The value of marketing

In an airport on my way home, I saw a sign asking Chicagoans to adopt a pet.

Every Halloween we spend money on pet costumes comparable to what we spend on missions to the unreached.

I hear people belabor this point, as if perhaps we should outlaw pet costumes and force people to fund missions.

The problem isn’t that pet adoptions or costumes are bad and mission is good. It’s not that easy. We spend a lot of money on things of the moment–things that give us a fleeting amount of happiness. God even allowed for this (for an interesting example see Deuteronomy 14, esp. vs 26).

The problem is that what we spend money on tells us a more compelling story than mission to the unreached largely does.

If we want to see more praying, giving, going perhaps the most straightforward solution is to tell more compelling stories.

Odd paradoxes in the Christian community

  1. We expect parents to disciple their children. We frequently reflect on how parents spend more time with their children than any pastor or youth group leader. Churches provide materials to support parents as they have spiritual conversations with their kids.
  2. We advocate for Christ-following men and women to serve as mentors for children–and even adults–who are in some ways less fortunate (e.g. kids who have lost one or both parents and who are at risk, or prison ministries).
  3. We urge people to join in various forms of evangelistic campaigns, ranging from “invite your neighbor to church” to “share the Gospel with your neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members.”
  4. Some churches encourage peer-to-peer accountability groups, where two men will meet to share with each other about their week, perhaps read Scripture together, pray for each other, confess to each other.
  5. In fact, we go so far in some places as to encourage people to host small groups, most often around subjects like whatever the pastor talked about on Sunday.

But for some reason, despite this, I run into person after person and church after church that flinches at the idea of the average person “discipling” someone else, or starting a group that would eventually itself become a group.

Discipleship, in this context, simply means a group of people who gather, pray for each other, read the Scriptures together, and ask (a) what they learn about God’s character, (b) how can they obey the Scripture, and (c) who can they share the stories with.

How is this so very far off from any of the 5 cases outlined above?

If every parent is expected to have spiritual conversations with their children… and disciple their children… why is it we can’t expect people to disciple “our children in the faith”?

When patriotism can kill the soul

Sitting in a foreign country, I am constantly reminded of some uncomfortable truths:

To some extent, it is okay to be proud of my country. But I probably don’t have the right extent: some have too little, and some have too much.

Regardless, putting my nation and my people first over all others—whether “my” nation is America or the UK or India or China or any other—is never a Biblical act. God always desires that we as individuals—and therefore we as corporate individuals—put others above ourselves.

Nationalism and patriotism can be as soul killing an idol as materialism or lust or greed or pride.

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

Matthew 10:37; does this not apply just as much to love of country?

The spiritually mature

At the Ethne 2018 conference, plenary speaker, referring to believers, many MBBs:

They take God at face value.
When God says something to us, we seek counsel.
When God says something to them, they obey.
When we have a problem, we seek a solution.
When they have a problem, they pray.

Non-Christians by world region

What stands out here, of course, is Asia. Some might be tempted to say this is dependent on how one defines “Christians.” But the reality is, even if all Europeans, for example, were counted as non-Christians, Asia would still be significantly bigger: 4.3 billion non-Christians in Asia vs (under that scenario) 0.6 billion in Europe in 2050.

The fact of the matter is, Asia simply has the greatest concentration of people in the world. All strategies must wrestle with this reality. If we want to be out the Great Commission, the bulk of missionary resources really should be focused here.

Christianity by world region, 1950-2050

Note the massive increase in Africa. By 2050, there will likely be over a billion Christians in Africa, due in large part to the increase in population there. Over half of those will likely be in East Africa.

Why? In AD 2000, Christianity in Africa was estimated at about 382 million, or 46% of the continent’s population. Christianity is currently growing as a percentage—but at the same time, the population is growing too. By 2050, the population is likely to be 2.5 billion—and any % Christian north of 50% will well exceed a billion people.

Note also the relative size of North American Christianity to the other bars.

The implications are immense.

(Source: Status of Global Mission 2018, Operation World, World Christian Encyclopedia, etc)

Missionary martyrdom isn't unusual

Recently, John Chau’s martyrdom has made the headlines, both in flattering and unflattering ways. Many people – even Christians – were shocked: partly that he went to a place where the language was less known, and partly because he went to a place that was openly hostile to Christians.

But missionaries go to these places all the time, and are occasionally killed–more often than mainstream news headlines let on. An instance of a martyred missionary is not unusual: nearly every year has at least one published case, and many years have more than one.

Some brief examples:

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They are what can easily be found with a few minutes of Google searches. Other agencies have had people martyred, but their names haven’t made the headlines, and the agencies in question haven’t pushed it into the press. I know several agencies have formal policies about what will happen if a person is kidnapped, or killed, that missionaries have to sign in agreement in advance.

Mission work is not always safe. Jesus didn’t promise safety for his followers. The same Lord who offered healing and protection from scorpions and serpents (Luke 10:19) promised “when you are brought before rulers and courts” the Spirit would give us the words to say (Luke 12:11). Jesus said “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

The point isn’t for us to be safe. The point is for us to pick up our cross and follow him. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it…” (Matthew 16:25)

Are you a missionary?

While skimming some articles related to the Chau case, I came across this by TGC. It said in part:

Currently, it is unknown whether Chau was a sent by any church. Although he joined All Nations in 2017, it’s also unclear whether the missionary organization sanctioned his trip to the Sentinelese people.

I note in passing that this and several other related questions was cleared up by interviews given by All Nations, particularly this one with Christianity Today.

More curious was this statement:

Third, and most importantly, is whether they can communicate in the language of the target people group. If they cannot speak the language they cannot carry out the purpose of the missionary. They may embed themselves within a people to study the language and gain the skills necessary for communication. But until they are able to communicate the gospel to the target group, they are not functioning as missionaries [emphasis added].

This suggests a belief that the thousands of new workers who are deployed to the field by all sorts of agencies are not “really missionaries” until they finish their time of language learning. Isn’t learning the language part of the missionary task?

What about Wycliffe translators who have worked in people group A for years, and finished a translation, and now begin to work in people group B – were they once missionaries, but now not missionaries, because they have not yet learned the language?

Or, is it necessary to learn “the language of the target people group,” or simply a language that they know? For example, if the people group is very small, is it sufficient to learn the major trade language they are fluent in?

What about missionary support staff – for example, myself. I am not communicating in the language of a target people group – should I no longer call myself (as some in my field of work do) a “missionary researcher”?

I suspect that a great many people in field and global leadership with major organizations still refer to themselves as “missionaries sent by…” even though they are not on the field speaking a local language.

I think the thrust of this point is that language learning is important. If the Gospel isn’t communicated in ways that people can understand, whole people groups can be cut off from Gospel resources – and that is the heart and soul of unreached people thinking. We can certainly debate about whether it is more strategic to communicate in a specific language. And I applaud that idea.

But I think we need to be careful about filtering who is or is not a missionary, or who is performing a “missionary function,” based on what specific (often Western) approach they have or have not yet done. Remember “the missionary function” is not clearly defined in the Bible. We infer a lot of it, but Jesus didn’t send missionaries.

Chau: failure, martyr, or what?

The news of John Chau’s death while attempting to bring the Gospel to a very remote, hostile, restricted-access region hit the mainstream news some days ago. Since then, there’s been quite a lot of chatter about it, with lots of people trying to make sense of it.

I am trying to hold myself back. My natural inclination is to write and tweet and talk, but I am reminding myself of this: we don’t know the whole story. And we may never know it.

We, as people, want to “judge”: either in the best or worst sense of the word. Our brains want to categorize, we want to put things in boxes, because that’s how we make sense of it, how we understand it.

We could classify Chau as a martyr – a person who died, almost gloriously, for the sake of the cause. Similarities to Elliot are obvious.

We could classify Chau as a failure – a person who rushed headstrong into the situation without adequate training or preparation or effective strategy.

It would be easy to do either. But we don’t know, and we don’t have enough data to know.

Let’s take a different example. What if someone trained and planned to be a Bible translator in, say, Africa. They prepared for years. They were expecting to spend decades on the field, working on learning language, translating Scriptures, etc. They arrive on the field, excited–and were killed two days later in a freak accident.

Knowing these additional details – the length of preparation, the length of time they planned to stay there, the scope of the work they envisioned, the nature of their death – how does this change our opinion of what happened? Were they martyrs? Were they failures? Or is this just a tragedy – a life cut short?

What if they were killed in a robbery gone wrong? Are they martyrs? What if you knew that in the midst of the robbery they were witnessing as best they could to the robbers? Would they then be martyrs, because they died in a situation of witness?

What if they were assassinated by radicals bent on killing Christian translators in the area? What if they knew the danger and yet went there any way, and were killed? Were they foolish?

There are many details we don’t know, and likely never will this side of heaven. This much we can know:

  1. I think, hard as it is, that many times we have to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not assume personal failure. Many of the articles about the incident tend to color Chau’s effort as a personal failure. Yes, Chau’s first efforts to communicate weren’t successful: one could say they “failed.” I have failed many, many times. Chau just had the unfortunate situation of not being able to learn further (in this world, anyway) from the failures, while I’ve learned a lot. If Chau had had more time, what might he have done? He might have gone on to build relationships, share the Gospel, make disciples, and end up with an “Eetaow” story rather than an “Elliot” story. The failure of individual efforts is not the same as the failure of the overall project, and certainly not the same as a personal failure of character. I have failed, I am not a failure.
  2. We may need to forcibly remind ourselves that here was a man who earnestly believed in God’s calling and to the best of his ability followed it, regardless of the cost. That willingness to obey is something that should be applauded.
  3. I think we need to be careful about establishing overall mission policy and strategy around a single event that is clearly an outlier. Several have used Chau’s “example” (with what little is known) to articulate what they believe to be “good” or “bad” mission strategy. But few people go to these very very hard places, and it looks to me like most “good” mission strategies wouldn’t send to them either. This is not the norm of mission experience, and I don’t think we should judge policies or strategies based on “way-outside-the-normative-curve” events.

(For more, I recommend Ed Stetzer’s excellent article posted yesterday after I drafted this. Link.)

Questions about whether a group is reached

Is there an indigenous church?

Is the indigenous church able (sufficient size / resources) to evangelize the group without outside assistance?

Does the indigenous church think itself able, vs. do I think it is able, and how do I judge which of us is right, and am I judging rightly?

Given that the indigenous church could evangelize the group, is it doing what it should do?

Am I defining “what it should do” on the basis of my culture and outsider perspective? Who gets to define “what it should do”?

If the indigenous church is doing what it should do, but it is not yet reaching all the segments within a country, is there a role for an outsider?

What is the outsider/insider dynamic?

When does the role of the outsider “end”? What does it mean to “end”? What does it mean to “leave”?

What if the indigenous church is not doing things “fast enough”? Who gets to define “fast enough”?

And for really thorny issues… if a group is spreading fast, how do we know it is spreading “well”? Who gets to judge theology?

And for really, really thorny issues: what happens when an indigenous church starts eyeing Western countries and asking the same questions back?

There are more questions than these, obviously. The main point here is: do we question our own questions?