Building disciple-making capacity in local churches

There are generally two kinds of people in church services:
* people who are new (typically “seeker” oriented)
* people who have been there longer (hopefully, but not necessarily, spiritually mature).

If you aim a church service toward the spiritually mature, then you risk alienating the seekers.
If you aim a church service toward the seekers, then you risk losing the spiritually mature.
Both must be enabled.

One broad method to do this is to aim the Sunday service at the seekers and use a different form of meeting (typically small groups) to address the needs of those who have attended longer and/or are more spiritually mature. Unfortunately we can end up with two different dichotomies:

  • new visitors at Sunday morning, long-term attendees in small groups
  • spiritually immature in Sunday morning, spiritually-mature leading small groups to which less-mature are invited

You can see the difference? One is based on chronology/age, and the other is based on spiritual development. Without an intentional process for helping the less-mature to mature, a church can very easily slip into the former category. The intentional process is a disciple-making “loop.”

Here’s one quickly-written example of how an intentional loop might work:

  • The Sunday Morning Service is used to introduce a topic, a story, which is then to be discussed in the discipleship groups. In this sense the pastor focuses less on resolving the story or drawing the essential three things to do, and instead suggests three questions to discuss in the groups.
  • Seekers/new believers are invited into “Level 0” groups. These are discipleship groups (I emphasize DBS) especially for people who are new. Level 0 groups discuss the Sunday Morning Story, Questions, draw out applications, etc, and generally model discipleship life for Seekers.
  • Some portion of these seekers will grow as disciples, and in their growth will eventually think about starting a study group as well, particularly when going through stories that emphasize helping other new people. At that point, it is the responsibility of the Level 0 host to help those people into a level 1 coaching group (which perhaps the host leads, or someone else). In other words, one of the outcomes of a Level 0 group is a seeker who wants to form a group and help others.
  • The level 1 group is specifically to help someone who has never formed a group, to form a group. It’s about the mechanics. It’s a short-term group. At the “end” of the group, someone should decide to form a group or go back to a level 0. Either is okay. People may flirt with the idea of forming a group for a bit, going in and out of level 0s, until they decide to take the plunge. People who are just starting level 0 groups thus become new hosts for an increasing number of Seekers at the sunday morning service. Eventually they, too, become level 1 leaders.
  • As the church becomes more and more oriented toward seekers, eventually someone will want to form a group of lost people – that is, something more evangelistic. Maybe there will be lost people who come to the church, or maybe intersected outside. This is a level 2. A longer-term discipleship coach in the church would need to be present to “prime this pump.” But eventually there would be a pool of level 2s – people who have formed groups of lost people – who would be able to coach level 1s to do this, just as there were a pool of level 1s that could coach level 0s.

This whole process becomes a leadership factory. As people rise up who are able to facilitate groups and the disciple-making process, the same process can be used in specialized segments of the church (youth, seniors, etc).

The whole process can likewise “tilt” the church so that seekers might show up both at the Sunday morning service and in discipleship groups. You may reach a point where there are more people in discipleship groups than attend the Sunday morning service (and you’ll have to decide if you’re okay with that).

The beauty of this process is that it constantly is migrating people through choice points to wider engagement, and models at each stage how this wider engagement is possible given everyone’s personal, family, work, social time constraints. It shows and then offers the opportunity to do the same thing, with coaching.

Christian Spycraft?

Wednesday, an op-ed appeared on CNN entitled, “Three arguments against covert Christian ‘spycraft.’” The piece articulates a perceived problem:

In order to get inside these “closed” countries, some missionaries pose as aid workers, teachers and business owners. Under the guise of work they think a hostile government or population will find valuable, they sneak in, concealing their true aim: to convert as many as possible to their religion.

It argues this approach is (1) fundamentally dishonest, (2) undermines the cause of religious freedom, and (3) puts a target on the backs of local Christians.

It suggests the solution is to “be honest” about one’s intentions:

Here is my challenge to those who want to bring their faith into the hard places: Stand in the open, in the light of day. If you want to convert others, open churches or engage in religious debate, be honest about that.

If honesty comes with higher risk, own it. And if you dare to say you are a businessperson, a teacher or an aid worker dealing with people at the height of human suffering, then by God, be great at it. Drop the shell game.

Show the world there is something worth living — and dying — for.

I agree with “not posing” as something we are not. When he says, “if you dare to say you are _x_, be great at it,” I wholeheartedly say, “Amen!”

On the other hand, I firmly disagree one should (must) always state up front one’s intentions about bringing faith into hard places. We are told to be “wise as serpents but innocent as doves.” I don’t think laying one’s cards on the table at the customs counter is very wise.

I am firmly against the idea of fake businesses, fake aid, fake education, and demanding conversion to receive blessing. But at the same time it seems to me one can enter on an honest platform of being a blessing, with the less trumpeted intention of being a further blessing (the Gospel) where possible.

Sometimes these arguments as cast as either/or situations, when they are more nuanced than that.

Cultural Christianity

At a recent workgroup meeting, the phrase “cultural Christianity” and “cultural Christians” was used frequently, in a negative sense. This is not the first time I’ve heard the phrase used, and nearly always to mean “people who aren’t acting like Christians” or “people who aren’t real Christians” or some other connotation.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with this meaning or its application, my thinker hat kicked in and I began asking myself – “is ‘cultural Christianity’ a bad thing? Why?”

“Cultural Christian” is a “shorthand” way of referring to something that we intuitively know. There have been some statistical definitions promoted before which get to the same concept (see “data on nominal Christians“). These measures of the unaffiliated and disaffiliated correlate to but do not directly measure the idea of cultural Christianity. The “cultural Christian” encompasses both the idea of the nominal or unaffiliated believer as well as the inactive believer who is a member of a church (“pew-warmers”). Barna has attempted to measure some of this idea.

Measuring Cultural Christianity doesn’t get to the question of whether it’s a bad thing, and why.

If “cultural Christian” means someone who claims to be a Christian but does not actively live out their faith, then it’s obviously a bad thing.

If “cultural Christian” means someone who professes to be a Christian, does “the basics,” but is not missional (evangelizing, disciple-making, church planting, etc), then it might be a bad thing.

Is non-missional Christianity ever acceptable? This may seem like a strange question for a person like me who is focused on missions, but it’s important to bear in mind. Because the answer is yes.

When is non-missional Christianity acceptable?

  1. Christianity (=follower of Christ, member of the Kingdom, etc) will endure past the end of the earth. When we are in the new Kingdom, there will be no need for missional outreach (maybe).
  2. Is it possible to have the Kingdom “now” in a place? To have a particular place/population be 100% Christian? If so, in such a place, there is no need for a local missional outreach. This may not in fact be the situation anywhere, but it is theoretically possible, and the endgame of all mission efforts. (Depending on how you feel about the Roman Catholic tradition, Vatican City would be the one place on Earth you could count as 100% Christian).
  3. Is it possible to have the Kingdom “largely now” in a place? To have a particular place “so Christian” as to not need a missional outreach from everyone? A place that is over 80% or 90% Christian would likely qualify, and there are many of those (although some would make the argument that in such places, a high percentage of the Christians are ‘cultural Christians’ and thus in need of missional outreach).

The point I’m making is this: it’s possible (but uncommon) for Christ-following to steep a culture in a particular place and a particular people such that “cultural Christianity” simply means “a Christian living within this Christian culture, raising up our children to follow Christ, living in peace and tranquility.”

In this place the Kingdom is now to the extent that it can be without the physical manifest presence of the King.

(Of course, while I’m speaking of cultural Christianity in a particular place, obviously one of the elements of Christianity is the need for missionary outreach to Samaria and the Uttermost even if Judea is reached.)

We may say this is rare on Earth, and it’s true, it is. Part of the job of mission is to make it less rare, knowing that the ultimate fulfillment won’t come until the end of the book.

Indeed, the problem with “Cultural Christians” depends on the definition, and if we use the non-missional definition, the problem is largely that they are trying to be cultural Christians too soon.


Are the swelling ranks of short-termers actually a bad thing?

Many people are bemoaning the lack of long-term commitment on the part of Millennials. They look at the astronomical rise in the number of short-termers vs long-termers. I’ve done this myself, in the past. But now I’m rethinking it.

Let’s look at the actual numbers. I graphed the number of foreign workers per million affiliated church members (both global figures) from the 2016 Status of Global Christianity, and this is the result:

Foreign Workers per Million Believers

In other words, yes, there’s a bit of a dip between 2000 and 2015, but it’s in the same order of magnitude. The actual number of long-term workers has gone up over time, but it’s still pretty much in line with the total number of affiliated Christians.

Go back and look at the old Mission Handbooks (published both by MARC and EMIS) and you’ll see that the absolute number of long-term missionaries from the USA hasn’t changed much over the years. And look at the recent book, “The Korean Missionary Movement,” and you’ll see the number of workers sent out by Korea has been oscillating back and forth around the 19,000 mark for several years, having risen from 10,422 in 2002.

[Update: In 2008, my colleague Michael Jaffarian published The statistical state of the North American Protestant Missions Movement, in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research based on the data from the Mission HandbookSee this PDF for the full article, starting at page 35. It shows clearly the number of long-term workers has remained largely the same–between 30,000 and 40,000–since 1972, despite the meteoric rise of short-termers. Michael is presently involved in the research-and-publication of the next edition of the Mission Handbook.]

So, maybe the challenge isn’t that we’re losing long-term workers in favor of short-term workers.

Maybe the challenge is that a lot more people are going short-term today than ever went long-term before.

Now, let’s ask ourselves: is this really a slacking off of long-term mission commitment – or simply an indicator of interest in missions that is now easier to satisfy in the short-term?

There’s a lot of stuff that’s easier than ever to do today. Taking pictures. Making videos. Becoming a Youtube sensation. Sharing your latest recipe. Learning advanced cooking skills. Watching Youtube DIY videos and learning how to overhaul your bathroom or kitchen or whatever. Opening a small store on eBay. Traveling abroad. Vacationing in some remote part of the globe. And so on.

A few years ago we bought an older home in Texas, that came with the blessing of a pool. It’s a blessing to my wife and kids, anyway. I’m not really much of a pool person. My kids love the pool during the summer, and they’re constantly begging me to get in the pool. They’re always thrilled and excited when dad finally wades in after several days of 100 degree temperatures of warmed the water to a point I can stand it. And they know I’m not going to be diving in the deep end immediately, especially if there’s the prospect that the water is actually colder than what they claim it is. I stick my toe in the shallow end, and tread in gently.

People who wouldn’t say “yes” to long-term – who wouldn’t cannonball into the deep end of the pool – are willing to stick their toe in the water in the shallow end. On reflection, I’m not sure that’s something we ought to be berating.

In reality, global trends and the global church have made it easier to “try out missions,” and perhaps we ought to be encouraging that, knowing that some percentage of those in the shallow end of the pool will eventually make their way toward deeper waters.

Less Sensitive Scales: The Countdown Clock

On the basis of yesterday’s post, I have created a new diagram: a Countdown Clock. The JPEG is here. Patrons will find the high res PDF version in the Patron Dropbox Folder.

Diagram - Countdown Clock

Less sensitive scales

I am occasionally very disappointed in reports.

When I was younger, we were so used to hearing “overblown reports” we had a phrase for it – “evangelistically speaking.” – from evangelists who inflated the numbers of respondents.

This still happens today. It happens among the unreached. I am aware of one case where a movement estimated at 500,000 was later assessed at less than 100,000.

Worse, there are arguments over reports. How big is the movement? Is it really that big? Is it 100,000 or 200,000? Is it 1 million or 3 million or 6 million?

When movements are very small relative to the population, it can be hard to find accurate data: “I don’t see all these reported churches.” Jealousies can figure in. We Christians are still broken people.

When numbers get argued with or refuted, it is discouraging. Where did who go wrong? Was it wilful? Was it accidental? Was it just too much excitement, too much “rounding up,” too much chasing after dollars?

There are many different possibilities, and I’m not going to belabor specific case examples. Instead, let me argue that we’re so eager for progress in the Great Commission, it’s almost inevitable we latch on too excitedly to numbers with little meaning in the wider context.

Imagine a church of 10 reports that after a year it is 20. This represents 100% growth – a doubling! Celebrate! The end is in sight!

But if the wider population context is a city of 100,000, then while we celebrate 10 more souls in the Kingdom, it’s really pretty meaningless in terms of the whole.

Imagine a movement in the midst of 10 million people reported to be 300,000. (This is a completely hypothetical example–don’t go looking for a movement that matches.) A later assessment says, “No, it’s really 100,000.”

Is it a big deal? On the one hand, yes: a difference of 2/3rds indicates some systemic reporting or assessment issues (or maybe other issues) need to be addressed.

But in the context of the wider population, 300,000 per 10,000,000 is 30 per 1,000 and 100,000 per 10 million is 10 per 1,000. The order of magnitude – the number of digits involved – has not changed. The difference in percentage is the difference between 3% and 1%, which is enough to tip some of the “reached” scales, but hardly enough to make a difference in the situation of Christianity in the population (it’s still 99% or 97% non-Christian).

When we get overly excited about changes at this level, it seems to me we’re not focused enough on the big picture – the “all” that have yet to be reached.

In order to avoid that, I think we need less sensitive scales.Rather than tracking the number of believers (which is always difficult anyway), I suggest we ought to consider a more stable, less changing scale–one where “when a difference is made” it is really a significant difference.

Rather than tracking the number of believers (which is always difficult anyway), I suggest we ought to consider a more stable, less changing scale–one where “when a difference is made” it is a different that is significant to the non-believers.a significant difference.

The Joshua Project 5-stage scale is one example of a “less sensitive scale.” The one I’m toying with right now is population per church, rounded to the nearest order of magnitude: 1 million per, 100,000 per, 10,000 per, 1,000 per, 100 per. (This is the inverse of churches per million).

Why use this? Wouldn’t churches per million or % Christian be easier?

Yes, perhaps: but it struck me today that measuring population per church keeps our focus on the right thing – the remaining task – and the number of digits within the figure can serve as a sort of “countdown” clock.

100,000,000 per church = 9
10,000,000 per church = 8
1,000,000 per church = 7
100,000 per church = 6
10,000 per church = 5
1,000 per church = 4
100 per church = 3
10 per church = 2


Computing the precise number of churches within a given population can be difficult, but the beauty of this system is the count doesn’t have to be precise. In a population of 100 million, 10 churches would get you to level 8; 100 churches would get you to level 7; 1,000 churches would get you to level 6; 10,000 churches would get you to level 5; 100,000 churches would get you to level 4. It would be fairly easy to know which of those “finish lines” you are across without knowing the specific number of churches. One could ask the simple question: “in this movement, are we talking about tens, hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands of churches”? Very few movements have thousands of churches!

Finally, the questions:

  • “what will it take” to get from 100 churches to 200 churches
  • “what will it take” to get from 100 churches to 1,000 churches

are very different.

Thresholds of reachedness: measuring them, and our speed in reaching them

The classic definition of “unreached” – “a people group lacking a church able to evangelize the group to its borders without cross cultural assistance” – lacked any way of measuring when the defined goal was reached. Depending on which missiologist you talk to, this is either a feature or a bug.

Various groups, including the Joshua Project, measure “reachedness” in terms of 5% Christian and/or 2% evangelical. (JP uses “or”; the IMB uses “and”; and this minor difference alone can create vastly different lists for reasons I leave to the reader to consider as a thought exercise.) The World Christian Database uses Worlds A, B and C: World A, less than 50% evangelized; World B, over 50% evangelized but less than 60% Christian; World C, over 60% Christian. The latter brings interesting nuance because it mixes the concepts of evangelization and conversion, bringing out the empty space in between; but some have faulted it because it counts all Christians as Christian.


To me, there is no “hard and fast” line at which a people group is either “reached” or “evangelized” (depending on which definition you wish to use); I am also of the theological persuasion that there is no hard and fast line of conversion – many people have trusted Christ long before they ever “prayed a prayer” or were baptized. There is a mystery to it, a personal nature to it, and thus a continuum. In fact, I might trust Christ with my soul far more after walking with him a few years than I did at the point of conversion or baptism; in my opinion we make a lot of conversion and not enough of transformation and discipleship, but that’s a topic for another day.

Of course, what we really want to do is measure the remaining task: at best, to figure out where we need to send resources; at worse, to figure out if we’re done and we can go play. In both cases, we essentially want to know if, for any given place, the task is done.

In an earlier post I suggested measuring places according to a simple scale. To determine whether a group is reached, I’m thinking about a similar approach using density of churches and current growth rates. The question of “is this place reached” breaks down into three components: (1) is there a church that can do the task, (2) is the church “doing the task” (and the best correlation, at the moment, seems to be whether the church is growing), and (3) is the task done, measured by whether the church is of a sufficient size.

It seems to me there are three thresholds to be considered:

  • Is there at least one Christian (or, alternatively, one church) per million? If not, the group has not crossed an engagement threshold. It needs missionary outreach: workers need to be sent from somewhere else. Who is best in position to send workers?
  • Is there at least one believer (whether local or cross-cultural) per 100,000? If so, the group is crossing another threshold – from foreign mission to home mission. My own research suggests a team can reach 100,000 people by catalyzing local workers. Home workers should be raised up using a multiplying strategy. Local workers should be moving into the lead, if not already there.
  • Is there at least one local believer/church per 10,000? We are clearly into the local church/five-fold-ministry threshold now. Any cross-cultural workers should be operating “deeply in the background,” providing  any necessary encouragement, connections, resources, etc. Local leadership should be firmly in the lead.
  • Is there at least one local believer/church per 1,000? Grassroots ministry should be in the lead. We are past the saturation threshold. The church should be sending workers to other places.

Each of these thresholds represent strategic milestones, and reaching each requires a different strategy and a strategic shift. They could be further linked to the local church growth rate to figure out whether a group is “reached”–in the sense of reaching the next milestone. The church growth rate shows whether the church is accelerating toward the next threshold (like a runner in a baton race) or falling behind. If you have two church sizes and a time span, you can calculate the specific AGR and compare it to the general population. If not, you can get an informed estimate and use a scale:

-3 Massive, exponential, multiplying decline: ex. Iraq
-2 Declining, faster than any population decline: ex. Central Asia, Germany
-1 Declining, but slower than any population decline: ex. Egypt
0 Stagnant, little or no growth or decline, probably in context of population stagnation
+1 Growing, but not as fast as the population: Russia
+2 Growing, faster than the population: India
+3 Rapid multiplication/growth: China

The benefit of such a system: it doesn’t just tell you the location of a country on the continuum, it also tells you the direction it’s headed. If your headed to your house, and your house is north of you, you need to know both where you are on the map–and which direction you’re going. I’m in the process of putting this scale on the District Survey, starting with countries and then moving to provinces. Once I get the newest version of the mapping software (my current version of AtlasGIS is crashing under Windows 10), I’ll map it as well. In the meantime, Patrons can watch the Patron Dropbox Folder; I’ll add some more spreadsheet PDFs soon there. (You can become a Patron and get access to the Vault here.)

In the meantime, you can do this kind of research yourself, using whatever list you favor. Just build these columns: country name, population size, population growth rate, size of the church, ratio of church to population, and church growth rate. Country names, population sizes and growth can be gotten from the UN population data set. Church sizes nationally can be gotten from Joshua Project. Church sizes, and more importantly, growth rate can be gotten from Operation World.

What would you do differently? Any bugs you see in this? Post your comments!

Globally mapping individual churches: I think I have a better way

I have been aware for some time of the idea of catalyzing the planting of churches within specific places and peoples, down to a ratio of approximately 1 per 1,000. This is the current iteration of the “Saturation Church Planting” idea.

I have been asked, a few times, by various people, whether I wouldn’t be willing to help with tracking the progress of this task by helping to compile a database of churches in order to insure there is a church within range of every 1,000 people (or so). I have generally resisted.

1, I think the idea of tracking “all of the churches in the world” is so near to impossible as to be impossible. (Particularly if one thinks, as I do, that a small house group can be a church.) There’s just too many. They form too quickly. They dissolve. They merge. Updating all the denominations in the world is so hard it’s usually only done about once every five years or so. Updating all the churches in the world would be several orders of magnitude more difficult.

2, I think the idea of compiling a database of all the churches in the world is an incredible security risk. And because it is an incredible security risk, getting the data with permission in some countries (I’m thinking of most those in the 10/40 Window) would also be next to impossible. (Who wants to manage a database of all the churches in Afghanistan, preventing it from getting stolen and used improperly?)

3, I am not sure the strategy is ‘right.’ The net effect would be for a group of people–largely Westerners,  probably–to compile a global database that measures the success of local efforts at a very fine-grained tactical level. At some point, it shouldn’t be up to “global” people to tell “local” people where they should plant a church–that’s the local responsibility.

I have an alternative, however, which I propose here, because I think it would benefit all researchers (global, national, local) and not just large networks attempting to do this.

Rather than try to track specific churches, I suggest that we estimate the density of churches planted in a region using a scaled variable.

For instance, I was recently in India helping with an assessment. One of the interviewed sources told me the district he worked in had “a church in every village.” Villages are, on average in that area, several thousand people (typically about 5 to 6 thousand). This tells me the density of churches was about 1:5,000. Another source told me his district had a church “in most blocks” (but blocks are made up of several villages, and not all of the villages had a church); this led me to an estimate of about 1 church per 100,000 people.

I suggest researchers define and develop a scale they’ll use with places [countries, provinces, districts, sub-districts, etc]. Something like the following might be appropriate:

0 = No church
1 = At least one church in this “place”
2 = Two or three churches in this “place”
4 = More than 3 churches, but less than 50% of the “sub-places” of this place have a church (e.g. <50% of the districts within a province each has a church)
5 = More than 50% of the sub-places have at least one church
6 = All sub-places have a church, some more than one
7 = All sub places have multiple churches
8 = Over 75% Christian
9 = Over 90% Christian

This simple scale could be re done at each level (e.g. provinces regarding districts, districts regarding sub-districts) to bring more granularity.

A scale like this would be fairly easily estimated, and could be gathered from informed sources within the country. It would be mappable, and provide a tool for strategic planning. At the province level, it probably would not be very dangerous even if it were made public [e.g. I could easily estimate the capital province of a highly restricted country is probably level 3 or 4 on this scale, without jeopardizing the individual work].

I think this is the best, most secure, most practical solution for monitoring church planting at multiple levels. I know it doesn’t answer the ethnicity question, but at very local levels places often correspond to peoples, so it wouldn’t be too much of a leap (and that question, anyhow, is best left to local leaders who understand the cultural and missiological implications anyway).

Population Concentrations ranked by Density

The District Survey (my personal, unpublished database of the world’s countries, provinces, districts, and subdistricts) contains 3,554 provinces (second-order political units), amounting to 6.8 billion people as of their 2010-ish censuses (some 2011 or 2012, etc).

Dividing each of these populations by the total area (in square kilometers) of the province gives us the density of the population. Generally, the more dense the province, the more urban the province; very often, extremely urbanized cities are, themselves, considered provinces. An example is the number one densest province in the database: Buenos Aires City.

We’ve all seen the maps: “half the world’s population is found within this circle.” Today’s post is related to that idea.

The 14 most densely populated provinces–each with over 10,000 per square kilometer–account for 90.5 million people, packing into about 5,300 square kilometers (at an average density of 17,111/sq km per province). This amounts to 1% of the world’s population. The provinces are, in order of density (greatest to least):

  • Buenos Aires City, Argentina
  • Al Qahirah, Egypt (Cairo)
  • Rif Dimashq, Syria (Damascus)
  • Beirut, Lebanon
  • Metro Manila, Philippines
  • Macao, China
  • Seoul, Korea
  • Jakarta Raya, Indonesia
  • Moscow, Russia
  • N’djamena, Chad
  • Algiers, Algeria
  • Delhi, India
  • Bangui, Central African Republic
  • National District, Dominican Republic

Provinces with over 1,000 people per square kilometer. There are 245 provinces (including those with 10,000 people per), with 866.6 million people, or 13% of the world’s population.

Provinces with over 500 people per square kilometer. There are 439 provinces (including those with 1,000 people per), with nearly 2.1 billion people or 30% of the world’s population.

Provinces with over 100 people per square kilometer: 1,513 provinces, with 4.9 billion people in 15.7 million acres, or 72% of the world’s population.

Finally, there are 2,041 provinces with densities of under 100 per square kilometer. They contain 1.8 billion people in 124 million acres, with an average density of 15 people per square kilometer.

How big is a square kilometer? It’s approximately equal to 0.3861 square miles; but if that doesn’t help, see this Wikipedia article for some examples of places.

The list of provinces with total populations, area, and density can be found in an Excel sheet in the Patron Dropbox Folder for Patrons, along with all our other published resources. You can become a patron with a gift of $100 a year.


Measuring Reached by measuring who is reaching out

The method that we use to measure the completion of the task (‘closure’) is critical: in determining the requirements for finishing, we determine the kind of race we are in and our strategy for running.

We are hampered in part by the fact that Jesus didn’t exactly give us a hard-and-fast rule for when we are done. Kids told to clean up the kitchen often want checklists; parents want kids to learn to do the job well, to completion, as it should be done. Checklists can be useful tools, but they can also be crutches: we can get to the point where we do the job for the checklist alone.

We in the missions community have our own checklists–generated by different definitions. I have written about the difference between unreached, unevangelized and unengaged before (and the concept of closure in general). I was happy to see my colleague Jim Haney’s recent article, “Hitting the Mark,” in the May-June issue of Mission Frontiers.

In it, he notes:

while the population of unengaged UPGs (UUPGs) decreased from 9% in 2005 to 3% in 2015 (as we engaged those groups, and they became no-longer-unengaged), the population living in engaged-UPGs has increased from 50% to 55%.

…during the last 10 years, the percentage of the world’s population living in people groups no longer unreached [that is, for whom the missionary task is “finished” -Ed.] has increased by only one percent (41% to 42%)…

…there can be only one conclusion–we are far more successful in engaging than reaching.

It is easier, given the way we are presently defining things, to move people off the unengaged list–just send a long-term team. This is the equivalent of getting the first runner in a marathon off the starting line. But it does not mean the overall race is won (as the folks at Finishing the Task have said to me many times).

We have to be very careful that we do not equate winning the “start” with winning the “finish.” The definition of “unreached” is a little challenging. The original definition, decided by consensus at the Chicago meeting in the 1980s, was: “A people group lacking a church with the resources to evangelize the group to its borders without cross-cultural assistance.” In simpler terms: a people group with a local church that can do the job on its own.

Deciding when there is a local church with this ability is the crux of the conundrum. It’s a qualitative evaluation, and kids seeking to clean the kitchen want a binary checklist: Yes/No, I have swept the floors. Yes/No, I have loaded the dishwasher. Yes/No, I have washed the big pots by hand.

To make matters a little simpler, the big lists have gone from a qualitative criteria (“can the local church do the job”) to a quantitative one: “surely a church that makes up 2% or 5% of the local population can”). And there are good reasons for this–I fault none of the listmakers for doing this, it’s a useful tool, just as a checklist is a useful tool for kids learning what it means to have a clean kitchen. But eventually, the tool shows its limitations.

Haney, again:

For example, IMB shows the French in France as less than 2% evangelical (unreached), but there are reports of new house churches planted each week.  IMB’s website,, shows that there is widespread church planting among this people group.  Metrics alone should not be used to evaluate whether a people group is reached.  It’s time to embrace a model which considers the qualitative essentials of what it means to reach a people group.

What might this measure look like? Haney suggests that we measure what we want to see happen.

I suggest one way to tackle this is to measure both church size (% Christian) and church growth rates (over time). If the church in a particular place among a particular people is growing slower than the overall population growth rate (or, especially, not growing at all, or declining) , this might be a very strong signal that the group is not reached.

Now, I did make a transition of my own in that measurement. Obviously, I’m not using a straight qualitative measurement–for one thing, it would be far too rude to ever be done (a white guy making an assessment of whether an African or Asian church is “able to reach”? I don’t think so), and second, qualitative measures don’t scale to every people/place. But there’s another transition: The original definition is “a church having the resources to reach”; and in measuring growth, I am actually measuring “reaching.” But I think that measuring the actual doing of the reaching (even if it is small) is a better correlation to the definition than church size is.

Measuring this is not an easy thing: we have to have numbers of Christians at two different times. Joshua Project does not presently track that, but it could begin to do so. The World Christian Database tracks it, but only at a national level. I think it might be easiest, at a start, to track it amongst Affinity Blocks and Clusters rather than all 12,000 peoples.

There are flaws in this idea, as with all ideas. I welcome your comments.