Spiritual Metrics Pt 4 – Restricted-Access Contexts

In some places, Christians are not welcome, nor are Westerners. Questions about values may or may not be acceptable. What are we to do in those places? Should we abandon the idea of measuring impact entirely? Each organization will have to come up with its own answer to that question. There is a lot of gray area, but there do seem to be a few guiding principles.

There Is No Silver Bullet!

Every restricted-access context is dangerous in its own way. An action that is acceptable in Cambodia may be suspicious in Indonesia and fatal in Yemen, and vice versa. It is not only that some places are more dangerous than others (though there are definite levels of danger), it is that they are differently dangerous. There are hundreds of different ways that enterprising individuals have managed to establish and maintain an identity in these locations. I don’t believe there is any possible spiritual metric that would be appropriate in all locations. Since having an impact is more important than proving that you have an impact, put the safety of the mission first. Even if your organization has created a standard indicator set, measure the possibilities and risks carefully, and be willing to put aside those indicators that aren’t appropriate.

Measure Your Team

There will be situations where it is impossible to take any meaningful data from beneficiaries without generating unacceptable levels of mistrust. That doesn’t mean that you can’t measure anything. Measuring the process of the your team does not ensure spiritual impact. But collecting data about your team’s process and priorities over time improves the chances of having a spiritual impact. This qualitative data collection should help strengthen your relationships and their faith. I am reminded of Paul’s letters to Timothy: checking in, reinforcing priorities, advising on difficult situations, and offering encouragement. As I wrote previously, the act of discipleship, done well, provides copious information on how things are being done. We just need to be disciplined about collecting it.

Use Local Community Leaders

Change in behavior is always a result of a change in values, regardless of whether those values were explicitly taught. A gift, in most cultures is expected to produce a reaction of some kind. With careful consideration, it is possible to make plausible connections between program objectives and feelings, values, and spiritual ideas. Talking with respected leaders and elders, it is often possible to get a sense of which of these related ideas (if any) might be observed. If ab appropriate cultural connection is made, the community leaders will even help with data collection.

Non-Cognitive Skills

Some contexts are not anti-Western, just anti-Christian. In those contexts, it is worth looking into the secular / scientific work on “non-cognitive skills” being conducted in the field of economics. This research is being spearheaded by the Christian economist community. These instruments might not give the data you want, but they are much more likely to be accepted as non-evangelistic.

Conclusion

There is nothing easy about spiritual metrics in a restricted-access context, and the contexts are too diverse to permit simple generalizations. In these contexts, faithfulness is far more important than effectiveness, and so we do the best we can.

Spiritual Metrics Pt 3 – Moving Towards Impact

The principles of measuring spiritual impact outline some potential ways forward. However, it bears repeating that “tearing down is easier than building up”. The problems with measuring spiritual impact are obvious. Possible solutions are much more tenuous. These too I will outline as principles that will need to be adapted to a local context.

The Anti-Hypocritic Oath

Collect no data that does not benefit the local body of believers.

This is obviously a play on, and strengthening of, the Hippocratic Oath: “Do no harm”. In light of the many dangers associated with measuring spiritual impact, an organization should be able to state positively the benefits to the local body of believers. Two different actions would be hypocritical in this context. First, to prioritize data over the spiritual impact that is the purported goal. Second, to require metrics from projects that they don’t (and wouldn’t) collect from their own ministries or families. This one, admittedly high, standard puts the good of the project squarely at the forefront.

Disciple!

Process-based metrics are embedded in good discipleship.

The biggest source of information that an organization has is in its regular contacts with leaders and beneficiaries. This is where change is happening! Are we emphasizing the process and following up? Good disciple makers are. Wise disciple makers are collecting that process-oriented data systematically. I can’t stress this enough. Three to five simple questions that you discuss during every meeting provide a wealth of valuable data that is relatively easy to verify over time. Questions like – “Who are you praying for now?” “Were you able to share about your faith with anyone this week?” These kinds of question fit the next dictum precisely.

Measure things that are intrinsically valuable and costly to fake.

There are very few things in this world that cannot be corrupted by faulty motivations. Fasting, prayer, giving, attending worship all can and will be corrupted by faulty motivation. However, there are things that are intrinsically valuable, (almost) regardless of motivation, and these are worth measuring. Especially when the cost of faking the metric is greater than the perceived non-spiritual benefits of faking.

For example, measuring the ability of an oral Bible storying group to retell a story accurately and self-correct is a great measure. Both the required memorization of Scripture and the skill of self-correction require large investments of time and effort. Both are also valuable skills. This combination of intrinsic value and high cost make the metric likely to: 1) benefit the group and 2) be indicative of real spiritual impact. Measuring a group’s ability to apply what they have learned in ways that were not taught is another example. Both could be “faked”, but the group would have to really process the material to do so. Net gain in a way that is different than church attendance, which is, in most circumstances, passive and not costly. A record of serving the poor in a tangible way is another example of a “fake-able” metric with and inherent value and a high cost in time and effort.

Develop Indicators Locally

Spiritual impact is seen in changes in the capacities and behaviors of community members. Since the ultimate goal is the growth of local churches, it makes sense to involve local leaders from the beginning. The history of missiology is littered with examples of missionaries focusing on changing things that were considered irrelevant locally, thereby greatly reducing the impact of the church until local leaders took charge. For example, John V. Taylor writes that the central concern of Ugandan pastors and converts in the early church in Uganda were primarily concerned with slavery, poverty, and learning humility. Missionaries were focused on polygamy, leading to a gospel that felt irrelevant and a quenching of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Lesslie Newbigin said it this way, summing up decades of experience and worship:

Who has the right to decide the ethical content of conversion at any time or place – the evangelist or the convert? The place where the virus of legalism gets into the work of evangelism is the place where the evangelist presumes that he or she knows in advance and can tell the potential convert what the ethical content of conversion will be.

The Open Secret

It seems best then to work together with local pastors to think through the 2 to 3 breakthroughs that they want to see in the next 5 years and what those changes will look like. Then the responsibility for identifying progress is local.

Supplementary – Measure Knowledge

Changes in knowledge is a relatively easy thing to test. It is not itself a great measure of spiritual impact, but it is often a necessary precursor to spiritual impact. Understanding that the Bible says that God loves the poor comes before the more difficult task of believing that fact or living in accordance wth it. Replacing misinformation with truth and and ensuring that the truth underlying belief / behavior changes and then testing for comprehension is perfectly valid and valuable. Unfortunately, too many organizations act as if increase in comprehension is equivalent to increase in faith, evidently forgetting that demons understand many things (James 2).

Supplementary – Ask about Motivations

“Why do people go to church?”

“Why do you (or why don’t you) go to church?”

These are easy questions to ask and provide answers that are impossible to verify. However, you don’t need to know if something is true for it to be valuable. Sometimes it is enough to have insight into what people want you to think. These kinds of questions respond well to triangulation – depth through focus groups and then breadth through questionnaires.

Conclusion

It is clear that there is still a lot of work to be done here. It seems that there are a few metrics that will be generalizable. But developing a measurement strategy in a location seems to require careful consultation with the local body or risk undermining the spiritual impact it wishes to measure. Of course, all bets are off in a restricted-access context. We will examine those issues next time.

Spiritual Metrics Pt. 2 – First Principles

Metrics to measure spiritual growth is the holy grail of integral mission, at least among organizations that receive funding from Western \ evangelical donors. Ever since development agencies began trying to develop holistic programs by incorporating spiritual aspects, they have been scrambling for ways to assess the success (or failure) of those initiatives. Last time, we investigated the forces behind the search for spiritual metrics. Today, we are going to look at four fundamental principles and their associated problems. Next time, we will look at ways to move forward.

The Observer Effect

Arguably the most fascinating and disturbing finding of the 20th century was that photons behave differently if their behavior is observed in the “two slit experiment”. It is much less surprising to assert that the “observer effect” applies to humans as well. From early childhood until old age, people behave differently when their behavior is being observed. Peer pressure is a real thing.

How does this affect measuring impact? Here we can borrow from experience with measuring social impact. The observer effect is relatively insignificant when it comes to tangible outcomes. Bridges, schools, wells, and utilizing new farming practices leave tangible results, which are verifiable. But intangible or ephemeral results are much harder to capture. Measuring school attendance (ephemeral) or changes in attitudes about gender (intangible) are much more challenging and require measuring tangible substitutes (called proxies) and then trying to infer the actual impact to the intangible outcome.

This introduces big problems because of the observer effect. The community is being offered powerful incentives to demonstrate (or report) positive change on issues of interest to the NGO. “Does the male head of the household help with the housework?” “Of course he does, please keep helping my family.”

This is the principle that motivates the “rice Christian” to profess faith in Jesus. As long as the interested organization pays attention and provides rice, the rice Christian demonstrates Christian behaviors. But these behaviors are not indicative of real spiritual impact, are they? The observer effect is a crucial consideration when thinking about measuring spiritual impact, by definition intangible.

The Unknowable Heart

I mentioned earlier that “a comprehensive measure of social impact is practically impossible” Given the complexity of the problem and current limitations in our science and technology, that kind of analysis isn’t feasible. But it may become feasible at some point in the future.

Directly measuring spiritual impact is not practically impossible. It is impossible. Impossible theologically, philosophically, theoretically. It has always been impossible and will always be impossible. Scripture elegantly captured our conundrum more than 3,000 years before the term “metrics” was invented.

1 Samuel 16:7 The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.

As humans, we are limited to seeing outward things. We can see actions, hear words, but only God Almighty can see the human heart, which is the only place that spiritual impact happens. In fact, we are told in Scripture repeatedly that we can’t even fully understand our own hearts!

Jeremiah 17:9 The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

People can tell us what they believe, but we are bound by the observer effect. Are they just telling us what we want to hear? The perceptive Bible student will point out James 2 (faith and works) and Matt 7 (good tree good fruit) both directly associate spiritual and behavioral change. This observation gives us some hope, but also leads directly to our third issue.

The Pharisee Problem

The idea that we can see behavior (or life situation for that matter) and assess spirituality is not novel. The Pharisees were particularly good at determining which behaviors indicated a healthy relationship with God. The problem we need to face now is how Jesus reacted to those Pharisees. “You white-washed tombs” comes immediately to mind. More subtly, Jesus very intentionally undermined their system – refusing to wash his hands, reaping on the Sabbath, healing on the Sabbath, hanging out with the undesirables. He also condemned the good actions of the Pharisees because they were done for the wrong reason.

The unknowable heart forces us to use behavior as a proxy, but the Pharisees clearly show that this approach is fraught with danger. What metric can we think of that the Pharisees didn’t already use? How will we deal with the ever-present danger of legalism? We know that we can see something from behavior because that is also scriptural, but what exactly and how precisely are open questions.

How will this kind of assessment affect the community? The organization doing the assessing? We can’t overlook the fact that choosing to evaluate spiritual impact will itself have an impact. That’s just the observer effect writ large.

Measurement Is Not Neutral

There is one final issue that merits investigation. The culture of the development organization is biased towards measurement, as the underlying culture is. The West has a love affair with data! We measure our steps, heart rate, exercise patterns, weight, calories, mood, even blood sugar. It is a paradise for data nerds. But measurement, like every other human action, is not value-neutral. Everyone understands that at some deep, possibly subconscious level. For no one keeps careful track of the monetary value of gifts from their family. It would be “good” data, that might tell you the relative affection of your family members over time. But we know that the act of measuring that data would harm our relationships and insult our family. Measuring something always has a cost, both relational and monetary, and that cost bears careful consideration.

After considering the cost, we must also consider our own motivation. When the Lord commanded a census in Numbers, it was good. But God was deeply offended when David took it upon himself to conduct a census in 1 Chronicles 21, and the judgment was grievous.

Why are we searching so desperately for spiritual metrics? Is it to attract more funding? Are we worried about God’s provision? Do we feel like better data would lead to better spiritual outcomes? Is spiritual development a management problem at heart? I stand with Lesslie Newbigin, the great 20th century missiologist, and assert that it isn’t. I deal with this issue at length elsewhere, but more important is that we all put our motivations under the microscope.

Next Steps

The goal of this discussion was to consider the very real limitations and difficulties confronted by any attempt to measure spiritual impact, as well as the costs and potential pitfalls. I hope that it has tempered some of the irrational optimism that comes along with the technocratic mindset. With realistic expectations, we can now consider how we can move forward.

Spiritual Metrics Pt 1

Clarity. It’s the biggest difference between corporations and non-profit organizations. Not the profit motive or market forces or greed. The key difference is clarity.

Success for a corporation is profitability over time, unambiguously displayed on the “bottom line” of the P&L statement. Success for a non-profit organization is achieving its mission and vision, or making a meaningful contribution towards that goal. Successful corporations have meaningful and inspiring mission statements, whose purpose is to help those corporations achieve greater profitability, greater success. Non-profit organizations pay close attention to their bottom line as well (revenues vs. expenses, the non-profit equivalent of P&L) because managing that bottom line is an essential element of achieving their mission and vision.

At precisely this point, we see the impact of clarity. Financial accounting is fiendishly complicated for a large transnational corporation. But profit is measured according to strict standards and verified by third parties with a vested interest in ensuring that the rules of accounting are rigorously and consistently applied. Profit is recorded in currency, and the profitability of one company can be compared to any other company in the world.

But how does one quantify social impact? The most complicated accounting scheme is orders of magnitude simpler than measuring social impact. And comparing across sectors? It is not even imaginable. How does one compare the worth of providing a quality education to 100 urban American youth with decreasing the size of the Texas-size island of trash drifting around the Pacific by 50% with teaching peacebuilding in South Sudan (which may or may not prevent a bloody civil war)? Generic units of social good (the non-profit equivalent of currency) are impossible. How then can we measure success?

Make no mistake, there are a powerful set of forces pushing for measurements of impact, both internal and external. Well-intentioned professionals, often forgoing more lucrative opportunities in order to make a difference, want to know that their work is making a difference in society. They want to understand that change so that they can make it deeper, broader, and more sustainable. Non-profits desire to allocate resources to provide the maximum benefit, while minimizing risk and uncertainty. Is addition to the internal forces, there are powerful external forces at work. Charitable donations function as a market, as do grants. Both current and prospective donors demand proof that their funds will be used effectively.

For a variety of good reasons, non-profits are attempting to measure their social impact just as their for-profit cousins measure profit. But the problem is much more difficult. Humans are unique and unpredictable. Give one man $10 and he buys food for his family. Give the same man $10 a week later and he goes on a daylong drinking spree. There are too many interdependencies, too many unintended consequences. The problems are numerous and well-documented. So a comprehensive measure of social impact is practically impossible. But non-profits can capture certain tangible, well-defined impacts, e.g., the increase in profit from improved agriculture techniques or the decrease in maternal mortality after the construction of a new hospital. Measuring these types of outcome is difficult, time consuming, and expensive, but it is possible.

The field of measuring social impact is still in its infancy. It is urgently needed, and vast resources are being invested in its development, but the difficulties are real and undeniable. “I have been struck again and again by how important measurement is to improving the human condition (Bill Gates 2013).” It is the pressing issue in development.

In this landscape, we find the non-profit dedicated to integral mission, the proposition that social and spiritual development can and should go hand in hand. All of the same forces are pushing IM organizations to measure their impact. The only difficulty is that their impact is not only social, but spiritual. If anything, there is even more urgency in measuring spiritual impact. After all, “For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Unfortunately, the difficulties surrounding spiritual impact are far greater than those around social impact. The next few posts will attempt to address the issues and possibilities inherent in attempting to measure spiritual impact.

Better Than Mission Management – Faithful Stewardship

The methodology of the earliest evangelists (and Jesus) seems simple. Call people to follow Jesus. That’s it. Do the kinds of things he did, for the kinds of reasons that he did them.

  • Treat all people / churches as responsible adults capable of discerning God’s ethical / moral will based on His Word.
  • The Bible doesn’t contain the staples of management.
  • There is no authoritative SOP for behavior.
  • There is no uniform dress code.
  • There isn’t even a systematic theology.
  • Jesus, the President and CEO, chose not to write a gospel.

Instead we have are a lot of relationally-driven, contextually-sensitive, theologically-informed case studies. The heartbeat of the New Testament epistles is reaching out to new, independent groups of believers and exhorting / teaching / encouraging them to confront their difficulties (and sins) through the lens of theological and cultural reflection. Paul, James, and Peter are functioning as spiritual fathers for sons and daughters who have gotten married and moved to a new city. As a father, Paul doesn’t seem to care how many grandkids he has, he seems to care how faithful his children are (both to their calling to live righteously and to spread the gospel).

The paradigm of the evangelism and sanctification in the New Testament is process-oriented (Am I going the right way?) not results-oriented (Have I arrived at the right destination?).

But the science of management is, by definition, results-oriented. They don’t call it “result-based management” for nothing. The paradigm used in the New Testament seems to be “following”. “Follow me”, were both Jesus first and last words to his disciples in the gospel of John. The sheep follow the shepherd. “Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ”, said Paul to the Corinthian church. When Paul rebukes the Corinthians early in the letter, it is for calling themselves followers (of Paul, or Apollos) without actually following their example. When Paul responds, he doesn’t question the paradigm of following, he questions the Corinthian application of it.

I think it is impossible to quantify faithfulness. Faithfulness is a relational quality and thus context-dependent. It is non-generalizable. The action of holding hands can be a sign of faithfulness, if you are holding hands with your wife or your sister. It can also be a sign of infidelity. The meaning of the action can only be known by the people in the relationship. That’s one of the problems with legalism. We can only see the outside, and sin is also contextual.

When we watch the early church solve its problem, it seems as if faithfulness to the call of Jesus is the primary paradigm. When the Corinthian church faced the question of eating meat sacrificed to idols, the answer to the question is less important than the way that Paul answers it. Paul argues that the answer depends on how eating that meat affects your relationship with God and with others. The same is true when the church experiences conflict over the provision of food to widows in Acts 6. An explanation coming from a management paradigm would explain how Peter and the other disciples had a comparative advantage in the preaching of the word or explain how the multiplication of the church would increase because they were freed from mundane concerns. Instead, when Stephen and the other six were empowered to serve the widows, the argument is made from faithfulness. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God.” It is an ethical claim based on faithfulness to their calling, not effectiveness.

In this model, we can still avoid the mistakes of the past: the mission stations, the ethnocentric preaching, creating dependency, consumer models of mission. Because the question is not, “Is the person dedicated?” The question is, “Is the person (or the mission or the program) faithful to the examples we have been given in Scripture?” The “to” is critical. Just as “belief” is not a positive quality in and of itself. Belief in something good is good. Belief in something bad is bad. So faithfulness to follow the example of Jesus, John, Paul, and Peter is good. That is the thing that we can call people to, always. That is the concrete idea that we can ask people to evaluate themselves against. And I believe that, as we are faithful to Jesus, so Jesus will also be faithful to us.

The Biblical Evidence for the Management of Mission

When we look at the New Testament for a management mindset, we can’t find anything. No instructions on how to do evangelism, or measure success, or strategize. The New Testament does record joy and rejoicing at the spread of the word of God, at the conversion of unbelievers, and at spiritual maturity (cf., Acts 2:41, 4:4, 6:1,6:7,12:24,16:5). But it doesn’t evidence interest in replicating numerical growth. That’s the missing piece. If we are trying to look at the Scripture through the eyes of a management model, we should see the apostles struggling to replicate or increase the success at Pentecost and Syria and to avoid or decrease disasters like the persecution in Jerusalem. They might not have the management tools (Gantt charts and activity-based budgets) that we have, but they would have had similar goals. But the analysis is absent. The discussion in Acts 15 or Acts 6 should contain some mention of the apostles’ plans to reach out, or a discussion of strategy, or a concern with numbers or spiritual growth. But it isn’t there. The book that we call the Acts of the Apostles is focused on the sovereign acts of God which the apostles were lucky enough to be a part of.

We do, however, find examples of Jesus and the apostles rejecting management-style thinking. This is anachronistic and mostly an argument from silence. But management thinking, planning, etc, is not new. The construction and reconstruction of the Temple required a great deal of planning, for example,

Jesus’ sermon in John 6, which seemed calculated to offend. That sermon was designed to prevent people from too easily accepting the Gospel! God’s physical presence on earth was undoubtedly a great resource, which should have been maximized. Why did Jesus go to the cross after only 3 years (or so) of ministry? Shouldn’t he have waited a few more years to head to Jerusalem? Or started a few years earlier? Jesus could have started a second cohort of disciples, perhaps, or otherwise improved the movement’s chances of success. Why didn’t Jesus teach the best methods and the best strategies?

We fare no better with the apostles. Why do the apostles go where they go? We don’t know. Paul is warned prophetically that he will be imprisoned in Jerusalem. He seems not to care. How many more people could he have reached if he made a fourth missionary journey? As Roland Allen says in his detailed analysis of Paul’s missionary methods,

It is quite impossible to maintain that St. Paul deliberately planned his journeys beforehand, selected certain strategic points at which to establish his churches and then actually carried out his designs. … whatever view we take of [his] first journey, it is perfectly clear that in the second journey St. Paul was not following any predetermined route. If he had any definite purpose when he left Antioch it was to go through Cilicia and South Galatia to Ephesus. It is expressly stated that he tried to preach in Asia and was forbidden by the Holy Ghost, and that he then attempted to go into Bithynia and again was forbidden by the Spirit. So he found himself at Troas not knowing where he was to go, until he was directed by a vision to Macedonia. Having preached in Philippi, Thessalonica and Beroea he was apparently driven out of Macedonia and fled to Athens, not, as it seems, with any intention of establishing himself there as a preacher, but simply as a retreat until circumstances would allow him to return to Macedonia.”

Roland Allen, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (GLH Publishing, 2011), 10.

There doesn’t seem to be any strategy besides sending Paul to focus on the Gentiles, while the rest of the apostles focus on the Jews. That “strategy” doesn’t make much sense either, for that matter. The apostles didn’t need advanced metrics to see that there are more Gentiles in the world than Jews, and that the Gentiles were far less likely to kill missionaries (at this stage of the game). That is more than enough to data to see the Gentiles are the right choice from a management perspective. But the apostles choose to invest their time and resources in the Jews. More importantly, this decision is not presented as a strategic decision. It is presented as an announcement by God to which Paul and Peter and the rest have the responsibility to be faithful (Acts 9:15, 13:2).

This seems to directly contradict the management paradigm. Why, when we try to analyze decisions made in the New Testament, do they evidence poor or incomprehensible strategy and management? Why when they explain their actions, do they not refer to strategic considerations? Why aren’t they evaluating the results or the cost effectiveness? The answer seems to be because they are using a paradigm that is antithetical to the management paradigm.

OBJECTION: “You Will Know Them By Their Fruit”

The Evidence

The biblically astute reader will see a few exceptions to my argument immediately related to the judgment of believers and non-believers. The most pertinent examples are:

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.

Matthew 7:16–17 (NIV)

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers.

Luke 6:43–44 (NIV)

Isn’t it clear that Jesus is telling us that we can recognize a tree by its fruit? And if we are encouraged to search for good trees, then that means that the Bible does support spiritual analysis. John takes it a step farther.

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

John 15:8 (NIV)

We are told that even outsiders will know that we are Christians if we bear fruit. It is clear that Paul believes that he (and others!) can spot spiritual growth and assess actions as Christian or not.

For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this.

1 Corinthians 5:3 (NIV)

This passage in 1 Corinthians 5 with its repeated commands to “Expel the wicked person from among you” is not unique. Both the command and the list of sins are drawn from the book of Deuteronomy. If Paul is able to judge, why shouldn’t we? Doesn’t Jesus command the church to discipline its members in Matthew 18? There is evidence that we can tell who is a true Christian or not and we can see spiritual growth. Why wouldn’t we use the techniques of management to improve our results?

Even If We Could Measure Spiritual Growth

This is a strong objection. But I remind us again that we are means, not causes of spiritual growth, which is logically disconnected from the tools and techniques that are correlated with it. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” To expand that metaphor, even if we could measure that growth (or a lack of it) with great precision, that does not mean that our style of watering or planting caused the growth. That is a logical fallacy. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Even though the rooster crows every single day before the sun rises, that doesn’t mean the rooster causes the sun to rise. It is no surprise, then, that we don’t see any of the apostles defending their ministry based on the results.

But We Can’t – A Closer Look at the Passages

It is not clear that these verses imply that we can measure spiritual growth. In both Matthew and Luke, the pericope begins with “Do not judge others”! In 1 Corinthians 4:5, Paul declares that he is not even competent to judge himself, and offers the rejoinder “therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes.” So how do we interpret these sayings in light of their context, and the broader biblical picture? I think that there are two major points.

First, while we can’t (and shouldn’t) make fine gradations among believers (or even between believers and non-believers), there are still things that are clearly out of bounds. I can’t score Olympic-level gymnastics, but I can tell the difference between gymnastics and basketball. The focus here seems to be making sure there is nobody shooting free throws on top of the pommel horse. Expelling those who are far out of line (like sleeping with one’s stepmother) or offering heretical teaching (mandatory circumcision) is the responsibility of those in the church.

Second, the call to produce fruit is a call to self-examination. Are my words and deeds in accordance with the sayings of Jesus? It is explicitly not to judge others, but to ensure my place in the kingdom. In both, we are encouraged to do the will of God and to beware of anyone whose life is not in accordance with the will of God. We can’t divorce these sayings from the rest of Scripture. We can’t divorce them from the warnings on placing “new laws” on people (Acts 15, Galatians). Sometimes we can see heresy and public sin clearly and we have a responsibility to act. But sometimes, the right thing to do is: 1) Do work on the Sabbath, 2) Eat food sacrificed to idols, 3) Draw truth from false religions, etc. We can’t ever see hearts, and so we can’t generalize metrics. We are consistently and regularly encouraged (e.g., Matt 7:1, Luke 6:37, 1 Cor 4:4-5, Col 2:16, Jas 4:11, etc.) to refrain from judging others, except in cases where the church is endangered. In fact, the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt 13:24-30) directly tells believers not to try to kick out well-behaved non-believers from the church! Why? Because we will cut down the wheat as well as the weeds. So “let both grow together until the harvest”.

These passages should remind us of a similar problem that we find in the misapplication of the book of Proverbs. It is quite easy to differentiate the wise from the foolis and the holy from the profane in Proverbs. For example, Proverbs 15:19, “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway. “ If someone is experiencing easy success, they are righteous, but if they are experiencing difficulty, they are lazy. But the purpose of the book of Proverbs is not to help us evaluate our holiness (or other people’s holiness) based on results. The stated purpose of the book is to call people to act wisely! Precisely because Proverbs is so easy to misinterpret, it can’t stand alone. The Wisdom literature, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, are a package deal. They balance one another. Job’s friends represent the facile, legalistic Proverbs-only equation of holiness / wisdom with blessing. In Job, we see the misery of righteous Job and his vindication by God, who condemns the speech of his friends. Ecclesiastes acknowledges the fallen nature of this world and the seeming foolishness of faith. The conclusion of Ecclesiastes is that we should “Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every hidden thing into judgment” even though our faith is belied at times by our experience. The management paradigm is a simplistic Proverbs paradigm that ignores the wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes. We should not be surprised if those that advocate such methods hear Eliphaz’s rebuke (Job 42:7-9).

When we place the “by their fruit” argument within its proper context, we see that it is not a paradigm we want to generalize for assessment of spiritual growth through fruit. Instead, it is a call for self-examination. It removes Western and gnostic excuses which divide belief and practice. It also provides us with a lens through which we can view (and deal with) extreme heresies and public sins. Perhaps most importantly as it related to our question, we find encouragements for the hearers to produce fruit. We don’t find encouragement for the hearers to maximize the fruit production of others.

40 Years Later – Pt 2 – Revisiting Centered and Bounded Sets

Last month, we redefined centered sets and bounded sets here.

A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristics which determine the membership of the set.

A centered set is a collection of all objects which are moving towards a well-defined center.

This month we will review Hiebert’s original observations on the impact of using the two types of sets with reference to Christianity.

Hiebert’s Views

Hiebert saw 4 consequences of using the bounded set conception.

1. We would define “Christian” in terms of definitive characteristics that are perceivable (orthopraxy and orthodoxy).

2. We would make a clear distinction between “Christian” and a “non-Christian”.

3. We would view all “Christians” as essentially the same.

4. We would stress evangelism as the major task-getting people into the category.

He also saw consequences of using the centered set conception.

1. A Christian who be defined in terms of a center- of who is God.

2. There is a clear division between being a Christian and not being a Christian. The boundary is there. But there is less stress on maintaining the boundary.

3. There is recognition of variation among Christians.

A Review

Dr. Hiebert was a revolutionary thinker here, and he got so many things right. The consequences of using a bounded set paradigm are clearly correct. But, even though Dr. Hiebert championed the centered set paradigm, he was unable to fully embrace all of its implications. In this, he joins some of the greatest minds in history. It was the case with Max Planck and light quanta, and Einstein and quantum mechanics. It was the case with Calvin and his theology. Dr. Hiebert cannot let go of the idea that humans must (at some level) determine who is and is not Christian, and therefore that a centered-set conception must have a boundary. So he used the language of centered, well-formed set. It is an evolutionary step, but it does not fulfill the revolutionary promise inherent in these concepts. Dr. Hiebert attempts to have his cake, and eat it too.

If we take the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 seriously, then we cannot and should not try to determine who is in and out of the kingdom. We are told to wait for Jesus and the final judgment. This lends itself to a centered-set approach to Christianity. This approach  is an excellent fit for integral mission because it emphasizes the similarity of all people. All people will flourish as they grow towards God, regardless of their current location.

Where the Hiebert’s original thinking needs further development is in realizing the continued usefulness of the bounded set. The centered set is not a “more Hebraic” model of thinking, nor is it better than the bounded set.  It is a different conceptual tool, with different strengths and weaknesses.

There are many bounded set experiences in Scripture. Baptism, church discipline, and Communion don’t make sense from a centered-set perspective. Baptism is a ritual in which a person symbolically dies to their old self and old allegiances, and joins a new group and a new life. This new group is part of the global churchleaving behind of the old, and a joining to a new group of people, a local church. Church discipline can only be implemented among people who share a common identity and grouping. This can be a local church, a denomination, or some other group. But church discipline only makes sense within a bounded group. Even the kingdom of God itself is a bounded set metaphor. Those who are recognized as leaders or role models within the kingdom have the ability to declare certain actions and values as non-Christian. Different people will disagree with the positions that the Pope takes on certain issues, but we should all agree that not everyone who claims to be Christian should be allowed to define our beliefs and values. While salvation may not be a bounded set, we need a bounded group of people who can represent the faith! If not, why can’t heretical sects like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists?

In fact, we are challenged by Paul in Scripture to determine whether we are “in” or “out” fo the kingdom of God. He uses the phrase “work out your own salvation”. The bounded set is an incredibly important tool that shouldn’t be cast aside. So is the centered set. Neither is better or worse than the other. They are both good at different things. An overly “centered” approach never asks people to consider whether they have or have not been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and entered the kingdom of light. It can be falsely inclusive. An overly “bounded” approach never asks if brothers and sisters are growing in Christ, nor does it acknowledge that becoming a Christian is a process. It can be overly divisive, with theologians worrying about whether Catholics or Anabaptists are “really” Christian instead of sending workers into fields that are definitely not Christian.

The church in the 21st century needs both the bounded set and the centered set to meet the challenges of the current era. If we are to remember church discipline and other “hard” practices in a world of extreme tolerance, we need to be able to define church and denominational membership in bounded terms without making statements about people’s salvation. We need to be able to talk about actions (e.g., genocide, post-apostolic inspired scriptures, etc.) that are definitely outside of the bounds of Christianity, and which are anathema. We need to be able to say that the Rwandan genocide was not Christian.

At the same time, the integral mission approach acknowledges so many aspects of our shared humanity, of our shared quest for decency and for God, of our shared capacity for evil and sin among believers and unbelievers, that it cannot be thrown away. It is too powerful a unifying tool. It brings together conversion and discipleship, and reminds us that they are inseparable. It is a dynamic tool that focuses on the change. The centered set approach doesn’t care about what fruit your life has produced in the past, it asks about your fruit today? In a world where so many fail to finish well, the centered set reminds us that the destination is important! We can all be thankful to Dr. Hiebert for bringing these two concepts to our attention. Let us continue to grow in how we apply them!

Centered Sets vs Bounded Sets – 40 Years Later

Forty years ago, Dr. Paul G. Hiebert wrote an article called “Conversion, Culture, and Cognitive Categories” in Gospel in Context that introduced a pair of abstruse mathematical concepts from non-cantorian set theory to the world of missiology. These two concepts, the Bounded Set and the Centered Set, sparked a quiet revolution in missions as pastors, theologians, and missiologists confronted Hiebert’s question. “Should Christianity be viewed as a bounded set or a centered set?”

Forty years later, it is worth trying to clarify and expand upon the discussion of bounded and centered sets that Dr. Hiebert so innovatively introduced. The concept of bounded and centered sets are amazing tools. As with all tools, they are good at some things, and bad at others. A hammer is great for pounding in nails and for tearing down walls. It is terrible for painting. We will start out by defining the terms, and then by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each tool.

Bounded Set – A Cat is Not A Dog

A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristic(s) which determine the membership of the set.

A bounded set is a very easy concept to grasp. It is humanity’s default conceptual grouping. “Dog” is a bounded set. Every object in the universe can be classified as either a dog or not a dog. Different people (and different ages of people) may classify things differently, but everyone has a conception in their head of what a dog is. There are some “defining characteristics”. We do this every day in very complex ways. For example, a 3 legged dog is still a dog while a four legged fox or wolf is not. “Food” is a bounded set.

A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. The boundaries define what is in the set, and what is not in the set. This is simplest example to see is math. A set of numbers is bounded if it has a maximum and a minimum value, which make up the boundaries. The set of all numbers between 1 and 3 is a bounded set. Any number you can think of is either between 1 and 3, or it is not. That’s a very simple boundary. Think of another set “friends”. Take a moment to think of the people who are your friends. Could you write a list of characteristics that make those people and their relationship with you different from all other people who are not your friends? That is a much more complicated boundary!

There are a few important facts to notice about bounded sets. First, a bounded set is defined by its boundaries and the position of an object with relation to those boundaries. We will often use spatial / locational metaphors as we talk about membership in a bounded set. An object is either “in” or “out”. It is very important to note that there are no objects that are both in or out. There is no gray area in a bounded set, nor is there partial credit. A cat is not “almost” a dog because they are both small, furry mammals, omnivores, and have four legs most of the time. A cat is never a dog.

Second, a bounded set is a static set. That’s a corollary of being based on position. Locations change over time, but at any one moment, they are static. The bounded set “children living at home with their parents” is filled with the children who live at home right now. Children who moved out yestereday or who will move back tomorrow are not in the bounded set today.

Third, the friendship group earlier is a great example of the possible complexity of the defining characteristics of a bounded set. The characteristics are limited only by the ingenuity of the set’s creator. Facebook advertising campaigns create bounded sets called marketing segments. A marketing segment for a Valentine’s Day promotion might be based on gender, relationship status, profession, ethnicity, and religion.

That leads us to point 4, which is closely related to point 3. Regardless of how complex or simple the defining characteristics are, if the boundaries are unclear or ambiguous, the set becomes ill-defined and contentious.  The classic example of the failed bounded set is the category called “race”. How does one define “race”? By appearance? By heritage? How far back does one have to go? A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. If the boundaries aren’t clear, neither is the set.

Finally, bounded sets emphasize similarities and differences in essential characteristics. They emphasize the differences between the “in” group and the “out” groups. Bounded sets also emphasize the similarities among the members of any group. This is very apparent when people talk about politics. “Oh, that person is a Conservative. All conservatives support that issue, I’m sure they do too.” Or “That person is part of the Labor party. I don’t understand how they can believe that. They are so different from us.”

Bounded sets are great tools when the difference between in and out is clear and important. They are most powerful when the differences are essential or ontological differences. Differences that will never change over time. Bounded sets are a great tool when the list of criteria for membership is clear and can be stated without ambiguity. But the bounded set does not function well when similarities between groups are important, when there is a lot of gray area, or when there are many unclear boundary cases. Bounded sets are also not dynamic. They are not the best tools to visualize change.

Centered Set – Trending Stories

A centered set is the collection of all objects moving towards a well-defined center.

The centered set is also relatively easy to grasp. Spatial language makes an intuitive understanding simple. A bounded set is based on location. It is “in” or “out”. A centered set is based on direction. Each person is either moving “towards” or “away”. A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. A centered set is defined by its center. The centered set can be thought of as the inverse of the bounded set.

Forty years ago, Dr. Hiebert struggled to find examples of centered sets, but many are available today. YouTube’s “trending videos” are a perfect example of a set centered on popularity. YouTube has an algorithm that decides which videos are growing more popular. A station with only a few thousand views can be trending up. More and more people are watching the video every day. On the other hand, a massively popular video with hundreds of millions of views may be trending down because less and less people are watching the video every day. That’s the key difference between the bounded set and the centered set. The bounded set is based on location (e.g., videos with more than a 100 million views), but a centered set is based on direction (e.g., videos with 20% more views today than yesterday).

There are several key points to notice about the centered set. First, a centered set is defined by its center and the direction of objects with relation to the center.  The center must be clearly defined, and its position is very important. But the location of the objects are irrelevant. An object may be 10 meters away from the center, or 10,000 kilometers. The only relevant factor is whether the object is moving towards the center. That implies that the direction of the object, in a conceptual sense, must be measurable. If we can’t define the center and measure direction, then the centered set approach does not make sense. This is an easy task when we talk about videos trending towards popularity. It is much harder to do with “Christian orthodoxy” or “artistic perfection”.

Third, the farther a person is from the center, the less precise the definition of the center and the measurement of their direction can be. If a person is in Spain, and the center of the set is the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, the exact address and the exact direction don’t really matter. If the person is heading generally south, they are heading towards the center. However, if a person is already in Johannesburg, then they are going to need the address and the determination of their direction must be much more precise to be useful.

Finally, centered sets emphasize similarities and differences in goals or destinations. Where a bounded set emphasizes similarities and differences based on what something is like right now, a centered set emphasizes similarities and differences in what something will be like in the future. If “stable democracy” is a center, then it may be far more important to understand if a government is moving towards or away from stable democracy than trying to define precisely what a stable democracy is and list which governments are and are not members.

Centered sets are great tools when future changes are more important than current conditions . Centered sets are most powerful when characteristics are mutable or non-ontological. In other words, in situations where change can and will happen. Centered sets function well when the center is clear and unambiguous, or when possible boundaries are unclear and ambiguous. The exact location of the border of Ukraine and Russia may be in doubt in some locations, but the capitals of Russia and Ukraine are not. The centered set does not function well with static categories (there is no change to see), or when group cohesion is very important. Black and white categories do not do well with centered sets.

The Next Step

Forty years ago, Hiebert offered the following words for our consideration.

“What does it mean to be a Christian? Before we can answer this question we must look more closely at our own thought patterns—at what we mean by the word “Christian.” This word, like many other words, refers to a set of people or things that we think are alike in some manner or other. It refers to a category that exists in our minds. To be sure, God, looking at the hearts of people, knows who are his. It is he who one day will divide between the saved and the lost. But here on earth, we as humans pass judgments, we decide for ourselves who is a Christian, and, therefore, what it means to be a Christian. What criteria do we commonly use? Before we answer this question, we must ask an even more fundamental question: what kind of category are we going to use? … Ultimately the question of whether we should see the term “Christian” as a bounded or as a centered set must be decided on theological, not pragmatic principles. But this demands that we think through all of the basic theological terms and decide which of these should be viewed as bounded sets, and which as centered sets.”

That is a significant challenge. In the next post, we will look at the conclusiosn that Hiebert drew and reexamine the implications of viewing Christianity as a bounded or centered set.

The Management Paradigm for Mission: Providing the Right Answers to the Wrong Questions

Last time, we investigated the introduction of the management paradigm into the world of mission. Here’s a link if you haven’t read it yet.

Dr. McGavran was not a revolutionary thinker. He took an incremental step that was perfectly in line with American culture. It was pragmatic, empirical, and data driven. He continued the relatively recent Western tradition of thinking of the Great Commission as a matter of method, technique, and strategy. As soon as a connection / correlation is made between technique or method and spiritual or church growth, the modern Western mind can’t help but try to optimize the solution. In other words, we jump from correlation to causation. It connects with so many of the deep-seated elements of our worldview: the desire for control and self-determination, the idea of progress and optimization, and the worship of science and data.

We are inexorably drawn by our consciences to the science of management, in particular, project management. To do any less, from our cultural viewpoint, would be the height of irresponsibility, if not outright laziness. The science of project management has changed the world. The scale and efficiency of the modern corporation is unimaginable without a science dedicated to completing projects on time, on budget, and up to standard. The famous triple-constraint requires us to balance quality, budget, and timeframe to find an acceptable and realistic compromise. We must maximize impact, provide a good ROI, increase efficiency, measure indicators, develop strategies and 5-year plans. Management, both as a discipline and a sub-culture, has developed a language all its own. This language is found in the executive committees of corporations, mission agencies, megachurches, and Christian development agencies all over the world.

But is management the right paradigm for mission? If there is one principle that missiological training is supposed to ingrain in us, it is deep suspicion of the places where the gospel and our culture fit too snugly and comfortably together. That is certainly the case here! In fact, this idea is so embedded in our worldview that it is almost impossible to imagine alternatives. And if we had an alternative, how would we decide which one was better? And how would we make that decision? Using return on investment, success, and efficiency, of course!

And that is the problem with the management paradigm. It defines the problem on its own terms, and then provides us with the right answers to, what I believer, are the wrong questions. The questions it asks are management questions. Questions like:

‘What methods of evangelism are most effective at converting Muslims in Southeast Asia?”

“Missionaries from what background and ethnicity will provide the most impact for the kingdom at the least risk?“

“What are the emerging markets for Christianity in Pakistan and how can they be exploited?”

These are great management questions, and they lead to great management answers. But are they the right questions?

The Case Against the Management Paradigm

It is surely noteworthy that the 1974 Lausanne Conference not only marked the global debut of Dr. McGavran, but also the global debut of C. Rene Padilla, the coiner of the term “integral mission”. Dr. Padilla would spend the next 40 years questioning and critiquing the church growth paradigm. Driven by the Latin American experience of evangelism, this group of Latin American theologians couldn’t accept the presuppositions which drive Church Growth Theory. Comparing paradigms is incredibly difficult. But we are given some guidance in the Scripture on how to deal with new teachings. We are taught to compare the new with what has gone before. That is what I will attempt to do in this section.

The Premise that Can’t Stand

One can only manage what one can control. Where there is no causal relationship between method and output, there is nothing to manage. That is the linchpin of the case. Do my methods cause spiritual growth? That is the hardest question in the world for a Western person to answer in the negative. A million objections immediately come to mind:

  • What about bad methods that always fail?
  • Are you saying the method doesn’t matter? That’ ludicrous!
  • Isn’t there proof that seeker-sensitive churches grow faster?
  • I have read the research!

But the questions Paul Hiebert posed to the leadership of his denomination, the Mennonite Brethren, in his concluding remarks evaluating church growth are more relevant and incisive than our knee-jerk reaction..

Is Church Growth in danger of over-contextualizing the gospel in a modern cultural setting? The gospel must be contextualized—in other words, it must be understood clearly in each cultural setting. But, we as Anabaptists believe, it must also be prophetic—seeking to transform that culture in line with the standards set by the Kingdom of God. The church is always in danger of letting the context set the agenda rather than of calling that context to change. One of the hallmarks of modernity is a mechanistic, technological approach to reality (Berger 1974, Ellul 1964). In the natural sciences this has led to factories and an engineering mentality that seeks to control nature. In the social sciences this same technological approach has led to bureaucracies and an engineering approach to human beings. This is seen, for example, in the M.B.O. (Management By Objective) style of management found in modern businesses. Goal setting, progress reports and amoral methods are characteristics of this culture. To what extent can the church buy into this culture and still remain the church? At what point, in seeking to contextualize our church planting, have we lost the heart of our message and become a Christian club?

Paul G. Hiebert, “An Evaluation of Church Growth,” International Journal of Frontier Missiology 33, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 81.

I think the Bible has some fairly clear things to say on the subject, once we step out of the Western cultural frame of reference. What is the main point of the book of Job? “My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts are higher than your thoughts.” Suffering is not always a reward or a punishment for our actions, and those who think it is will be judged.

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” Who does the saving and the growing in the New Testament? God. End of sentence. The Apostle Paul was one the greatest evangelists of all time. He also wrote Romans 9, the gist of which is God is in charge of salvation. I’m not trying to make some ultra-Calvinist, double predestination argument about the eternal destiny of humanity. I believe that is also going beyond what is written. Instead, I’m trying to point out that there is no place in the Scriptures where I have seen a clear causal relationship between methods and results.

ASIDE: According to the management or church growth paradigm, Paul can’t be considered the most successful evangelist in history. That honor is reserved for the great missionary Jonah. With unbelievable efficiency and effectiveness, his inspired message “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown” caused the whole city of Nineveh (including the animals) to repent in sackcloth and ashes in a matter of days. The author knows of no attempts to replicate this hugely successful evangelism strategy, which seems to represent a large gap in the missiological literature.

In other words, mankind is not the cause, we are the means. And it almost seems like God makes sure that the means are all WEIRD, so that we don’t get the idea of trying to replicate them (e.g., when the Israelites tried to replicate the methods of the past by trotting out the Ark of the Covenant to win a battle in 1 Samuel 4). So we must make an important theological move away from “human actions cause salvation” to “humans as being the means by which God causes salvation”. Once we make that move, management for spiritual growth becomes an irrelevant paradigm because we can’t manage God. And that terrifies us because we are not in control.

The same principle applies to the sanctification of believers. We live in this place of fantastic tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and nowhere is this tension higher than in evangelism and sanctification. We know that we must pursue sanctification, but Paul makes it very, very clear in Galatians that to pursue sanctification by the strength of our works is to fall into deadly folly. Our actions again appear to be means which God uses to achieve His ends, our sanctification. Doesn’t that speak directly to your experience? Have you ever become more holy, more like Jesus because you worked harder at it? I know I haven’t, and I’m not super happy about it. Can’t I at least be in control of my own spiritual development?

A Better Paradigm

The final caveat is that, while we don’t control sanctification or salvation, it does seem that we play a role in helping (and hindering) it. That’s God calling us to be ambassadors in 2 Cor 5:20, it’s Paul asking how people will believe if no one preaches (Rom 10:14). We have agency, but we don’t have control. That’s a key difference! The reductionists among us will take that agency and bring us right back to management because it amounts to the same thing, right? We are just taking care of our part as efficiently as possible! But that approach cuts against the grain of Scripture. A better paradigm is proposed by P.eter. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” (1 Peter 4:10) When we don’t have control, faithful stewardship is a far better paradigm than effective management. The right metaphor is the master carpenter and the apprentice. The apprentice has to be ready to fetch wood and help with assembly and other tasks, but those tasks don’t determine the outcome. They are valuable contributions which help the master do something He could have done Himself. It is the master, not the apprentice, that sets the pace and determines the outcomes.

The (Almost) Inevitable Collapse

Collapse is a terrifying word, is it not? Economic collapse. Political collapse. Ecological collapse. A collapse is sudden, violent, destructive. It makes headlines. The conceptual collapse has never been breaking news. But these collapses are at least as destructive as the former, and far more common.

This is an inevitable consequence of two inescapable truths.

Humans are finite. God is not.

Job reached enlightenment when he said “I spoke of things … too wonderful for me to know.” As humans, we can only hold so many things together in our mind at one time. God is more than we can understand. It is not just God’s scale, or God’s complexity that makes it difficult. God embodies ideas that seem mutually exclusive. Finding a happy balance between mutually exclusive extremes, what Aristotle called The Golden Mean, is not that difficult for people. But comprehending that justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive, but are both always and in all circumstances good and true is mind-wrenchingly difficult. To believe that it is possible for God to be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just requires awareness, focus, energy, and concentration.

In the end, when we are tired or hurried or overwhelmed, our categories and principles collapse into something simpler. Something unipolar, something less than biblical, something that is certainly not “too wonderful” for us to know.

It is almost inevitable that we will tend to be either just or merciful, but not both. It is almost inevitable that our understanding of sin will be based on guilt or shame or impurity, but not all three. It is almost inevitable that we will primarily view Jesus as God or as man. It is almost inevitable that we will be speakers of the word or doers of the word.

And it is no surprise that integral mission is difficult, maybe even impossible. We are trying to hold it all together, and it is too wonderful for us! So we collapse, and we lose one or the other, and lose touch with the truth. Just spend a second thinking about all of the individuals, churches, and denominations that lost touch with mercy, or with justice, or with proclamation. Remember the consequences.

But the collapse is not inevitable, or more accurately, the inevitable collapse is not inevitably final. The Holy Spirit working within the church allows us as a whole to hold on to ideals and complexities that none of us could live out consistently on our own. The church can call its members back to truths that do not fit easily within them. Dare I say that, as a church, we are more truly the Imago Dei than we are individually, and we are far greater than the sum of our parts. Integral mission can’t be the same quest for personal decisions for salvation that we sought in the 19th and 20th centuries. The unit of “conversion”, so to speak, must be the church. This is our task in the 21st century: for the church itself to be converted to a Christianity that is too rich for any of its members to live out alone.