Seeing Enough

14 Jul 2023

The world has become and is becoming increasingly complicated. During Jesus’ time on Earth, we estimate global population was between 100 and 200 million people–about the same as modern Bangladesh, Russia, or Mexico, but concentrated mostly in Africa. When DL Moody et al contemplated ‘finishing the task’ in the late 1800s, in the run-up to 1900, global population stood at around 1.6 billion. Today, it is over 8 billion, and continues to grow. It will likely ‘stabilize’ between 9 and 10 billion somewhere between 2050 and 2100.

These populations are increasingly entwined (via globalizing forces like media, personal communications, and economic trade) and separated (via nationalizing forces, governmental control, borders, etc). Contemplating bringing a single message or product to one group within the world (Coke to India, or iPhones to Ethiopia) is full of challenges. Bringing a message or product to the entire world is obviously another order of complexity. Yet this is what we think about when we think of ‘finishing the task’: bringing a message–one frequently opposed–not just to one audience, but every audience on Earth.

One challenge is defining the task. One segment of the church (largely evangelicals) have discussed the task as one of “starting”–getting the Gospel into every language, people group, and segment. Other segments of the church (most recently, Pentecostals) have discussed the task as one of “finishing”–a Gospel presentation for every individual. How we conceptualize the “end” of the task (or at least the part we’re responsible for) determines in large part how we measure, prioritize, plan, execute… Thinking about how you define the task and how those you want to partner with define the task is key.

A second part of the challenge is how access to the audiences is gained. Bringing the Good News to an audience requires time and some level of presence. Communicators need to understand language and culuture, and be able to put repeated presentations of the message out in ways the audience understands and appreciates. There is a broad-sowing aspect, a personal-reaping (discipleship, modeling, etc) aspect, and a multiplication aspect–can those who have received the Gospel pass it on?

This second part of the challenge is often used to evaluate strategies, and can be a sticking point between partners. We debate whether what we are communicating is understandable and relatable. We debate whether how we are discipling yields spiritually healthy followers of Jesus. We debate whether what we are doing can be reproduced by local believers. Diasporas are an example: they might be more easily reached in Belgium than Bangladesh, but once reached there, can they send it back home to their families?

A third part of the challenge really revolves around how we “manage” or “sustain” the effort of the task over the time required to complete it. This is where I’ve seen, recently, a lot of struggles and disconnects. When you have a list of audiences (peoples, languages, dialects, sociopolitical groups, cities, villages, zip codes, castes, …), and ask the question of how to get the Gospel in to all those audiences, the Western mindset begins to think in terms of managing a process and “checking the groups off.” Which list do you use? How do you decide when a group should be “taken off,” if at all? What happens when your partners disagree? Who gets to decide?

There are many issues of relationship and control here, but recently I’m reminded of a very big problem: we may not be aware of efforts already underway in a given audience, or of the fruit of those efforts. We think something needs to be started, when really something needs to be served. We lack sight–our knowledge of places, peoples, and efforts is limited. Even worse, we often don’t recognize just how limited our sight is. We confuse absence of sight with absence of anything to see. There are, as the saying goes, known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown and unknowns–and that last of the three can really bite. If we are blind, but think we can see, how deep the blindness is.

Once we recognize our lack of sight, we find two approaches. One is a top down: get more sight in order to manage better. This assumes we can see enough and known enough to manage a globally comprehensive process. The other is to accept the limits of sight, decentralize, to empower local leaders, share vision, and to the extent possible connect people, cross-pollinate ideas about how to implement the vision, and trust that God will inspire, call, and guide.

The first approach leads to data gathering and ‘accountability for the numbers.’ The second centers on relationship-building, introductions, and encouragement. One might think that this Weekly Roundup is all about seeing more. Nothing could actually be further from the truth. The philosophy of the Roundup is to try to “see enough”–enough to pray, enough to sense where God’s spirit is calling, enough to begin finding relationships with people in those regions, connect, and try to discern together if there’s something outsiders can do to support, encourage, and amplify what insiders are involved in. Jesus’ model of leadership is not control or direction, but service and encouragement. This means our first step ought not to be to necessarily try to know more, but rather to ask, “How can I make a personal connection with someone who is enduring this situation the Spirit is prompting me about?”