when considering how to navigate from one financial model to another. Donors are more than ATM machines. They provide more than just cash. If we transition to a non-donor model, we have to be careful not to lose the non-cash benefits.

To continue this conversation, if you write a blog post, you might mention it in the comments below, or join in on Twitter. I suppose we need a hashtag.