What keeps us from Decisions

What keeps us from Decisions – for example, “Should I commit to long-term mission” – isn’t a lack of ability to make a decision.

It’s the decisions we have made (past Decisions) or the Decisions we might make or want to make.

Many (most?) of these decisions come out of Defaults or Desires.

  • Example of a Default: Our culture, parents, peers, etc., told us we need to pursue a degree at a big-name, pricey college, and we came out loaded up with Debt. Now the next step in our “career path” is obvious – a high-paying job to pay of the debt.
  • Example of a Desire: We want to get married, settle down, have a family – and the most likely “options” for that are here, in our town, and aren’t interested in going overseas.

We can decry the Defaults and Desires that lead to choices that deny the Decision we’d like to see people make. But that won’t get them to change their Decisions.

Instead, I suggest we need to help people engage with past decisions and their existing desires, and see how these might still “work” in the context of mission.

If people don’t want to commit to 20 years, then let’s frame a mission career as a succession of 2-year “terms,” for example.

If people are afraid of not finding a spouse, let’s talk about point to successful courtships and marriages.

If people are afraid for their children, let’s talk about the good and bad of children growing up on the field.

Don’t give into the temptation to denigrate someone’s desires or decisions.

Hubs

Beyond is working on a strategy based on the idea of “hubs”. In brief, this strategy is:

  1. Go to a “phase 1” hub – learn to make multiplying disciples in your home culture. (This doesn’t necessarily mean in the United States). P1 usually lasts about 15 weeks or so.
  2. Sign up with Beyond (this is our application phase): onboarding, ministry partner development, and everything else that happens before you go to the field.
  3. Transition to the field, “land” at a “phase 2” hub
  4. “Phase 2” – primarily language & culture acquisition for first year or two (or longer, depending), while serving with a cross-cultural strategy to engage a people group. This is where you take what you learned about DMM/making disciples in phase 1, and add the cross-cultural component.
  5. Once you are finished with Phase 2, you can decide either to continue serving that hub, or pioneer something new – a new strategy team engaging an unreached/underserved/unengaged/pioneer people group or city.

The “hub” strategy is not new. You can see echoes of this in many existing agencies, as well as many historical ones. (There are dangers–the stereotypical “missionary compound” was a base or hub, but did not multiply out.)

What makes us different: we’re working on starting movements. What’s critically important about hubs:

  1. the ability to learn-and-do solves the balance between too long a time in training (“years in training”) and getting to the field without any training at all. Just-in-time training means you get what you need, when you need it, plus ongoing coaching and mentoring while you implement.
  2. the idea that hubs are constantly raising up teams to send them out to new unreached places helps us avoid the “evil Matthew effect” by intentionally designing times with hubs to be short-lived, and the optimum goal to be the sending of strategy teams to new places.
  3. solves the calling problem incrementally: most people, when they first sign on, have only the most nebulous idea of where they want to end up. We need to be flexible in our exact missionary focus. Most people tend to know they want to be in this region, not that one; but out of 16,000 people groups (more, perhaps, if we count “dialects” that really are people groups themselves), how can you know which specific one you will be focused on 5 years from now?
  4. solves the time commitment problem: you can go and serve in a hub for 2 to 4 years, learn a language, experience a culture, make a contribution–and if you come to the conclusion that “missions isn’t your thing,” you can return home having made that contribution. It’s an easier “off-ramp.” We make much of how the modern generation isn’t ready to commit the rest of their lives to missions; we need to engage with that and offer commitment timeframes and strategic objectives for those time frames that feed into an overall strategy.

(Want to talk to me about hubs and Beyond? Email jdl@beyond.org or justin@justinlong.org).

Read more: this post by Steve Smith in Mission Frontiers, also talking about hubs

The Matthew effect in missions

In business literature there is a well-known effect called “the Matthew effect”; it especially impacts viral startups. The rule is taken from the parable of the servants: he who is profitable in little things will get even more. In secular terms it translates to “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It’s also known as Accumulated Advantage.

Unfortunately we see this effect in missions, too. Whenever agencies, churches or denominations decide to send teams on one of two factors:

  • We send to where there are existing teams that meet certain criteria that are reinforced by the arrival of additional teams
  • We send to where there is perceived response (“the fields are white unto harvest”)

… the Accumulated advantage effect can set in.

If we, for example, send teams to where there are strong teams, then the strongest teams tend to attract more teams, and weaker teams get less or nothing. Eventually all of our teams will clump in certain areas and places outside will have no access. This is in fact what is happening now.

If we send to where there is response, we tend to build on existing efforts. More effort yields more response. We don’t hear about response elsewhere and make the mistake of thinking other places are therefore unresponsive. This reinforces the cycle: go where the wind is blowing.

This is a critical mistake that in part has driven us to where we are now and exacerbated the problem. Even in work among the Unreached, a lot of workers are clumped into specific areas. If we only go to the places where teams are strong and things are popping we never send teams to those who have no access.

We don’t know if they might be responsive if we never go and find out. Are the Luri, Qashqai, Saudis, Uzbeks, etc truly unresponsive–or have they never had a chance?

This is an “Evil Matthew effect,” so to speak.

We need people like Philip (who went as the Spirit drove him), Peter (in response to the dream), Paul (Macedonian call), probably others like Thomas (Church history says India)… if we are only going to where there are existing teams how can we follow Paul’s model: “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

If we are going to see the task completed, we have to break out of where our existing teams are, and brave the risk to go beyond.

Globalization, Diaspora, and where the unreached are

Yes, the world is becoming more globalized. Diaspora (refugees, migrants, students, business people, tourists, etc) are in lots of places. The UN estimates there are over 250 million migrants in the world.

BUT: most of the world’s non-Christians are still found outside the West. (And the unevangelized are by definition non-Christians, so most of the unevangelized/unreached will be where the non-Christians are.)

Over 2 billion–nearly 3 billion–non-Christians are found in India and China alone. These regions are estimated at half-or-more unreached/unevangelized. This is where the bulk of the remaining task is found.

That’s why I still focus on North Africa / West Africa / Asia.

Missionaries vs Evangelists: A (Potential) Category Mistake

I recently ran across this fascinating story about Yuan Longping, an 87-year-old Chinese scientist who “is developing a new high-yield strain of rice that can grow in saltwater paddies.” Aside from the potential impact of his work, what’s fascinating for my purposes is this: insofar as I can tell, he’s not a farmer–he’s a scientist. He’s not working to be a better farmer–e.g. to better use existing knowledge of how to farm rice where it’s always been farmed. Instead, he’s taking what works now in one environment, and working to adapt it into another.

It is, in my opinion, a common yet significant category mistake to confuse missionaries with evangelists. We do it a lot. Whenever we say “I’m a missionary to my neighborhood,” what we usually mean is “I’m an evangelist” or “I’m a witness.” I wrote about this back in 2014:

The phrase, “I’m called to be a missionary to my city (or job, or neighborhood)” might be a mistake of semantics. Or, might be a very dangerous confession.

To get an idea, let’s consider different “scales of focus.” Someone who sees themselves as…

  • A witness… will tend to be concerned about the representation of Christianity that they give to their co-workers, neighbors, and what not. Many “witnesses” I’ve met are chiefly concerned with learning enough to give a “ready response” when they are asked about their faith.
  • An evangelist… will tend to concern themselves with the person immediately in front of them, to whom they are presenting Good News. I’ve met people who say “I’ve got a gift of evangelism;” they talk about intentionally going door to door, or actively sharing their faith with people they run across (from the checkout girl at the grocery store to people they meet on the job).
  • A pastor… tends to be concerned with the “flock” they are discipling. Pastoral approaches differ, of course, but they lean toward the side of the congregation, and away from the rest of the community. Many pastors will be focused on their church members and the members’ immediate oikos (friends and family).
  • A parish priest… (to use a different, less Protestant term) might be leaning toward the whole of the community, not just his congregation–but still, they will primarily be tending to people who have an affinity with the church.

Now, what about someone who is an “apostle” or a “missionary”? That is someone sent to the community as a whole, and most especially to those who are not yet in the church. The role of the missionary is a strategic role: the calling to actively see to it that everyone in a community has the opportunity to hear the Gospel–not just the people who ask us about the Gospel, or who we “happen to run across” in the course of our normal day, or who darken the doors of the church building. The missionary intentionally makes sure that those especially who are cut off from normal access to Christianity receive time and attention.

Let us not say “I’m a missionary to my city” when we are really saying “I’m called to be a witness” or “an evangelist.” But if we truly are called to be a missionary to our community, then we need to start thinking and acting like it.

The apostolic role is as different from the evangelist as the Chinese scientist is from the Chinese farmer.

Now, in what I am about to say, I am not speaking “a word as from the Lord” nor even necessarily a clear Biblical saying (e.g. chapter and verse). Nevertheless, I do believe it is true, and Biblical.

Let me start by clearly saying: every Christian is called to evangelize and make disciples. Whether you are an apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist, you don’t get out of that.

With that understood: I believe the “gifts” – apostle, prophet, pastor, teacher, evangelist – each have different roles in the process of evangelizing and discipling a people.

I tried gardening one year and failed miserably (not a single fruit off any of the plants). My daughter, however, picked up the gardening bug. This year she has planted her own little garden in our backyard. She has plants in garden beds and in pots, and she’s loving it. She spent her own money on supplies, hoed out the ground, put in good dirt and planted the seeds, and has watered and weeded and dragged me out to the backyard, thrilled, as little shoots of green came out of the ground. My role has been to encourage, to help identify which bits of green coming up are plants and which are weeds, and to occasionally water the plants when she’s out to work. We both have our roles (hers is major, mine is minor right now).

I think this a useful if limited analogy: each gifting has a different “spot” or “stage” or “role” in the process of seeing the Gospel root and spread among a particular place and people. I am reminded of Paul’s comment in 1 Corinthians 3: “I planted, and Apollos watered.”

Yes, a missionary (apostle) may evangelize or even make disciples from time to time. (I helped her plant a few seeds, but mostly I help with the weeding and watering.) But this is not their primary function. They do these things in the course of their goal/function/objective: the apostolic gifting is a God-given passion to bring the Gospel into a place where it is not, to plant it there and let it take root, so that what grows up (IMHO) are the fruits of the apostolic work of planting the Gospel: prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists, and more apostles to send to more places. The apostle’s job is mostly at the beginning stage: planting the garden.

(My biggest part in my daughter’s garden was in fact my own failed garden. My failure was part of the inspiration for her success.)

Pastors, teachers, evangelists – these come at later stages, once the garden is started. (And their work will likely be more fruitful.)

Or, to use the Chinese scientist analogy: the apostle helps get the rice from existing rice paddies into saltwater paddies. Once that’s done, other farmers will come along and perfect the farming of rice in saltwater paddies, making it efficient and spreading it and industrializing it.

The local church, once planted, is like “these other farmers.” It is primarily the local church–not the apostle–who spreads the Gospel throughout the place once it is planted. The work of the apostle is to see the local church started so that this work can be done.

I love the story of Jesus calling the disciples: “Come, and I’ll teach you to be fishers of men.” He wasn’t calling them to catch more fish. He wasn’t going to teach them to be better fishermen. He wasn’t calling them to be his assistants while he caught fish, or even while he caught men. He was going to teach them to be fishers-of-men.

Similarly, the apostle must occasionally fish-for-men himself or herself, but the primary job of the apostle is to fish for fishers-of-men.

When we say missionaries need to be better evangelists, or better pastors, or better at social justice, or whatever, I think it is to miss what missionaries ought to be.

  • When we say we are going on a short-term mission trip to share the gospel and win the lost, are we confusing the work of a missionary with that of an evangelist? (Really, should be a short-term evangelism trip?)
  • When we say we are going to be missionaries to our neighborhood – are we speaking of the missionary strategy of planting the Gospel in our community, or do we mean “I’m going to go over and share this tract with my neighbor”?

If you’re going to be a missionary to a place, then be a missionary – embrace the strategic aspects. Get yourself a copy of Tradecraft. Think about how everyone in the place will be reached. One missionary couple or team, with a strategic focus, can reach thousands and even tens of thousands – not just their immediate neighbors. Be the missionary God is calling you to be!

The value of limits coupled with the value of diversity

This morning, I ran across this blog post: “I only follow 88 people on Twitter.”

In it, the author explains why he only follows 88 people, how he came to the number, and the benefits of doing so.

Essentially: the more people you follow, the fewer of any of them you’ll see.

Limits enable value choices and the power of curation. If you could pick up everything in the grocery store, there would be a lot of junk in the midst of the good stuff. Imposing limits on yourself is an exercise in self-discipline that lets you express your values (what’s important) and keep the junk out of your life.

However, at the same time, it’s important within the scope of the limits to have some diversity. If everyone you listen to is just like you, you’ll never be challenged and grow.

I’ve been consistently trying different approaches to Twitter. I’ve followed lots of people, and I’ve followed very few. I can say that the fewer I follow, the better the return for my time. I use lists to keep track of people I don’t follow on a daily basis, around certain topics.

I’m not into social media for the sporadic dopamine hit of mining through a lot of dirt to find diamonds; I want my social media to be more valuable than that. By reducing the number of people I follow, I actually increase my chances of finding items that I’m going to star/like, and that might eventually flow into my research or into the Weekly Roundup.

Try it: cut 10 people from your follow list. Or, go for the gusto, and try reducing your follow list by 10%. Or, a big milestone: cut it to 150 (I’m not there yet, but that’s Dunbar’s Number).

How would you make those choices, and would the value you get from social media increase?

The hype around North Korea

There’s a lot of hype around events related to North and South Korea right now. I’ve been including links to many of the major events in my Weekly Roundup, including:

  • North Korea says it will suspend nuclear testing to focus on the economy – Link
  • Impacting the negotiations: North Korea’s underground testing site collapsed – Link
  • North Korea’s Secret Christians: proselytizing using illicit radios – Atlantic
  • Amid the thaw, Chinese are eyeing North Korean real estate – Reuters
  • North & South dismantle loudspeakers blaring propaganda on the DMZ – NPR
  • North puts its clocks forward 30 minutes to match the south – WEF
  • “The Koreas take first steps to build trust” – Reuters Video
  • NKor & SKor “reportedly intend to announce an official end to war” – NightWatch
  • N Korea: Pyongyang welcomes hundreds of foreigners for the yearly marathon –NYT
  • N Korea: denuclearization is on the table, it says – NYT
  • Kim Jong Un visits China, his first trip out of the country. Link

There have been headlines about “the end of the war.” There have even been headlines that suggest North Korea will open to the Gospel, and churches will be able to “freely send teams.”

I’m not buying the hype.

Consider an extreme scenario: is it likely the North would offer to merge with the South, with the South in charge? No. So, what are they likely to offer? The leadership of North Korea has exhibited no willingness to take any action which would lead to a loss of power. I’m not anticipating freedom of the press, communications, religion, speech, or open borders.

The current scenario seems largely aimed at some kind of negotiated “peace” between North & South and the North and the United States. A win for North Korea is a US agreement not to attack the North; a win for the USA is the North agrees not to attack the USA with nuclear weapons – a “solid win” would be denuclearization.

Some analysts believe the North is negotiating now because it’s underground nuclear testing facility has disintegrated – without testing, it can’t make further nuclear weapons or maintain its stockpile. So it needs to negotiate now while it can have the appearance (to most of the world) of magnanimously offering peace.

Every presently likely scenario seems to make the North “look good” and “peaceful” and “statesman-like” while allowing it to “save face” (vs. the USA) and enabling the government to preserve its existence while opening the possibility of trade and aid funds.

What it seems unlikely to do is open the borders freely to the Gospel. I don’t see the North making any moves to bring more freedoms to its people.

I am continuing to watch and hope, but I am not optimistic for a significant and near-term change in this respect. (I don’t doubt that a cessation of hostilities could lead to some small openings and opportunities.)

Let’s thank God for any “warming” of the cold, but let’s be realistic about what it means.

I remember Libya, and how everyone thought the Arab Spring would bring great things to that nation. It didn’t. The present line for North Korea could make things worse for its citizens: if all we care about are the North’s nukes, and the North trades those away for the world’s acceptance of its legitimacy as a government, it could be a long time before the borders open.

Related

North Korean Christians on summit peace talks: ‘this is not what we’ve been praying for’.” Highlights the increased focus on reduction of military violence without related reduction in human rights issues.

Not saying yes

One important thing to bear in mind when talking with people about missions:

if you ask someone about the engagement of groups, they might say Yes, this group is engaged, or No, that group is not.

Failing to say either yes or no is not the same as saying definitely one or the other. In many cases we might know of a “yes” but can’t say it out loud. It’s not the same as saying “No,” so we shouldn’t assume.

Further, in some cases, people say “not engaged” when they know the group is. Yes, that’s a lie, a deception. I’m not endorsing that, but sometimes people don’t want to say “yes” because it would draw attention. They might say “no” on a public list because it is a public list.

And, sometimes people say “no” because they think the answer truly is “no,” but they simply don’t know.

So, when asking about engagements, I would treat “yes” and “no” as probabilistic statements to be held lightly.

This is not the end

I haven’t been posting much the last few days, because we have been up with my wife’s family after her father abruptly graduated to glory following complications from surgery.

It is at this point that I am reminded of how important the eternal perspective is, and why we are involved in frontier mission. There have been plenty of tears over the past few days. But yesterday when we were at the funeral home making plans, we were mostly filled with plenty of laughter – reminiscing about old stories and jokes and things her dad would have loved – to the point that the funeral director was honestly pleasantly surprised.

It was a reminder of how blessed we are because we know where her dad is. While we grieve the lost time, the separation, the wish it had gone differently, we know this is not the end, we know we will meet again, we are not desperate with fear staring into the abyss.

I will freely admit there have been times – as I’m sure is the case with all of us – that I have felt tinges of doubt and fear. But it is wonderful that when we face a finish line, when we are at our weakest, God’s strength and comfort and reassurance is there, surging in around us.

It is also a grim reminder of the billions who do not have the same comfort or knowledge, because no one has brought the euangelion – the Good News that death has been conquered, that eternal life is possible, that death will be swallowed up in victory and new spiritual bodies will inherit the kingdom. It is horrifying to contemplate a future apart from God, and just as horrifying to live in the paralyzing fear that results from not knowing what comes next.

While we grieve the separation of those that go on before, I want to continue to work hard to ensure many more come along to share eternity with us.

The people clusters where the task will nearly 3X by 2050

Earlier, I presented a list of the projected populations of people groups by 2050. The good folks at Joshua Project sent me a variation of the sheet with % AGR, which stirred me up with the question: what are the people group clusters where the remaining task is growing fastest? This is a simple calculation (pop. 2025 / pop. 2015, sort in descending order), yet very revealing. Below are the least-reached clusters this methodology projects to be the fastest growing. (The Fulani and Hausa are two stunning examples; I’m not sure they would actually reach 100 million-plus by 2050, but these projections do reflect the actual growth rates of the regions they are in.)

This is the biggest reason I am such a proponent of movements: we need Gospel spread that is both sustainable and faster than the population growth!

PeopleCluster LR TOTAL 2015 TOTAL 2025 TOTAL 2050 Multiple
Guera-Naba of Chad Y 494,700 673,789 1,702,765 3.44
Fulani / Fulbe Y 39,826,400 51,778,450 119,435,539 3.00
Arab, Shuwa Y 4,471,000 5,858,573 13,390,174 2.99
Hausa Y 44,084,800 57,165,245 131,175,276 2.98
Susu Y 1,716,600 2,224,584 5,099,561 2.97
Songhai Y 6,475,400 8,390,981 19,230,323 2.97
Afar Y 3,136,000 4,134,919 9,309,380 2.97
Malinke-Jula Y 2,385,400 3,090,072 7,077,356 2.97
Malinke Y 11,083,800 14,342,111 32,770,508 2.96
Kanuri-Saharan Y 11,021,400 14,295,126 32,530,536 2.95
Soninke Y 3,055,900 3,948,208 8,991,717 2.94
Malinke-Bambara Y 6,143,700 7,926,202 17,995,310 2.93
Atlantic-Wolof Y 6,776,900 8,731,480 19,778,683 2.92
Tuareg Y 3,397,100 4,371,184 9,802,974 2.89
Somali Y 23,521,100 30,750,306 67,775,039 2.88
Bantu, Swahili Y 5,902,500 7,654,689 16,568,128 2.81
Arab, Hassaniya Y 5,750,800 7,257,711 15,490,037 2.69
Ouaddai-Fur Y 3,982,100 5,032,096 10,256,077 2.58
Beja Y 3,763,000 4,502,722 7,445,270 1.98
Nubian Y 2,708,070 3,228,471 5,263,967 1.94
Arab, Sudan Y 35,004,100 41,683,948 67,637,840 1.93
Berber-Saharan Y 1,000,800 1,189,768 1,921,837 1.92
Bedouin, Saharan Y 3,551,100 4,218,334 6,778,349 1.91
Arab, Libyan Y 4,380,600 5,200,611 8,350,225 1.91
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