Closure: don’t rush it

The concept of “Closure” (finishing the task) has gotten quite a bit of attention from me. Today, it’s going to get some more. “Closure Conundrums” is a quick index to everything I’ve written on the subject.

Trying to finish the Great Commission “impossibly fast” can lead to failure and abandonment of the project altogether. What is “impossibly fast”?

Let’s think about the idea of “closure” (e.g. the task is finished) at three levels.

First is the “micro” level – me and my house. “Closure” is complete when everyone in my house has ready access to the Gospel. Generally, if I’m a believer, you could say the house has reached closure because they have me. Obviously there are some households where someone is a secret believer, so we might argue about whether the others actually have access to the Gospel. Most conservatively, let’s say that if I’m an open believer, the house has reached closure.

Next, there’s my neighborhood – the immediate web of relationships around my household. This could include people who live in the same area, people I work with, people I buy goods from, people who regularly come to provide services. How long would closure take with these people? If I’m an open witness, we could estimate anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to a year. (This doesn’t mean they would all become believers: finishing the task does not mean everyone will believe.)

Third, there’s the wider area around me. This might include 2nd and 3rd order social connections – perhaps as much as my town or community. My own city of Garland, Texas has a population of about 250,000. By my research (see “a task too big for loners” as an example), this requires at least 2 movement strategy teams, and perhaps as many as 20 to 30 local worker teams (each with ministries covering about 10,000 people!).

This third level of closure requires another order of magnitude of responsibility, thinking, planning, and strategy than either the household or the neighborhood. While my neighborhood might take a year for me to individually reach, this third level requires time to identify the Strategy Teams, and then time to identify, recruit and train the Local Teams, and then time for those Local Worker Teams to implement whatever strategy (perhaps 10 local houses each covering 1,000 people…) to reach “closure.”

It’s no wonder when considering the third level of closure that planning and execution could take up to 2 to 5 years before any significant movement is seen. It takes time to recruit the workers, not just to evangelize the lost. It takes even more time to disciple converts. (“Not being able to capitalize on widest exposure is the illest of omens”–read this examination of the Peach social network, which this analyst feels is dead, and see the lessons for movements).

If we try to rush an evangelistic program and “mass evangelize” 200,000, we’ll probably have to use “brute force” industrial methods. These will not result in an organic movement capable of seeping into the total audience, nor an organically-grown church capable of reaching the next generation. At best, they will result in some converts and simply have to be repeated in a few years time when the next generation is older. At worst, they will be ignored as easily as advertising.

When people try to rush the task, and we don’t give enough time to put in place the kind of resources necessary to reach 100,000 or more people, early failures will lead to discouragement and quitting. All sorts of reasons are given. But the simple fact of the matter is, as parents tell their children everywhere: effectively doing a job means taking the time to do it right. Jesus took time to train his disciples – at least one and maybe two before sending them out the first time. Why should we think it won’t take time for us?

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.

 

Finishing the Task will not bring Jesus back

There is a fairly addictive idea, which we get from reading Matthew 24:14.

Matthew 24 is all the signs of the end. There’s a long litany that are called “birth pangs,” so many have concluded that (like birth pains), the more intense and the more frequent the signs, the closer we are to the end of days.

Verse 14 says, “And this Gospel of the Kingdom shall be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end shall come.”

And from that we get the idea “finishing the task” of the Great Commission will also “bring Jesus back.”

It seems to me (and to many others) that this can lead to greatly impassioned mobilization calls, but it is a very bad idea, as it is very poor theology.

First, it implies that by linking the two things together (“the task is done” and “Jesus will appear”) we can know when Jesus is coming. But this is something Jesus said specifically we could not know (‘no man knows the day or the hour, not even the Son of Man’). Some get around this by suggesting we might not know the precise hour, but we could know the general time. 2,000 years of trying to predict the day and the hour, even generally, have proven our utter failure to do so. Sure, one day, someone will “guess right,” but that will be pure coincidence.

Second, it could go so far as to imply we “control Jesus.” We determine, not God, when Jesus will come back. Very, very bad theology.

Third, it could imply that we could keep Jesus from returning. Yes, I know, you think no one would want to do that. But I suggest the theoretical possibility alone is enough to disprove the interpretation.

As Lewis so quotably said, and as I am fond of quoting: He is not a tame lion.

Clearly, the verse links the two things. In this sense, it is both prophecy and promise (and many disagree about the specific interpretation of the verse). But while it can be hopeful inspiration to us, it should never be taken to be some kind of control over history.

We don’t work to finish the Great Commission in order to bring Jesus back. We don’t have any power over that.

We work to finish the task because he gave it to us, and because we love him, we want to obey him. That’s it. That’s all.

Does discipling the nations mean each individual nation or all the nations, generally?

I am writing an ongoing series about Closure Conundrums. Here’s the original post, with links to the individual articles.

This is Closure Conundrum #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]”).

I’m not a trained theologian. Like C. S. Lewis, I am a layman who has found a weak spot in the line where God is calling me. So my comments on the interpretation of this Scripture are from that perspective, and wiser heads than mine know more about the Hebrew and the Greek involved. From my perspective, however, “ethnos” in Matthew 28:19 doesn’t have to mean one or the other – it can mean both.

For those of us who’ve spent a long time thinking of “make disciples of all the nations” equating to “make disciples of each individual nation from a list of nations,” this is perhaps a hard interpretation to wrap our brains around.

A useful analogy might be pointing to a table of 20 pies, each sliced into multiple slices, and the command, “Make meals of all the slices.” This could mean either:

  • Take a bite out of every slice
  • Eat every slice, entirely (=eat all the pies)
  • Considering the “slices” as “one whole set,” eat “of the set,” which means you can eat out of any, some, many, most, or all of the slices.

Nitpick? Yes. But of these differences are big arguments made.

Most of the time, when I hear this conundrum or argument, it’s because someone’s reacting against a list mentality.

We want to define the remaining task. So, we make lists. We see the many peoples without workers, and too few workers available. Rather than sending lots of workers to one place so that everyone in one place can hear, we say, “Why should anyone hear the Gospel twice when some have not heard it once?” And we take the workers we have and divvy them up as best we can over multiple peoples on the list.

When we get frustrated — too few workers, too many peoples on the list — we start getting angry. When someone comes to our agency with a sense of where God is calling them to serve, we may slip into judgement mode. We judge people’s perception of their calling and judge the church based on the list. Obviously, we don’t have enough workers to reach the peoples on the list. Someone’s not obeying. It might be.. YOU! Maybe you think you’re called to France, but let me suggest… you’re actually ignoring God’s calling on your life to Afghanistan and martyrdom! Yes, we know what you really want–a life of ease in Paris… you terrible would-be quasi-missionary…

And then comes the inevitable response: Wait, the Great Commission is to go into all the world to all the nations, and French people are a nation too! I’m out there among the nations just as much as you are!

Let the arguments commence! Bring out the tar! pitchfork! feathers!

We can take both these arguments too far. The list-side can rapidly become an idol to be followed over the leading of the Holy Spirit. But the non-list side can rapidly say “He just meant to get out among the nations, not that every single individual nation needs to be reached.”

Two question seem to present themselves:

1. Did Jesus mean reach every single individual nation?

2. How do I know my calling is valid? If I’m called to someone who has heard lots of times, am I as important and valuable and loved as someone who’s called to people who haven’t heard once?

My answer to the second question is, YES! The real problem isn’t that some have heard twice, or three times, or ten times, or a hundred. The real problem is, some haven’t heard once. The solution is not taking from those who’ve heard a hundred times and giving to those who haven’t heard once, or telling people their calling is somehow worthless because they are going to a people who’ve already heard lots and lots of times. Taking someone gifted as a Billy Graham – a home evangelist – and redeploying them somewhere else (e.g. Pakistan) is not necessarily going to solve this. All that means is people back home will hear less (than they might need to), and the person in question may not be a gifted cross-cultural missionary. This is a scarcity model. God has enough supply to meet the need, so we need to mobilize His supply. We need to seek his abundance for the unreached. (“If you know you are called to France, I’ll help you find an agency that will get you there. But if you don’t know where you’re called yet, can I ask you, beg you, plead with you to pray earnestly about whether you might be called to those who have never heard once?”)

Likewise, my answer to the first question is: YES! We must never use lists as filters for judging people, but we should use them as a sketch of where we are in the process – of what we have left to do. To me, “…of all the nations…” is both a nod to the many slices of the world, and to the whole – French and Fulani, Germans and Gujarati, Americans and Assamese. By way of analogy: the point isn’t to eat a bite out of each slice, but to have the pie! The slices aren’t important, the pie is. Whether the pie is cut in quarters, eights, or sixteenths, Jesus wants the whole pie. I don’t think Jesus is concerned as much for our lists as for the world described by the lists. God loves the whole world – people, not languages – birds, not flocks – and wants every last sheep to be found.

 

FInishing the Task does mean everyone will be able to hear

“Closure” is the missiological technical term for “finishing the task.” Not everyone, however, thinks the Great Commission is a task that can be “finished” at a single point in time. And some have defined “closure” in such a way that it makes it difficult to think it’s possible. Closure Conundrums is my series of blog posts (and maybe a book) on the challenge of understanding what “completing the Great Commission” actually means. This post is the second conundrum on the list. I welcome comments about aspects of this conundrum I haven’t addressed (as it will inform the book).

Conundrum #2. We will NOT have reached closure when everyone has heard the Gospel message.

This is pretty tricky, but bear with me. Romans 10 says (v. 8-15):

What does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,”[d]that is, the message concerning faith that we proclaim: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,”and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. 11 As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” 12 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, 13 for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 15 And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

This mirrors the Great Commission of Matthew 28 (and other passages) where Jesus commands us to “go” into all the world and proclaim the Gospel, making disciples of all the nations.

While we realize that “Finishing the Task” does not mean everyone will become Christian, it does mean we must give the opportunity to follow Christ. And since we don’t know who will accept this opportunity, no one can be left out from the giving.

Therefore, all must hear. Which means they must have something to hear, and someone to hear it from.

The problems we face in making sure every single individual alive on the planet right now has heard the Gospel at least once in their lifetime are enormous. They have, in fact, kept us from achieving this goal so far.

But “everyone hearing the Gospel at least once in their lifetime” isn’t (probably) the “Finish the Task” line–not technically. Because we can’t be just about the people alive on the planet right now. We have to think about the people who will be born in the future!

I’ve written about the idea of sustainable closure before. Boiled down, it’s simply this: we can’t expect to easily reach a point in time where everyone has heard – at least not in the near future. So, let’s say a mission effort “evangelizes” all of Nepal. Tremendous! Everyone has heard the Gospel! Now, a parallel effort is working to do the same thing in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. But, the challenges are far greater in those places (persecution, restriction, larger populations). In the same year that Nepal was evangelized, babies were born. In the years it took for Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan to be evangelized, those babies have grown up. If we rely on a successful one-time mission campaigns to evangelize a place, the campaigns will have to be repeated every five to ten years for the children that were born in the interim.

This is why the definition of “unreached” is so important – it captures the idea that the job is done when there is a church able to evangelize each successive generation.

The “task” must be finished over and over again in each place until all the places are finished.

This is why the missionary task is not evangelizing people but the planting of local, indigenous, contextualized ekklesia communities that are capable of evangelizing the people.

When we mix up the missionary task and make it all about presenting the message to the most people we can within the limited time we have (whether it is 2 weeks, 2 years, 4 years, 20 years or a lifetime), the net result is a missionary extracted from the big picture, who makes eternal difference to some but cannot make an eternal difference to the many who come after. This is good work for those he reaches, but does nothing to the grand “finishing of the task” which will be important to billions.

I do not think this is all that Finishing the Task means. As this series continues, I’ll be outlining a few other items and addressing a few other conundrums.

Finishing the Task does not mean everyone will believe

“Closure” is the missiological concept of finishing the task.

Not everyone, however, thinks the Great Commission is a task that can be “finished” at a single point in time.
And some have defined “closure” in such a way that it makes it difficult to think it’s possible.

Closure Conundrums is my series of blog posts (and maybe a book) on the challenge of understanding what “completing the Great Commission” actually means. This post is the first conundrum on the list. I welcome comments about aspects of this conundrum I haven’t addressed (as it will inform the book).

Conundrum #1: We have reached closure when the world is _x_% Christian.

This seems obvious closure cannot be defined as 100% Christian. When Jesus said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations,” we can’t interpret this to mean “make everyone in every nation a disciple.” Some chose not to follow Jesus (Pharisees, the Rich Young Ruler, the people in his hometown), and Jesus made it clear what happened to him would happen to us. The simple reality of promised persecution indicates not everyone would follow. To hammer it in, Jesus instructed his disciples what to do if the town rejected their message.

It also seems obvious that finishing the task must involve some people becoming Christ-followers. Jesus commanded us to make disciples, and he wouldn’t command us to do something that was impossible.

So, we can know that when closure is reached, Christ-followers will number somewhere between 1 person and 100% of the world. And if that’s the case for the world, it must be the case for any given place or people group.

Three alternatives might then be developed.

1) Closure is impossible since the world will never be 100% Christian. This is a straw man argument: we set up an unrealistic goal and use it to claim you can’t interpret closure.

2) Closure is (or will be soon) finished, since we have ‘made disciples’ in every place/people. Usually this argument relies on some English rendering of a verse like Colossians 1:23, “if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant” (NIV). But these sayings don’t mean that literally every individual had heard; another rendering is “the Gospel has been preached all over the world” which is just a big statement meant to communicate it’s not just for you. There are plenty of places and people that have not heard yet.

But there’s an easier refutation for this: Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Matthew 24:14 can be interpreted to mean his return is somehow tied to this commission (although there are problems with this, which I’ll deal with in another post). Other Parables, like the Faithful Steward, tell us we should be working to make a profit for the King until he comes. The bottom line is: if trumpets haven’t sounded, we should keep working.

3) Closure defined as a certain percentage in a certain place… We know that ‘closure’ will involve a percentage of Christ-followers between 1 and 100%. The problem is, of course – we don’t know how many or who will respond to the call of Jesus. Making judgments about individual people is dangerous. Muslim imams and Hindu Brahmans and Buddhist priests and shamanistic witch doctors and even hardened atheists have followed Jesus, just as Paul the chief persecutor once did.

…so we get the apparently responsive few from the place and move on. While we cannot define “closure” or “the task finished” as 100% Christ-followers – nevertheless because of this problem our plans and strategies must be able to reach 100%, so as to encompass every individual who might respond to the call. (Because it might, for example, be 99.999% – and that’s short of 100% of the current world population by just 70,000 people). Moreover, our plans must scale not just to 100% of the existing population, but 100% of the future population, too. Because: babies! But I’ll cover that in a later Conundrums post.

or we wait until we reach 100%. We have this idea that “closure” is not reached and so we can’t go on to another place. But while we wait to reach a certain percentage that might never be attained, others are living and dying without hearing once hearing Good News. The problem with this approach is the Myth of the Scarcity of Gospel Workers, which says we only have so many people and so we argue about where to place them. That, too, is the topic for another post.

percentage christian by continent 1970-2020

It nevertheless seems that we cannot define closure as a certain number or percentage of Christians, since Scripture gives no indication in the verses related to the Great Commission of what the response might be. The best we have is in Revelation, which has an image of every tribe, nation, and tongue before the throne (which is why we make lists). But we don’t know how these “tribes” are defined. It seems language is important, and governments, and cultures. But more on this later.

Closure is not a Biblical term

Yes, it’s shocking: nowhere in the Bible will you find the term “closure.”

Nor will you find the phrase “finish the Great Commission.” Nor will you find the number “2%.”

You will not find “unreached” or “unevangelized” or “unengaged.”

Moreover, you will not find “missionary” or “contextualization” or “chronological Bible storying” or “orality” or “Bible smuggling” or “creative access” or gasp “tentmaking.”

I’m being completely honest. Something I think is incredibly important – something I advocate for, something I passionately beg the church for – is not exactly in Scripture.

These are technical terms that missionaries have created, defined, written up, passionately commended, argued from bits of Scripture, debated, called each other names over.

“Charity” you will find. “Gentiles” you will find. Even “ethne” you will find. But not closure. Not finish the task. Not reach the unreached. Not 10/40 Window.

So why hold to them?

I do, partly because once upon a time I was given a vision of the unreached, one that marked my life, one that I do not fully understand but cannot argue with.

And, more to the Biblical point, because I believe that in Matthew 28 (and other places) Jesus gave us a task, and having given it to us, he expects that we should finish it. I tell my children to clean the kitchen, and I expect them to do the job. If I, as the head of house, expect this of my children, should I not expect the same of the one who is head of me?

Now, my idea of “finishing the task” is perhaps different from others. That’s okay. I’ll argue for mine, but with genteel charity and kindness (I hope). In my idea, I think “unreached” is important (and unevangelized, and unengaged) because of two logical things: first, that there are people who have not yet heard the Gospel (thus my task is not finished); second, because of the Paul’s strategy of not preaching the Gospel where it is known.

And I think the other terms are important as tools, tactics and measuring rods.

So when someone argues with you–or me–that closure is not Biblical, don’t argue. Agree. It’s not. It’s just a useful tool for defining part of the space, task, responsibility that Christ has called the church to, and the gap in the wall toward which I (and others like me) go. You may have another gap to fill, and that’s good. The Body needs all parts.

Movies and short-term missions: the temptation to too easy closure

For most “summer popcorn movies” – great action films – closure is very easy.

At the end of the movie, the bad guys are typically dead or all arrested and put away for a very long time. (Mostly, the former).

Check out, for example, most of the Marvel movies: in the Avengers, one well-placed explosion destroys all the income alien forces. In Avengers 2, a robot AI is the enemy, and it has to be completely eradicated by the end of the film. In all of the Iron Man movies, the bad guys are dead at the end. The same holds true for most parallel movies.

Closure, in this case, is very easy. There’s no need for peace talks, reconciliation, justice, redemptive conversations, and the like.

We can fall for the same temptation to closure in our own lives. Just pull out. Just write someone off, stop talking to them, don’t have any further contact. Unfriend, unfollow, block, change phone numbers, move with no forwarding address. Get on a plane.

This may be part of the temptation to really poorly designed short-term mission involvement: it’s an effort that eases our conscience (we’ve done our missions duty) while offering easy closure (just go, do two weeks, get on a plane and come back and leave it all behind).

When closure is easy, what does that say about the relationships involved?

When people are easily left, are they truly people that we care about, love, are charitable toward – or are they aliens?

When closure is difficult, it says something about our perception of the value of those involved.

Closure twists beginnings and endings together

“Begin with the end in mind,” famously wrote Stephen Covey as part of his Seven Habits, thus winding the ending up into the beginning. Yet the beginning gets wound up in the ending, too: because “closure” allows us to learn form the past, put it behind us, and start fresh.

There are really two states of being, then: the ending/beginning state (or transitions, or time-between-time) and the work state, “working out” what has begun until it is ended.

“Closure” is really a kind of measure of how successfully we transit from ending to beginning: no matter how bad you failed at the working-out state, you can “successfully wrap things up” by achieving closure. It’s a chance to yank victory from the jaws of defeat, success from the midst of failure: if you just learn from it, you can draw the curtain down and move on. You can’t have a good beginning without a good ending.

Closure gives us a fresh state through learning from the lessons of the past. You can’t just walk away and still ‘achieve closure.’

There’s a bit of the Gospel in this: an eschatological message (seeking closure on this life), a salvation message (the clean start), the daily living message (each day a new day).

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Closure, meanings of

The mighty Avengers, once the battle is done, enjoying “closure”.

“Closure” is used as a missiological term with eschatological underpinnings. Most people who talk about “closure,” however, aren’t using it in that sense. When we use the term missiologically with people who aren’t familiar with this technical definition, we have to remember it carries a lot of implied cultural and emotional meanings.

When people speak of “closure,” they might mean:

  • abandoning personal baggage – a sense of freedom
  • a sense of achievement that gives validation of purpose and meaning
  • a cessation of work
  • a necessary transition step between “chapters”
  • the feeling something bad has ended, and normality may now resume
  • a comforting sense of finality
  • or perhaps a less comforting sense that something has ended forever
  • a sense of completion, solution of a problem, or resolution of an issue
  • a sense of evaluation, lessons learned, understanding gained
  • revisiting something that feels ‘unfinished’ in order to ‘gain closure’ or ‘permission to move on’

To seek “closure” in anything (even missions), for any given individual, might be colored more by these emotional meanings than by any textbook missionary definition of the phrase.

If “finishing the task” or “closure” carries with it these meanings–how might that affect the strategy we use?