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.

Why movements succeed

Why do movements succeed? The way I’ve seen trainings done, they rely on Biblical principles. But every movement is different, and while principles are generally the same tactical implementation is nearly always different. At bottom it’s not because there is some kind of ritualistic or legalistic implementation of a formula. Instead, movement success boils down to this:

  1. They use prayer and abundant seed sowing to find spiritually hungry people
  2. They feed their hunger, bringing them to Jesus
  3. They help new believers discover how to live out faith in an uncomplicated, authentic and sustainable way
  4. They disciple these believers to become abundant sharers as well, seeking more spiritually hungry people
This works simply by upping the % of a movement that is sharing (not everyone will share, but in most denominations very few share at all). A professional clergy often gets locked into serving existing believers and the church turns inward and fails to attract new members faster than the population around it grows. Marginalized it turns defensively further in, hardening barriers and producing a downward spiral. Abundant sharing and teaching people to share keeps the view of the network pointed outward.

Is USA’s Millennial (Gen-Z) generation post-Christian?

In January Barna released a study which claimed “Generation Z” (born 1999-2015) is the first “post-Christian” generation. “More than any other generation before them, Gen Z does not assert a religious identity.”

The data then goes on to say 14% of GenZ is atheist, 13% is agnostic, 42% Christian (non-Catholic) and 17% Catholic (thus 59% Christian). One wonders how this can possibly be post-Christian.

A 2010 study from Pew notes the progressively less religiously affiliated nature of the generations.

But an important caveat is included in the Pew study:

Yet in other ways, Millennials remain fairly traditional in their religious beliefs and practices. Pew Research Center surveys show, for instance, that young adults’ beliefs about life after death and the existence of heaven, hell and miracles closely resemble the beliefs of older people today. Though young adults pray less often than their elders do today, the number of young adults who say they pray every day rivals the portion of young people who said the same in prior decades. And though belief in God is lower among young adults than among older adults, Millennials say they believe in God with absolute certainty at rates similar to those seen among Gen Xers a decade ago. This suggests that some of the religious differences between younger and older Americans today are not entirely generational but result in part from people’s tendency to place greater emphasis on religion as they age.

In other words, just because young people say they are non-religious today, doesn’t mean they will always. It could be the Barna data is a function of their current age.

And there are other reasons for the change: it’s likely not a change in the number who actually attend church, but rather a change in how those who are non-church-attenders talk about their lack of attendance. See this, and this with data from Rodney Stark (with chart back to 1974), about how the % attending weekly church services hasn’t changed.

Also look at this “40-year-study that shows us what’s different about GenZ” – but again, don’t expect these things to be fixed in cement. Generations change.


First, Multiply

I suggest that the emphasis of the “first team” to engage an unreached people group should not be to be a witness, evangelist or church planter. Instead, early efforts should focus on catalyzing leaders with large, strategic visions for the whole of the group, and a preference for multiplication and mobilization of additional leaders.

Consider: a single team deployed among 10 million people obviously cannot reach the whole group on their own. Additional teams are needed. Consider also that, in every successful CPM/DMM analyzed, there was an outsider paired with an insider – the outsider catalyzed and assisted, encouraged, served, connected, etc. the work of the cultural insider. (Side note: I’m not talking about insider movements, but rather E-scale outsider/insider.)

Example stages:

  1. A single team engages 10 million people.
  2. The team catalyzes a local worker. Insiders are now 1 to 10 million.
  3. With encouragement the local raises up an additional 10 workers. Insiders are now 1 to 1 million.
  4. These 10 workers, probably geographically/ethnographically distributed, now work on raising up 10 teams each. Insider teams are now 1 to 100,000 – which is doable. Disciple-making and church-gathering should clearly have begun at this stage.
  5. These 100 teams/church networks will raise up DBS/house-church planting style groups. 10 each brings insider teams to 1 per 10,000. That level of penetration is equivalent to a lot of Christianized places. (What I’m describing here is more a leadership movement, but might involve churches already started – this is now 4th generation of leaders). The benefit here is that these teams will be geographically distributed with a DMM-oriented plan.
  6. One more 10X multiplication would get you to 1 per 1,000, or at least 1 per village.

I would guess “reached” threshold would clearly be found at stage 5 or 6 above. The job wouldn’t be done, but it would be sustainable.

The point I’m making here: at the earliest stages, most workers should likely be focused on raising up the insider leaders and developing a multiplying strategy. Remember, just six 10X multiplications is enough to reach nearly any people group. Teams should therefore focus on how to 10X at each stage.

I’m not saying this is easy! But one thing we have to keep in mind is that multiplying is hard. When the multiplication is 2X (“each one win one”) progress will be slower than if the multiplication is 3X, 5X or 10X at the same rate.

(Another way to think of the above: as stages or thresholds of progress at each stage.)

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