the task

When it comes to missions, we often hear reference to “The Unfinished Task,” or, sometimes just “The Task.” I’ve heard it presented as our mission agency’s slogan, other times it seems to be offered as the key to mission strategies. This term is often left undefined, but its implications are disconcerting. What is our task? As individuals, we are accountable to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in whatever form of service He has for us. As disciples, we have been instructed to “go and make disciples all nations.” Many have received a specific calling to some sort of international service. We call these people “missionaries.” But as a missions organization, it seems we have misunderstood that mandate to mean that we are to bear the burden of strategy for global evangelization. We have meetings of committees and leaders in which we try to map out a plan to reach the unreached. We calculate “need” and “priority” based on what we think will “get the job done.” But maybe we’re getting ahead of God. Maybe it’s a mistake to allow the “lostness” of a people to dictate our strategy for the work we do. Perhaps we’ve fallen into the trap of depending on statistics to determine how many missionaries we send and where. After all, how do we measure “lostness,” “need,” or “priority?” Does the number of churches in a given country or among a given people group determine its status before God? What if those churches are dead, ineffective, and irrelevant? What if, by the disobedience and unfaithfulness of God’s people the gospel leaves a place that was once “reached?”

We depend on the terms “lostness,” “unreached,” and “the Task” to provide a standard by which we can measure our success. They were invented by strategists to help us get a handle on what we’re doing, and to assure the people back home that we’re making progress. We recently received a strategy report from the home office, in which our leadership outlined our strategy for the coming year. Basically, it stated that our organization needs X number of missionaries on the field in order to “finish the task.” They looked at the number of “unreached” people groups and decided that if we placed missionaries from our organization among those peoples, our job would be done. This plan was passed by the board and sent on to our leadership in the field. But this is a case of the performer dictating the standard by which his own performance should be measured. By sending out brochures and flyers and promotional videos, we teach people that success is possible and tangible and just around the corner. This works well to show that we are professionals who know what we’re doing. We’re in control, and you can trust us to use your donations well. But the basic ideas behind the strategy we teach and follow are flawed.

The first problem with “unfinished Task” strategy is that it maintains a static view of a dynamic world. We use terms like “the final frontier” to refer to those people that have yet to hear the gospel in a way that they can understand and respond to. Most of those people live in certain area that covers northern Africa, the Middle East, India, and most of Asia. The idea of the “10/40 window” was first proposed and promoted by Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner in the early 1970s. It says that as the church, our task is to reach all of the unreached people groups in the world with the good news. They said that the 10/40 window was the Last Frontier of the gospel, and that we needed to focus our energy and resources there. But casting this “Final Frontier” as the last place on earth that has never heard the gospel really overlooks a few things. Firstly, that the heart of the 10/40 window is precisely the geographical region where Jesus himself preached His message. The disciples were sent out from this place where the gospel supposedly never has been!

Secondly, the “Final Frontier” ignores the fact that people groups change. Through moves and intermarriages and other societal changes, some people groups have ceased to exist. Today the world is full of dead languages and lost cultures. At the same time, new people groups are being born all the time. Forty years ago, it would have been ridiculous to talk about “the Homosexual Community” or “the Postmodern World,” but today, these are people groups; they have culture and language unique to them.

Most importantly, a focus on the 10/40 window’s “unreached” people groups assumes that once a people group is “reached” with the gospel, it will always remain so. My time in Western Europe, in a “Christian” nation full of empty churches and faithless people, has taught me otherwise. Just as by faithful people the good news comes to a people, so too, by unfaithful ones, does it leave a people after just a few short generations.

The idea of “lostness” as our motivation is not a new one, but it is based on human logic rather than what the Bible says. In His “Olivet Discourse” (Mt. 24- 25, Mk.13), Jesus answers the disciple’s questions about the time and events of His return. “…and this gospel will be preached to all nations, and then the end will come.” Many missionaries and missiologists use this verse as a foundation for their “unfinished task” motivation. But the verse is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive; that is to say, Jesus is here providing a general idea, setting the background for the time of His return, not giving a mandate or outlining a strategy for global missions.

When I was in college, my friends that wanted to be missionaries were really into John Piper. He wrote a book called “Let the Nations Be Glad” in 1993 that really challenged popular thought concerning missions and God’s gloy. The basic premise was the God is mostly concerned with His glory. God is a jealous God, and His greatest desire, according to Piper, is that all the nations of the world worship Him. Piper makes the application to global missions by saying that the goal of the Church’s mission is that all nations worship God. I recommend the book to anyone who hasn’t read it.

About that same time, a guy named Jeff Lewis (the professor of missions at Cal Baptist, not sure what he’s up to these days) was making the rounds talking and teaching at Christian Universities about “God’s Heart for the Nations.” He built on Piper’s idea that the main reason for human existance is that we would worship God, and that our act of worship ought to be leading others to worship Him as well. Lewis was also really into people group research, and was therefore focused on the 10/40 window. His teachings had a profound influence; not only on my “Mission Friends” (get it?), but also on the IMB. In 1998, the Board adopted its “New Directions” campaign and strategy change, shifting it’s focus from countries to ethno-linguistic people groups. This “paradigm shift” echoed Jeff Lewis’ call for the Board to take the focus off of “reached” people groups and to concentrate it’s efforts and resources on the “unreached.” In fact, Jeff’s study on “God’s Heart for the Nations” can still be found here at the website.

Anyway, Jeff asks the reader again and again to consider:
“Start Pondering … What is God’s ultimate passion? Not His only passion, but what is His chief end? When everything is eliminated but one, what is His central motivation?”

I’d like to hear what you all think about this. I’ll post more thoughts in a couple of days.

One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing someone from the IMB (usually it’s someone in leadership) say, “What’s it gonna take to get the job done?”

Now I’ve gone through my thoughts about the “Unfinished Task” in previous posts. As far as I can tell, “the Task” we’re called to is nothing less than a step-by-step following of the Holy Spirit. But the IMB has scrapped that for something more practical. It’s like we read the instructions Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20, and we say, “Ok boys, you heard Him. All nations. Let’s get the job done!” It started in the 1976 with “Bold Mission Thrust,” a massive campaign the IMB launched to “Evangelize the world by the year 2000.” (Followed by “A Church for Every People by the Year 2000″ in 1980, “Strategy to Every People” in 1984, “One million native missionaries” in 1986 and “Decade of Evangelism” in 1990.) Like all of the Y2K Doomsday Prophets, we don’t really talk about this any more. These fund-raising campaigns (our strategies have proven that they were never really goals after all), did little to advance our overseas ministries, but they went a long way to giving Southern Baptists across the country a false understanding of missions.

All along we’ve set ourselves up as the missions experts, and told people that missions is about “reaching” people. We’ve developed mathmatical equasions for calculating a people group’s “need.” We ignore places in the world where God is working in ways we can’t use to raise money. We plaster pictures of needy dark-skinned people in the “-stans,” and tell the people in the pew that it all depends on us. We settle for evangelism because disciple-making (church planting) is too abstract and hard to measure. We worship missionaries as “super-Christians,” perpetuating the lies of professional clergy and highter callings.

Now we’ve decided that God’s goal is to “reach” every nation in the world (apparently not by the year 2000). We’ve gone to great lengths to develop strategies to get us to that end. We’ve even calculated how much money, how many people, and how long it’s going to take the IMB to fulfill this task. The problem is that we’ve made a “goals and action plan” project of God’s call to ongoing obedience.

What’s it gonna take? Us admitting that our human-centered understanding of missions and our plans for doing it are prime examples of us getting ahead of God. If we want to be involved in what God is doing around the world, we’re going to have to stop assuming we know what God is doing and that we know the best way to “get it done.” It’s going to take our churches (not our organization) sending people who are committed to going where God calls them and doing what God leads them to do, even if it doesn’t seem to fit our strategy.

Finally, why aren’t we suspicious of the extremely pragmatic nature of our question? Asking “What’s it gonna take?” is focusing on the end, ignoring the means. I believe the same sort of thing happened when Jesus talked about His kingdom and Peter reached for his sword.

Can I get some feedback here?