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.


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

Control vs. Empowerment Structures

While talking with a CPM practitioner today, I was struck by something he said that crystallized something I’ve heard and seen many times.

There are two kinds of organizational systems which can be created: systems that control, and systems that empower.

We create controlling systems largely out of our fears. These systems say, “Wait, let’s think about this.” There are things in life that can go wrong – sometimes mildly wrong, sometimes horribly and tragically wrong, sometimes fatally wrong, sometimes eternally wrong. We want to prevent this, so we create structures of prevention and control.

  • We provide controls on the flow of finances to prevent misappropriation and criminal activity.
  • We provide border guards, stations, and processes to prevent the “bad guys” from getting in.
  • We provide education, laws, and police to prevent bad driving and accidents on the road.
  • We put in place controls of who can teach in positions of theological authority because we’re afraid of heresy and wrong belief.
  • We put in place controls over medicines–especially potentially fatal or addictive drugs–because we’re afraid they’ll be used wrongly or abusively.
  • We provide different levels of management, from supervisors to middle management to executive decisions to boards of directors, to prevent bad corporate decision-making.

Controlling structures are, by definition, intended to constrict possible forms of action and to literally slow things down so that bad decisions aren’t made reflexively.

Controls are about the things we must do but we might do wrong.

The problem with controlling structures in the church: it tends to reinforce the idea that without proper training and authorization, we should not be evangelizing or making disciples. We want to prevent bad disciplemaking, but controlling structures do not naturally encourage good disciple-making. Controlling structures say “no, unless..”

Empowering systems, on the other hand, encourage our passions. They say, “Yes, and…!” There are things in life that can go right – sometimes wildly right, sometimes fantastically and eternally right, with thousands coming to faith. We want to encourage that, so we create systems to lift up, encourage, fuel, catalyze, power. Yes, you should share your faith, and if you will let us, we can help you do it better.

  • We encourage you to speak up and tell people what God has done for you.
  • We encourage you to ask people how you can pray for them.
  • We provide training to help you better share your faith and to make disciples, which we are all commissioned and commanded to do.

Empowering structures are intended to speed things up – to make things better in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness – we say “yes” to the things we should do and we do them well.

Yes, there are times we need control structures in the church. But if controls outnumber empowering structures – structures that intentionally lift up, encourage, and improve activity – then we will have a problem, and that problem will demonstrate itself through very slow growth, stagnation, and decline.

Small Spaces and Security

One of the things to bear in mind when sharing stories is: the smaller the space, the more sensitive to security it will be.

It’s easy to say “India [or China or Indonesia or similar places] are engaged by missionaries.” These are huge population zones, and saying this gives little away that isn’t already obvious.

It’s really not too bad to say this about very large provinces (e.g. places with, say, populations of 10 million or more).

But if we were to say this about a very small population area – for example, with populations in the range of 1,000 to even 100,000 – it could be far more problematic.

Saying such things about such places could result in punitive action by either governments or mobs. There have been cases where people posted stories on Facebook or Twitter, which were then seen by people living in those places and resulted in mob action. (There are people on social media who are running active searches for their people group or their place; I have had to block people on Twitter so that I don’t show up in their searches.)

I have also seen news articles in secular press–even recently–about Christian efforts in very restricted spaces. We need to be thoughtful and careful about sharing with the press, and even resharing even these already-public posts. It is a fine line to walk.

Being an active advocate for a people group or a place requires us to be thoughtful about how we share and who with. Mobilization does not necessarily require us to share all that we know, all the time, in all venues.

Surveillance in China

One of the big issues facing the church and work in China is its growing capacity for surveillance. We have been concerned for a long time about China’s capacity for hacking into personal emails and access to our phones, as with the developing capacity of the Great Firewall to block information (which the current generation is “learning to live with“), but this is by far the least of our worries today and over the next twenty years.

China has used Xinjiang as a testing ground for the development of AI-empowered surveillance. It has the ability to pick out faces in a crowd, identify them, follow them, and see who they associate with. (These associates, in turn, can be followed, in a widening network of interpersonal connections.) This surveillance technology is probably at it its maximum in Xinjiang but is being rolled out steadily nationwide. While we don’t know the exact limits of their abilities, the technology for reading lips and  for isolating voices in a crowd exists, so it is possible that conversations can likewise be recorded. China is certainly moving that way: to a database of voices with surveillance implications. Facial recognition is used for routine things ranging from paying for products to tracking student attudenace at school to determining how much toilet paper you should get.

The intersection of surveillance with China’s new national Social Credit System is nearly of apocryphal proportions: the SCS determines access to transportation, markets, jobs, education, etc., and can be affected by who you associate with, your Party standing, etc. This will regulate society and can be an effective jailer: if you hang out too much with foreigners, your SCS might be reduced, and you might no longer have access to planes, trains, taxis, or the subway system. China doesn’t have to send you to prison camp; it can imprison you in a certain section of life and keep you from affecting other areas of life. This could hamper movements.

Trying to get around these systems will be impossible and illegal. Already VPNs are generally outlawed, and you can get in trouble for accessing them or selling them (companies have some wiggle room, but not much). Surveillance cannot be avoided with all-pervasive cameras. It can penetrate things like hats and scarves.  It’s monitoring the movements of cars.

China is complimenting surveillance and the SCS with a grid system of surveillance (neighbors reporting on neighbors) rolling out nationwide and with an inexorable move to a cashless society (where all transactions can be monitored). The three of these approaches are leading not to new laws, but to better enforcement of existing laws and tightening controls on churches, which can be stifling. (The Communist Party of today in China is, notably, not about governance, but about control of governance.) And even if you are not in China, you will still be subject to its influence. Through the impact of Chinese media abroad and through government departments that follow Chinese nationals (also FP and Chinoresie), control is exerted. It’s not limited to Chinese citizens: foreign companies that want to do business with China are likewise coming under its influence, to the extent of determining which business systems they use (ones that China has access to), the business decisions they make, and who they hire and fire. And an even more ominous shadow: the control of the Party, the technologies used, and the methodologies will leak into Africa (where China is influencing everything from development to wars to peacemaking to elections) and other places touched by the Belt & Road initiative (“building the post-Western world“). China’s pattern is welcomed by would-be authoritarians and despots, and the pattern/technology is being implemented even in some free countries (not necessarily with direct links to China, but once the pattern is there, the tech will be welcomed). Some free countries will welcome it and spin it as “tracking citizens will help make a city better.” And China is also demanding information about people in other countries from those national governments.

None of this will make life easy on the church, or for the spread of the Gospel: we think a lot about things like “Back to Jerusalem” and China missionaries, but I’m a little surprised that this piece on Han mission work among ethnic minorities doesn’t mention the challenge of these issues. China is already cracking down on would-be mission efforts to other nations. And I have reports of both foreigners and nationals working amongst various groups in China who have been identified on surveillance; the nationals have been detained for questioning and the foreigners have been forced out (or not had their visas renewed).

Still, I don’t believe the darkest days of the church are behind it. The church has thrived in many places of overt persecution; in fact, persecution in China has already been shown to strengthen the church. Let us watch these trends with discerning but courageous eyes.

Sharing stories: security vs. fear vs. pride

One of the key ways to mobilize for missions is to tell stories. When missionaries come back from the field and work on mobilizing more workers, they tell stories about their time in the field. When agencies want to report on how they are doing, both from the perspective of mobilizing new recruits and fundraising, they tell stories and testimonies. When we look back at missionary newsletters, reports, and missionary biographies, they are mostly stories.

I do a lot of research & documentation, and one of the big problems I face is security. People are hesitant to tell me what’s happening on the field because they don’t want it to get out. The stories can, in many cases, damage what’s happening on the field: the government or radicals can read the stories and then crack down on the work. While we hear some amazing things, the true extent of “amazing” isn’t known to most people. (I’ve gotten to the point where I assume I don’t know the “majority of amazing” in most fields: therefore, I assume that, for any given field, something is happening even though I don’t know it, can’t see it, and may never hear it.)

It’s hard to know when the fear is justified and when it’s overblown. I can only trust the people in the field. Worse, I often get conflicting thoughts about those fears and security issues. It’s a bit of a landmine field for personal relationships, and we must walk it with care.

On the other hand, even when I can share the stories, pride can be an equal danger. Pride rears its head when (a) we want to be seen as the one “in the know”; (b) we want to be associated with the greatness of the story; (c) we want to take some level of credit for the story. Just because I can tell the story, doesn’t always mean I should tell the story.

We need to acknowledge not every story needs to be told. For many stories, I encourage the person I hear it from, pray with them, and “roll the statistics up” into regional and global totals.

We who live in more open societies, with fewer risks, need to be careful about retelling stories we hear on the field. We can be in a rush to retell something “really great” – without hearing the concerns of the field or considering the temptations involved in doing so.