Growth leads to persecution

  1. Movements are growth machines. They are “rapidly multiplying disciple-making movements” because (1) they make disciples ‘rapidly’, and (2) they multiply by enabling disciples to make more disciples.
  2. The most common driver of growth is the small house group of disciples who regularly gather to (1) worship, (2) pray together, (3) read Bible stories and discuss what they mean and how to obey them, and (4) commit to share stories & the call to follow Jesus with others.
  3. The Western church often urges disciples to read the Bible, pray (‘have a quiet time’) and be a witness/share their faith. But, most such churches usually do not expect that believers will. Many small groups’ are centered around discussing the Sunday sermon (cynically, ‘the trained guy is sharing, and you talk about what he shares’; optimistically, ‘attending to the teaching of the apostles’). Evangelistic efforts become organized programs where people are urged to invite their neighbors to a church program where the Gospel will be professionally shared. (Cynically, ‘you can’t do this/we can’; optimistically, ‘here’s the low bar of effort’).
  4. While movements do not require disciples to be exhaustively or professionally trained in order to either read and apply Bible stories or to share the Gospel, they do expect and encourage their members to do so. Group functions and simple inductive Bible study questions (“What does this tell us about God? about people? what can we obey? who can we share it with?”) help bring the story to the bottom line of practical insights. Disciples can begin sharing with others immediately upon hearing the first story—even before becoming a believer (for a Biblical example, consider John 4).
  5. This expectation of group application & individual sharing is intensely practical, transformative, and outward focus. It drives the outward growth of a movement. If a movement wants to measure how well it is doing, one of the obvious ways is by measuring the speed of this growth. Movements don’t have big evangelistic programs, campaigns, or budgets; they grow or fail to grow on the basis of what disciples are passionate about doing. If movements aren’t seeing increases in total believers, baptisms and small groups, it means disciples aren’t making disciples.
  6. As a side note: growth obviously isn’t the only measure of ‘success.’ It should be balanced with health. A concern occasionally voiced about movements is the possibility of the exponential growth of heresy. The frequent comparison is to cancer: runaway growth of sick cells. Three factors address this: (1) in our current situation, most of the church is marked by an absence of any growth at all; (2) we all have a little bit of heresy in us, from someone else’s perspective; (3) the greatest amounts of heresy come from single high-personality leaders building audiences focused on esoteric aspects of doctrine. Such audiences are focused on the leader, not the outsiders, and thrill to knowledge that benefits me rather than obedience that blesses others. Movements focused on practical group-led Bible discussion (‘how will I obey this Scripture this week’ and ‘who can I share this with’) tend to find that narcissistic self-centered audience-builders are less inclined to show up.
  7. Movements are generally measured as ‘growing rapidly’ if they add another ‘generation’ (the disciples a disciple makes) every 12 to 18 months (perhaps 2 years). Many movements grow faster than that. Some movements tell me “if a church hasn’t planted another church in 4 years, it won’t.” If one disciple is discipling 2 to 4 others, we can see how a movement can rapidly multiply: 1 disciple, reaches 4, who each reach 4, becoming 16, who each reach 4, becoming 64, and so on.
  8. This kind of growth looks ‘small’ at first, but depending on how fast generations are added—and initial generations are often added very fast, indeed, far faster than 18 months—this represents massive growth that will rapidly outstrip the growth of the religious groups around them.
  9. When that happens, a movement will become very different from surrounding churches. Most churches in the world get most of their growth from demographics (births minus deaths in Christian homes), and small amounts from conversion (converts minus defectors). These churches ‘take’ new converts from the surrounding communities but also ‘give’ defectors back. Movements, on the other hand, have most of their early growth in the form of converts without defectors. They will begin to ‘eat away’ at the religious blocks around them. Depending on what those religious blocks are, different movements can encounter different challenges.
  • Some movements will ‘take’ from surrounding churches. The stereotype of this is “sheep-stealing”; a somewhat more academic term might be “church swapping.” This effect is known all over the world. We might decry it, but it’s inevitable. Some of these believers will have been nominal believers in their original churches; others might be highly passionate leaders who want to be part of an apostolically-focused initiative. Their loss from the original churches to the movement may or may not be felt. Further, movements that grow this rapidly will quickly expand ‘out’ of the normal ‘church’ culture; an intentional outward focus on non-believers will only enhance this.
  • Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from surrounding secularized post-Christian populations. This rarely seems to be noticed or receive pushback unless the movement gets large enough to have a transformative influence on a place that damages political or economic powers.
  • Some movements will begin to ‘take’ from the other religious groupings. It is here, depending on the situation, that significant push back may be felt. Small numbers of converts will most likely feel the effect of family pressure, and in the worst cases some small town or village ‘mob’ effects. Larger numbers of converts will receive organized pressure from surrounding religious powers and in some cases, governments.

The success of movements will lead them into inevitable conflict with others. This kind of conflict cannot be resolved as a “we leave each other alone” sort of approach. Movements want to see everyone given the chance to follow Jesus; ideally, want to see everyone following Jesus. They need to prepare for the very real certainty that if they succeed, they will face pushback and potential persecution.

Counting Missionaries

In the spring and fall, I frequently teach Lesson 9 of Perspectives. Whenever I do, one feature of the session that is often done, either at the beginning or at the middle break, is the ‘Worldview Demonstration’. Using coins and matchsticks (or some variant thereof), this presentation attempts to show people ‘visually’ the world’s population, the breakdown of religions, and how many of the world’s missionaries and the world’s mission money goes to the ‘more reached’ vs the ‘less reached.’

Inevitably, I often get asked how old the statistics are, and whether they have been updated. And the answer is, ‘fairly old’ and ‘sort of.’ In this brief essay, I’m going to explore some of the missionary numbers, why they are difficult to collect and analyze, and what the ‘current’ numbers might be.

First, let’s deal with a few issues in missionary counting and definitions:

  1. Which traditions count? Depending on how you define them, there have been generally five Christian ‘traditions’ that missionaries can come out of: Anglican, Independent, Orthodox, Protestant or Roman Catholic. There have been, historically, two major sources of global missionary totals: Operation World and the World Christian Encyclopedia. The former has published primarily totals of P,I,A (Protestant, Independent, Anglican) missionaries, while the latter has published totals of all. For reasons I’ll discuss later, I generally use the broader WCE numbers.
  2. Length of service? This is also known as ‘short term’ vs. ‘long term’. We don’t count people who go on 2-week short-term trips in the totals, for example. But, should we count people who go for just 2 years? Generally speaking, most missionaries count when they are in the ‘intend to be on the field 4 years or longer’ category.
  3. Home vs Foreign Cross-Cultural. It is straight-forward to count an American or an Australian or an Austrian who serves in India. But, what about an Indian from, say, Uttar Pradesh who serves in Bihar? These two provinces are stupendously large, the languages can be vastly different, and the sociocultural distances can be immense. It can every bit as big a distance from UP to Bihar as from America to Bihar, in terms of the complexity of mission. But does this count as ‘foreign’ or ‘cross-cultural mission’? For the most part, it does not. One has to leave their passport country and go to a different country.
  4. Getting Reports. Just the actual process of gathering the data isn’t simple. There is no central repository of data to which all agencies report their information. No agency is required to report their total missionary numbers, let alone where they are deployed too. While some of the larger agencies are well known, at least in name, (e.g. OM, Wycliffe, YWAM, IMB, Cru—not to mention my own, Beyond), there are thousands of very small ‘mom-and-pop’ agencies—e.g. small non-profits with just a couple missionaries—whose work is never well known or counted.
  5. Security. Especially since the 2000 Operation World, security issues around the collection of missionary deployment data have amplified. Even before 2000, there were some agencies that would say, for example, ‘Eastern Europe’ or ‘Middle East’ or ‘Asia—general’ without giving further details. This has ramped up significantly since 9/11.

For all of these reasons, it takes a significant amount of time and personal relationships to attempt to gather any sort of credible estimate of missionary numbers per country. Maintaining them over time—that is, looking for trends and ebbs and flows in missionary information—is even more difficult. Fortunately, we have two good, recent sources, both from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. One is the 2010 Atlas of Global Christianity and the other is the latest World Christian Encyclopedia.

The total number of missionary workers globally is estimated by these sources at 425,000. (Remember, this includes all traditions.) But the real question we want to get to is, what percentage of these workers are laboring among the unreached? And that’s where it gets even stickier.If we are to use WCE numbers, we need to remember the WCE uses ‘unevangelized,’ not ‘unreached’ (see this article for clarification). The differences aren’t huge in the final analysis, but it’s worth noting the nuance.

Any segment (country, province, language, people group, city, etc.) can be categorized as “World A” (unevangelized), World B (evangelized non-Christian) and World C (majority Christian). The rules are:

A: <50% evangelized, based on the WCE formula/data.
B: >=50% evangelized, <60% Christian.
C: >=60% Christian, of any tradition.

Here’s the sticky bit. We have missionary data by country. Every country is either in World A, B or C. The United States is a World C country; China is a World B country; Afghanistan is as World A country. However, within those countries, missionaries work with a great many different people, and the country hides a lot of this nuance. For example, China has many World A peoples (like the Uighurs), World B peoples (like the Han Chinese), and World C people groups (like the Lisu). So several thousand missionaries work in China, which is considered a World B country, and those ‘several thousand’ thus fall into the ‘World B’ column. But some portion of those work amongst World A peoples, some amongst World B peoples, and some amongst World C peoples. The data that we have does not enable us to easily tell what those percentages are.

That said, it appears the vast majority of missionaries in any given country are likely working in peoples that are similar to the country itself – e.g. most of the missionaries in the United States probably work in World C people groups; most of those in India probably work in World B people groups. Further, as we roll these numbers up to regions and the global total, small sticky bits tend to get ‘ironed out’ in the balances of the global totals.

The Numbers. The WCE is for sale, and I’m not going to give away data that is part of the book—not at the country level. In talking with the WCE folks, what I am permitted to do is to give global and regional totals. And here, at the end, is what you wanted all along:

Globally: 425,000 missionaries

A392.2 billion (27%)11,940 (3%)
B503.5 billion (44%)87,000 (20%)
C1452.4 billion (29%)326,050 (77%)

Some 77% of the missionary work force is almost certainly not focused on the unreached. 23% of the workforce is in places where ‘unreached’ and ‘evangelized’ peoples are largely found, but the ‘core’ of the workforce focused on the really difficult, most unreached peoples is probably not more than 3% of all missionaries.

As to regional breakdowns of total missionaries:

I recognize some of these numbers are difficult. Go back and recap some of the issues involved in counting. I know someone will say, “We’ve got 2 missionaries amongst X unreached diaspora people in Europe—how come you say there are none?” The simplest explanation is there are no majority-unevangelized (World A) countries in Europe, so there can be no missionaries to World A countries in Europe. (I also recognize some will have a problem with that statement. But as they are defined, it is true.)

None of this changes the picture that, 2,000 years after Christ, somewhere around 3% or less of all missionary workers are deployed amongst those who have very little chance to hear (a factor in why they have little chance to hear), while three-quarters of missionaries work in places that are over-saturated Christian countries (albeit perhaps of a different tradition than the missionaries in question). While I do not doubt that places like Germany and England and France likely need evangelistic effort, this “out of balance” situation seems to me to continue to be one in need of reformation.

How Movements Count

Over 1,020 church planting movements (rapidly multiplying groups that have surpassed four generations of church planting in multiple streams) have been documented. Together, they comprise over 73 million believers in over 4.3 million churches.

When people hear this fact, they often ask: how are they counted? One implication of this question is, are they counted in a way that others can accept as credible? As a basis for an answer, let’s begin with a broader question: how do Christian denominations, in general, count their members? How, for example, do denominations in America count?

I. How United States denominations count

Denominations, or groups of churches, in the USA use various means to gather these statistics. These methods vary significantly with the size of each denomination.

Most denominations count one or both of two different types of numbers. Attendees is usually a broader and more complex number encompassing seekers, children, and new believers who have not yet met the requirements for membership. This is usually counted as the number of people regularly in a worship service. Members is usually a smaller number of people who have reached some formal stage (such as baptism).

For example, the Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America counts attendees as the average number of people (including children) who attend liturgy (the main weekly worship service) on a non-festival Sunday – that is, people who come to the main service on a day other than Christmas or Easter. The Allegheny Wesleyan Methodist Conference measures attendees as “average Sunday morning attendance,” and members as “those whose name are on the attendance roll.” Not every denomination counts both attendees and members.

Denominational statistics are usually gathered by means of some form of survey instrument – paper or electronic – which each church self-completes and returns to the denominational headquarters. Here are four examples ranging over various sizes and denominational flavors in the USA.

The Assemblies of God (3.2 million members) asks USA churches to report the total each church considers members, regardless of age, as of December 31. As their researchers told me, “This definition provides a lot of leeway for the local church.” Adherentsincludes all who “consider the church their home church, whether or not they are enrolled as members.” Surveys are collected via both hardcopy and online options. Responses are checked if there appear to be significant discrepancies, usually by a phone call or by checking with district staff who have a closer working relationship with pastors.

Church of the Nazarene (0.8 million members) reports are self-filed by churches. No one attempts to audit; researchers make sure the numbers add up, starting with the membership number of each church from the previous year and adding the gains and subtracting the losses to make up the new total. If numbers don’t add up, an email is sent or a phone call is made to clarify.

The Southern Baptist Convention (14 million members) uses the Annual Church Profile form to collect statistical data on all member churches. The form is returned via paper or online options. As with all denominations, not all churches fill it out every year. Returned data are compared against previous years to check for outliers; unclear data are usually referred back to state conventions for clarification.

The United Methodist Church (6 million members) groups churches into districts and annual conferences. Each church self-reports, typically using an online form. They submit their data to their district, who aggregates it for the conference, where it is aggregated for the national headquarters. A statistical team reviews the data, and if any major variances are identified, they ask the annual conference to clarify. This usually involves a phone call to the district or individual church.

In nearly every US denomination, either the church is small enough to have a specific list of all members (a “membership roll”), or it is large enough that churches report using the “honor system” – “we trust you to turn in accurate (if not necessarily precise) statistics using a fairly broad definition.” Unclear data are clarified via phone or email. “We are not the IRS [Internal Revenue Service],” one denominational researcher told me. “We don’t randomly select churches for an audit and send teams out to verify numbers. Besides, checking Sunday attendance isn’t really enough [to determine total members]: you’d have to call every member to verify.”

This highlights a complexity of denominational statistics. Attendance is a fairly easy number to estimate, even if it is not necessarily precise: just get a rough count of the number of people in a Sunday morning service. Membership, on the other hand, implies a commitment, and can introduce nuance. When does membership begin, and when does it end? If someone stops attending a church, and switches to a different church, they don’t always announce this fact. How many absences should be allowed before they are “struck from the rolls”? Are people ever struck from the rolls? How long does it take after a death? What if people go to one church on Sunday morning and another church on Saturday night? (This happens when children, for example, attend another church’s youth group.) These kinds of situations make statistical boxes difficult.

Moreover, membership usually introduces significant debates over who should be counted. One example of this is found in the article “Meaningless Membership” . The author compares attendance to membership and asks, “Convention-wide [in the Southern Baptist Convention], there are 16 million members. But only 6 million people show up on a typical Sunday. Where are the other 10 million Southern Baptists? Some are providentially hindered, but surely not 10 million.”

II. How Movements count

Movements, like US denominations, wish to count their members. There are several reasons for counting, but four seem to be common to most movements. First, movements emphasize growth, and they want to see if they are growing. Second, by counting members in various streams, problems (which can be identified in part by a correlation in lack of multi-generational growth) can be identified and addressed. Third, movements generally don’t count to measure themselves in terms of their own growth, but rather to measure themselves against the surrounding non-Christian populations. The question they are trying to answer is, are we making progress in reaching the lost? Fourth, some movements use this counting for reports to their partners in areas such as prayer, projects, and funding.

Three forms of “counting” are generally found.

A. Small movements

Method 1 – We know everyone in the movement, whether we document them on a membership roll or not.

Some movements or pre-movements are small enough (under 1,000 members, for example) that all the groups, leaders, and even members can be known. Perhaps the stories of the individual leaders can be recounted. (For example, “This man came to faith because that grandmother prayed for his healing and he was healed. Then he shared with his brother, and their whole family came to faith.”) In their small numbers, they can easily be counted on a spreadsheet or a series of diagrams on papers. This is similar in practice to the “membership rolls” of smaller US denominations.

B. Moderately large movements

Method 2 – Each of the various streams within a movement know their members very well, and their numbers are aggregated to count the whole.

Some movements or pre-movements are too large to easily have everyone listed on a spreadsheet. (This “too large” threshold is often reached when a movement grows to the size of thousands of members, and definitely reached at the 10,000 member level.) Particular streams or portions of the movement, however, can be small enough individually to be similar to small movements above. They can aggregate their own numbers, and then each stream’s total can be counted together to come up with totals for the movement as a whole.

This process is similar to large US denominations that divide their churches into districts. Some streams might need to break their counts down further as they in turn get too large to count individually. However, when movements have thousands or tens of thousands of adherents, their individual streams are mostly “small-ish” and can be easily counted.

As movements become larger, they can encounter issues of security and technical logistics that make data collection risky or difficult. In a restricted-access area, a large data set of several thousand people can be very risky indeed. In places with very little technology or even very little literacy, the idea of gathering even sheets of paper might be challenging.

Because of these factors, a movement might decide to estimate their numbers based on data points like “the average number of people discipled by a leader” or “the average number of people in a group.” These sorts of estimates are just as accurate as any American denominational count (such as, “We have 10 churches, and each church has about 200 people”), although they might be less precise (see discussion of accuracy and precision below).

For example, I helped one movement estimate its total membership at between 8 and 12 million people. The estimate was made on the basis of the number of leaders, the number each discipled on average, a survey of the number of “generations” of leaders in each stream, and the geographic spread of the movement, with an estimate of its saturation of individual districts. The estimate, with a range of millions, was a truthful and accurate statement, but obviously very imprecise.

C. Very large movements

Method 3 – We are large enough to have the resources to invest in complex and regular counts.

Some movements are very large: organized in the millions, they are the equivalent of any national denomination in the United States or elsewhere (Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, etc.). Because of their size, they have the resources to make a heavy investment in counting and do a regular census of their members (which is something very few American denominations actually do).

To accomplish this, a research team physically visits most leaders and completes a survey to gather both quantitative and qualitative data. This can result in numbers that are both accurate and very precise and that are frequently updated. Such numbers are also, for obvious reasons, highly sensitive. Very large censuses are also complex processes that are difficult for smaller groups to implement.

III. Reliability

We know movements count their people in ways similar to how counts are made in other parts of the world. This similarity is natural: when adding up the number of people in a set and recording them, similar problems are encountered around the world and solved in similar ways. Are the counts reliable and credible? To answer that, we need to consider the various reasons why someone might look at a number and respond, “That’s just got to be wrong.”

A. Mistakes of definition

Misunderstandings can happen when someone gives a number without explaining what that number is. Is it attendees or adherents?

This can be especially true of movements that have both “churches” and “seeker groups.” Such movements often bring pre-believers who are spiritually hungry together in groups to explore Scripture stories. Eventually these “seeker groups” (often named different things in different movements) will either disintegrate due to lack of interest, or their members will become believers and form into a church.

“Seeker groups” are therefore closer to “attendees” in a Western church. Movements don’t typically report those numbers. They are in constant flux.

Movements, when reporting, usually provide “churches” and “adherents” – but the exact definition of “adherent” will vary from place to place. Generally, the majority of adherents are baptized believers. In some movements, however, believers might take a long time to be baptized, for a variety of reasons. Some movements report children, and some don’t (as with some American denominations). Some count “adult” at a much lower age than the typical American denomination would.

As with all research, when examining or comparing numbers, it’s important to know the definitions.

B. Accuracy, precision, and rounding

In the World Christian Encyclopedia, some denominations report their membership to the last digit; others round the number (usually to the nearest thousand). The difference between exact and rounded numbers is not accuracy, but rather precision. To say a denomination has 952 or 950 or 1,000 adherents is to make a true, accurate statement within the same order of magnitude, with varying levels of precision.

To use a different example: if my daughter asks me what time it is, and I reply “It’s a quarter to ten” when the time is 9:43, I am not lying – I am being imprecise but “close enough.”

Variances in precision appear in all sorts of counts. The difference between 21 million and 20 million is less important than the difference between 20 million and 200,000. Similarly, if a given number is thought to be in the tens of millions, but precision is difficult, it might be enough to know whether it is on the low end (10 to 20 million) or on the high end (70 to 80 million).

Regardless of how denominations report their information, we need to keep in mind our own biases: a very precise number can give a false impression of precision. For many denominations – especially movements – the number of members is constantly changing. New people are joining, others are defecting; some are being born, some are dying. We need therefore to hold any single number loosely and preferably report in a rounded form (as I do, when I say there are over 73 million members of movements around the world).

C. Exaggeration

Occasionally, some have told me they believe the numbers in a movement are exaggerated. The primary motivation for movements to exaggerate their numbers would be financial: high numbers could be used in fundraising appeals. We have not seen any evidence for this in the movements we have documented. In fact, we have often seen movements intentionally undercount. Sometimes this means setting aside from the count portions of the movement which they feel aren’t adequately researched, or for which the numbers aren’t really certain. In some movements, counts are reduced by a percentage out of concern for error rates in the count method.

Further, our research has shown most movements fund the vast majority of their ministries internally. The percentage of outside money is minimal, especially when considered proportionally to the size of the larger movements. In other words, if their goal were to raise money by exaggerating their numbers, they would be doing a poor job.

For most movements, exaggeration isn’t an issue due to their small size. The vast majority of individual movements are around the 1,000-member level, and the members can be known, as we have highlighted above.

Finally, we have documented movements in 5-year increments as they grew from 1990 to 2020. Movements have followed a variety of patterns of growth, plateauing, and ending over those periods of time. Movements do not follow any lockstep patterns of growth that would indicate engineered numbers.

D. Deception

A final claim occasionally leveled at movements is that they are outright deceptions. Either the accuser, or someone the accuser knows, “has been in the area” and “there is nothing happening there.”

When I have dug into such accusations, I have never found deception to be the case. In a few instances when deception has been found in part of a movement, the movement leaders have publicly admitted it and corrected their reports. In our experience, movement leaders are highly motivated to find any deception.

Frequently, outside accusations of deception seem not to be based on any evidence other than that the accuser or their colleagues have been in the area without seeing similar results or seeing evidence of the movement. They typically ignore that these movements are usually in extremely high-risk areas. If they are to survive, they have to become very well-versed in hiding their existence from governments and religious leaders. Many movements have had leaders “stolen” by mainstream public churches, often through offering salaries. Some have had their groups labeled as “heretical” and reported to the government by other believers. Westerners have gotten “in the know” and then without discretion have shared what they know, sometimes with very detrimental consequences. And most of all, many of these movements are so contextual that outsiders often don’t recognize them as Christian. Communities of people who dress in local fashions, gather and eat in local ways, and use local music do not look like what outsiders think of as “church.” For all these reasons, movements are often invisible to outsiders.

The 1,000+ movements we have documented have each had multiple contacts with selected groups of trusted friends. This web of trust includes people from many different nations, mission organizations, denominations, and backgrounds. Our team has usually discovered them by being within reach of such a trusted relationship (otherwise we, too, would likely not know about them). In most of the larger movements, we have personally met with leaders at various levels, who are working in very difficult situations, with significant security risks and very little money involved. We have shared meals with earnest church planters who have shown us the scars from persecution. They have told us many stories, including their mistakes, failures, and details too bizarre to make up. The similar patterns and details across unconnected movements add to the ring of authenticity.


Over 1,000 movements have been identified in the world. Each of these falls into general size categories of “small” (around 1,000 members), “medium” (some thousands to tens of thousands), or “large” (over 100,000 to some millions).

All movements, in some way or another, with some regularity, attempt a count of their membership, for a variety of reasons. They use methods similar to Western denominations, with similar levels of accuracy. Precision falls off with increases in size, which is to be expected.

Movements are loath to share this kind of information with outsiders, because it can be misused and represents a significant security risk. Movements are often “hidden” from outsiders, and the security risks often make third-party vetting of the information challenging, if not impossible. Yet at the same time, note that outsiders do not usually see the need to vet or audit the information of Western denominations.

In general, the same methods applied to Western denominations are applied to movements and should be accorded similar assessments of their accuracy.

Original article mine. First published in Accel, Vol 1 Issue 2, Nov 2019, pp. 16-20

It won’t be heaven if…?

What right do we get to dictate what heaven is like?

Even for our own convenience?

God uses trials, challenges, and long-term efforts to sharpen us now, like runners learning to run longer and longer marathons.

Why not in heaven? Why not on the future Earth?

Worship in many languages

At the recent Ethne 2019 conference, one of the things I enjoyed–I always enjoy–is worship and prayer in multiple languages.

For some of the worship songs, we seek various verses in different languages. For some, we take one verse, and each one sings it in their own heart language (all together). For some prayer times, we tell people to just pray in their heart language.

The struggle to understand another language – to sing words I don’t really understand – helps me grapple with the idea that the world is bigger than me.

When we all sing the same song in multiple languages, or pray in multiple languages, the “cacaphony” of noise is incredible. I can’t understand a thing of what is being said, beyond my own prayer.

But God can.

This is what struck me: this praise and worship isn’t about me. It’s about God. It doesn’t matter if I understand everything: this is a living example of how God is greater than me, and understands everything being said, sung, and cried no matter what language it’s in.

And, of course, this kind of worship represents Revelation 7:9, with every tribe, language and tongue before the throne.

This is the second thing that struck me, as it has before: why do we “think” we will all speak one language in heaven?

I often have this idea that I will miraculously be able to talk to everyone in heaven–from my mother to my mentors to people like C.S. Lewis to Bible saints like Peter, Paul, Mark…

What if you have to learn ancient languages to converse with ancient saints?

Why do you think you will understand Paul or even Martin Luther when you arrive?

In fact, one key way that “some will be last and some will be first”: people who only know one language from “western” cultures may be “last in heaven,” while people who had to learn multiple languages just to survive in poverty conditions now might be able to talk to more people right off the bat.

The value of marketing

In an airport on my way home, I saw a sign asking Chicagoans to adopt a pet. Every Halloween we spend money on pet costumes comparable to what we spend on missions to the unreached.

I hear people belabor this point, as if perhaps we should outlaw pet costumes and force people to fund missions.

The problem isn’t that pet adoptions or costumes are bad and mission is good. It’s not that easy. We spend a lot of money on things of the moment–things that give us a fleeting amount of happiness. God even allowed for this (for an interesting example see Deuteronomy 14, esp. vs 26).

The problem is that what we spend money on tells us a more compelling story than mission to the unreached largely does.

If we want to see more praying, giving, going perhaps the most straightforward solution is to tell more compelling stories.

Odd paradoxes in the Christian community

  • We expect parents to disciple their children. We frequently reflect on how parents spend more time with their children than any pastor or youth group leader. Churches provide materials to support parents as they have spiritual conversations with their kids.
  • We advocate for Christ-following men and women to serve as mentors for children–and even adults–who are in some ways less fortunate (e.g. kids who have lost one or both parents and who are at risk, or prison ministries).
  • We urge people to join in various forms of evangelistic campaigns, ranging from “invite your neighbor to church” to “share the Gospel with your neighbors, co-workers, friends, family members.”
  • Some churches encourage peer-to-peer accountability groups, where two men will meet to share with each other about their week, perhaps read Scripture together, pray for each other, confess to each other.
  • In fact, some churches go so far as to encourage people to host small groups, most often around subjects like whatever the pastor talked about on Sunday.

But for some reason, despite these facts, I run into person after person and church after church that flinches at the idea of the average person “discipling” another ‘average person’, or starting a group that would eventually itself become a church.

Discipleship, in this context, simply means a group of people who gather, pray for each other, read the Scriptures together, and ask (a) what they learn about God’s character, (b) how can they obey the Scripture, and (c) who can they share the stories with.

How is this so very far off from any of the 5 cases outlined above?

If *every *parent is expected to have spiritual conversations with their children, and disciple them, why can’t we expect people to disciple “our children in the faith”?

When patriotism can kill the soul

Sitting in a foreign country, I am constantly reminded of some uncomfortable truths:

To some extent, it is okay to be proud of my country. But I probably don’t have the right extent: some have too little, and some have too much.

Regardless, putting my nation and my people first over all others—whether “my” nation is America or the UK or India or China or any other—is never a Biblical act. God always desires that we as individuals—and therefore we as corporate individuals—put others above ourselves.

Nationalism and patriotism can be as soul killing an idol as materialism or lust or greed or pride.

Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. ~Matthew 10:37

Does this not apply just as much to love of country?

The spiritually mature

At the Ethne 2018 conference, plenary speaker, referring to believers, many MBBs:

They take God at face value. When God says something to us, we seek counsel. When God says something to them, they obey. When we have a problem, we seek a solution. When they have a problem, they pray.

Missionary martyrdom isn’t unusual

Recently, John Chau’s martyrdom has made the headlines, both in flattering and unflattering ways. Many people – even Christians – were shocked: partly that he went to a place where the language was less known, and partly because he went to a place that was openly hostile to Christians.

But missionaries go to these places all the time, and are occasionally killed–more often than mainstream news headlines let on. An instance of a martyred missionary is not unusual: nearly every year has at least one published case, and many years have more than one.

Some brief examples:

These cases are just the tip of the iceberg. They are what can easily be found with a few minutes of Google searches. Other agencies have had people martyred, but their names haven’t made the headlines, and the agencies in question haven’t pushed it into the press. I know several agencies have formal policies about what will happen if a person is kidnapped, or killed, that missionaries have to sign in agreement in advance.

Mission work is not always safe. Jesus didn’t promise safety for his followers. The same Lord who offered healing and protection from scorpions and serpents (Luke 10:19) promised “when you are brought before rulers and courts” the Spirit would give us the words to say (Luke 12:11). Jesus said “if they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (John 15:20).

The point isn’t for us to be safe. The point is for us to pick up our cross and follow him. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it…” (Matthew 16:25)