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How to change paradigms of church and discipleship

Q. How can we change the current paradigm in the US of “Church” and “Discipleship”?

This question (asked in the June Challenge Survey) might be asked of just about any country in the world.

Let’s say you have a paradigm or idea or policy or practical thing you want all (or at least most) of the churches in an area to adopt. For the purposes of this exercise, let’s think of this as not an idea about discipleship but something simpler: “Churches should advocate small groups as a way to have more effective church life” (or some similar phrasing). How will you bring this about? It’s obviously not easy, but there are four possibilities:

Go for denominations: Many or most churches will be part of church groups ranging from formal denominations to loose associations to very informal networks. You can’t change a denomination and expect all member churches to change: some churches will leave denominations if they disagree with the decisions, while others will remain but simply refuse to implement new policies. Still, going for individual niches is not a bad idea, because there are some commonalities and agreements within denominations, and there might be more willingness on the part of individual churches to try something.

Go for big churches. Megachurches are growing, and the practices of megachurches often trickle down to small ones. They are more likely to have young people, and more likely to have more involved people. Possibly because of the independence granted them by their size and budgets, megachurches tend to have more orthodox beliefs than any other size and to be more evangelical than ever (and also more ethnically diverse). What would it take to find a megachurch that is generally friendly to the idea (small groups, for example), implement it, and then pass their success on to other churches?

Go for small churches. On the other hand, you could also try and find smaller churches interested in growing but needing a different model to do it. (Unfortunately many small churches fall for the trap of having the pastor or a handful of powerful people in charge of everything–those sorts won’t work.) Going this route might be quicker than trying to change a megachurch’s policy, and if the small churches are connected in an informal relational network, a highly successful model might pass virally between them.

Start over. Perhaps the most direct way to change the church paradigm, however, is to simply plant a new church planting movement. While this can be quite difficult in places where the existing church is well established, it can also be the path with the least baggage and internal resistance. (And remember, a movement need only double from 1 person 15 times to “take” the typical city in America, and 17 times to “take” 90% of cities.)

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Quotes, 5

1. “Where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure.” ~Rumi

2. “Our confused society badly needs a community of contrast, a counterculture of ordinary pilgrims who insist on living a different way.” ~Philip Yancey

The question we don’t ask about discipleship

When I’m speaking at some event, or talking with people on the phone, and I tell them about massively growing movements (thousands! hundreds of thousands! millions! in just a few years!), they always ask:

  • How do you know they know what they need to know?
  • How do you keep out heresy–“believing the wrong things”?

Why? There are no studies on why people ask one of these questions and not the other, but I have my suspicion about the reason.

We ask because most Western believers, by default, understand discipleship as a course, as assimilated knowledge – “Teach them what they should know.” Moreover, we ask out of a view in which we perceive ourselves as knowing so much.

We ask because we already do know, and we believe knowing is important.

There is no way for us to feel too bad about the answer. Either:

  • they don’t know and we do, which makes us feel better about ourselves
  • they know and disagree, which makes us feel more in-the-right
  • or they know and agree, which confirms that we know what this fast-growing group knows

Unasked is:

  • “how do you know they are doing what they should?”
  • “how do you know they are being obedient followers of Christ?”

This question is far more dangerous, if for much the same reason: how would we answer it about ourselves?

The statement “a mile wide and an inch deep” can refer to obedience but far more often in context refers to depth of knowledge: “many who know very little about their faith.”

Given the difference between those who know a lot and do nothing vs. those who have little but work with what they have – I would prefer to be the latter. In the Parable of the Faithful Steward, Jesus would seem to be arguing much the same.

Futures Perceived, 5

1. “The automation myth: robots aren’t taking your jobs, and that’s the problem.” Vox.

2. “This computer vision company is tracking all the people moving through the cities.” Fast Company.

3. Google Translate’s app now instantly translates printed text in 27 languages. TechCrunch. App on a smart phone, using phone camera.

4. Smart Sniper Rifles with WiFi connections can be hacked by hackers: disable, change target. Wired.

5. A programming language for robot swarms: when it comes to robotic flocks, do you control each machine individually or the entire swarm overall? A new programming language allows both. MIT.

6. Intel’s new memory chips are faster, store way more data. Wired. Non-volatile (store without power, so potential alternative to flash storage), 1,000 times faster than existing chips in mobile devices, can store 10x more data than DRAM on PCs. Will drive a new generation of computers, phones, tablets.

Don’t Judge Callings

A lot of activists – including me – can be very passionate about the need to reach the unreached.

We call for the prioritization of the unreached, because right now about 90% of ministry resources devoted to evangelizing and pastoring the “Christian world” – e.g. countries where Christians (good, bad, or otherwise) are the majority. Another 9% or so are devoted to countries where Christians are a large minority and there is a strong church. And about 1% is devoted to countries, places and peoples where Christians make up less than 2%. So we get pretty up in arms about that imbalance.

But one thing we have to be careful about is this – when we talk in generalities about the need for missions to the unreached, we make people in specific feel bad about their own calling (if it’s not to the unreached).

In the heat of emotion we can make a lot of blanket statements (“If you’re not called to the unreached, then…”) that can make people feel rejected, unvalued, unimportant, and even worse rebellious and disobedient.

The heat of emotion can even cross over into policies (“We don’t support anyone not working amongst the unreached” and even “We’ve decided to restrict our focus only to the unreached and so we are dropping your support”).

Policy decisions need to be made with care, and with plenty of time for people to transition. Heated emotional statements need care (remember, one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control).

One of the things I say intentionally when I am teaching Perspectives Lesson 9 – “We don’t have enough workers for the unreached. Now, if God’s called you to go work with nominal Christians in London–you’d better not head to Nineveh! But if God’s called you to the unreached–you’d better not be headed to London’s nominals!”

Further, if someone contacts me and says they are called to work with nominals in London – you bet I’m going to help them find an agency, as much as it’s in my power to do so. It won’t be mine, but that doesn’t mean I can’t affirm their desire to obey and help them make connections.

Let’s not assume our understanding of the remaining task trumps an individuals perception of God’s calling on their life. They are personally responsible to God for their obedience–not to me, or to you, or to anyone else.

Life among the unreached, 5

1. “Afghanistan’s playgrounds.” Reuters Photoessay.

2. “What it means to be poor by global standards.” Pew Research.

3. “Boko Haram resurgence deepens humanitarian crisis in Niger.” Reuters. Also: Deadly bomb blasts rip through Nigerian bus stations.

4. “Cameroon says two suicide attacks kill 13 in Maroua.” Reuters. “…what appeared to be the deepest incursion by Boko Haram militants from neighboring Nigeria…”

5. “Are Muslim countries really unreceptive to religious freedom?” Washington Post. YMMV.

6. “South Sudan: the displaced find sanctuary on holy ground.” Al Jazeera. The holy city of Waat.

7. Busan, Korea’s 2nd city, in photos. Lonely Planet, via @jkpittman. Is Korea unreached? It’s a huge mission sending country, but still about 70% non-Christian and many are unevangelized.

8. “Adults before their time, Syria’s refugee children toil in the fields of Lebanon.” The Guardian. Having fled Islamic State and crossed the border, a lost generation skips school for a life of back-breaking hardship.

9. “Ethnic Yao minority women brush their [famously long] hair near a creek in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.” Economist on Instagram. More than 80,000 tourists a year visit the area.

10. “I don’t: South Korea’s Singletons.” Economist. 40% of South Korea’s adults (16% of South Korean households) are single (33% of women with degrees are single). Two reasons: exhorbitant cost of marriage, and so many daughters aborted in the quest for sons that 1 in 7 men lack a marriageable partner. See also Telegraph on China’s “50 million women shortage.”


Long Reads, 5

1. “The world’s most and least violent countries, mapped.” Fast Company. About half the world is becoming more peaceful, and leaving the unlucky half behind.

2. “Why you need more Muslim friends.” Relevant Magazine. 5 reasons we need to form true (not agenda driven) friendships with people of other faiths. (The 86% stat is not on the list.)

3. “Mapping Twitter topic networks: from polarized crowds to community clusters.” Pew Research.

4. “The social network illusion that tricks your mind.” MIT Technology Review. Important read for those involved in social media, as well as for offline decentralized networks of any sort (YWAM, Wycliffe, WEC, OM, ActBeyond, and even ‘grassroots’ denominations like Southern Baptists, et al). Because some nodes of a network are more connected (popular) than others, decentralized networks are possible – but any view held by these ‘popular’ nodes in the network may be viewed by the less popular nodes as a common, majority opinion in the network – even if the view itself is actually rare and isolated only to the popular nodes. (In short: we think everyone in our network likes mint tea, when really only the most popular people do, and everyone else likes coffee.)

5. “U.S. trafficking report: what to look for.” CNN.

6. “23 of the most amazing introverts in history.” Inc.

7. “A dirty little secret of singles on the field.” Alifeoverseas.com. Online dating (e.g. eHarmony). Not sure why this is a “dirty” secret?

8. “China’s global ambitions, with loans and strings attached.” New York Times.

9. “The sure thing: how entrepreneurs really succeed.” New Yorker. Malcolm Gladwell. They don’t really take a lot of risks.

10. “Render unto Caesar: party leaders in China persecute churches even as they try to co-opt them.” Economist.

Q. Why are missionary numbers going down?

This request has come to me more than a few times this month. I have checked with my good friends in missionary research, Michael Jaffarian and Bert Hickman (researchers associated with Operation World and the World Christian Encyclopedia) to double-check my own understanding. Here’s the consensus:

1. Missionary deployment from the United States is not precisely declining. They’ve been in the vicinity of 40,000 (on the Protestant side) from the USA (I don’t have Catholic sending readily to hand). They peaked around 44,500 in 1988, then declined to about 38,000 around 1992, and after that have shown a slight-but-steady increase since then. One source for analyzing this is the North American Mission Handbook, which is published about every three years (and another edition is in the works).

Update: in this Tweet from Gina Zurlo at the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, she says 127,000 missionaries are sent from the USA. This includes Catholics. I wouldn’t do a direct subtract from the 40,000 above, as the two numbers come from two different methodologies and different times, but at least it gives you some idea. Also, the link goes to their report which has sending by continent.

2. Some components of missionary deployment have been declining steadily for years, mainly the number of missionaries sent out by the mainline churches.

3. Many more evangelical missionaries are now being sent out directly through smaller agencies and from individual churches, and these are not showing up in many of the existing statistical measuring systems. I’m not sure how the Mission Handbook will deal with this in the next edition. For some time, however, it’s been known that a minority percentage of missionaries do this (for example, I know one missionary family that was rejected from many agencies and so formed their own agency and went–and were quite effective on the field).

4. The statistics I’ve cited above include people deployed for 4 years or longer. There appear to have been a slight decline in those deployed for 1 month to 4 years. No one measures the short-term trip takers (e.g. 2 weeks), but Michael told me about one study he saw that estimated those at 1.5 million per year.

5. Another factor impacting missionary deployment statistics is longevity on the field; I’ve written about this before. People are coming back faster than ever, for a variety of reasons. We wonder why people don’t have the “stick-to-it-ness” of those in days gone by, but one possibility is this: the ease of travel means people don’t have to make the same kinds of commitment to the field as people had to when it took a year to get to their station.

The bottom line is this: I don’t see that the number of missionaries sent from the USA is dramatically declining; in fact, it may very well be growing amongst certain groups. However, neither is it growing dramatically – certainly not to the levels “needed.” The West will never field all the missionary workers needed, so we need to think about how to use our existing force strategically to stimulate more workers and more works from other places closer to the harvest.

Charts Seen, 5

1. “Violence against women: an infographic.” Visual.ly.

2. “How U.S.-style megachurches are taking over the world, in 5 maps and charts.” Washington Post.

3. “Where in the world is the worst place to be a Christian?” UK Guardian.

4. “The least of these.” Missiographic Infographic.

5. “Offline population has declined substantially since 2000.” Pew Research. From 48% of US adults in 2000 to 16% today.

6. “News magazines Fact Sheet.” Journalism.org. Charts the decimation of some newspapers and magazines (single copy sales). Economist, Time and Newsweek most devastated. But many growing.

7. “Decline of marriage over generations.” Divorce is declining. But so is marriage. What’s growing: never married.

8. “Understanding China’s stock market in 8 charts.” WSJ.

9. “World economies, charted.” Howmuch.net.

10. “World’s biggest data breaches.” Information Is Beautiful.

Closure Conundrums

I’ve been thinking about writing a book on the idea of closure. I’m outlining several of the ideas involved, and many of my recent posts have been exploring some of these ideas. Part of the reason I’m doing this: I hear a lot of different (and patently wrong) ideas about closure. Some of these are set up as “straw men” – people argue against closure by arguing against them. Others argue for them. So, I’m trying to discuss these and the broader idea of closure itself. Yes, it’s opening a can of worms, but if an idea is good, it can withstand scrutiny.

Here are some of the ‘closure conundrums’ I’ve encountered:

1. If closure is defined as the world being 100% Christian, it’s impossible, since some will choose not to follow Christ.

2. If closure is defined as the world being 100% evangelized at one point in time, it’s impossible, since: babies!

3. “Ethnos” in Matthew 28:19 shouldn’t be interpreted as “tribes” but rather “all the rest of the world” – sort of like saying “Gentiles.” (Mark 16:19, for example, says “go into all the world [kosmos], preach to every creature [ktisis]”)

4. “Make disciples of all nations” doesn’t mean to evangelize/disciple everyone in the group, but rather get some from each, so that all are “represented” before the throne.

5. “Make disciples of all nations” doesn’t mean get some from each, but to make sure everyone has an opportunity (yes, the inverse of #4).

6. Matthew 24:14 interpreted to mean that once we have “finished the task” (however you define it) the clouds will open, the trumpet will sound, and Jesus will appear. But rapid evangelism to achieve this goal leads to shallow, unsustainable churches and believers.

7. Trying to finish the Great Commission impossibly fast leads to failure and abandonment of the project altogether.

8. Matthew 24:14 wasn’t about the Great Commission but about the fall of the Temple; it’s already been fulfilled.

9. We don’t have to worry about completing the Great Commission, because it’ll be “finished” during the Tribulation (see 100,000 evangelists and flying angels).

10. By prioritizing unreached peoples to reach “closure” we miss existing fields that are “white unto harvest” now.

Added: 11. ‘Closure’ as an invention of “western, corporate-minded Christians” who want to see problems solved, and is thus devoid of the Spirit of God.

Added: 12. The Great Commission was already completed (–parts of the world have become unevangelized and re-evangelized and unevangelized since).

Added: 13. We need to get people saved as fast as possible because the unsaved unreached are condemned to hell.

Added: 14. How can a loving God send people to hell when the one ‘magic ticket’ (knowledge of Jesus) they need to go to heaven is denied them by Jesus’ followers, who refuse to bring the Gospel to them? (This is a very sticky and challenging theological issue, and I’ve yet to hear a really good response to it.)

Added: 15. Getting people ‘saved as fast as possible’ is a shallow conversion that ignores deeper issues of discipleship and bringing the Kingdom into a place now.

Have you heard other conundrums? What should be added to this list?