Reaching Every Individual

07 Jul 2023

Last week I was at Amsterdam2023, a 3-day event for 5,000+ largely Pentecostals, to infuse a vision for presenting a gospel opportunity to everyone by 2033.

Why another plan? Over the centuries, there have been more than 2,000 such plans to evangelize the world. Over half have been quantifiable failures (at the very least, they didn’t reach their goal by their professed deadline, and at worst, they imploded). None have yet succeeded in world evangelization (obviously). There are many reasons why. However, any plan like Amsterdam2023 faces one significant problem that makes it technically impossible. We say, “Our goal is to present a gospel opportunity to everyone by 2033,” but often forget that everyone must, by definition, include babies!

In 2033, there will be 662 million children under five worldwide. Many will be in less-evangelized and less-Christian places. How do you present a Gospel opportunity to a newborn? You have to wait until they are old enough to understand.

Amsterdam focused more on inspiring people with the challenge and less on the specific details. And it wasn’t like the issue of children was being ignored; one of the speakers said from the stage that “of course, it’s an ongoing process, because we know children are being born.” Still, the point is crucial because it affects how we go about this task.

How do we “present a gospel opportunity”? One might be tempted to think from an evangelist’s perspective: “tell you, and then tell you, and then tell you.” Or, we might think of city-wide crusades, literature distribution, phone calls, film showings… which leads to ideas like “why should anyone hear the Gospel twice before everyone has heard it once?”

But if you bring the idea of babies being born into the picture, then closure isn’t a once-and-done moment in time. Rather, it’s a process that must run continuously into the future. The task of presenting gospel opportunities must be “finished” (in a sense) every day, and the process must expand to encompass the new children.

And, the babies suggest a constraint on the kinds of ongoing strategies. Reaching children is hard for everyone except parents. So, a simple solution: sustainable closure must aim at reaching households, who in turn reach their members. If the Christian community reaches households, those believing households will raise up their children to follow Jesus. (Ideally, obviously.)

Some readers will say, “well, obviously.” But much evangelistic activity in many places has been aimed at individuals (including children) without due consideration to the households they represent. On the positive side, reaching households is a different sort of problem than reaching every individual. And it is, potentially, more doable now.

During Amsterdam2023, I sat at dinner one night with Dr. Todd Johnson (CSGC/World Christian Database) and others. I was a little grumpy and thought aloud about how it would have been a lot easier had we actually done this in 1900 (he has written a definitive study on the “Countdown to 1900” plans to evangelize the world). Todd, however, pointed out a bright spot.

In 1900, Christian communities were largely separated from the largest centers of non-Christians. Evangelizing the world required sending workers great distances and learning very different languages. This, among other challenges, made it very difficult. But today, Christian communities are far “closer” to the non-Christian world, and most languages have Christian speakers. While it is generally true over 80% of non-Christians don’t personally know a believer, very few places in the world are less than 2% Christian (only about 600 provinces).

What we have now is a “last mile” problem, akin to how we bring electricity, Internet access, or clean water to each home. Think about how we power every home in a city. You have to undertake certain steps: (1) bring power to a distribution center in a city, (2) then to power poles outside each neighborhood, and (3) then to each individual house. Each step brings the power “progressively nearer.” Today, bringing the Gospel to every home is a similar challenge, but as Todd pointed out, the Gospel is already “nearby.” Not every individual or even every household knows a believer–but “believers to be known” aren’t very far away.

And, fortunately, Gospel distribution is not the same as electricity distribution. Once it’s in a home, that home can bring it to other homes nearby. Households reaching households, villages reaching villages–these are the beginnings of a scalable, multipliable, contextualized strategy. Many movements have used this kind of approach to “seep” through peoples and places and across political, linguistic, and sociocultural borders. A “seeping” strategy is one that really does have a chance of reaching every individual in a timely fashion (2033?).

“This is really a very good time to be alive,” Todd said. As I look at the fire in evangelists, the presence of the church in some unlikely places around the world, and the movement and movement-ish strategies being adopted in many places, I remain cautiously optimistic too. (Even if I am looking more toward 2050 and beyond.)