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Where the Church grows faster than the Population

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Why are we surprised by Ashley Madison?

There’s been a lot of ruckus about the Ashley Madison hack recently, and particularly about Christians caught up in it. Ed Stetzer has been writing a series of very good posts on the subject.

I want to take a slightly different perspective and talk about why the hack has surprised and shocked us.

First of all, I want to reiterate the reminder of others: the way the website worked, it would be fairly easy for someone to use someone else’s email address. Just because someone’s “in the database” doesn’t mean they actually signed up for it. I haven’t checked my own email addresses, but I know I’m constantly getting emails from various dating websites in various countries where people have used my email address, whether accidentally or intentionally. There are a number of “Justin Longs” out there, and some of them have email addresses very similar to mine on Gmail. I’ve gotten people’s mortgage paperwork, restaurant reservations, auto insurance inquiries, you name it. So I’m rather more inclined to believe this is true of some than not. Ashley Madison was worse: it didn’t verify an email address entered was actually owned by the person, and you didn’t have to use the email address for communication with the site, so it was rife for abuse. Which means we should give the “it wasn’t me” answer the benefit of the doubt. (When credit cards are in play, that’s another matter.)

Were we shocked by the size of the user base? Let’s talk a bit about how many people were actually using the site:

  • Of the 5.5 million women registered with the site, one analysis suggests all but a handful were fake profiles. Its improbable any female you know is on the site.
  • This leaves 31 million men. Some of these were Canadians, but I don’t know how many, so I’ll just compare the whole 31 million to the USA. Update below: half of AM users are in the USA. This equate stop about 15 million.
  • There are 151.4 million males in the United States. But we can’t compare to that, because some are children (doubtful a 5-year-old is on AM). 19.4% are under the age of 15; we can discount these.
  • I thought about whether to exclude the 15-to-19 age bracket (7% of the population) or the 85+ age bracket (2%), but as I could reasonably see cases where people in these age brackets might sign up for the website, and they aren’t huge percentages, I left them in.
  • This means roughly 80% of the 151.4 million are adult (15 or over) males – or about 120 million adult males in the USA.
  • The 31 15 million male AM users make up 25.8% 10% of the USA adult male population, or 1 in 4 1 in 10.
  • In 2014, there were 59.63 million married couples in the USA, which means 59.6 million married men, or about half of the adult males in the United States.

SIGNIFICANT UPDATE 8/28: “AshleyMadison has 36 million members in 46 countries, with the US accounting for 50% of its business… the company has also set a target that 50 to 60% of its sales will come from Asia by 2020.” (Adultery website AshleyMadison seeks IPO as demand booms, Bloomberg)

Bottom line, imagine:

  • A pool of 120 million adult males
  • 60 million married, 60 million not: imagine the pool is “divided” in two.
  • There is a “lily pad” of 15 million AM users. It takes up one-tenth of the entire pool.

Were we shocked to think so many married men were ready to cheat? Our stereotyping reaction would be to think all AM men are married, since it’s billed as a cheating site. But is that reasonable? What percentage of the lily pad is on the “married” side, and what percentage is on the “unmarried” side?

The AM data by all reports (I haven’t seen it myself) does not have reliable data about the marital status of the individual. Is it likely that most or all married men want to “have an affair”? Let’s look at broader statistics. Our culture makes it seem like most men are cheats. Divorce trends suggest otherwise: the divorce rate has been falling in America for some time, even in an era of no-fault divorce. If most men were cheating, you would think many would be caught and the divorce rate would rise, not fall. However, secondly, marriage rates are falling too: see NYT, NPR, EconomistDiscrepancies in demographics makes it likely men will continue to marry later. And, it’s not like celibacy is sweeping the nation. Cohabitation rates are up: see WSJ, stats at psychpage.com (based on 2002 study), and the Atlantic (I don’t endorse all the conclusions, obviously).

What does this tell us? It suggests those who get married really want to. They don’t have to. One would think many of those wouldn’t want to mess it up.

Yes, we’re broken, sinful people, in a culture that has made “affairs” seem acceptable and even thrilling. Still, it’s not automatic that 100% of AM users are married men because all men are scoundrels just waiting for the opportunity. There’s at least as good a chance that many AM users are single men open to hookup even with married women. So when you’re looking at your neighbors, realize there’s probably a better chance a single male is/was an AM user, than a married man.

Were we shocked that a large number of people (1 in 10) were interested in illicit relationships, married or not? I wonder why.
We already knew the predisposition for adultery was very high in America:
because of the usage of readily-available pornography.

If 1 in 4 are signed up for AM, 3 in 4 are not. But the usage of readily-available pornography is far higher than AM usage stats…

Jesus said, “If a man looks on a woman with lust in his heart, he has already committed adultery with her.”
By that measure, America is already a nation of adulterers, with statistics far higher than AM users.
And it’s not just hard-core pornography: our media and advertising incite males to lust/heart-adultery to sell products.

I think the Ashley Madison hack shocked us by identifying individual cases of a trend we already know.
It’s not just a study reporting  “x% of Americans cheat” (or 1 in 2 use pornography, or some such).
It’s an itemized list, with names of people we know.
(For some, their own.)

This reminds me of the Stalin-esque statistic: “A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”
This is the same thing: a single affair – if my spouse were on the list – would be a tragedy.
A faceless statistic about Americans is just a statistic, and doesn’t touch me personally, except to engender general outrage.

We think Ashley Madison is somehow worse because “they cheated.” Yet this Gizmodo article suggests they didn’t – most of the men who got online on the site never interacted with a live woman, much less cheated with her (granted, there will be exceptions, and these outlier cases will make a lot of news). This makes the Ashley Madison website really no more in the end result than interactive porn.

We think, “It is worse, because the intention to cheat is there.”
Our problem is in thinking that actually cheating, or just intending to cheat, is worse than looking with lust.
It’s not–it’s the same.

I would worry less about AM and worry more about the things that enable looking-with-lust, which is a far bigger problem.

Futures Imagined, 8

Map: Where the church is growing fastest


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Where the church is growing fastest 2010

We don’t need a big global plan

Over the past 2,000 years, there have been more than 2,000 plans to evangelize the world.

None have succeeded. Many have had deadlines which they spectacularly failed to meet.

“We” (by which I mean mostly Westerners) love big global plans, and deadlines, and charts, and resources, and budgets, and things we control.

We don’t need them. Not really. Not for this.

Ants don’t need a master plan, yet they can grow to fill whole areas, and span large regions. We can do it too, with three simple rules:

(1) every ekklesia to engage all of the same-culture people in their geographic area (E-1, “nearby”) in such a way that all have the opportunity to hear/follow. This will undoubtedly require both planting new ekklesias and cooperating with existing ekklesias. This can be done without regard for however many other ekklesias or churches are in the area. At the E-1 level, we aim for maximum saturation even incurring significant duplication. Duplication can be a redundancy.

(2) every ekklesia maps, understands all of the segments (places and peoples) in their “next-nearby” (E-2, crossing geographic or perhaps cultural boundaries) and ensures at least one ekklesia of some form (church, house group, believer-owned-business, something) is planted within the community, such that #1 above can be achieved in that segment. (That is, an E-2 presence is established so that an E-1 presence can eventually be established as well.) Ants send out queens to start new colonies. Ekklesias should do the same. At this level, the “planting” church supports the “next-nearby” region, investing in it, but wants to let the local (E-1) presence take the prime role.

(3) every ekklesia to raise up and send bands-of-believers (“apostolic teams”, church planters, witnesses, proclaimers, disciple-makers) to the nearest “distant” place that lacks a Christian presence of any kind (E-3, “far”, crossing cultures), even if that place is across national or geographic borders (e.g. oceans). Two sub-rules here: (a) if for a given “distant” place there is a “next-nearby” ekklesia (E-2), then the ekklesia should strive to work with the next-nearby to reach the distant. (b) But if there is no next-nearby ekklesia willing to do that work, the place should not go untouched, even if an ekklesia must do the difficult work of sending distant.

(4) every ekklesia should develop behaviors of intentionality, rapid growth, and open cooperation with as many other ekklesias as possible. We don’t need to know everything before we grow, but we should always be learning and discovering who else the Spirit has drawn to the place we find ourselves in, and looking to charitably cooperate in the task of making disciples.

If these four actions were done on a yearly basis – e.g. the understandings of the segments were updated yearly, and new workers commenced, rather than once every 10 or 20 years – it wouldn’t take long to have presence in every place that Christians can access.

Yes, there are some places we can’t access. There are places within Afghanistan, North Korea, Yemen, Somalia, and even Pakistan and India and China that outsiders just can’t get to. That’s a reality we face.

The point of this pattern is to go everywhere we can, trusting that the nearer we get to a place we can’t get to, the more likely it is we’ll find someone who can get to the places we can’t.

I am deliberately counting both churches and agencies as ekklesias. There are more than enough churches to do this task if they actually did it. Agencies as a special form of ekklesia have arisen because churches are not rising to the challenge, and believers are passionate enough about the challenge that they will leave one form of structure for another if that’s what obedience to Christ requires.

These rules do not require a global plan, budget, or much in the way of a coordinating body! This plan could be (and probably, in some variant form, is) the basis for the IMB’s desire to have churches send limitless workers. All this plan requires is for any single individual ekklesia to have (1) a knowledge of its immediate surroundings, (2) a knowledge of it’s greater context (e.g. neighborhood vs total city), and (3) the desire to pick a near-distant place and send workers.

If we do want to coordinate, this is made possible through open-sourced crowd-shared maps and lists. The Internet is perfect for this. We do not need “one master list” to rule them all. We simply need search-and-discovery algorithms to uncover relational connections. The instant we require cooperation and coordination, we eliminate a lot of possibilities. Rather than requiring coordination, we should focus on offering cooperation.

That’s my “master plan.” It can be sustained over generations, with little or no major budgets, and can withstand persecution. The beauty is, budgets are small and localized: we spend billions (trillions?) on the Internet globally, but there is no single master budget or centrally planned body. That’s why the Internet works. It’s the way mission to the end of the task will work, too: if each of us takes responsibility for our part.

Life among the unreached, 8

Map: Provincial Population Densities

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Provincial Population Density 2010

The task requires discipleship, which requires time

There are several aspects to the task (“The Great Commission”) Jesus gave us.

Matthew 24:14 is often cited by those passionate about finishing the task – “This Gospel shall be preached in all the world, as a witness to all the nations.”

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

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

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

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

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

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


Long Reads, 8

1. “How young is too young to talk to your kids about religion?” PBS. Makes for an interesting read, as it is written from the perspective of a non-religious parent talking to their children about spirituality and faith.

2. “Rise of the Latino Nones” in the USA.

More about agencies, churches, and when a church is a church

My recent post on whether ActBeyond should exist (in which I argued that it is essentially a body of believers) generated a couple of responses that highlight an interesting issue.

Both suggested that an agency isn’t a church because parachurch organizations (or parts of such organizations, like individual teams) don’t meet together, either for (a) fellowship (Acts 2) or (b) to influence their geographical surroundings.

So, if

  • an agency doesn’t get together with other agencies
  • or teams of an agency don’t get together with other teams
  • or agencies don’t get together with other churches
  • or people on a team of an agency don’t gather together

then it’s not a “church.”

My response: we ought not equate any specific human organization or its specific actions with the church (see “Church“).

Rather than think of the agency-as-church or the congregation-as-church or the small-group-as-church or whatever, we should consider the believers themselves as the ekklesia (the community of called out ones). When and where they gather, it is a localized expression of the ekklesia–an “instance” (an example or single occurrence), if you will–of the ekklesia.

Some of these “instances” or “examples” are recurring and formal (“weekly church service” or “monthly celebration” or “quarterly festival” or “triannual mission agency gathering” or “annual conference”). Others are recurring but less formal (“weekly small group gathering” or “accountability group”). Others are more one-time (“we got together for supper at Sally’s” or “we hung out for coffee at Starbucks”).

You might argue if a single instance lacks an “element” of church in its setting, it’s not “church.” But do we define “church” according to what we do, or according to who we are? Defining by what we do is a slippery slope. Many “churches” (e.g. weekly services) often lack one or more of these elements. I’ve been to vastly different kinds of worship services, some which have communion every Sunday and others which don’t, some which have offerings every Sunday and others don’t, some which sing and others don’t, and so on. Further, I am reminded that we are not saved by what we do! What we do follows from who we are, but does not define it.

So if any single instance of believers gathering can be a localized expression of church, then an “agency” is to these instances what a “congregation” is to similar instances – just a framework for people meeting each other and finding about times and places to gather. The organizational structure determines the people-boundary–who is “part” and who is “not”–mainly by who finds out about when/why/where we gather. The actual “ekklesia” – the community of believers associated with a specific structure – may be far larger than any single gathering time/place within the network. For example, the membership in Saddleback’s small groups is 120% the regular Sunday morning attendance–they have more people in small groups than on average come to Sunday morning services. (Consider: someone comes to a church on a regular basis, worships, goes to a small group, gives, but has not signed any sort of membership document–are they a member of the church? Maybe not for “voting” purposes, but I’ll bet anyone would think of them as “part.” So, what if they never come to Sunday morning service, yet regularly attend a Saturday night small group?)

So, if our agency team members gather only once every three years, and if any single team member rarely sees other Beyonders due to his location, is he part of a church? Well, maybe, because the “ekklesias” associated with, say, Beyond, can be larger than Beyond itself. Our team members are to be developing local teams. These are made up of the Beyonders and people who are not formally part of Beyond–local workers that we are helping (See “A team of 1“). In this sense, a Beyonder is part of Beyond, but also part of a local team, and both are ekklesia-instances. The Beyonder is thus part of a local Beyond-sparked ekklesia. This ekklesia may not be a “congregation” as we traditionally think of them, being more apostolically-oriented “church planting teams,” but they are ekklesias nevertheless.

Think about it: when a local apostolic team made up of nationals, Beyonders, maybe people from other agencies, gather together, talk about what’s going on, pray for each other, pray over each other, probably have a time of worship, usually have meals together, maybe even have Communion at the end of the meeting–how is this not “an ekklesia gathered”?

Of course, a structure (agency, church, small group, seminary, business, whatever) may have extra-Biblical goals for its membership. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. An agency may be focused on bringing the Gospel cross-culturally. A business may be focused on serving the surrounding community in some way. A church may be focused on discipling its members and reaching the surrounding same-culture community.

But I think when we consider the “church” (service) the “church” and the agency “not” the church, we define “church” as something other than what it actually is–the community of believers.