by Jon Haley
Missionaries need a unified theory of the task of world missions to determine how to make the best use of their lives. Mission agencies need it to plan their field strategies and the allocation of their people and money.
Missionaries need a unified theory of the task of world missions to determine how to make the best use of their lives. Mission agencies need it to plan their field strategies and the allocation of their people and money. Churches need it in order to best invest their candidates and support. Great idea, you say, but with so many theories floating around—all of them with vocal proponents—how can we find a theory that unifies all of their emphases? At the risk of oversimplification, we must begin by looking at the way our missionary task is usually defined, that is, according to various needs, approaches, and timing.1
Need theories address the why question. The first need theory says we should engage in the task because people are lost without Christ. Therefore, we should go where the most lost people live, or we should simply go anywhere we wish, because no individual has priority over any other.
The second need theory says we should be about the task because some people have little opportunity to hear the gospel. This has been thought of either in terms of a low ratio of Christians to non-Christians, or missionaries to non-Christians.
Approach theories speak to how we should go about our task. Among the most comprehensive and legitimate of these, the first emphasizes people groups. We define our task by cultural and language groupings. The second emphasizes urban centers. We define our task by geographical concentrations of people.
Timing theories focus on the when question. According to the responsive peoples theory, we should engage in the task when God is bringing people to himself in large numbers. The creative access theory says we should go about the task when, or to the degree that, God opens the doors.
These are all useful ways to look at our task of global evangelization, but problems arise when we try to make any one of them the paradigm for world mission. The reason why none of these can serve as a total paradigm for the outreach mission of the church is that they are all defined more by the situation of world missions than by the mandate of world missions.
For example, unreached peoples advocates look at the number of such groups and say, “This is our task.” The champions of world-class cities look at exploding urban populations.
Such questions are secondary, tactical considerations. Of course, they are important, but they should not be raised until we have addressed our primary question, which is: What is the ultimate objective of the Great Commission? The answer to that question will yield an objective-driven theory rather than a number of situation-driven theories.
WHAT DOES "REACHED" MEAN?
Most of us would say that the objective of our missionary enterprise is to reach the world with the gospel. But what does that mean? In July, 1990, the editors of the Evangelical Missions Quarterly published the answers of nine world mission leaders to the question, “What does ‘reached’ mean?” The survey showed a number of differences, but also some agreements. Some of the differences arose from applying the term at two levels.
When applied at the individual level “reached” often refers to people who have had an adequate opportunity to receive or reject Jesus Christ. But when applied at the group level, it means having a church in every ethnolinguistic group, or a church movement in such a group.
REDEFINING OUR OBJECTIVES
The heart of the problem in developing a consensus on the nature of our task is our failure to distinguish properly between the different levels at which “reaching” must be thought of, and to keep all of those levels in focus at the same time. The answer is to look at our task at four levels: (1) There must be an indigenous Christian presence in every people grouping. I use this term to include both ethnolinguistic people groups and geographically concentrated groups, such as urban centers. (2) There must be a viable church movement in every people grouping. (3) This viablechurch movement must saturate the group. (4) This saturation must yield an adequate opportunity for every person in the group to respond to the gospel. Therefore, we must look at our mission task in four ways.
1. The objective of frontier missions is to establish a beachhead in every people grouping. This is where the popular understanding of unreached people groups fits. Faithfulness to our mandate requires penetration of every group. But we must not think that once we have placed a few missionaries in the grouping, and have made a handful of converts, that we have reached the group.
2. The objective of cross-cultural missions is to establish a critical mass within every people. In science, critical mass is that point at which enough radioactive material exists to create a nuclear chain reaction. We seek a similar reaction within each grouping. In some very small groupings achieving a beachhead could be the same as achieving critical mass, but in most groups achieving critical mass represents an entirely separate strategic objective. We must nurture the church movement to the point where it can complete the rest of the task substantially on its own.
I’ve heard the adjective “viable” used to describe such churches. This means more than survival. We must define viability as the church movement’s ability to complete the task. It must be mission-viable, or closure-viable, and not just existence-viable. Many churches merely hold their own. We cannot count on them to complete the task.
3. The objective of the church movement is to establish a witnessing congregation within reach of every person so that everyone will have access to the gospel. Of course, there are many ways to provide access to the gospel, but none of them can be as reliably counted on to guarantee such access. Only the planting of a witnessing congregation within reach of every member of the group can do that.
4. The objective of the local church is to make sure that it gets the gospel incarnationally to every person in an understandable way. When this happens, the person can make an informed decision to accept or reject the message.
DEPLOYMENT OF MISSIONARIES
Looking at our task this way suggests a great deal about the deployment of missionaries. The crucial question is, When should the baton be handed off to the indigenous church? The answer is, When the church is able to carry it to the finish line. If our ultimate objective is to see that every person has a sufficient understanding of the gospel, our missionary responsibility ends only when it is reasonable to assume that the church movement will finish its task.
With this in mind, we can group our four objectives into two main goals. The first two objectives can be put together as the Missionary Goal: Every people grouping must have a sufficiently reproducing church movement. The last two objectives together can be called the Church Goal: Every person must have a sufficient hearing of the gospel. This does not mean it will always be absolutely clear when the first goal is superseded by the second. However, to help us understand when that point has been reached, we must look at the concept of critical mass.
THE TRANSITION POINT
Critical mass must be reached before the baton can be handed off. It has been suggested that when 20 percent of the people grouping are practicing Christians, we have reached critical mass. But if “practicing” simply means church attendance, we do not have a movement that is reaching its own people.
We need a percentage of Christians who can and will reach their own people. We must have a large enough reproducing critical mass. There must be ownership of the task, and there must be sufficient resources to complete the task. Critical mass will vary from grouping to grouping, depending on social structures, receptivity, and so on.
Objectives 1, 3, and 4 (above) are more easily measured than critical mass (objective 2). It’s not too hard to tell when you have established a beachhead. Likewise with planting a reproducing churchwithin reach of every person, or even when churches have saturated their areas. But how can we tell when we have reached critical mass?
We might begin with a somewhat arbitrary figure and suggest that if 5 percent of a population is composed of born again, reproducing believers, we have the raw material for critical mass. Then we must evaluate this raw material to see how “radioactive” it is. What kind of leaders are present? How strong is the evangelistic fervor? How strong is the commitment to completing the task? How does this church movement compare with others in history and around the world that have gone beyond critical mass? What role does revival play?
Taken together, several of these elements could indicate that critical mass has been achieved. Then we could develop a model in which such considerations could be weighted and factored into the equation. Whatever the model would look like, the fact of the existence of critical mass is self-evident. Therefore, this way of theorizing about our task holds great promise.
UNIFIED APPROACH DEVELOPING
Notably the DAWN (Discipling a Whole Nation) movement operates with principles sympathetic to many outlined here. DAWN focuses on what it takes to put a church in every small community. I have focused on getting the church movement in a people grouping to the point where it can accomplish that. DAWN focuses more on the church goal, whereas I have focused on the missionary goal as a prerequisite to the church goal. DAWN is a great strategy in need of critical mass.
In reading the DAWN literature, I found that wherever the strategy has worked, there has been some sort of critical mass. In other instances, setting DAWN goals strikes me as wishful thinking. Certainly, ambitious goals are worthwhile, but until the church movement in question actually has sufficient resources and dynamism, such goals are still a critical mass step away.
This critique notwithstanding, it is significant that even Ralph Winter has written that “One looming reality is already impressively clear: every tool, technique, plan or tactic must inevitably fall into the approach that DAWN has not only devised but demonstrated. There simply is no other single strategy which we are compelled to embrace if we are to be fruitful to the heavenly vision.”2 Winter’s comment is a tribute to the fact that a unified theory of the task is not only possible, but may already be developing in practice.
1. For a fuller treatment of the topic, write to the author at 5440 S. Perry St., Littleton, Colo. 80123.
2. Jim Montgomery, DAWN 2000: 7 Million Churches to Go (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1989), back cover endorsement.
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