Replace the nutrients and taste with preservatives and slick packaging, and you can get the general public to eat just about anything. Something about the convenience of it all made frozen and dehydrated “prepared meals” commonplace in Western homes. After a couple generations raised on ready-made meals, obesity has become a first-world epidemic, and cooking actual food is something of a novelty. Prepackaged food may be cheap and easy, but it costs a lot.
Christians, too, love for everything to be prepackaged. When it comes to mission, churches love their programs, seasonal campaigns, and 4-part sermon series. Put together a six-week study or a ten-day trip, and people will sign up. But in mission, like with TV dinners, convenience comes at a price.
When someone else tells you how to participate in mission, they also do the part that makes one a missionary. You’re left with only the option to do whatever it is they’re telling you to do or do nothing at all (and feel pretty bad about it). But the truth is that we all need to go through the process of praying through the question of to whom we are sent.
The process that builds your relationship with God; you become more dependent on Him, and you learn to hear His voice. These aren’t just helpful skills for a missionary, they’re survival skills for all Christians everywhere. So it really wouldn’t do for me to offer an alternative to existing approaches, would it? To warn of the dangers of popular missiologies and then to offer another finely-developed theory to replace them?
No, the role of the missiologist is not to develop a missions strategy for you, your organization, or your church, it’s to call you back to the scriptures and help you walk in step-by-step obedience to the Spirit’s direction for you on mission. It’s to remind you that there’s a distance between the culture you live in and the Kingdom of God, and that your job is to sort out how to best be a taste of the coming Kingdom.
In my analysis of the Anthropological approach to mission, I’ve tried to show that people group thinking is helpful, but not necessarily a biblical mandate. I’ve also tried to show the need to replace the philosophy of missions as task with one of mission as identity. But what does all this look like practically? I can’t tell you. That would be cheating.
It’s nothing personal. It isn’t a question of security clearance or “need-to-know.” And it’s not that I don’t have any ideas; I’ve given much thought to what I believe to be appropriate strategies for a church on mission. I think there are better ways for us to understand and engage in God’s global mission. I think that the church should be central to the selection and sending process. I think missionary should be a synonym for disciple. I think we should only go when and where the Holy Spirit directs us. I know we need new models for sending, support, organization, and incarnation. I’m excited about the possibilities for gift-based service and incarnation at every level of society. I’m a strategy guy, so I’ve got my theories.
I’d really like to suggest an alternative approach to mission, but, as you can see, I just can’t.
In my last post regarding the Anthropological approach to mission, I proposed that the church should replace its task-oriented view of mission with an identity-based one. One thing I failed to do there was explain what, exactly, an identity-based missiology would look like.
Mission is not something we do, it’s something we are. The concept of mission is rooted in the Missio Dei. That is, from the beginning, God has revealed Himself to be a missionary God. Everything that He does is either sending or gathering. Early church Fathers used the word mission to refer to the interaction between the persons of the Holy Trinity; the Father sends the Son, they send the Spirit. It has since been used in reference to God’s purposes to bring people to a right relationship with Himself through Christ.
In other words, what we know of God we know because He’s revealed it to us, and He has revealed Himself as redeemer of humanity. It’s His nature. As David Bosch writes: “Mission is not primarily an activity of the church, but an attribute of God. God is a missionary God.” We do not know the Father except as a missionary.
Throughout history, God’s interaction with humanity is unique in that He doesn’t just speak to people, He sends them. Noah’s mission was to save the animals and repopulate the earth. Abraham was sent to a new place to begin a new nation of people though whom God would bless all people. Moses was sent to lead the Hebrews out of slavery. Even the reluctant missionaries were sent– Joseph and Daniel were taken against their wills, Jacob was chased, Jonah brought by fish. All of these examples serve as part of God’s mission. That these men were indeed sent isn’t just inferred, God actually uses the language, “I’m sending you…” In every case, His interaction can be summed up as, “Go,” and the purpose, “to be an agent of salvation.”
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in Christ Himself, the Son who was sent by the Father. In passages like John 14, Jesus makes several references to the Father as “the One who sent me.” God incarnate, is God on mission among us. He proclaimed Himself as the gospel and lived it out before our very eyes. Mission wasn’t something He did, it’s who He is. Bosch refers to this as Christ’s “self-definition,” and he argues that all of His followers shared that same “self-definition.”
The first believers responded to the gospel like sleeper agents being activated. It was the same with Matthew, Peter and Andrew, and all who were present at Pentecost; they heard God’s voice and went. Their calling was to follow Jesus- to join Him on His mission. The various “commissions” in scripture are not optional activities for a select few Christ-followers, they are reminders that in Christ, we are all sent, and they knew it. They found their identity in their sent-ness.
It makes no sense to talk about our faith, our savior, or even God outside the context of mission. Talk of mission ending should bewilder us. How will we know God apart from His mission? He hasn’t revealed that to us. The church exists to organize God’s people on mission. Without mission, there is no church and we have no meaningful connection to one another. God has established that our relationship to Him and to one another is in His mission to redeem the world.
Referring to mission as a mere activity, something we do instead of something we are, has robbed us of our identity as Christians. In Christ, we are sent out ones. Making mission an activity implies that there is a passive state, times when we’re not on mission. But this isn’t the case. Our presence in the world is necessarily a missionary presence. There’s no other kind. Of course, we’re not always the best of missionaries. We’re often distracted by the mission field in which we find ourselves, which is why we’re reminded not to get caught up in the world, that we’re foreigners (“strangers,” or “aliens”).
When we make mission a task, we miss the fact that we were made for mission. The only reason we have been saved is because that is God’s mission. Now, our identity is in Him, and He sends us. When we lose sight of that– when we lose our identity– mission becomes a chore. It becomes a challenge to motivate people to go. We develop a special class of Christians to do missions for us. We’re either confident we can “finish the task” or paralyzed by the overwhelming need all around us. To what have we discipled people if not missionary? The Scriptures give us no other category.
I’ve been watching an interesting, if asymmetric, discussion on Ed Stetzer’s blog about MissionShift, the book he co-edited with David Hesselgrave.
Participants were given copies of the book and asked to post their thoughts on their own blogs and discuss them in the comments section of Ed’s post. We started by reading the first section of the book, written by Chuck Van Engen, and the accompanying response essays written by various missiologists and theologians.
The book itself is a thoughtful discussion of mission past, present, and future. It begins with an exploration of the definition(s) of mission. Though it seems like a simple thing to do, defining the mission has proven very difficult for evangelicals to do; interpretations of “therefore go” have ranged from social justice work with no gospel proclamation to open-air evangelism with no contextualization to baptized syncretism with no transformation.
Some reject the idea of missions. Others carry on under a new title (Van Engen refers to a church that replaced its “missions” program with “global outreach”). Others still hold tightly to the word, but apply it to everything from feeding the homeless to cleaning up the local schools.
What’s a missionary to do?
Part of the problem in defining the mission is that we’ve elevated it to something that is, for most of the church, (and, ironically, for most missionaries,) out of reach. As an academic discipline, missiology sits somewhere between theology, sociology, anthropology, and communications theory. The words we use to talk about our motivations and methods in mission can be pretty intimidating. The result is a church that has a fuzzy picture of what missions is or else doesn’t talk about it at all.
For some time now, more culturally-aware churches in the U.S. have been talking about being “missional.” This conversation has, for the most part, happened without any meaningful input from practicing missionaries on the field. The missional church has therefore been left to learn the hard way, missiological missteps and all.
It’s time for a more accessible missiology. It’s time to stop using lofty words that prove we know more than everyone else and start wrestling with what God is currently doing around the world and how that fits into our understanding of the scriptural mandate to “go unto all nations.”
I’m thankful for Ed Stetzer (don’t tell him- it’ll go to his head) and what he’s doing to further the conversation by bridging the gap between academic and armchair missiologists. I’m proud of all the missionaries who are mindful to share lessons from the field with the people in the pews.
You don’t have to be a scholar to talk about God’s global purposes or how you fit into it all.
This is my 9th post in a series on developing a new missiology.
Previously: Access Isn’t Everything
The truth is, our missiology comes down to our understanding of who God is and how active He is in the spread of the gospel.
What is the goal of missions? For some, it’s a crusade against other world religions; the Christianization of the world. For others, missions is the ultimate act of compassion, a rush to save people before they die and go to hell. Still others might say it’s about fulfilling our responsibility to preach the good news; what “the heathen” does with that is between him and God.
Most missiologists since Ralph Winter say that the goal of missions is to reach unreached people groups. This anthropological approach to missions gave rise to prioritization of “sowing fields” over “harvest fields.” Somewhere along the way, this perspective was mashed up with John 24:14 (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”), and the goal became “to bring Jesus back.” Then John Piper jumped into the fray with his book Let the Nations Be Glad, encouraging the church to refocus missions on giving God “the most glory.” “Missions exists,” he wrote, “because worship does not.” Then came the sliding scale of the degrees of glory.
The problem is that most current missiologies were formulated from the “limited divine involvement” perspective. All the mapping, categorizing, and prioritizing was done as the church’s attempt to do what they were “left” by God to do. Even John Piper’s take on missions (and yes, I’m treading lightly here) seems to assume much free-agency on the part of the church when it comes to missions (sorting out which activities and strategies would bring God the most glory). But Jesus’ promise to go with us must be key to our missiology; he often leads His people in very specific ways, and more often than not, those ways are counter-intuitive.
At the root of this conversation is the question of God’s participation in the spread of the gospel. Scripture says that God wills that none would perish (2 Peter 9), yet we know that many have, are, and will. Does a people group’s destiny depend on us? On one end of the spectrum, we find the “Their blood is on our hands” crowd who love to quote Ezekiel 3:18-19 (however out of context). At the other extreme, we have the Particulars who say, “When God pleases to convert the heathen world, He will do it without your help or mine.” Is God limited to the means He’s established for the spread of the gospel, (namely, us)? Or is He a relentless sovereign who will accomplish His will whether or not His people obey Him?
If you see God’s role as limited (whether that limitation be self-imposed or otherwise), it makes sense that you would be driven by compassion to get the word out as effectively and efficiently as possible (and at all costs). If, however, you believe that He is saving the elect, and will do so with or without your help thank you very much, then your motivation to mission is less about the need and more about the fact that we have been sent.
Of course, we need both compassion and obedience. We need plans and strategies, preparation and wisdom. Not to over simplify, but two views prevail: either you believe that God gave the Church this task of reaching the unreached and has then left us to get the job done, or you believe that God is orchestrating the spread of the gospel from person to person (or, if you prefer, people group to people group,) and sends us as important but ultimately expendable means.
To truly understand the kind of Spirit-led, callsourced missiology that I’ve proposed here, we must assume God’s micromanagement of the spread of the gospel to all nations. As Ezekiel 36:26-27 says, “I will put my Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my ways.” We have not been left to invent a winning strategy that will accomplish God’s purposes for Him, nor is He helplessly waiting for the church to “finish the task” so that He can return. No, God’s Spirit guides, directs, and leads us into His redemptive work among the peoples of the earth. Our part– our blessing– as sent ones is to obediently go and to stay in tune with Him enough to hear His voice and follow His direction.
This is my 8th post in a series on developing a new missiology.
Previously: A Global Wave
Many have taken to using “access” to the gospel as the criteria for missionary engagement. From their perspective, people groups who do not have access to the scriptures, need more of our attention and resources than those who do.
Starting with concerns about “access” is assuming too much.
In Acts 8, Philip is led by the Holy Spirit to cross paths with an Ethiopian official. As Philip joins the official’s cavalcade, he sees that the Ethiopian man is reading the scriptures from the book of Isaiah. Philip, likely looking for a way to start what I assume might have been an awkward conversation, asks whether he understands what he’s reading. “How can I,” responds the Ethiopian, “unless someone explains it to me?”
Here is an example of a man (from an unreached people group!) who had access to the scriptures. Granted, he didn’t have Paul’s (yet-to-be-written) letters before him, but here was an Ethiopian man with reading an explicitly Messianic passage from the book of Isaiah in a language he could understand. Yet he did not understand.
The Ethiopian needed someone to explain it to him. So the Lord’s messenger sent Philip. Just as Romans 10 asks (somewhat rhetorically), “How can they call on one in whom they do not believe? How can they believe in one of whom they have not heard?” Connection to Jesus requires more than just information about Him.
What seems like “access” to you and me– scriptures in the heart language, tracts, churches, the presence of witnesses– might not, in fact, be indicators of access at all. The information is only part of the equation; the personal communication of the gospel is what makes it all make sense. Without an incarnational presence, it is entirely possible for someone to have heard an explicit “gospel presentation” and yet still have no access to the good news at all.
Anecdotal evidence of this abounds. Missionaries discover a previously-unknown tribe in a dark corner of the world. They are met by a tribal leader who has read the Bible and has been praying that God would bring someone to explain it to them. Muslims in a village in a closed access country devote themselves to prayer and fasting during Ramadan. During this time, the men of the village all have the same dream: Jesus appears to them and tells them to follow Him. They send for a Christian to come explain it to them. Of course, these stories cannot be proven to have happened. Otaku in Tokyo who have developed their own language, culture, and worldview, but have never heard the gospel despite spending most of their lives online.
And my favorite story: Missionaries stumble upon some people in a city that claim to be believers. The missionaries ask about their salvation- when it took place and how. The people aren’t exactly sure about all of that. So the missionaries explain the gospel to them, and twelve men believe and are baptized. Of course, this story is from Acts 19:1-7, and it shows us that when it comes to mission, access isn’t everything.
Following the Holy Spirit is.
This is my 7th post in a series on developing a new missiology.
Previously: Yeah, But…
In the Old Testament, we read about Noah and his sons. Through a violent global flood, God reset humanity by destroying all but this one faithful family. Then, through this same family, God repopulated the Earth and kept His promise to prosper the Hebrew people. After the flood, Noah’s sons each set out in different directions, establishing tribes that would eventually birth all the people groups of the world.
Psalm 105: 23 (“Israel also came into Egypt…the land of Ham.”), leads us to believe that Ham, Noah’s youngest son, was the father of the Egyptians and other African peoples, including the Ethiopians and Libyans. Ham’s name meant “black.” From Shem, the eldest son (whose name meant “dusky”), came the Persians, Arabs, and Palestinians. The middle son, Japheth (“fair” or “light”), established the line that would become Armenians, Greeks, and other Mediterranean peoples.
All the peoples of the world are related. This is especially evident if we look at our neighbors. Usually, cultures are unique combinations of neighboring ones. Mix Afghan and Indian cultures, and you get something that looks a lot like Pakistani culture. Russian and Chinese? Mongolian. Look at Syria and Greece to get an approximation of Turkish culture. They would never admit this, but France + Germany = Belgium.
Forgive these generalities. I’m not saying that cultures are produced by their neighbors; only that they influence one another. Years of war, trade, and marriage can make a culture rub off on another. It also has to do with geography; coastal regions have similarities, desert peoples often have much in common.
In missions, these are referred to as “near cultures.” neighbors tend to share similar worldviews. This is why we can talk about an Asian worldview versus a European one. The Japanese and Koreans have very distinct histories and traditions, but they have much in more in common with one another than they do with Brazilians. Their proximity and history make them near cultures.
The missiological value is that near cultures offer fewer barriers to the spread of the gospel than distant ones do. Information and influence flow more freely between cultures that are similar to one another. This is a big part of why we raise up local leaders to translate the gospel into their culture and the cultures around them.
According to mission organizations that track these sorts of things, there are around 6,500 unreached people groups in the world. The missions community has organized itself around identifying, finding, engaging, and “reaching” each of these remaining groups. Could it be that the best way to make disciples of a people group might be to make disciples of a people group who are culturally near to them?
Why not develop a missiology based on this “family tree” understanding of humanity? Why not see each people group as responsible for the evangelization of the peoples who are culturally near to them? You want to reach the Muslim world? Why not pour into the Hispanic peoples who have so much in common with them? North Korea is closed, but not to South Koreans. Turks are not Arabs, but they have much more influence in the Arab world than most Westerners do.
If people groups are important enough to be preserved, they are valuable to the Great Commission. If it truly is God’s desire to see an indigenous expression of His Church among every tribe, tongue, and nation, perhaps it is through a global wave of neighbor-to-neighbor interaction that He will establish that Church. If this were the case, then it wouldn’t be a bad thing that God is calling faithful people from the West to pour people, prayer, and resources into certain places.
This is post #6 in a series on developing a new missiology.
Some of you, upon reading my last post, Callsourcing the Mission, might have disagreed with my proposal that we use a crowdsourced report of God’s calling, rather than people group taxonomies, as a foundation for our missiology. You may have seen some shortcomings of my theory, some holes in my logic. I’d like to address the concerns that I anticipate, and you’re welcome to post others in the comments section below.
“We can’t depend on God’s calling on people’s lives because they are lazy, disobedient, and stupid. They won’t hear do what God tells them to do, and they couldn’t possibly figure out how to do it correctly.”
This is the same argument that professionals have used for centuries to justify their attempts to control, coerce, and manipulate. Don’t get me wrong, people are lazy, disobedient, and stupid. But God continues to use us, His people, as the means to accomplish His purposes in the world. He gives us everything we need to accomplish what He’s told us to do. Can we mess it up? Yes, we often do. I believe that the church needs to be educated about and mobilized to missions. But I also believe that God “gets it right” through His people. He doesn’t speak only to the educated or the informed. If the church isn’t doing what you think they should be doing, there are really only two options: either they are being disobedient to God, or He is not calling them to do what you think He is.
“Before anyone hears the gospel twice, Unreached People Groups have the right to hear it once.”
At first, this perspective sounds like compassion. People deserve to hear about Jesus, right? If some people aren’t going to respond, shouldn’t we stop wasting our time (shake the dust off our feet and all that)? But who are we to assume that anyone has heard the gospel presented in a way that they can understand and respond to, unless we’ve spent the time to dwell among them and demonstrate the power of the message? Statistics show that Western Europeans who come to faith do so after hearing the gospel message seven different times. Leaving after we’re pretty sure they’ve heard it once is irresponsible.
Furthermore, does anyone have the “right” to hear the gospel? Of course this is the most important thing– more serious than any matter of life and death– but a “right?” Humanity does not deserve to be saved, not even to hear about the hope of salvation. When we prioritize one group over the other, we begin with our strategy rather than with God’s direction, which often runs contrary to human wisdom and logic. Remember when Jesus told his disciples not to talk to anyone along the way as they headed out on mission? Remember when God pared down Gideon’s army to far too few to win the battle? Remember when Paul was prevented from going into several unreached regions and redirected by the Spirit to “reached” places?
“Resources are limited. A mission agency has to set some strategic parameters in order to be good stewards of what they’ve been given.”
So your organization wants to focus on unreached people groups in the 10/40 Window. Praise God for His direction. That calling to you may be God’s salvation for these peoples. But now you’ve got to raise the support and find the personnel to go live among them. How will you do it? Awareness? Guilt? What happens if God isn’t raising anyone up to go to the people to whom you’ve narrowed it down?
To the average person in the pew, a people group is a people group. Unless, of course, there is some connection. Maybe a group of them live in your housing addition. Maybe you work with some who immigrated here a generation ago. Let’s not forget that God is orchestrating His global activity. If we value effectiveness, engagement of people with whom we already have relationships should take precedence over cold-calling people we don’t know.
“So you’re okay with unreached peoples going to hell?”
No! This has to be the most frustrating argument against, well, anything. Would that salvation would come to all people! Yet missions strategy means making decisions about where to go and where to allocate resources. Sending missionaries to each and every people group is neither the most efficient nor the most expeditious way to “reached” all the “unreached.”
I am NOT saying that missions should focus on the harvest fields. I’m not saying that missions should focus on the unreached. I’m saying we should let God show us what to do by leading us step-by-step.
There is a difference between a direction and a destination. Typically, the church will hear clearly from God concerning a direction, and then assume the destination. “If God is calling some of us to UPGs, then He must want us to reach every last one of them so He can return.” Three steps ahead of God is never a safe place to be.
“If we leave people to do what they feel called to do, they will all end up in the easy places.”
Though the perspective has become commonly held in Western missions, God did not tell us to “Go and reach the unreached people groups.” If He had, it would make sense to consider it a “calling” on the whole church, and we really wouldn’t need a whole lot more in the way of guidance or direction from Him. But Jesus deliberately left the bit about Him being with us always in the Great Commission. He continues to call people to places that are not in the “10/40 Window.” Surely that would not be the case if He clearly wanted us to focus on that part of the world.
“People need to do research to see what unreached people groups are out there.”
Let’s not forget, the concept of the UPG is relatively new, and while we could reasonably read it into scripture, I don’t think we should assume that Jesus, Paul, Luke, or John saw the world and mission in this light.
That small people group in the highlands of China? The cannibals along the Amazon? Sure, they’re obscure, distant, and hard-to access for you. But to someone else, these are next-door neighbors. For more on this one, look for my next post, “A Global Wave.”
This is post #5 in a series on developing a new missiology.
Human-sized hamster ball. Dunkin’ Donuts locations. Double Rainbow. At any given point in time, web analytics can show us what topics are “trending” in social media. An uptick in Google searches might indicate breaking news or a YouTube video going viral. Twitter trends give a real-time glimpse into what people are talking about right now. The value of this data is immense; marketers know what audiences are looking for, and social influence can be tracked through hyperlinks and re-tweets. The information isn’t limited to a single source, it pours in from the crowd.
Likewise, people are tapping into the collective knowledge and skill of their social networks to make things happen. Social websites invite user-generated content, which builds community ownership and grows the pool of participants through virtual connections. Open source software is the ever-evolving product of volunteers working together. Product development ideas are “crowdsourced” to (mostly) anonymous contributors who are compensated only in the pleasure of the work.
This should be our model for missions.
Throughout scripture, God uses “calling” to let His people know where He’s at work and how they can be part of it. The itinerary of Paul’s missionary journeys was determined on the fly by the Holy Spirit. God’s direction for an individual, confirmed by his local church, should be our model for selecting and sending missionaries. Say God is calling white, middle-class suburbanites by the dozens to “evangelized” Mexico. There is no better place for them to go, and no better place for us to send them, than to Mexico. The advent of their calling (again, confirmed by their sending churches,) should serve as an indicator of God’s activity in the world.
There are different types of “calling.” We usually think of calling as that which God plants in us and builds internally until we can’t help but do something about it (we often refer to it as a “passion”). This kind of “call” is often quite specific, and can usually be traced to a time when we clearly heard from God. You know, like “Jonah, go to Ninevah” or “Steve, move to Thailand.” Paul once had a dream of a man from Macedonia begging him to go there, and other times, the Holy Spirit “prevented” him from going where he thought he should.
Of course, not everyone gets explicit directions from heaven. Sometimes, God uses external influences to give us direction. The chance to do something important, something of eternal value. The joy of serving where gifts, skills, and ministry intersect. The pleas of the oppressed, the plight of the neglected. These are the needs and opportunities that move us to action. These “calls” may be more general, but they’re no less significant for mobilization to God’s global mission.
I propose that we build a new missiology based on “callsourcing” our strategy. If unreached people groups in certain regions of the world “trend” in our collective consciousness and prayers, that’s God leading us. If our next-door neighbors make us aware of the spiritual need in their home countries, that’s the Holy Spirit giving us direction. We, the church, can know the will of God for our missionary efforts by listening to His call.
The resulting direction would be vastly superior to our categories and statistics. “Callsourcing” forces us to start with utter dependence on the Holy Spirit for guidance and leadership. Jesus instructs His disciples in this vary matter in Luke 10, when He sends them out on a mission trip. He gave them no objective criteria for strategic planning other than the Spirit. He tells them that they’ll know where to go and with whom to speak by blessing people. If their blessing “returned” to them, they were to move on. This spiritual guidance should be the foundation for our every missionary turn.
Reliance on the calling would build ownership in the mission. Rather than say, “If you want to be involved, we’ll find a place for you,” we would mobilize people by asking them to weigh in on what they see God doing among the nations. The line between the professionals and supporters would be erased. Unity, not resources, would be our commonality.
Certainly, there would be some objections to Callsourcing as the foundation of our missiology. What if nobody is called to certain places in the world? What if everyone wants to live on the beaches of Barcelona or in the alpine Switzerland? Can we trust the ignorant masses to “get the job done?” In my next post, I’ll examine these and more.
This is post #4 in a series on developing a new missiology.
In my last post, I summarized the origins of the current popular understanding of missions. People group thinking, as I call it, hasn’t been all bad. But neither has it been all good. This, I suspect, is due in large part to the fact that is isn’t entirely biblical.
For starters, the concept of “people groups” is easily read into scripture, but may not be explicitly found there. Sure, one can make a case that when Jesus told His disciples to go to “all nations,” He really meant “all ethno-linguistic people groups.” But did Luke mean the same when he wrote about Pentecost in Acts 2:5, saying that there were “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven” present? Surely not.
When Paul and Barnabas were sent out by their church, (First Baptist, Antioch, naturally) Acts 13 says that they were sent by the Holy Spirit “for the special work” to which He had called them. There was no mention of people groups or um, reaching anyone. Their strategy was to follow the Spirit’s leadership. As they were led, they proclaimed the good news. Even after they shifted their focus from Jews to gentiles (again, per the Spirit’s direction), their strategy never resembled the “adopt an unreached people group” approach so common today.
My point is that “all nations” is not necessarily a firm foundation on which to base our missiology. Other than Greeks and Jews, there is little evidence that Paul and the other apostles used the concept to organize their missionary endeavors. Furthermore, if people group thinking is based on a “new” understanding of the ancient Greek, (and far be it from me to disagree with John Piper… but), it’s one that ignores the reality of a dynamic, changing social structures. The reality is that people groups die out, merge, and emerge all the time. More and more, formerly “reached” groups are falling back into the “unreached” category. Unfortunately, people group thinking doesn’t have room for anything but a static world.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that people groups are a great way for us to organize our missionary efforts. I agree that different peoples need different kids of ministry and communication. The concept certainly isn’t anti-biblical, but it isn’t explicitly biblical. We put people groups into categories of “reached” and “unreached”– categories not found in scripture. Furthermore, the professionalization of missions has led to the development of complex taxonomies that measure “reachedess,” “receptivity,” and “degrees of evangelization.” Jesus concluded the Commission with the promise to be with us always, but we really don’t need Him because we’ve got it all figured out.
So the missions community is busy trying to convince people that no, God isn’t calling them to South America or to Western Europe, and are they sure God didn’t mean Indonesia? We talk about “engaging” people groups as though they were squares on a chess board just waiting to be occupied by the missionaries we move about like pawns. We allocate resources to the “hard places” because we expect God to work there, nevermind where He may, actually be leading us to go.
Perhaps the most damaging aspect of people group missiology is that it replaces the Great Commission mandate to “make disciples” of the nations with “reaching” them. This subtle difference has has widespread ramifications. Now, we talk about missions as though the goal was to “reach” people or to “finish” the Great Commission. The mission is not to “reach unreached people groups,” it’s to “make disciples of all nations.”
The truth is that our responsibility to go does not end. Not when the last people group is “reached.” Not when every city has “enough” believers to take responsibility for their own. Not when everyone has had a “chance” to hear. No, our calling is to nothing less that ongoing, radical obedience to the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, it’s not our job to determine what course of action will bring God “the most glory.” God has lets us know what He want from us, and it’s not measurable, finishable, or easily managed. He wants us to obey Him. When His leadership contradicts our strategies, I say we should go with God.
To be clear– I appreciate the work of the missiologists and practitioners who have gone before. I don’t in any way claim to know more than they. But the Unreached People Group philosophy held by groups like the Joshua Project and others isn’t the only way to understand missions. In fact, I think there is a better and more biblical way.
NEXT: If not Unreached People Groups, then how should we go about doing missions? What is the mission, and how might we organize ourselves for obedience? My solution? Callsourcing.
This is post #3 in a series on developing a new missiology.
My previous post was about “what missions can learn from the missional movement.” In this post, I’d like to tackle the vocabulary of missions. What are we saying?
It used to be the number salvations. Fifty years ago, missions was all about the harvest. Who could argue the validity of a ministry that was producing fruit? This, unfortunately, led to a “whatever works” pragmatism that . Missionaries and evangelists the world over took to circus-tent preachertainment in attempts to draw the largest crowds and get the greatest number of “conversions.” Thank you. Yes, I see that hand.
In the 1970s, a new crop of missio-sociologists sprang up. Ralph Winter, Donald McGavran, and his successor at Fuller Seminary, C. Peter Wagner. looked no only at the practical aspects of getting people to say a prayer, but also the social implications of evangelization. These were practitioners, each had spent significant time on the mission field, and knew first-hand that numbers didn’t tell the whole story. They knew that people around the world organized themselves into ethnolinguistic people groups that often disregarded geopolitical borders. It didn’t make sense, Winter said at the historic Lausanne Conference on World Mission (1974), to send missionaries to a country. There may be hundreds, even thousands of unique people groups within the borders of any given country, and focusing all our resources on the few responsive people groups was done at the expense of work among others. Not all conversion numbers, then, were equal. Missions needed to focus on unreached people groups.
Before the modern missions movement, missionaries would first teach the people of a tribe or village to speak and read the missionary’s language in order to communicate the gospel. The Moravians, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor changed that. These missionaries devoted their lives to learning indigenous languages and translating the scriptures. But this was done to “win more converts,” not out of any belief that God was somehow brought more glory by worship in a diversity of languages and cultural expressions. Winter, McGavran, and Wagner developed a people group missiology that saw culture not as a tool for the effective conversion of the heathen, but as a thing to be converted as people came to Christ.
An entire missiology of people groups was developed. This perspective traced the mission mandate back to Creation, God’s covenant with Abraham, and later with Moses. It focused on the redemption of people in their indigenous cultures, seeing value in different perspectives and styles of worship. People group missiology interpreted the ancient Greek words, “all nations” in Matthew 28:19 as meaning “all people groups.” The missionary task was therefore defined as, “To reach all unreached people groups.”
If all of this doesn’t sound all that radical to you, it’s probably because the missiology of Winter, et. al has becomes so prevalent. For two-hundred years (since William Carey) By the mid nineties, every major missions sending organization had adopted people group thinking and reorganized their missions strategies around it. Instead of relying on high numbers of conversions to justify their work and solicit support, missions agencies talked about the number of people groups that had yet to hear the gospel, and how they were gaining on the completion of the task of “reaching” them all.
The influence of people group thinking didn’t end with missiology. A compatible eschatology was developed around Matthew 24:14, (“And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”) holding that Jesus will not return until we “reach” the last unreached people group. Ecclesiology was reorganized around people groups; it wasn’t enough to have a vital church nearby, each people group needed its own worship gathering. Church planters now focus on specific target ethnic/affinity/subculture groups rather than planting a church per town or neighborhood. Youth ministry, evangelism, Christian education, and research have all be heavily influenced by this perspective. In short, people group thinking has revolutionized Christianity.
All this to set the stage for my next post, Missiospeak. I’ll take a look at specific words we use to talk about missions, and the impact of those words on how we understand and do missions. Tell a friend. Stay tuned.