by Miriam Adeney
Operation World by Patrick Johnstone is essential even for numerically-challenged people like me.
"I could never have gone far in any science because on the path of every science the lion Mathematics lies in wait," said C.S. Lewis (1956, 137). I resonate with that. Operation World by Patrick Johnstone is essential even for numerically-challenged people like me, however. When I first read it, the opening three country sections caused a frisson to ripple all the way down my spine. I went cold to the bone. Afghanistan, Albania and Algeria-three simple sections. Yet if you are a thinking Christian, can you visit those countries and come out the same? Can you read those sections in Johnstone’s book and not rearrange your priorities?
It was the numbers in Operation World that transfixed and devastated me. However, measurement in missions has limits. In his essay in "Global Missiology for the 21st Century: The Iguassu Dialogue," Samuel Escobar thunders against this focus: "If the missionary effort is reduced to numerical growth, anything that would hinder (numerical growth) has to be eliminated" (2001,111). Such so-called managerial missiology "reduces Christian mission to a manageable enterprise," to a linear task with logical steps and management by objectives (109). It "gives prominence to that which can be reduced to a statistical chart" (110). In the process, our priorities are skewed. We may even come to believe we must get every ethne once and only once into our computers or the Lord will never be able to return.
Escobar particularly faults the church growth and the spiritual warfare movements for reductionistic definitions and preoccupation with technique. Evangelism suffers from this more than socioeconomic service, he says. In my experience, however, socioeconomic projects are just as avid to measure wells dug, houses built, grants procured and budgets expanded.
In either case, when a mission’s strategy is counting, even for admirable ends, people tend to be turned into objects, commodified. Unfortunately, "the suspicion of some Third-world Christians is that they are being used as objects of a missionary action that seems to be directed to the main objective of enhancing the financial, informational, and decision-making power of some centers of mission in the First World" (Escobar 2001, 112).
Nevertheless, I am not pessimistic about counting. To be sure, we have a human tendency to idolize tools, and some of us err in our obeisance to management technique. Management is not antithetical to the Holy Spirit. Management means stewardship and accountability, fulfilling the charge given in the "creation mandate" recorded in Genesis 1:28. Managerial skill is a gift of God, similar to medical skill. We need not fear it, nor limit ourselves to muddling mediocrity. We can aim for excellence, even as we struggle to keep technique and strategy in their proper subordinate place.
Numbers can be used with restraint. A stampede to bigness is not inevitable. Quantity can be balanced by quality. In that context, what we number is crucial. Asking the right questions and measuring the right things is pivotal. For example, there are key dimensions of discipling the nations where growth is neither fast nor large, yet where some degree of measurement may be both possible and helpful. Consider the four criteria for measuring church growth proposed by Orlando Costas in Exploring Church Growth: (1) numerical; (2) organic (what I would call organizational); (3) ethno-theological; and (4) diaconal.
Clearly some of these topics lend themselves to measurement better than others. In my field of anthropology, different degrees of reliability are acceptable for different questions, depending on the number and complexity of the variables and the amount of philosophy as opposed to empirical data. Ironically, the verifiability of a study often correlates inversely with its significance. Some of the most worthwhile questions perennially resist easy answers. In a postmodern context this intensifies. How do we know?
Surely knowing means verstehen as well as wissen, conocer as well as saber, the holistic knowing of the Hebrews as well as the cognitive knowing of the Greeks. Verification remains eternally problematic, of course.
My own doubts about mission numbers began in 1965. That year I traveled to Mexico City with three other college students to join a local Mexican church in Kenneth Strachan’s Evangelism in Depth campaign. In those days the sky was still blue and the air was still clean above that city. Roughing it, we traveled by bus from Salem, Oregon to the Mexican capitol, a journey of four days and three nights. Then we spent several weeks going door-to-door, each paired with a Mexican believer. My crisis of verification came in the evenings in the joyous church meetings when the testimonies sparkled. My problem was that what was reported in good faith didn’t always match what I had seen.
At the same time, I was reading a little jewel of a book, Church Growth in Mexico, one of Donald McGavran’s earliest writings. He described "ten Mexico, -Mexico City, Liberal Cities, Conservative Cities, Tight Little Towns, Roman Ranches, Revolutionary Ranches and Ejidos, Indian Tribes, Tabasco, Northern Border Country and Oscar’s Masses (named for researcher Oscar Lewis). This analytical approach, this categorizing, this managerial perspective, was a breath of fresh air for me. I felt liberated. I found a place to stand in the maelstrom. Avenues for further inquiry opened up in front of me.
To this day, however, verification remains problematic for me. I have just finished writing a book about ministry in the worlds of Muslim women. This includes interviews with Muslim-background women who have come to faith in Christ. In the preface I discuss verification. "What is truth in reporting?" I ask, describing the variety and types of women interviewed, and the steps taken to ensure accuracy. "Do these women remember their stories accurately? Do they unconsciously overemphasize certain elements in such a way that historical reality is distorted? At best, our tellings are incomplete. Whether on the woman’s part, or on the author’s part, misrepresentations occasionally will occur…. What I can assert is that no woman was a new convert. Each had been seriously committed to the Lord Jesus Christ for more than a year, in many cases for more than a decade. And each had a good reputation with several other mature Christians. This ‘cloud of witnesses’ testified to each woman’s authenticity…. Since the interviews, spanning seven years, a couple of women have gone through dark nights of the soul, according to word-of-mouth reports. Others have blazed gloriously through stark problems. In other words, these women are as complex and as common as the rest of us: treasure in jars of clay."
Still I wonder. The postmodern social scientist doubts her data. I question factoids extracted from context. I question sources. The possibility of reportorial bias looms large. Both Johnstone and Johnson acknowledge these problems. Johnstone’s frank wrestling with such issues in each of several categories-counting people, Christians, Pentecostals, missionaries, ethnolinguistic groups-is admirable.
The mind boggles at the awesome complexity of the gospel, the Church, cultures and human beings, as well as the darkness of our own history and hidden motives. Still, to say we see through a glass darkly is not to say that we do not see. As one of my an-thropological mentors, Clifford Geertz, has said, just because we can- not achieve complete antisepsis is no excuse for doing surgery in a sewer. Similarly, we should not abandon numbers because they are not enough. In this context, I would like to raise the following two issues.
DISICPLES OR DEPENDENTS?
A focus on numbers can foster a type of Christianity that is "a mile wide and an inch deep," as Tokunboh Adeyemo has described the faith in Africa. A superficial, unincarnate, uncontext-ualized Christianity develops. Theology is borrowed. Dependency sets in.
Evangelism remains our top priority. McGavran used to warn against "stopping to conserve," and that warning continues to be on target. It is in Christ that people find their deepest hungers met. Even outside the 10/40 window, many North Americans, Latin Americans, Africans and Europeans don’t know the gospel. We always should be ready to give an answer for the hope that is in us. Yet Matthew’s record of the Great Commission doesn’t command us merely to tell the gospel. It commands us to "make disciples" (28:19-20). The apostle Paul made it his goal to nurture people until they were "no longer babies" but mature in their thinking, able to "speak the truth in love" (Eph. 4:12-16).
Counting can facilitate such discipling. Ninety-six languages are spoken as mother tongues by students in the public schools of Seattle, my home city. Many of these language groups sprout little Protestant congregations led by laypeople or clergy who never have had a chance to go to seminary, or sometimes even to high school, who may not speak English, who don’t have money or connections, but who are filled with the Spirit and trying fervently to apply the Word to the hugely complex issues of their place and time. For the past several years I’ve been researching how our established churches can help these ethnic leaders access biblical training. Numbers are part of what I need to know.
On a global scale, Jack Graves of the Overseas Council on Theological Education shows how counting can facilitate discipling when he reports:
"Today it is possible to do biblical theological research at a bachelor’s degree level easily in only three languages (English, German and Spanish). It is possible, but not easy, to do this same research in four or five other languages. About 43 other major languages serve the educational needs of 85 percent of the world’s population. Currently it would be impossible to find sufficient books for a full bachelor’s level theological program in any of them.
"This lack of high quality indigenous Christian literature is one of the weakest features of the modern Protestant missionary endeavor. David Barrett has reported at least 700 global plans to evangelize the world. We do not know of a single plan to begin providing basic text and reference books in the 43 educational languages around the globe. … A cooperative effort with nonwestern Christian leaders (can) address this critical educational need." (Graves 2000)
This year the Overseas Council has begun to move out in this area, undergirded by numbers.
Counting can facilitate discipling, and Johnstone commendably lists discipling institutions-seminaries, publishing houses etc. But we must go a step further. Discipling must be contextualized. As Adeyemo says, "evangelical African theologians must present biblical answers to deep rooted African philosophical questions about the problem of polygamy, the problem of tribalism, the problem of corruption, the problem of Christian responsibility to the society at large, the problem of the spirit world and the African worldview."
This is difficult to measure, however. Therefore, Escobar laments, our missiology "deemphasizes theological problems, takes for granted the existence of adequate content, and consequently majors in method…. The tough questions are not asked because they cannot be reduced to a linear management by objectives process…. The slow process of development of a contextual theology for a young church tends to be considered inefficient and costly" (2001, 110-1).
Melba Maggay of the Philippines laments "the homogenizing pressures of globalization, where the gospel is treated like a hamburger-exactly the same size, shape, and smell everywhere in the world" (2000, 243).
Here is a modest proposal. Could future versions of Operation World include for each country a few paragraphs on indigenous evangelical theological themes and theologians, as information is available? It is always good to weave a thread of theology through our strategy. What we do then is set strategy continually in the context of who God is. And if eternal themes like God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the created world, the Church and the end of time are interpreted indigenously, so much the better.
DOWNLOADING OR UPLOADING?
The second issue I’d like to raise is this: If half the people in the world live on $2 a day or less-a factoid that has been put forward in some global reports-shouldn’t this statistic be important for disciple-makers? We are told that thirty-four percent of the children in Southeast Asia are underweight. Fifty percent of the children in South Asia are malnourished. Twenty five million people in sub-Saharan Africa test positive for HIV. Shouldn’t these data shape both the content of our message-the pains we address- and also the delivery methods we consider?
When we do mission, we tend to connect with those who are most like us in every country-islands of the elite who have computers, libraries, telephones, or at least literacy. We tell ourselves that these are the leaders. But that is not necessarily so. All around the world, congregations are led by faithful believers who will never go to seminary and who have little access to the Internet.
Jesus said "Go into all the world." All the world. Not just the educated and the economically secure. According to Vinoth Ramachandra, "Nine out often people in the world have never made a telephone call in their lives. Tokyo….has three times as many telephone lines as the whole continent of Africa" (1999, 10). According to Worldwatch Institute, only four percent of the world’s population is on the Internet. There are vast regions where not a thought of web access is stirring, not even a mouse. As Thomas Friedman says, there is no more first world, second world, third world-there is just the fast world and the slow world. Some of us download. Others upload burdens on their backs every day.
Yet all of us are created in God’s image, died for by Christ, capable of rightly dividing the Word of truth. If we are to strengthen pastors, lay leaders and thinkers in the whole Body of Christ, to help leaders in the whole Body grow to theological maturity, we must learn how to make resources accessible at multiple levels. We must learn how to nurture the creativity of local believers so they can create their own contextualized resources. Indigenous oral art genres-story, song, drama, dance-as media for teaching Scripture systematically interest me greatly. Not least is memorization, a learning style demeaned among us but the way Jesus learned a lot of scripture, chanting it aloud in the synagogue and so committing it to memory.
At the same time, even as we affirm ordinary people as they are, we must also join them in their struggles for change. Most people want to live beyond age forty. They want their babies to stay alive. They even want refrigerators. Yet in numbers-focused mission strategies, according to Escobar, "if the struggle for obedience to God in holistic mission involves costly participation in the processes of social transformation, it is simply eliminated" (Escobar 2001, 111).
There are many ways to measure the gap between those who download and those who upload, and to apply this data in mission. Delicate political situations may call for ambiguous numbers, as Johnstone notes. In other cases, however, specific data can help us adapt better and confront better. If it is true that half the world’s people live on two dollars a day or less, shouldn’t that sort of statistic be important to disciple-makers?
EVERY GENERATION EQUIDISTANT FROM ETERNITY
Numbers matter. John Urud from the Murut/Kelabit people of Borneo told me how his people were dying out in the 1930s when missionaries from Australia landed on their coast. But the British governors of Borneo advised the missionaries, "Don’t bother going up into those mountains. It’s not worthwhile to learn that language. In another generation or two, those people will be gone." Disregarding that advice, the missionaries climbed up the mountains. John’s people responded. They became sober. They built schools. Today there are 150,000 believers and 400+ solid congregations.
Or consider Albania. Five known evangelicals in 1991. Today more than 8,000. We need to hear numbers like those. They encourage us. Numbers also help us plan for the future. In my home city of Seattle, there has been a 17 percent increase in Spanish-speaking children in the Seattle public schools in the past five years. There has been a 250 percent increase in Kent, one of our suburbs. So far hardly any of our churches have added Spanish-speaking liaison staff. But, if it pleases God, that will happen when the numbers sink in.
Note, however, that the Borneo, Albanian and Seattle Hispanic numbers are local counts, not global data. In fact, this level seems to be where we need numbers most. They must answer the question, "What does this mean on the ground?" says Harley Schreck, an anthropologist who has done extensive numbers research for missions. Researchers must be trained for specific projects, such as a network study foundational to showing the Jesus film in a region. Indeed, the AD2000 self-assessment report recommended that future research start from and focus on the local. For Operation World, Johnstone has made extensive cross- checking with local sources a priority. Even for motivational purposes, local data may have the most credibility. Sweeping global data may be less and less useful among postmodern people who distrust comprehensive plans and organizations.
Arrogance about numbers can pop up locally too, of course. When a friend of mine visited Tahiti, a missionary invited him out for coffee. For an hour and a half the missionary grilled my friend on doctrinal issues. At last the missionary took a little note- book out of his pocket and made a mark in it. "Well, now there are five true Christians on Tahiti," he observed.
Numbers matter, but numbers can’t capture God. Nor can they capture territory for God. "Every generation is equidistant from eternity," as historian Herbert Butterfield observed. "Each generation is. . .an end in itself, a world of people existing in their own right…. So the purpose of life is not in the far future, nor, as we so often imagine, around the next corner, but the whole of it is here and now, as fully as ever it will be on this planet … (I do not know of) any mundane fullness of life which we could pretend to possess and which was not open to people in the age of Isaiah or Plato, Dante or Shakespeare…. Each generation…. exists for the glory of God" (1957, 89).
Miriam Adeney, Ph.D., is associate professor of Global and Urban Ministries, Seattle Pacific University.
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