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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

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.


steve w said...

I'm sure you're probably familiar with Ralph Winter (U.S. Center for World Missions). I think he said (I could be wrong on my source) that when Paul thought in terms of "reaching the world" or "fulfilling the Great Commission," if he had established a church in an area, he had finished his work, and could move on (Rom 15:23). The church would be there as a viable and ongoing witness to those in darkness. But Paul would be free to go to the next area where Christ had not been preached, and where he would not have to build on another man's work.

Paul moved through the cities of the Mediterranean world. He seemed to concentrate (although not exclusively) on hubs of commerce and culture, and regional cities of influence. All of this was because he seemed to be following some strategy (rather than taking a hit and miss approach).

Maybe I got this from someone other than Ralph Winter. Maybe I'm bungling my synopsis of his teaching. But it has always made sense to me that Paul had a strategic plan. He seemed to live like he was making up for lost time. He seemed to know his days were numbered. He wanted to make the biggest impact he could, and start a movement throughout the Gentile world that would continue after he was gone.

On balance, Jesus seemed to focus on both influential people and not-so-influential people. Jesus' method or strategy appears to be different than Paul's. Or even if we go back to the Old Testament, when God chose the Hebrew people, it was not because of their influential status and world prominence (Dt 7:7). He didn't choose Abram because he already had a big, influential family.

I'm comfortable embracing a both/and view, rather than an either/or view. God works through human plans and strategies, as well as through divine appointments and assignments that don't "fit into the plan." God wants to save the lost, both great and small, both influential and non-influential, both "strategic" and "non-strategic". It's more of a "by all means" approach. I also think God does not look at people the way we look at each other -- he sees a person as lost or saved; as someone that doesn't know him, or as someone that does. That's what matters most to God, I believe.

So if a person is going to be employed by a missions agency that has a particular strategy, and certain standards, he/she should be a good employee, and stay within the parameters (I'm not saying we can't push the envelope, because no human organization is perfect; every human organization, like every human, must continue to grow and change). As a pastor, there are certain things a person might do and I would say to that person, "There's probably a better church for you to be involved with if you're going to do that."

I'm not at all suggesting that you get out of the SBC tent. Maybe God wants you to be the-pusher-of-the-envelope. I'm just saying I can understand a missions agency saying, "We have a strategy, and this is it." And I think, as a follower of Christ, you ultimately have to say your greatest accountability and your greatest allegiance is to God.

steve w said...

One more thought about a static view of a dynamic world...

If an organization refuses to acknowledge the reality of the changing world in which we live, that organization will not survive the change. It may be a long slow death, but it will die.

stepchild said...

Steve, thanks for your thoughts. I had expected this post to generate a bit more discussion than it has.

I guess I need to clarify- I'm not saying that I don't think we should have a strategy. I'm saying that we need to rethink the one we, as an organization, are married to.

When it comes to wanting to plant a church and then move on, I'm with Paul. The calling to plant churches is different from the calling to pastor churches. I think we have lots of frustrated people trying to do one when they're called to do the other.

Anyway, when I read Paul, I see a strategy, too. I think he went to strategic places (the temple, marketplace, philosophy club) and intentionally shared his faith.

But in order to get to where he can implement his strategy, Paul follows the Spirit, who sometimes prompts him to go to an area, and other times prevents him from entering another. (Acts 16:6,7)

The reason I'm still with the IMB (instead of another organization that might agree with me), is that the Board hired me to do exactly what I am doing. From the beginning, we've been up front about the type of ministry we want to do, and why we feel it is best for Western Europe. Only recently have we seen that support withdrawn a to a certain extent. Before, there was room for us alongside the traditional M's. But now, changes are being made that make us uncomfortable.

steve w said...

All I can say is keep doing what the Spirit leads you to do. If the Board doesn't like it, and decides to withdraw support, it is their loss. I think the reaction against the recent policy changes is the outcry of many people that would say to you, "We want you to follow the Spirit. Obey God rather than man." God will provide the means for you to do what he calls you to.

Publius said...

Someone spoke recently of looking forward to the real possibility that we might "complete" the Great Commission.

Wow, that bothers me. First, because the Great Commission will be complete when and only when Jesus Christ returns. Second, because the Great Commission, as I understand it, is not a task at all. It is a calling. It is not a job for us to get done, it is the way we are to live our lives.

Jesus said, "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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

If He expected us to "complete" His commission, surely He wouldn't have assured us that He would be with us "to the very end of the age?"

stepchild said...

Have you ever heard of a mission agency that doesn't state their mission in terms of a finish-able task?