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Exponential Growth isn’t imperceptible

If you’ve ever read anything about exponential growth, you usually hear about how it’s hard to detect it.

An exponential growth graph looks like the following. (I generated this graph simply by starting with the number 1, and then doubling it 37 times.)

Exponential Growth #1

It looks like the line of growth goes “on and on” for quite a while until it “takes off” at about doubling 31, where it simply accelerates into the stratosphere. This has been called the “long tail” or the exponential growth curve. It looks like it’s flat until it accelerates: so it’s “hard to know” until it takes off.

Of course, this isn’t quite the reality. The line from 0 to 31 is only flat relative to the enormous doubling growth about to happen after line 31. In other words, there is growth from points 0 to 31, but that growth is miniscule compared to the doubling that takes place between 36 and 37.

If we “back up” in the sequence, we can see pre-31 growth is clearly obvious:


This again looks like the exponential curve taking off. It’s the same thing, all over again: but note the point between 29 and 30, which has the characteristic “hockey stick” exponential growth, looks like a “small” curve on the previous slide.

Let’s back it up to iteration 20, and see the same thing:


And then, once more, to iteration 10:


Exponential growth isn’t something that takes a long time to see. It’s not like you have to wait 30 weeks (or 30 months) and then suddenly it takes off.

If you know what to watch for, you will see it early–as early as iteration 4 (whether that’s hours, weeks or months).

Doubling isn’t magic or faddish: it’s a repeatable system. And if you aren’t seeing doubling early you won’t see it later on either.

If your processes are yielding doubling, it’s time to review them. If you can’t measure doubling, it’s time to institute measurement systems that can.

What makes DBS powerful

One of the reasons the Discovery Bible Study (DBS) method is so powerful (and so attractive when it is used): group participation.

The 4 questions commonly used in DBS (what does it tell you about God, people, what is there to obey, and who will you share with) are aimed at immediate application.

When you have one teacher’s perspective on the Scripture, it’s usually aimed at a larger group (e.g. a pastor for a church of several hundred or thousand, or a speaker at a conference). Thus the ‘lessons given’ are usually very broad concepts, and applying them to our personal life can be problematic.

In a ‘seeker-driven church,’ the public sermons are often aimed at people who are newer to the faith; people who are older in the faith can struggle without material that fits their situation.

The people in a small group, however, are often closer in life situation to you.

When we ‘go around the circle’ and share what the Holy Spirit is prompting in us for each of the questions, the things we see and the things that we apply have a greater chance of helping someone else in the small group–because they are closer in life situation.

Plus, of course, we get the chance to week after week follow each other’s stories, share with each other, encourage one another, and build each other up.

Gathering together in a larger group for corporate worship is powerful. But Discovery Bible Study in a small group can bring a completely different and equally important dynamic of shared spiritual life–and that, passed on, can be very attractive to seekers.

One error that we can make, which can short-circuit this, is to try to replicate the ‘corporate church’ experience in the ‘small group’ setting. We do this when we have one teacher rather than group participation, or when we are unwilling to sit in a bit of a silent moment and wait for the next person to respond. Group participation, being the church together, is critical–so let’s encourage our small groups not to take ‘easy ways out.’

Adjusting Behavior Accordingly

If you’re not tracking direction, speed, acceleration, resistance, you have no idea if what you’re doing will get you where you want to go.

To successfully get from point A to point B, whether it’s in the physical world, or the worlds of ideas, economics, politics or religion, you still need to know these.

  • Direction – what your actions are actually achieving, the direction it is propelling someone in.
  • Speed – how fast you are acting, how fast your actions are leading to responses.
  • Acceleration – how much your speed is increasing over a set period of time
  • Resistance – anything holding you back

If you’re in Texas and you want to get to Grandma’s house in Minnesota but your direction is taking you east to Florida, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re going–you’re not going to get there.

If you’re aimed in the right direction, but you’re going 5 MPH, you’re probably not going to get there “fast enough.”

If you’re going 5 MPH but you’re accelerating 5 MPH/sec, you might be fine in about 10-12 seconds (depending on which direction you’re pointing). (This is where movements are powerful: acceleration that doubles each time-segment starts slowly but ends up very fast–but you have to be measuring the acceleration.)

Resistance – if you’re going 60 MPH but you’re chained to the house, you’re just spinning your tires.

You can replace each of these examples with more real-world cases. If you’re not tracking any of this stuff, you’re flying blind, and the chances of you hitting your target are so nil as to be nonexistent.

There’s no sense setting a goal like “be at Grandma’s for Christmas” unless you’re tracking what it takes to get there, and adjusting behavior accordingly.

The price of fear

I’ve spoken to a lot of you who are semi-interested in missions but don’t take the leap.

I often wonder what the real reason for that is.

Getting to the “root cause” – asking “Five Whys” – is often a challenge. And we aren’t always honest with ourselves.

Nevertheless, it seems to me most of the time the root cause is fear: fear of getting it wrong. Fear of missing out. Fear of going to the wrong place, the wrong people, and therefore being pre-destined to failure.

Truth: you will have failures along the way. No matter what road you choose, no matter what you try, you will experience failures. Everyone does. Failure is part of the learning process. We fail because we’re trying to learn what doesn’t work, and we rarely get it right the first time.

Tactical failures are not strong indicators of strategic choice mistakes.

“Choosing the right place” – e.g. getting the calling right – does not mean there will be no failures. Therefore, you cannot use failure as an indicator that you have chosen wrongly.

Second, at least in the cause of missions, I strongly doubt you can really “choose wrongly.” I am not denying the concept of a calling, but I think it’s something we need to hold very loosely. A strong sense of calling in mission is a very important piece of inspiration that keeps you going when the night is darkest, and when the failures seem to just keep coming.

But if we view this as a “spiritual war,” then no matter what part of the battle you are in, you’ll play an important part.

Consider the classic example of World War II – who was more important: the presidents, the generals, the sergeants, the pilots, the soldiers, the cooks, the mechanics, the farmers at home who fed the nation? We can argue who was most “influential” but every role was important and necessary and needed.

What kills us isn’t a little bit of movement in the wrong direction – that can be easily corrected.

What kills us is no movement at all.

When to listen, and when to mute

Last night I made the decision to mute several keywords on Twitter. (You can do this on the Tweetbot social media client.)

I follow a lot of journalists and foreign policy analysts on Twitter. It’s an important source of news and analysis about events and trends impacting the unreached. (It’s also a channel for me to tell the story of the unreached.) As one of my primary sources – thinkers and writers who refer to important long-form reads – it’s key that I use it well.

Unfortunately, the brou-ha-ha that is the American election continues to swamp Twitter, and a lot of people – including the journalists and analysts I normally follow – are commenting on everything happening in the aftermath.

This leads to a challenging situation. I want to avoid an “echo chamber” effect where I only hear opinions and ideas that I already agree with. On the other hand, the American election and its aftermath is not really something that I am focused on, work-wise. With the exception of the issue of diaspora ministries, most of the unreached are only barely affected by the election.

So last night, as I said, I made the decision to mute some keywords – Trump, Clinton, Bannon, Recount. Almost immediately, this made a tangible difference in my timeline, and I noticed about a half dozen articles that otherwise would have been drowned in the “noise.”

I do not advocate disengagement from the world, but sometimes in order to focus on the thing we are called to, we will have to ignore some of the “noise.” We do not have to listen to every voice clamoring for our attention. In the end, time and attention are (perhaps?) the two scarcest commodities we have, and we need to use them wisely.

The importance of Done.

“What is measured, gets done,” says the famous quote.

Correlate: what can’t be done or seen to be done, can’t get measured. (And therefore remains undone.)

The “done” state is one of the most important factors in defining a task. “How will you know it is finished?”

Implicit in “done” is the value to be delivered. When “done” defines “value desired,” we can ask if there’s a better way to deliver the value, and if the value was truly delivered (thus, auditing the “done.”)

“Done” also allows you to work background in multiple miniature “done” steps, which is the genesis of a strategic plan.

Collecting holidays

It’s Turkey Day in America – the day we set aside for feasting and thankfulness. Today, our family is gathering with two others to celebrate and be thankful.

When we lived abroad in Southeast Asia, we chose to celebrate Thanksgiving, typically gathering with other expats, even though it wasn’t a local holiday. Some might think this an example of “not localizing,” but I don’t think there’s any shame in collecting meaningful holidays.

We don’t go out of our way to celebrate Chinese New Year and Dewali here in the States, but we’re very aware of them and appreciate them. We have found ourselves in Asian markets on Chinese New Year and picked up some “holiday” food similar to things we ate in Asia. It wasn’t quite as good but it stirred the memories, and that was good.

I know not every holiday has great origins – people debate the beginnings of Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the history behind them – but to me, holidays are what your family makes of them. Holidays can be redeemed in meaning; new “personal” meanings can be written; they can become meaningful; they can be celebrated in other places.

The most important part about a holiday is the memories you re-share and the new memories and relationships you forge, anyway.

Putting the trees in the context of the forests

One of the best ways to make sure a task gets done, to me, is to put the tree in the context of the forest.

I use a Bullet Journal to organize: I find this to be one of the best ways to recording tasks that need to be done “on the fly.” Over the past few weeks, however, I have begun using a Scrum Board as well.

Some of you are familiar with a Scrum board. The term “Scrum” comes from Rugby; the process is well known in tech circles. The best book I’ve found to describe the “why” and “how” of a scrum process is “Scrum: the art of doing twice the work in half the time.” It’s by the author of the process, and it explores how to implement Scrum, the “why” behind each part of the process, and how it can be used not just in tech circles, but in the non-profit sector too.

A scrum board is basically a big white board divided in three columns: “To Do,” “Doing” and “Done.” Sticky notes define the tasks. You put sticky notes up on the board and move them from category to category. At the end of the week, there’s a system for measuring velocity of progress, and then a reflective step to determine how you can go faster.

The real power of this system, I’ve found, is that it enables me to define categories of actions – Scrum calls this “stories” – but basically it’s an overarching “line” of to-do items that are part of a process. This “tree” (task) is in that “forest” (process), and the process is being run for this reason.

Remembering why I am doing something helps give me more motivation to do it. Knowing the “done” state of the process also helps me when the task is kind of “boring.”

If you want a great system that will help get you into a process mindset, check out the book.

The Purpose of Peoples Lists

The purpose of a people group list (e.g. Joshua Project, World Christian Database, is not to deliver the most hyper-accurate census of all of the ethnicities in the world.

That would be virtually impossible, anyway. No one – not even the people in the people group – precisely agrees on where the boundaries of the people groups lie. When, for example, does a Somali stop being a Somali and start being a Somali American… and when do they stop being a Somali American and just be American, much as many other peoples in America have done? We can debate (hotly!) “when” it happens (and “when it should” happen). More, the demographics of people groups are changing all the time due to birth, death, immigration and emigration. So, just like a census, it is an order-of-magnitude estimate of where the people group is in a given year–but it can’t ever be accurate down to the last digit.

What, then, is the purpose of a people group list? There are two:

One is to provide strategic intelligence about peoples and places: to explore what makes a people group in this place different from the same group in other places and from other groups in this place. To explore why this group is reached or unreached: what factors were strategic opportunities and barriers. Not to describe a group in extreme detail but to provide actionable suggestions for opportunities for the Gospel.

Two: provide a “to-do” list. Every people group on the list is equally valuable in God’s eyes. Making certain that the Great Commission is fully completed in each group (presence, blessing, witness, proclamation, discipling, gathering in community, baptism) is critical. Some groups are further along in this process than others, and so have different elements of the task “left to do.” Various agencies, like parts of the body, are equipped to minister to different peoples in different situations. We need the whole world to reach the whole list.

Much of the debate about unreached peoples lists centers around “which are unreached” – that pesky on/off switch – because we have a perception of limited resources going around, and so we have to decide where to allocate scarce quantities of money and missionaries.

While I acknowledge this present reality, I suggest the better route in the future is to devote some precious resources to changing the resource pool in practical, achievable ways, so that we have more manpower to reach the total list. (The appropriate manpower for specific entries on the list is a different subject, and one I’ve started to tackle here and here.)

Missional Labor Clouds

This brief post uses the neologism ‘labor clouds.’:

It turns out that John’s new company NewCo is using Work Market to create and manage a labor cloud of writers and editors to create a new publication. Some of these writers and editors are full time employees, some are contractors, some are true freelancers. In the “labor cloud” model, you manage all of the labor you need to get something done in a single platform instead of three (or four, or five, or six).

You can find labor clouds in most mission organizations as well. On Friday, I wrote about one aspect of the nationals vs. expatriate discussion.

The reality is, most mission organizations feature a “labor cloud” that is a mix of headquarters staff, roving consultants and experts, long-term expatriate workers, short-term teams, and nationals. To say that mission agencies “don’t send long-term workers and support nationals” (or vice-versa) is to ignore this reality.

Beyond, my agency, is a mission-sending organization. We send long-term workers. But our workers are very much “in the background” on the field, concentrating on raising up nationals who have a heart for their people. We use the acronym “MAWL” (Model, Assist, Watch, Leave) as part of our operating philosophy, and we truly believe the national should take the lead while the expat never “teaches” anything that is not reproducible by nationals at every level.

Do we support nationals? We don’t pay salaries. But in every non-salary sense of the word, yes, we do support nationals. We want to get as close to E-0 evangelism as possible, because through E-0 and E-1 movements spread rapidly through a people group, and then through E-2 and E-3 it jumps the boundaries.

Put another way, labor clouds are just another aspect of “the whole church bringing the whole gospel to the whole world.”