The Anthropological Approach to Missions

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The concept of unreached people groups is a helpful way for Christians to organize their efforts toward global disciple-making. Around the world, people group themselves along certain lines- lines that also present significant obstacles to the spread of the gospel from one group to another. Ethnography, the practice of studying and categorizing groups of people, provides the mission with a framework for the measurement, organization, and global strategy for missionary engagement. When we know what languages people speak, we can make efforts to get them the scriptures and a gospel witness that they can understand.

This “people group thinking,” now common to most involved in the missions world, is relatively new to the scene. It was championed by Ralph Winter and Donald McGavran at the Lausanne International Congress on Global Evangelization in 1974. Hinging on a new interpretation of the ancient Greek word ethnos (“nations”) found in some of the missionary passages of scripture, people group thinking asserted that the goal of Christian mission is to reach people of every ethnolinguistic people group.

This was a radical departure from the historical missionary conversation, which focused on language/affinity blocs, countries, regions, and an ongoing debate over whether to focus on “harvest fields” vs. “pioneer areas.” Nevertheless, most major evangelical missions agencies adopted this new understanding of “nations,” and reorganized their systems and structures accordingly. Strategies were built around the prioritization of certain groups over others based on ethnography, population, degree of difficulty, and access to the gospel.

People Group missiology goes like this: according to passages like Revelation 7:9 (“..behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne…”), God desires that people from every nation (ethne) in the world come to worship Him. The church should, therefore, concentrate its efforts to that end by redeploying personnel and resources away from “reached” people groups and toward the “unreached.” The categories of “reached” and “unreached” were further defined as being “2% or fewer evangelical.”

The concept of ethnolinguistic people groups is borrowed from 1960s anthropology. During that time, anthropology as an academic discipline moved away from science toward theory. Cultural anthropology was separated out from the sciences of archeology and biological and linguistic anthropology. This is important to missions because the concept of “people groups” is based on the old, measurable, observable “scientific” approach to the study of humans. It deliberately takes into consideration only what can be objectively observed by outsiders.

People groups, though, are not static. Through intermarriage, assimilation, global influence, and desertion, ethnolinguistic groups die out all the time. Meanwhile, new such groups are emerging at a surprising rate. According to missiologist Carol Davis, transitional peoples– second- and third-generation immigrant groups, for example– are not simply combinations of host- and home-cultures. They are completely new people groups, with distinct cultural identities, worldviews, and use of language. This complicates the notion that we might somehow be gaining on the goal of finishing the task. The ever-changing unbelieving world is a moving missiological target.

Neither is the spiritual status of a group permanent. Once a person is in Christ, he is forever in Christ. But if he is not faithful to make disciples of his own, knowledge of the Creator can and will be lost in future generations. That’s why, according to the “reachedness” statistics, places like Spain, France, and much of the Middle East are all now “unreached.” None of the seven churches of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation have survived. In all of Turkey, where those churches once thrived, there are only three thousand known believers today. A “reached” group isn’t necessarily always reached.

While ethnography is helpful to us in missions, it is not strictly biblical. Jesus never mentions the idea of unreached people groups; His emphasis was on those who believed and those who did not. In Acts 1:8, without any mention of ethnolinguistic groups, Jesus further commissions His disciples to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Paul seems to have only two missiological categories for people groups: Jews and Gentiles. This was the radical shift in the New Testament concerning the recipients of the gospel: Christ is the only salvation for people of any ethnicity. Otherwise, there is no evidence that any of the New Testament authors displayed any anthropological savvy in their missiology.

So what about all the mentions of “nations” (ethnos) in the scriptures? You only get “ethnolinguistic people groups” if you’re very selective. It’s true that the Great Commission sends us to make disciples of “all nations,” but that same term is used elsewhere to mean something other than ethnolinguistic people groups. In the Pentecost account in Acts 2, Luke writes that “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation (ethne) under heaven.” If he actually meant that there were Jews and devout people from every people group, well then the “task” of “reaching” them was accomplished in the first century. If instead he means only that Jerusalem was quite diverse at the time, it presents a problem for this particular understanding of the word.

There is no historical evidence of ethnography ever being a factor in missions. According to David Bosch, even the word mission was not applied to the idea of Christians sharing the gospel with non-Christians in other cultures until the sixteenth century. Before that, it was used in reference to the doctrine of the Trinity (as in, the Father sent the Son). So the over-simplification of missions as “reaching all the unreached people groups” is relatively new. Roland Allen, in his book Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? suggests that Paul’s missiological unit was the province (Acts 16), as opposed to people group.

Again, the concept of people groups is extremely helpful to our mission. As we identify significant barriers to the communication of the gospel, we can be smart about overcoming them. Every Christ-follower everywhere needs an indigenous expression of church in which to worship. As God has demonstrated since Babel, cultures are valuable things, and part of His redemptive work among humanity.

But as helpful as it can be, the anthropological approach to missions can also be a problem for Christians who are trying to discern God’s direction. When the categories of people groups, particularly “reached” and “unreached,” “engaged” and “unengaged,” become a presupposition for God’s leadership for our missionary efforts, we limit Him. When we assume that our work among the lost of one group is somehow of more kingdom value than that among the lost in another, we play a part that isn’t ours to play.

The only biblical mechanism for organizing our work is the Holy Spirit. Through the local church, He equips, calls, and sends missionaries. In Acts 16, Luke writes that Paul clearly had a desire to preach the gospel in Asia, where it seemed to be his assumption that the gospel had not yet been proclaimed. Nevertheless, he was forbidden by the Holy Spirit. As Paul and his companions attempted to go into Bithynia, the Spirit of Jesus prevented them. Finally, they were lead to Macedonia by a vision. As God orchestrates His Church on His mission, He doesn’t do things the way we would do them. By using human means, God has proven Himself to be neither logical (by human standards) nor efficient.

There’s even a dangerous heresy that springs out of the people group thinking interpretation of Matthew 24:14. Some have come to assert that Christ will not return, indeed cannot come back until this task of reaching every unreached people group is completed. Some have even taken to using this as a motivation for missions- that Jesus is just waiting in the wings, unable to return until we finish the job. This, of course, contradicts verse 36 of that same passage, where Jesus says that no one– not even the Son of Man– knows when He will return.

The greatest danger in the anthropological approach is that it has made missions a problem to be solved rather than our very identity in Christ. Francis Dubose, who coined the word missional, wrote that God is a sending God. We are a sent people. As Christopher Wright reminds us in his book, The Mission of God, the Father was sending long before He sent the Son. It’s His nature. And ours, as His people, is to be sent. There’s no other way to be a follower of Jesus.

So mission will not end when the last of the people groups is reached. We are not sent because of the temporary need in the world (which is indeed great!), but because God is a sending God and He is glorified in our obedience. We must recognize that mission is the very nature of God and the basis of our relationship to Him. Mission isn’t a task to be finished, it’s our identity in Christ.

People Group Advocacy

Most missionaries see themselves as having been sent to a particular people group or population segment. This makes sense, as each subculture requires a unique methodology to church and gospel translation.

Most missionaries establish themselves as advocates for their people. They promote their work by highlighting the needs, both spiritual and physical, of the group. They present statistics demonstrating their “unreachedness” and relative separation from Christ.

I’ve written before about the need to love your city. But I would love to see missions advocacy take a more positive turn. Why not set up a website promoting what your people group has to offer the world? Rather than focusing on their great need (let’s face it, the vast need is overwhelming), emphasizing the potential contribution of your group?

Perhaps your long-lost tribe in the Amazon could teach hunters in Arkansas a thing or two about bow hunting. Or maybe the women in your village in Sudan would give a mean seminar on basket weaving. The Yi of southwestern China are expert nomadic cattle herders, and could advise on land-sharing initiatives. From art to cooking to justice to living in balance with the environment, every people has something to offer humanity. Why not advocate for your people group by promoting their assets rather than lamenting their lostness?

To be clear: I’m not talking about exploitation; you should not be making money off of your people group. I’m not talking about starting business ventures, either. Some groups may be interested in this sort of thing, but many entrepreneurial Westerners have sold out their people in the name of community development.

Instead, I’m talking about establishing a platform from which those who do not know your people group might be able to relate to it. If you were to promote your work among the gemu otaku in Tokyo as having a tremendous ability to build and interact in virtual worlds, you’re building bridges for interested churches to connect with them. The Adyghe in the Northwest Caucasus all carry swords yet live peaceably with one another. Churches could ask them to speak into the U.S. gun control debate.

Leading with the need may raise awareness and pull at the heart strings, but advertising  a people’s skills provides a starting point for dialog. It would truly serve the church on mission if advocates would help them see people groups not at projects, but as people.

Missions, Micromanaged

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.

Access Isn’t Everything

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.

A Global Wave

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.

Yeah, But…

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.”

Callsourcing the Mission

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.

Missiospeak

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.

People

Most of the people who call themselves “missionaries” will tell you about their passion for the unreached people group they’re working with. Algerian Berbers. The Dong people of Nigeria. The Bondo Poroja of India. People you’ve never heard of. Dark-skinned people in funny hats, living in places you couldn’t find on a map. The missionaries have grown to love their adopted people groups- indeed many have been adopted by their people groups. But unless you’ve met people, spent time with them, eaten with them- shared life with them- it’s hard to relate. How can we connect with people whose paths will never naturally cross our own?

To most of us, they’re people groups, but not people.

Our strategic approach to missions has led us begin missions with taxonomy; we conduct extensive research to find, categorize, and then engage those people groups we deem “unreached.” The unintended result of such an approach is that we’re left with a long list of facts and statistics rather than a connection with people.

If you know you’re called to mission- not just in your neighborhood, but across cultures and around the world- don’t be intimidated by a long list of unpronounceable names and places. I’d encourage you to fast and pray about where God might use you. The truth is, he may not want an Westerner to show up on the scene. Your role may be indirect. The mission of the worldwide church is a domino effect- with people going out to where the Holy Spirit leads them and sharing life with those whom He has prepared.

The beauty of God’s global activity among the nations is that it doesn’t depend on you. You can miss out, but you can’t mess it up. So throw a dart at a map, draw a name out of a hat, spin the Google Earth globe. Just be sure that God is the one leading you. Because then, and only then, will people become more to you than an unreached people group. They’ll be friends. Family. Individuals whose lives are forever supernaturally entwined with yours. People, like you, who will love, hurt, teach, and know you.

I think that’s what missions is supposed to be.

 

“All Nations”

My last post was about the Board’s current missiology; specifically, Jeff Lewis’ study posted on the imb.org website. I need to start by saying that I’m questioning the Board’s philosophy here. I don’t have anything against Jeff Lewis, and I don’t want to offend anyone. Again, I’m just looking for people who will discuss the questions I have.

Now, most missionaries and missiologists these days seem to be saying that God’s big plan is to “reach” (by this, I’m guessing they mean “save” or “redeem”?) all nations across the globe. Most of the books and websites I’ve read like these verses as insight into God’s “heart for the nations:”

Of course, there’s the Great Commission:
Matthew 28:19
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

So we know the term “all nations” is a Biblical one. We usually define nation as “peoples who group themselves according to geography, language, and culture.” There are other passages that talk about “all nations,” but it’s harder to see the direct application to missions. This one, for example, from Mark:

Mark 13:9-11
“You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.”

Does “must first be preached” here mean “primarily,” or “before any of the above happens?” And does it mean we should come up with a plan to preach to all nations? Is preaching to all nations the same as missions? Where might church planting come into play?

Anyway, the most often-cited verse is usually this one:
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.”

Everyone I’ve read on this one seems to take this verse as a prescriptive directive. That is: “You must preach to all nations before the end will come.” I’ll write about this in a separate post.

Finally, there’s the Revelation passage:
Revelation 7:9
“…after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.”

Here, John says he sees people from every nation worshipping. Not to split hairs, but is he talking about all the ones that were around back then? Maybe he had the insight to recognize all the people groups that every existed and ever would in the future. Or maybe he just means “lots of people from lots of different places.”

One verse that also uses the “all nations/every nation” terminology is this one that tells about the Day of Pentecost:
Acts 2:5
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.”

I find it odd that this one doesn’t figure into the discussion. Does it mean that there were literally Jews in all nations? Or is it saying “of the nations in which there were Jewish people…” If we’re going to base our missiology on a concordance search for “all nations,” we need to talk about this one, too.

And another “all nations” passage in Revelation that isn’t considered relevant:

Revelation 14:5-7
“Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earthÂ? to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

I’m of the opinion that we shouldn’t assume a destination when God gives us a direction. I believe that Jesus will come back whenever He wants to (later in Matthew 24, and 1 Thessalonians 5). It really doesn’t all depend on us. I find that Revelation 14 verse very assuring: “The Task,” if it is our task, can and will be “fulfilled” by God’s heavenly messenger in one fell swoop- a sort of evangacube in the sky, if you will. Hey, maybe that should be our new strategy (he said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek).
Evangecube