Defining Unreached and Unengaged People Groups

Over the past two decades, many monikers have emerged to help describe the task of fulfilling the Great Commission.  Samuel Wilson’s informative contribution to the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions outlines a brief history of trying to understand the groupings of people based on cultural and/or social contexts.  In the early modern era of missions, Leslie Brierley’s “Remaining Unevangelized Peoples” and Cameron Townsend’s attempt to identify the number of remaining people through language groups were early efforts to articulate what it would take to complete the Great Commission.  It was not until 1972 that R. Pierce Beaver began to use the term “Unreached People Groups.”[1]

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In 1974, Ralph Winter put forward the terms “hidden” and “frontier” as monikers describing groups that did not have an indigenous church capable of evangelizing their own peoples.  Then in 1978, Donald McGavran’s less useful Homogenous Unit Principle (HUP) was an attempt to describe the clustering of people in a society based upon certain common characteristics.  These characteristics included geography, ethnicity, language, social position, and education, among others.  According to McGavran, “People like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers.”[2]  Not without its critics, HUP was eventually seen as too limiting in culturally and ethnically diverse areas. 

Eventually, in 1982, the Lausanne Strategy Work Group along with the Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies gathered together in Chicago to focus on defining terms that would be helpful in completing the task of the Great Commission.  Among the various terms, two emerged to be helpful for our discussion: People Groups and Unreached People.

People Group is “a significantly large grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another because of their shared language, religion, ethnicity, residence, occupation, class or caste, situation, etc., or combination of these.”  For evangelistic purposes it is “the largest group within which the gospel can spread as a church planting movement without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance.”

An Unreached People Group is “a people group within which there is no indigenous community of believing Christians able to evangelize this people group.”[3]

Focusing on understanding people groups, Winter and Koch developed a more elaborate nomenclature; having divided people into various approaches to reaching and understanding them: Cultural Blocs, Unimax People, Socio People, and Ethno-linguistic People.[4]  Each people group category holds particular use depending on the type of ministry one engages. 

Types of PeoplesMajor Cultural BlocsEthnolinguistic PeoplesSocio-peoplesUnimax Peoples
CompositionBroad categories of people groupsOften a cluster of unimax groupsAn association of peersNetworks of families with a shared identity
What Defines GroupReligious-cultural spheresLinguistic, ethnic & political boundariesActivities or interestsSocial and cultural prejudices
How IdentifiedAvailable published dataAvailable published dataDiscovered on siteDiscovered on site
Strategic SignificanceGlobal overviewMobilization and strategySmall group evangelismChurch planting
Quantity7 major cultural blocsApprox. 4,500 “least reached”Number unknownEst. 8,000 “unreached”

Table 2: Four Approaches to People Group Thinking[5]

An ostensibly arbitrary decision was made in the 1995 to further define unreached people groups as those populations where Christianity represented less than five percent of the population and less than two percent evangelical.[6]  Some have suggested that two percent represents a tipping point for when a culture is considered reached.[7]  However, sociologists studying social movements have demonstrated that movements occur when 10 percent of a population has an unshakeable belief.  Boleslaw Szymanski comments, “When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas.  It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority.”[8]  If the criterion for determining unreached remains at two percent, then we can expect to see a further regression of Christianity around the world.  Missiologists should seriously reconsider the arbitrary decision of two percent as indicative of an unreached people group.[9]

Most recently, missiologists and practitioners have been utilizing Unengaged Unreached People Groups (UUPG) as a descriptor of those distinct ethnic population that currently have not been contacted by any evangelization effort.  “Unengaged” is used as an adjective describing more graphically the fact that there have been no attempts to contact a particular unreached people groups.  In fact, in light of the Great Commission, it is fair to say that God has been waiting for more than 2,000 years for someone to recognize the opportunity and join with Him to take the gospel to where it has never been

In today’s world, there are 196 nations depending on how you divide a couple of countries. According to the Joshua Project, there are more than 16,300 cultural-ethno-linguistic people distinct in religion, caste, and/or culture (Joshua Project n.d.). These 16,300 are sometimes double counted because one people group could be in two or more countries. Taking this into consideration, the Joshua Project estimates that there are 9,800 distinct people groups in the world today. At least 1,300 of these groups are considered unengaged by any attempt to reach them with the gospel and 7,000 are unreached. There are more than 3 billion people today who live without access to the message of Jesus Christ.


[1]Samuel Wilson, “Peoples, People Groups,” in Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, eds. Scott Moreau, et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 744-746.

[2]Lausanne Occasional Paper 1, “The Pasadena Consultation: Homogeneous Unit Principle” (Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, 1978).

[3] Ralph W. Winter and Bruce A. Koch, “Finishing the Task: The Unreached Peoples Challenge,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement (Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1981), 536.

[4]Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 531-546.

[5]Winter and Koch, “Finishing the Task,” 531-546.

[6]Joshua Project, “Why Include Professing Christians When Defining Unreached,” available from https://joshuaproject.net/resources/articles/why_include_adherents_when_defining_unreached. Accessed 20 November 2017.

[7]Global Frontier Missions, “Unreached People Groups,” available from http://globalfrontiermissions.org/gfm-101-missions-course/the-unreached-peoples-and-their-role-in-the-great-commission/.  Accessed 20 November 2017.

[8]RPI News, “Minority Rules: Scientists Discover the Tipping Point for the Spread of Ideas,” July 25, 2011.  Available from https://news.rpi.edu/luwakkey/2902.  Accessed 19 November 2017.  See the full study J. Xie, et al., “Social Consensus Through the Influence of Committed Minorities,” Physical Review E 84, 011130 (2011):1-8.

[9]Robin Dale Hadaway, “A Course Correction in Missions: Rethinking the Two-Percent Threshold,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 57, No. 1 (2014): 17-28.

Blog excerpted from “Toward a Biblical Understanding of Finishing the Task,” Global Missiology (January 2018)

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The Study of New Religious Movements

New religious movements, New Age, Neo-Pagan, and minor non-Christian spiritual movements are a global phenomenon, and for over one hundred years have been the focus of evangelical critique and apologetic. In June 1980 the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization sponsored the “Consultation on World Evangelization” in Pattaya, Thailand. The purpose was to develop strategies for reaching unreached people groups. One of those groups was called “Mystics and Cultists,” now referred to as new religious movements. The consultation formally recognized new religious movements as unreached people groups comprising frontier missions yet to be encompassed by the kingdom commissions of Christ.

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As religious pluralism and the uniqueness and particularity of Christ develop into major issues for the twenty-first century, the Christian church cannot afford the luxury of overlooking the impact of these spiritual alternatives. Some of the most influential and challenging alternative movements include the Brotherhood of the Cross and Star, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Iglesia Ni Cristo, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mahikari, Neo-Paganism, New Age (or New Spirituality), Rastafarians,Santeria, Siddha Yoga, Umbanda, and emerging Do-It-Yourself Spiritualities. Although the Western evangelical community has produced a number of popular books and articles in response to several (but not all) of these movements, the bulk of these have been in the area of apologetic refutation of doctrine as heresy in contrast to Christian orthodoxy. 

Towards the end of the twentieth century a new climate of opinion began to be expressed by several Christian authors, writing from different reference points in North America, Great Britain, and Australia. Through various journals and periodicals (International Journal of Frontier MissionsMissiologyThemelios, and Lutheran Theological Journal) they began to question the effectiveness of the dominant apologetic methodology in reaching adherents of cults and new religious movements. It was argued that the apologetic refutation of cult teachings, while helping Christians differentiate between biblical orthodoxy and heresy, has not translated into any substantial evangelistic and discipleship efforts among adherents of new religions.They indicated that this impasse might be overcome through the integration of contextualized mission principles into the apologist’s task.

Now in Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand several evangelical practitioners have been pioneering some practical ways in which the twin disciplines of apologetics and missiology can be complementary practices in the effective proclamation of the gospel to adherents of alternate spiritual pathways. What these western practitioners have discovered in the field is that methodology does not have to become an “either/or” polarization, but rather a “both/and” blending of apologetics with contextual mission principles rooted soundly in the Bible. 

The purpose of this international online journal is to explore ways in which to bridge the gulf between the disciplines of cult apologetics, contextual missiology and religious studies. As the phenomenon of new religions constitutes a global missiological challenge requiring a holistic response, this journal will draw together the combined insights of apologists, missiologists, missionaries, sociologists, anthropologists, theologians, and others from around the world. Contributors will primarily address issues related to biblical and historical perspectives, various methodological issues, and share practical applications of field-tested, creative models for engagement and dialogue. In this forum relevant issues will be discussed, explored, and perhaps even debated. By showing that apologetics and contextual missions are two components to a single task, this journal will navigate the way forward for evangelicals to discover a new identity and to become effective missionary-apologists to new religious movements.  An important component of effective engagement and dialogue with new religions is quality descriptive articles on the religions.  As such, Sacred Tribes Journal is committed to scholarly treatment of religions and values correct and accurate descriptions that are ethnographic in nature.

One other feature is that from time to time special editions of this journal will be dedicated to actual engagement with devotees of specific groups. We feel very strongly that we must not slip into the time-honored luxury of merely talking hypothetically amongst ourselves about how we might undertake mission. As co-editors of this journal we have a holy obligation to ensure that we (and our contributors) move from our armchairs and into street life realities by demonstrating with practical illustrations and case studies how contextual mission-apologetics works. To this end we anticipate that the special editions of the journal will attract readers who are devotees of non-Christian pathways.

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Why the title, “Sacred Tribes Journal?” We very consciously wish to place our discussion of respective beliefs with others on a footing that from the outset signals our willingness to treat them as human beings made in God’s image. We, as evangelical Christians, belong to sets and sub-sets of people groups defined via specific religious beliefs, practice, and social paradigms. Likewise, a Zen Buddhist belongs to sets and sub-sets of groups rooted in specific religious paradigms. By using the term “tribe” to describe such groupings, whether Christian, Buddhist, neo-pagan, or agnostic (to name a few), we hope to make clear our aim: dialogue and exchanges of information, yes, but even more, exchanges of our respective visions of the sacred that mean so much to each of us. As evangelicals, we do indeed have a specific mission in mind. We wish to introduce our Lord and Savior to those of other sacred tribes. Yet as we do so, we pray and hope that our presentation can be seasoned with wisdom and humility. And we believe that the first part of humility is to truly listen, to deeply study those we say we want dialogue with. Thus, Sacred Tribes Journal.The editors of this journal envision no adversarial relationship between themselves and the “counter-cult” apologetics community. We recognize and acknowledge the important contributions of those who have come before us and the continued faithful labors of hundreds of individuals comprising counter-cult ministries. The contents of this journal are set forth in a spirit of humility and cooperation. As individuals we wonder whether we can improve our ministries, and we offer this journal as a forum for discussion and exploration to improve the collective efforts of the Body of Christ. We invite the reader to join with us in this exciting journey. 

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End a Theological Famine

We drove to a remote village in South Asia where we were about to meet a new church leader. He’d recently come to Christ as a result of a church planting movement spreading across the area. Then, as is common with CPM/DMM methodologies, he shared the gospel with those in his oikos – that is, his network of relationships – and a house church resulted. Since he was first to come to Christ, he became the defacto pastor. We arrived just before his house church meeting to encourage him. Taking off our shoes and stepping into the sparsely furnished living area, we all knelt on our knees to pray. Perhaps 30 or so minutes later, we had to move to the next house church when I noticed this new house church leader had a track from the Jehovah’s Witnesses on his front porch. There was no way in knowing how influenced this leader had become by the Christological heresy of the JWs, but it certainly raised concerns over the preparedness of a new Christian for leading a new group of believers.

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Similar stories like this are repeated all over South Asia. The rapid spread of the gospel and the multiplication of movements of house churches are at the same time to be celebrated and also cautioned. Roland Allen – the missionary statesman who gave us one of the most important mission books ever penned: Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours – commented that the Holy Spirit is the same in the theologically trained individual as in the new house church leader. However, he also knew that church leaders and members must be instructed. He wrote,

“For instance, people have baptized uninstructed converts and the converts have fallen away; but St Paul did not baptize uninstructed converts apart from a system of mutual responsibility which ensured their instruction. Again, they have gathered congregations and have left them to fend for themselves, with the result that the congregations have fallen back into heathenism. But St Paul did not gather congregations, he planted churches, and he did not leave a church until it was fully equipped with orders of ministry, sacraments and tradition.” -Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours, (1959 [1912]:6)

In some places around the world, the lack of instructing new believers and leaders emerging from the efforts of CPM/DMM methodologies have created a famine. It’s not the kind of famine we usually associate with the needs in the majority world. It’s a theological famine depriving church leaders and pastors from theological instruction that can help them mature biblically sound disciples, develop New Testament leaders, and multiple theologically orthodox churches. 

The Global Call for Theological Education

In 2010, leaders from around the world gathered for the centennial celebration of the famed 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference. Through the evangelism, discipleship, and church planting efforts of many Western agencies, the gospel had spread to every part of the world during that 100-year gap. While there are still 3.2 billion people outside of the reach of the gospel, the challenge today has shifted. Today, the greatest need is to train non-Western pastors in how to mature disciples, develop New Testament leaders, and plant theologically sound, multiplying churches. 

In 2010, majority world leaders called upon the West to focus on pastoral education instead of evangelism and discipleship. These leaders know how to evangelize their people. Where they’re lacking is in biblically and missiologically grounded, theological education. For instance, did you know that there is only 1 seminary trained pastor for every 450,000 people in the majority world? In the US, it is 1 seminary trained pastor for every 230 people. This is rightly called a theological famine.

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that there are:

“a total of 5 million pastors/priests in all Christian traditions worldwide (Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and Independents, including bi-vocational). Of these, we estimate that 5% (250,000) are likely to have formal theological training (undergraduate Bible degrees or Master’s degrees).” 

Additionally, by some estimations, there are as many as 50,000 new baptized believers each day. As Dallas Theological Seminary professor Ramesh Richards notes, 

“…if a pastoral leader is able initially to provide pastoral care for a group of 50 believers, 1,000 new pastors are daily needed to serve the 50,000 new believers baptized every day. We are rather behind. How may we quicken the pace of pastoral training … while increasing the quality … everywhere?”

There is a clear need for theological education around the world. Many missiologists agree that we must not compromise on theological education in our missionary efforts. If we do compromise, we run the risk of heretical leaders and churches. If we focus on a solid biblical foundation by providing Bible equipping and training for pastors, then it will ensure the ongoing healthy growth of movements and help prevent heresy. As the Apostle Paul writes to the nearly 30-year-old Timothy, properly instructing leaders of the church is vital to her health:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.… Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

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Our Response

In partnership with Mission India Theological Seminary, and other mission agencies and churches, we want to provide relief for this famine. To that end, we’ve collaborated with academics and practitioners from around the world to developed a uniquely on-demand learning experience especially designed to train and equip pastors in theological and biblical education. 

Our motivation is summarized in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant (i.e. deacon) of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. (1 Timothy 4:6)

To that end, our Pastoral Studies Certificate, especially designed for majority world leaders, is accessible from anywhere on the planet, even on the Great Himalayan Trail. Its focus is to help pastors and leaders study the Word of God, teach and model it in their discipleship of others, and grow more deeply in love for Jesus themselves. Through the study of theology and church history, the certificate gives leaders and pastors the necessary confidence and tools to ensure their churches don’t fall into heresy. 

We want to invite you to join us in eliminating this theological famine. When you join us, your partnership directly benefits majority world leaders. Our focus is exclusively on the spiritually darkest places. So, when you partner with us, together we provide much need relief for the famine in places like Pakistan, India, and Nepal; places where there are few churches with seminary trained pastors.

When you join us to end a theological famine, not only will you help provide biblical and theological training for pastors and leaders working in the spiritually darkest places in the world, you will personally benefit from access to some of the world’s leading experts on evangelism and discipleship, church planting and missions, church history and theology. You’ll have world class resources to help you develop Sunday school classes, home Bible studies, as well as help you equip others to engage their community with the gospel and disciple new believers. You’ll even see new levels of growth in your personal spiritual development and love for Jesus.

One of the markers of a healthy church is leadership who can accurately teach the Bible. With so many people coming to Christ around the world each day, there is a tremendous need for pastors who can properly teach sound doctrine. Would you consider joining us? During this month of thankfulness, we want to ask you to help us bring relief for much needed biblical training for pastors around the world. Our goal is to partner with individuals and churches who will help end this famine. Will you be one of them?

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Becoming Conversant with CPMs in the New Testament

As church planting movements (CPMs) have drawn the attention of missionary practitioners around the world, missiologists are looking closely at this phenomenon and asking challenging questions. In recent years, a few of those questions posed by Jackson Wu and a cadre of missiologists from the International Mission Board as well as professors from predominately Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, contested the methods of CPMs including T4T and DMM as well as called attention to an apparent biblical eisegesis as advocates were accused of reading CPM into the New Testament texts.

Today, Mission Frontiers claims there are more than a thousand CPMs around the world. CPM agencies are reporting phenomenal growth of multiplying house churches focused predominately in South Asia and Southeast Asia. Such growth naturally draws the attention of motivated missionaries who equate numerical progression with success. Equally true is that such phenomenal reporting of growth draws the attention of critics. Their criticism of CPM has generally fallen in four categories: theological shallowness, immature leaders, reckless evangelism, and long-term sustainability.

These criticisms raise supplementary questions. For example, with such an emphasis on church planting movements, is there a clear mandate for church planting in Scripture? Additionally, as these movements grow, what is their susceptibility to syncretism? First, let’s turn our attention to the common critique of church planting movements then we will circle back to ask our supplemental questions.

Lecture given at Torch Trinity Graduate University

Researching CPM

Here are two recent podcasts critiquing church planting movements. These are not academic studies of CPM, but rather popular treatments which appear bias against CPM in favor of a traditional approach that has been called proclamational church planting. The arguments, although not all of them, are often built on a straw man, and the organizations they represent are influential. They are worth the time as there are concerns about CPM that need to be raised and addressed. These podcasts are attempting to do just that.

Defend and Confirm Podcast – https://youtu.be/ZVt9H8T7dSY
9Marks – https://www.9marks.org/conversations/on-church-centered-missions-vs-movement-driven-missions-pastors-talk-ep-183/

One of the concerns regarding CPM is the potential for syncretism. You can read more about that here: “Potential Risk of Syncretism in Church Planting Movements.”

The most recent academic studies of CPM and DMM are published in Motus Dei: The Movement of God to Disciple the Nations. From the book’s description,

An incredible breakthrough in missions history is taking place as disciples of Jesus make more disciples of Jesus around the globe, particularly among the least-reached. But what exactly are these church planting or disciple making movements? Where are they occurring and what are their unifying features? How are they manifesting in diverse populations? And can you or your organization be instrumental in catalyzing more movements? Motus Dei, Latin for “movement of God,” seeks to answer these questions and more.

Learn more about the academic study of movements

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Our Graves a Stepping Stone

In 1988, my best friend asked me to join him on a clandestine mission to smuggle the Jesus Film into Afghanistan. As our departure grew near so did our excitement. Backpacks, camping gear, thousands of dollars in cash, and 500lbs of film equipment boarded a plane for Karachi, Pakistan as did two young and idealistic missionaries who were determined to see the Pashto translation of the story of Jesus make it to people who desperately needed to hear the life-giving message of the gospel.

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Our plans, as idealistic as they were, were very simple. Once we arrived in Karachi, we would buy a four-wheel drive vehicle, load the equipment, and travel to the Northwest Frontier Province. While there, we would connect with others to take the film across the fluid border between Pakistan and Afghanistan which was under the control of the Mujahideen who were fighting against the Soviet Union. As the Lord would have it, the equipment never made it out of the Karachi airport. Our customs contact saw us collecting so many boxes from the baggage carousel that he determined it was too risky for him to help. So, all of the equipment was confiscated at customs, except for the master copy of the film hidden in a backpack and needed for mass reproduction.

Jesus Film showing in Pakistani village in 1988

Ultimately, the film made its way into Afghanistan and has been used by many Christians to share Jesus’ life with those who live in one of the most dangerous places in the world, then and now. Even in dangerous places, perhaps especially so, the gospel must go forward, in spite of the threat of persecution. After all, what risk is not worth the price of sharing the precious good news with those who have never heard? Is that not the same risk Jesus took when He came to a hostile world determined to silence Him? 

While reading reports of the current circumstances in Afghanistan, I must admit that I have mixed emotions for the safety and well-being of brothers and sisters living through these days in that war-torn country. On the one hand, I am deeply desirous for their security. No one should desire otherwise. On the other hand, I am cognizant of the well-meaning intentions of Western Christians attempting to extricate the gospel witness from Afghanistan. Yes, that is the unintended consequence of their rescue efforts; as if to snub their noses at God’s ability to protect and care for those called by His purposes to be a light to a dark world. It is Paul who says that suffering for Christ’s sake is a grace (Phil 1:29).

Pres. Biden quotes from book of Isaiah 6:8 during remarks On Kabul Afghanistan ISIS Terrorist Bomb. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yHO90WMg3AQ

But what these attempts reflect more than anything, in my opinion, is an impotent American Christianity paralyzed by its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-and those same rights for others-rather than catalyzed by passion for the lost, risk for the gospel, and disregard for our own lives for the sake of others.

But what these attempts reflect more than anything, in my opinion, is an impotent American Christianity paralyzed by its right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-and those same rights for others-rather than catalyzed by passion for… Click To Tweet

Even now, as Isaiah 6:8 has been lifted out of context by President Biden to bolster his agenda and claim that America is on God’s mission, Christians around the world should be raising their cry to the Lord, “Here I am, send me.” If that costs us our lives, it is our gain. As Peter, writing to persecuted churches, said, “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name” (1 Pet 4:16).

C.T. Studd was a British missionary to China, India, and Africa from 1885 to 1931. In the late 19th century, he gave up his fortune and fame as a cricketeer to take the gospel where it had never been. Among the many things I appreciated about him when I first read his biography as a college student was his intense desire to reach the lost. Later in life, when confronted by his mission leadership regarding his poor state of health, he replied, “Gentlemen, God has called me to go, and I will go. I will blaze the trail, though my grave may only become a stepping stone that younger men may follow.” This, I believe, is the proper posture for the Christian living on God’s mission.

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Since the birth of the modern missionary movement, many missionaries and Christians living in dangerous places have been inspire by saints like Studd. We’ve been targeted, followed, tapped by secret police, held in places against our will — even at gunpoint, hidden from the sight of those who wanted to do us harm, even unjustly murdered, and we’ve never feared for our lives. Adrenaline pumping for sure, but the reality is, we have nothing to fear. Right? As Paul said, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). 

Learn more about the Church’s identity in When Evangelicals Sneeze: Curing the American Church from the Plague of Identity Loss

Would Jesus Plant a Church?

Don’t you like dealing in hypotheticals? Those sometimes frustrating “what if” questions? 

Recently, Mike Frost posed such a question, “If Jesus planted a church, what would it look like?” At first, I thought it was a brilliant question. However, the more I considered it, the more his question provoked a reaction. I began to ask, “Would Jesus ever actually plant a church?” 

He’ll certainly build the church. That was his promise to the disciples (Matt 16:18). He’ll be present in moments of discipline (Matt 18:17-20). He’s given her leadership (Eph 4:11). He even stipulated a set of expectations for her with clear warnings (Rev 2-3). Indeed, the entirety of the book of Revelation is Jesus’ message to the church. In essence, the 22 chapters of John’s vision uncovers the church Jesus is building.

But, would Jesus plant a church?

The troubling issue for me about this question is how we so often assume that the ministries we are doing are the ministries Jesus would approve of us doing. Especially if we are super spiritual about it, even to the point of reifying church planting. 

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So, in 1990 when C. Peter Wagner declared church planting to be “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” (1990:11) we all jumped on board. After all, when we observed the phenomenal growth of Saddleback Church and Willow Creek Community Church we were sold. We reasoned that if church planting is producing those kinds of mega-churches, Jesus must have approved. Convinced by Wagner, Warren, and Hybels, our mission shifted from making disciples to planting more churches. 

And today, we love to talk about church planting movements and the phenomenal spread of the gospel among the unreached of the world only to realize that twice as many nascent movements flounder, fail or fall into heresy (a few actually become cults).

So, where has church planting taken us?

In spite of the fact that the Southern Baptist Convention is reporting growing numbers of new church plants, their membership numbers continue to decline. More churches are closing in the United States than ever before. In fact, for the first time in living memory, we have seen a net loss of churches and that is before any of the mass closures predicted as a result of COVID-19! 

Information from the North American Mission Board: https://www.namb.net/send-network/

Then, how do we account for so many different churches. Just within Protestantism, there are more than 8,000 denominations—some say 24,000—who all seem to offer some unique theological or ecclesiological identity undoubtedly approved of by Jesus.

Here’s the thing. I wonder whether Jesus would have been a part of church planting. Instead, isn’t He expecting the Bride He has already created, the one who will join Him at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-10), to be the church, literally His body (1 Cor 12:27)? Dietrich Bonhoeffer sums it up fittingly:

“The space of the church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God. It is not true that the church intends to or must spread its space out over the space of the world. It desires no more space than it needs to serve the world with its witness to Jesus Christ and to the world’s reconciliation to God through Jesus Christ. The church can only defend its own space by fighting, not for space, but for the salvation of the world. Otherwise the church becomes a “religious society” that fights in its own interest and thus has ceased to be the church of God in the world. So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world.” (Ethics, loc 457)

Those who make up that gathering of Christ followers, the called-out ones (ekklesia), the church, have a singular mission, not 330,000 (the approximate number of churches in the US). Bonhoeffer merits repeating:

“So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world.” (Ethics, loc 457)

By the end of his article, what I discovered is that I agree with Frost. The church, Jesus’ Bride, the one He is building “is the gathering of those who have joined together to bend their knee before Christ their king and who are being shaped into citizens of his realm.” 

How that manifests in culture today shouldn’t be difficult. Rather than asking the question about what the church planted by Jesus would look like or would Jesus plant a church at all, we might frame the question this way, “What would the church look like if it lived like Jesus?” That is the question church planters should ask. And I think Frost brilliantly answers this question even if he didn’t ask it.

So, we must reDisciple our church, reChurch our ecclesiology, and reJesus our theology. It sort of sounds like Frost’s (and Hirsch’s) book.

“So the first task given to those who belong to the church of God is not to be something for themselves, for example, by creating a religious organization or leading a pious life, but to be witnesses of Jesus Christ to the world." – Dietrich… Click To Tweet

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The Looming Crisis in American Christianity

Two recent studies about the state of the church in the US have further demonstrated the tenuous situation of American Christianity.

On May 25, 2021, Lifeway Research released its latest data that indicates a continuing downward trend for the negative net growth of churches in America. In 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the evangelical research organization analyzed data from 34 denominations representing 60 percent of US Protestant churches to find that the number of closures outpaced the number of new churches by one and a half times. That is, for every one church that began in the US in 2019, 1.5 churches closed. 

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According to Lifeway Research, the rate of closures has increased since 2014 when 4000 new church were started and 3700 closed. We have gone from positive net growth of +300 churches to a negative net growth of -1,500 churches in five years. 

Further exacerbating the problem is the recent observation that church membership has declined to under 50 percent of the US population for the first time since Gallup began collecting data. In 1937, US church membership was 73 percent and maintained membership at approximately the same level for the next six decades. Starting in the 21st century, US church membership began to decline precipitously from 70 percent around the year 2000 to 47 percent in 2020. The 20-point plus decline of the past two decades corresponds with the rise of Americans who hold no religious preference and the perceived irrelevance of the church to contemporary culture.

In 1990, C. Peter Wagner boldly declared in his Church Planting for a Greater Harvest: A Comprehensive Guide that research from 1960-1990 clearly indicated that church planting is “the single most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” (1990:11). If correlated with the Gallup data over the same time period, to suggest that maintaining a 70 percent church membership rate over thirty years indicates “the most effective evangelistic methodology under heaven” must be taken hyperbolically although Wagner certainly did not intend it to be hyperbole. 

While many have unsubstantially reported that new church plants fail at a rate of 70-80 percent (Stezter and Bird), others such as the Evangelical Covenant Church – reporting a failure rate of 14 percent over four years – and the Southern Baptist Convention – reporting 34 percent failure rate – maintain active church planting strategies. Yet still, such modest success is unable to keep up with the overall decline in numbers of churches and church membership which must raise the question of whether or not our current church planting methods are effective.

To continue using a strategy that is clearly not productive is not only the epitome of insanity it is a mockery of the New Testament church which grew exponentially in the first three centuries. Click To Tweet

Alan Hirsch is keen to say that the church is perfectly designed to achieve the results we are experiencing. The change that must occur cannot look to past methods and strategies. While in the 1960s to 90s, church planting was touted as the most effective strategy in the growth of Christianity, the rate of church closures today indicates that either the strategy no longer works (if it did in the first place) or it needs to be changed. To continue using a strategy that is clearly not productive is not only the epitome of insanity it is a mockery of the New Testament church which grew exponentially in the first three centuries.

For change to occur, it must look forward through the past. Jesus Christ is the builder and sustainer of the church (Matt 16:18). Indeed, He has established the church as the witness of the mystery of the gospel that is for all people without discrimination (Eph 3:10). To think that our church planting efforts might improve upon what He has established is to misunderstand the nature of New Testament ecclesiology. 

The body of Christ is a dynamic, chaordic network of those who are fully committed to His mission. Her engagement of culture is as diverse as the cultures themselves (Acts 17:26). Her places of gathering are not reduced to scattered and isolated Sunday-centric performance of the few, but rather the ongoing corporate and public worship of the One. The church established by Jesus Christ is a theocentrically postured community singularly focused on His glory understanding that He is most glorified when more and more people are worshipping Him (Rev 5:9). 

She does not concern herself with the mundane of the world, but rather with the life-giving message of the atoning work of Christ that gives us victory over sin, death, and the devil (Luke 12:29-31). This gospel is at once declared, defended, and demonstrated. In her three-fold ministry, she proclaims the glory of God to the nations, she irenically defends her faith in the public square, and she actively stands in the gap for the marginalized (Rev 2:1-7). 

In other words, rather than the programmatic nature of contemporary church planting strategies concerned with their mission statements, the church of Jesus Christ already established by Him remembers His mission statement to “make disciples of all nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to keep everything He has commanded” (Matt 28:19-20).

To avert the looming crisis in American Christianity will require a rediscovery of the church, her Bridegroom, and her mission. The degree to which we are willing to journey on such a rediscovery will be measured by our recognition that some plant, others water, but God causes the growth (1 Cor 3:6). In the meantime, here are six questions that help diagnose current church planting strategies:

  • Does our current strategy give people permission to not be disciples?
  • Does our current strategy give people excuses to not do evangelism?
  • Are all of our programs focused on more people worshipping God?
  • Are we multiplying disciples or adding volunteers?
  • What would happen if we removed Sunday from our church planting strategy?
  • What impact would an APEST team have on our church planting strategy?
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Further Reading

Barna Group. 2020. “One in Three Practicing Christians Has Stopped Attending Church During COVID-19.” Internet resource available from https://www.barna.com/research/new-sunday-morning-part-2/. Accessed July 8, 2020.

Brenan, Megan. 2017. “Nurses Keep Healthy Lead as Most Honest, Ethical Profession.” Internet resource available from https://news.gallup.com/poll/224639/nurses-keep-healthy-lead-honest-ethical-profession.aspx. Accessed July 9, 2020.

Cooper, Michael T. Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement. Littleton, CO: William Carey, 2020.

Earls, Aaron. “Protestant Church Closures Outpace Openings in U.S.” Internet resource available from https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/05/25/protestant-church-closures-outpace-openings-in-u-s/. Accessed May 27, 2021.

Jones, Jeffrey M. “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time.” Internet resource available from https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx. Accessed May 28, 2021.

Holcombe, Lee and Ray Kuntz. 2020. “COVID-19: The Effects on Ministry Giving.” Internet resource available from https://deo-volente.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/COVID-19-The-Effects-on-Ministry-Giving-.pdf. Accessed July 8, 2020.

Packard, Joshua. 2015. Exodus of the Religious Dones: Research Reveals the Size, Make-Up, and Motivations of the Formerly Churched Population. Loveland, CO: Group Publishing.

Jones, Robert P. “White Christian America Ended in the 2010s.” Internet resource available from https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/2010s-spelled-end-white-christian-america-ncna1106936. Accessed July 9, 2020.

Stetzer, Edward and Warren Bird. “Research Overview and Qualitative Study of Primary Church Planting Entities.” Unpublished.

The State of Theology. 2020. “The 2020 State of Theology Survey.” Internet resource available from https://thestateoftheology.com. Accessed May 28, 2021.

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The Missionary Nature of the Gospels

As Carson, Moo, and Morris point out (1992), nowhere in the New Testament are the first four books referred to as “Gospels.” It is not until the second century that the title “Gospel” is attributed to these compiled stories about Jesus (Carson, Moo, Morris 1992:46, cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies Book 3). While the details provided in all four Gospels testify to their accounts being documented close to the actual events, none of them identify the authorship by personal name. Although the authors of the third and fourth Gospels do use first personal singular pronouns in reference to themselves (Luke 1:3; John 21:25), only the fourth gospel identifies the author as the “disciple who bears witness to these things” (John 21 24). 

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Justin Martyr (ca. 155-157AD) first refers to the Gospels as the memoirs of the apostles in his defense for the practice of the Eucharist (First Apology 66). Irenaeus (ca. 180AD) later reinforces apostolic authorship in his defense of Christianity against Celsus:

Matthew also issues a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence in Ephesus in Asia.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

These early testimonies point to a tradition that was well established in the church. Indeed, the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea remarks,

Papias [ca. 60-130AD] gives also in his own work other accounts of the words of the Lord on the authority of Aristion who was mentioned above, and traditions as handed down by the presbyter John; to which we refer those who are fond of learning. But now we must add to the words of his which we have already quoted the tradition which he gives in regard to Mark, the author of the Gospel. It is in the following words: “This also the presbyter said: Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not indeed in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things done or said by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord’s discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.” These things are related by Papias concerning Mark. But concerning Matthew he writes as follows: “So then Matthew wrote the oracles in the Hebrew language, and every one interpreted them as he was able.” And the same writer uses testimonies from the first Epistle of John and from that of Peter likewise. And he relates another story of a woman, who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which is contained in the Gospel according to the Hebrews. These things we have thought it necessary to observe in addition to what has already been stated.”  (H.E. 3.39.14-17)

For the early church, apostolic attestation of the Gospels crystalized their reception and canonicity. Thus, Matthew and John were apostolic eyewitnesses of the events, Mark was an eyewitness (Mark 14:51), but also recorded his gospel from the apostle Peter’s perspective, while Luke, a colleague of the apostle Paul (Acts 16:10-11), conducted what we might think of as early historiographic research for his narrative account.

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The oral nature of Greek and Roman learning in the first century points to the idea that written documents were more often heard than read. Paul certainly had this expectation for his letters (Col 4:16). Such emphasis on the oral nature of learning is highlighted in Papias’ remarks, “I did not suppose that information from books would help me so much as the word of a living and surviving voice” (In Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.39.3-4). The Gospels, carrying on an oral tradition that encouraged the transmission of Jesus’ stories by word of mouth, were written with evangelistic purposes and served to codify the life and ministry of God incarnate. Indeed, Irenaeus relates this movement from the oral to written Gospels, 

“We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.” (Against Heresies 3.1.1)

He continues with the purpose of the Gospels, “These have all declared to us that there is one God, Creator of heaven and earth, announced by the law and the prophets; and one Christ, the Son of God” (Against Heresies 3.1.2). As Justin Martyr relates, the Gospels were intended to be heard and explicated,

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.” (First Apology 62).

The missionary purpose of the Gospels and their continued oral transmission helped catalyze the phenomenal growth of the early church. In fact, during the period when they were written in the first century, the church grew by 900 percent in part due to the transmission of the stories about Jesus throughout the Roman Empire. The formation of the Gospels in general and John’s ability to connect Jesus’ stories to the stories of his audience in the Fourth Gospel are two examples of how missiological theology is a key tool to ensure an indigenous Christianity rooted in true stories that make sense to a culture’s story.

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The Ontology of Missiological Theology

Theological development is contextual and is frequently a reaction to a crisis in culture. As far back as the ecumenical councils of the first six centuries of the church, theology has responded to context and always will. Those early formulations of dogma came in the midst of political tensions often instigated by an emperor who had been influenced by a particular theology.

In the modern era, neo-orthodoxy reacted to the crisis in post WWI Europe as it wrestled with the reality of how culture arrived in such a place. Similarly, fundamentalism countered modernism in post WWII America as it set out to preserve the fundamentals of the faith in a milieu of scientific and theological challenges. Likewise, a unique American dispensationalism emerged, in part, due to the Cold War in an attempt to set the United States in the context of the book of Revelation with the hope of the imminent return of Christ to rapture the church from turmoil. 

Theology’s preoccupation is looking for meaning about God in the here and now. It attempts to make sense out of our circumstances in light of a particular view of who God is. In this way, a missiological theology is a response to the need for church to effectively engage cultures around the world with the stories of Jesus. It is ontologically theocentric and functionally missional. In this essay, I’ll attempt to layout three key ideas that make up the ontology of missiological theology: wonder, discovery, and curiosity.

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Wonder

Missiological theology is best understood as a historical-contextual-narrative theology imbued with the true and real stories of Jesus that are relevant today. Even more so, missiological theology is a theology of wonder, discovery, and curiosity. By wonder, missiological theology marvels at the majesty of God. His glory is the manifest purpose of missiological theology just as it was the manifest purpose of Jesus. He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you . . . I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1b-5). That glory is ultimately revealed in John’s Apocalypse,

     “Worthy are you, our Lord and God,

              to receive glory and honor and power,

     for you created all things,

              and by your will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:11)

Paul also writes of the glorious God who, in accomplishing His purposes, has chosen us according to His will to be a part of His family, and to seek the spread of His glory around the world:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” (Ephesians 1:3–6)

The wonder of missiological theology is most acutely seen when the Word becomes flesh (John 1:14). What is in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer the “miracles of all miracles” (DBWE), God’s glory is revealed to us. In a most spectacular appearance, the God-become-human invades our history so that we might know His story, the grand story where every ethnic group, in a beautiful tapestry as God’s image bearers, unite in wonder and marvel at His awesome sight.

In a most spectacular appearance, the God-become-human invades our history so that we might know His story, the grand story where every ethnic group, in a beautiful tapestry as God’s image bearers, unite in wonder and marvel at His awesome sight. Click To Tweet

Discovery

Missiological theology is not overly concerned with philosophical formulations about God. Rather, it discovers the God who is simply revealed in Scripture and creation, for it is this God who speaks for Himself. Like Gregory of Nazianzus, missiological theology asks, “For what will you conceive the Deity to be, if you rely upon all the approximations of reason? Or to what will reason carry you, O most philosophic of men and best of Theologians, who boast of your familiarity with the Unlimited?” (Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28.7). In response, missiological theology wonders in astonishment at the God of creation who self-revealed in the Word become flesh (John 1:1-2) and continues to reveal Himself as He truly is (Rev 1:13-16) and will be (Rev 19:11-15).

Additionally, missiological theology is on a quest of discovering what God is doing in the world. His will, according to Paul, is to reconcile all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). Missiological theology understands that purpose will be accomplished. God will do what He has set out to do. The glorious picture painted by John points to the completion of that mission:

And they sang a new song, saying,

     “Worthy are you to take the scroll

              and to open its seals,

     for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God

              from every tribe and language and people and nation,

     and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,

              and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9–10)

In the midst of a world in unremitting political, economic, and societal turmoil, God continues to make Himself known and beckons to His adopted sons and daughters—kingdom and priests as John calls us—on this great mission to also make Him known. Like Paul in Athens who sees God in the writings of philosophers (Acts 17:28), missiological theology looks for God in culture to discover how He is revealing Himself, then joins with Him on this mission.

“For what will you conceive the Deity to be, if you rely upon all the approximations of reason? Or to what will reason carry you, O most philosophic of men and best of Theologians, who boast of your familiarity with the Unlimited?” Click To Tweet

Curiosity

Missiological theology is consumed with the amazement of God whose mission we join as co-laborers (1 Cor 3:9). As His co-laborers discovering His work in the world, missiological theology is curious. More precisely, it is curious about people: their stories (history), beliefs (religious and non-religious), and customs (culture). Missiological theology has an insatiable drive to hear and learn about others. It is inquisitive in its observation of the artifacts that animate a culture. It is implicated in as much as it is in proximity to people in its desire to know them. It is reflective as it considers the connecting points between God and those created in His image.

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In its curiosity, missiological theology is gospel-oriented and interested in the clear communication of Jesus in such a way that He naturally connects to cultures whose boundaries He established (Acts 17:26). It produces that “ah ha moment” in the life of a cultural actor and results in identifying with Jesus’ life and work. Simply stated, missiological theology’s curiosity is the theologically, culturally, historically, and religiously informed communication of the person, works, word, and will of God. Such communication is faithful to the unchanged, true stories about Jesus that are meaningful to people in their particular contexts. Missiological theology does not change, adapt, or contextualize Jesus’ stories to make them relevant. It looks for the connecting points between His story and the story of culture (Cooper 2021).

Conclusion

Missiological theology is differentiated from biblical or systemic theologies in that missiological theology is concerned with the missionary nature of God in Scripture and the world. In its wonder, discovery, and curiosity, missiological theology considers Scripture’s grand narrative of God’s relentless missionary pursuit of relationships with His creatures in His mission to unite all things in Christ (Eph 1:10). This is the hermeneutical key to missiological theology. David Bosch claimed, “God’s very nature is missionary” (1991, 390) and missiological theology captures God’s missionary nature as expressed throughout the 66 canonical books of the Bible as well as in His activity in the world (Ps 19). It sees a thread of God’s self-revelation beginning at creation in Genesis and ending with the consummation in Revelation (Cooper 2021). Ontologically, its very nature reflects a passion for God’s glory, God’s mission, and God’s people.

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Why are Words Important?

Words have meaning and when organized in proper grammatical structures, that meaning is transmitted to provide communication. When words no longer hold to their meaning, then communication is hampered and misunderstandings arise. In addition, the context of the use of words is important for furthering understanding. At times, cultural cues along with colloquialism, figurative language, and literary genre redefine the use of a word determined primarily by the communicator’s intent and context. For example, if someone were to say, “That dog is sick,” they might understand it literally as the canine is ill or as a person who is awesome depending on the context.

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When it comes to the written word, the same is true. The intent of the author as well as the author’s culture and the culture’s understanding of the language and words help in arriving at a proper interpretation. It is not a simple task to interpret the meaning of the written word, especially when the interpreter is outside of the context of the communicator and where different languages might impact understanding. For example, “Ce faci?” literally means, “What are you doing?” However, it is a colloquialism in Romanian that is understood as, “How are you?” Understanding language and culture is of paramount importance for the missionary.

In the 21st century, words and meaning are further complicated with postmodern literary devices such as “reader response.” To the postmodern, words and meaning are based on the reader’s understanding rather than the author’s intent. Therefore, what might appear as clear to one reader could be understood completely differently to another. In the postmodern milieu, both can be right even though the meaning derived by each are in conflict. Truth, then, becomes subjective to one’s preference and moral absolutes no longer exist.

As those who hold to the word of truth and are commended to teach sound doctrine, words are important to us as missionaries. Without the precision of words and their historical and cultural meaning, what we teach and how we disciple can become subjective based on the language, even theological, biases of the communicator. 

As those who hold to the word of truth and are commended to teach sound doctrine, words are important to us as missionaries. Without the precision of words and their historical and cultural meaning, what we teach and how we disciple can become… Click To Tweet

Words and the Development of Doctrine in the Early Church

It was not uncommon in the early church for the meaning of a word to have a profound effect on the development of a doctrine. In the 200s, a doctrinal controversy surrounding the physical body of Christ enveloped the early church. The controversy revolved around the understanding of Jesus’s physical body: was it flesh and bone or did it just appear as flesh and bone. Ultimately known as Docetism, proponents argued that Jesus only appeared to have a physical body. Derived from a misunderstanding of John 1:14, the Docetists held that the “Word” appeared to be flesh rather than became flesh. The controversy centered around a single word in Greek: ginomai. In its lexical range, the word can mean “became” or “appear.” Ultimately, the church agreed that the intent of John 1:14 was that the Word literally became flesh and thus Jesus is both fully human and fully God, one person, hypostatically united in two natures.

In the early 300s, a non-trinitarian view of Christ arose and was based on the meaning of the Greek word “begotten.” Arius believed, while Jesus was the Son of God, the fact that he was begotten meant there was a time when he did not exist and was therefore subordinate to the Father. Jesus was of like essence with God, but not the same essence with God. Ultimately, the first council of Nicaea settled the argument and preserved the doctrine of the Trinity. This debate continues in the growth of non-Trinitarian religions like Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Oneness Pentecostalism.

Nestorius debated the words Christotokos and Theotokos in relationship to Mary being the “mother of Christ” or the “mother of God.” According to what some say was Nestorius’ position, the Christ flowed through Mary and therefore Jesus did not have both a human and divine nature. The theological community of the day, namely the council of Ephesus in 431AD, determined that to maintain the two natures of Christ, Mary had to be the bearer of God, Theotokos. A single word was vitally important to the preservation of the doctrine of Christ as fully God and fully human.

At times, the misinterpretation of a word or phrase can have profound effects on theological development. For example, Augustine’s misinterpretation of “in whom” in Romans 5:12 indicating that all of humanity is culpable for Adam’s sin led the early church in a misunderstanding of the nature of original sin. This is a doctrine that the Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to hold. In his discussion regarding Augustine, Peter Kirk, former Wycliffe Bible translator, aptly comments on the importance of precision when interpreting Scripture.

“But my real point here is the need to be very careful before basing any kind of doctrine on a translation of the Bible. It is almost impossible for a translation to be precise and unambiguous in its rendering of little words like prepositions. Augustine’s Latin translation was not really inaccurate, it was just excessively literal and introduced an ambiguity which wasn’t in the original, like many translations into English and other languages today. Sadly, too many exegetes and preachers today base their teaching on similar misunderstandings of inadequate translations, and don’t bother to learn the original languages. Not many of their mistakes will still be remembered 1600 years later, but there are serious consequences for leading just one person astray by wrong teaching.” (Kirk, 2007) 

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Many other examples could be enumerated. Nevertheless, the point of the importance of the use of words and their historical and cultural meaning can have profound effects on theological development.

Words and Church Planting Movements

By the time of the Christianization of the Roman Empire, there could have been as many as 300,000 house churches spread from Iberia to Asia Minor. Over the past decade, the number of church planting movements have grown exponentially. With such growth, words, particularly those that have the effect on what people believe, are critically important to the fidelity of the Christian faith. Of particular importance is the fact that church planting movements (CPMs) are starting in multiple languages and precision in the use of words has a greater importance. As such, avoiding colloquialisms and jargon as well as figurative language in our training material is vital to preserving theological orthodoxy. Equally as important is scrutinizing the words that we do employ in communicating biblical truth. Inaccuracies in word choice and meaning can easily result in misunderstandings that could lead to unintended theological consequences.

Teaching God’s word is a special responsibility and privilege of the church leader and missionary. To some extent, he or she will be held to a very high standard to teach it accurately (James 3:1). That standard is marked not just by the privilege of teaching, but also by a responsibility to accurately handle the word of God. With the religious diversity present in so many countries and people groups, not to mention the growth of heretical Christian religions, this task is vitally important to the long-term sustainability of church planting movements. 

The importance is magnified as we focus on rapidly expanding movements. Just as we read in the New Testament, rapid expansion of the church can result in any number of issues that can threaten the ongoing success of a local group of believers. Those threats can be found in religious practices of a culture creeping into Christianity, ethnic tensions as different people groups that have been historically hostile to each other come into fellowship in the church, or simple personality conflicts so common in society.

The apostle Paul sums up the responsibility of teaching God’s word well, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). It then becomes of primary importance that stories of the Bible are told accurately and are aligned as closely with the text of the Bible as possible. To scrutinize these stories should be the first role of an equipping strategy.

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Communicating Across Cultures

A proper communication model takes into consideration the use of words, meaning, context, and culture. Of primary importance is the assurance that the communicator is using words properly so chances of misunderstanding are reduced. Such a model might simply look like the following.

In order to ensure the communicator’s message is interpreted properly, the receptor needs to interact with the communicator to be certain that the meaning is what was originally intended. Such clarification is important to further reduce chances of misunderstanding. That model would look something like the following.

When a different language and culture are added to the model, the complexity of communication increases as well as the need for interaction between the communicator and the receptor. When a word is translated, the communicator must find a corresponding word. Then, in dialogue with the receptor, the communicator verifies that the word has the intended meaning. This model looks like the following.

This is a preferred model when related to cross-cultural equipping. When an equipping curriculum, such as a discipleship program, is developed, the trainer must verify the use and definitions of words to ensure that the meaning corresponds with the receptor’s culture. Even a literal translation might fall short of communicating the intended meaning. In such cases, a dynamic equivalence is employed in an attempt to preserve the proper meaning. 

When we are telling stories, such as we might do in oral cultures, the same principles hold true. However, the accuracy of the story in the communicator’s language is of primary importance. If such accuracy is not upheld from the beginning, then there is no way to ensure proper interpretation. In these cases, the likelihood of variant understandings of stories might lead to the development of theological innovations.

Conclusion

Church history has shown us the importance of effectively communicating theological content. To ignore the lessons of those early theologians will certainly result in a reoccurrence of history. As missionaries or church planters, communicating the word of truth accurately across different cultures is of primary importance to the equipping strategy for maturing disciples, leaders, and church plants. Whatever scrutiny we give to our equipping material should be viewed as well worth the effort to ensure fidelity to the Christian faith. The Bible is not simply a book of words, but a book of God’s word. To be faithful to its accurate transmission is a non-negotiable as we move forward in equipping the saints for works of ministry.

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The Importance of All Our Histories

The saying goes that “history is written by the victors.” There is some truth to this but a better way of saying it comes from a Nigerian novelist. In her 2009 TED Talk, which is one of the most viewed ever, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of “The Danger of A Single Story.” Rather than saying, “winners get to write history,” I would say instead that “we tend to listen to only one version – one story – of history.” Black history month, which just ended in February, is an important corrective. We also need to hear this “other version” of American history. As I have gotten older, celebrating the culture, uniqueness, achievements and HISTORY of the African American population in the United States has become important to me. For me, it prevents tunnel vision and from looking at history through only one story, a single perspective.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a critically acclaimed writer with degrees from Princeton and Johns Hopkins universities. Her TED talk recounts her experience with an American roommate when she first came to college in the US. The roommate held stereotypes of who she thought Adichie was. Her ideas, said the writer, were based on a prevailing, oft-repeated and one-sided narrative of Africa. For example, the roommate was confounded to discover that Adichie could speak English — even though English is one of the official languages of Nigeria. She also couldn’t understand how Adichie knew how to use a stove for cooking — yet Adichie came from a middle class Nigerian home with a college professor Dad and a school administrator Mom. The list could go on. Adichie also noted how even one of her professors did not feel that her writing was “authentically African” enough because she wrote about being educated and driving a car, “a life like mine”, said the professor. She was not writing about the Africa that he expected her to write about. The prof wanted her to be more “African”, that is, more his idea of what Africa should be about, the single story kind. Adichie said that both her roommate and the professor had probably been hearing different versions of the single story all their lives — until they met her. And they couldn’t deal with that.

This is the danger of the single story. Such thinking, such expectations, lead to stereotypes, misjudgments, even racism. Adichie also shared that she didn’t know anything about race or even that she was “African” (she’s Nigerian!) until she came to the US for college where she was told these things for the first time.

Did you know that refrigerated trucks, central heating, automatic elevator doors, the ironing board, color computer monitors and the three light traffic signal were all created or co-invented by black inventors? What would we do without these today? Novelist Ralph Ellison goes even further when he writes an acerbic yet factual and historical take on “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks.” In essence, Ellison points out that the America we now live in would not be what it is without their “complex and confounding role in the creation of American history and culture,” that is, he is stating that the very PRESENCE and CONTRIBUTIONS of Black Americans — both forced and voluntary — made America what it is. In other words, America could not be what it is without black people in its overall history — so great has their contribution been.

Ellison even goes so far as to say, “on this level the melting pot did indeed melt, creating such deceptive metamorphoses and blending of identities, values and lifestyles that most American whites are culturally part Negro American without even realizing it.” If he is right and, from my knowledge of US history, I think he is, then a commemoration like Black History month in the calendar of the United States is an absolute necessity. Why? Because it keeps any single story of American history from dominating my/our consciousness. Black History month celebrates the power, legacy and contribution of African American people, their culture and genius to the overall success of the United States, indeed, to the world. I am a big fan of this month because I am a history and culture buff. But, more importantly, this idea of fighting against the single story even relates to our faith.

Based on the analogy above, some might also declare that the Bible is a “single story”, comprised of many smaller stories. To begin, let me say that I don’t agree with such an assertion. But, say it were true, for the sake of argument. Then, I would say that the power of scripture is that its “single story” can be corroborated with the stories of many others (meaning, it is NOT a “single story”!). Archaeology is the friend of Bible-believing Christians because this academic science literally unearths many other stories (histories) that prove the Bible is not just our own but that its story belongs to the world. In other words, other stories (other histories) match the stories (historicity) of scripture.

These other stories support and corroborate what the Bible says. These other stories show that the Bible is not just made up. This is because others saw or heard the same thing and wrote about it from a similar but different historical perspective, which matches with scripture. Major discoveries like the Rosetta stone, King Tut’s tomb, Hezekiah’s aqueduct, the Dead Sea Scrolls or the ruins of Jericho and the Hittite civilization have demonstrated that the Word of God is not some fairy tale in the minds of a few people but that it is what it says it is, and that it is historically and scientifically valid. These other stories complement the story of scripture, demonstrating that the Bible is, in fact, NOT a single story but a web of multitudinous stories interwoven into the history of all humanity.

Telling history is telling a story, no, not A story but MANY stories. And the more stories we have and the more varied the perspectives, the better the view of that history and the better the chance we will have of getting to the factual truth of what actually happened. THAT is something worth both recording and reading. Something for the ages. Happy Black History month!

Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

John 21:25 And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written.

The Monkey and the Fish

During my doctoral studies in the early 2000s, Paul Hiebert shared a story that I have never forgotten.  Dr. Hiebert was a master at using illustrations and case studies to highlight essential missiological principles. His years of experience in India and as a world renowned missiological anthropologist made those attending his classes sit on the edge of their seats waiting for some anecdote apropos to our own missions experiences.  We just knew that whatever would usher from Dr. Hiebert’s mouth would be formational to our missiology.

I do not know where the story of the monkey and the fish originated. Some have suggested India. Nevertheless, it was certainly from Dr. Hiebert that I learned it.  I have actually never heard anyone else tell this story or even use it in an illustration except for him. In essence, everything I learned about crossing cultures can be attributed to this story of the monkey and the fish.  It’s an unlikely tale of the meeting of two of God’s creatures in a fantastic way.  As I recall, it goes something like this, with certain embellishments I’m sure:

There was once a monkey and a fish.  The monkey lived on a deserted island in the middle of a vast ocean.  The island had, with its pristine beach, a single palm tree which occupied the monkey’s day.  He would climb up and down and swing on branches endlessly in the complete joy of his monkey-ness.

One day, a violent storm raged toward the island.  With hurricane force winds, the giant waves crashed onto the island and the sandy beach would momentarily disappear from the monkey’s sight.  The monkey, however, was safe in his palm tree and enjoyed the battering winds that made the branches dance in the sky.  Suddenly, the monkey saw the waves throw up a fish onto his beach.  The fish, in a desperate attempt to return to the ocean, flapped its tail frantically.  The monkey, seeing the fish in distress, scurried down the tree at great personal risk and picked up the fish.  And just as quickly as the monkey came down from the tree, he went back up again, carrying the fish to safety.

The fish was still in obvious distress once the monkey reached the top of the tree, flapping its tail back and forth, nearly falling from the monkey’s hands to its certain death back in the water.  But the monkey held tightly knowing it had rescued the poor creature from a perilous destiny.  While still flapping its tail, the monkey gently caressed the fish, stroking its side in hope that the fish would know the peace and security of being with him in the top of the tree.

After a short period, the fish finally came to rest.  Oh, there was an occasional twitch. But the monkey ensured the fish, with his gentle stroke and secure grip, that he was still caring for it.  Eventually, the fish quieted down completely as did the storm.  And the monkey came down from the tree to lay the fish back where he had found it on the beach.  He scurried back to the top of the tree, and looking down at the peaceful fish lying in the sand, the monkey knew he had helped the creature and rejoiced at his efforts.

There is, of course, a moral to be learned in the application of the story of the monkey and the fish. Perhaps most appropriate in our current cultural climate is to ask, not whether or not the actions of the monkey were right or wrong, but “How would you feel to be the fish?”

Learn more about the leadership in first century church in Ephesiology: The Study of the Ephesian Movement

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