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.

The Origins of Management and Measurement in Missiology

The origins of management and measurement in missiology are shrouded in the veils of history and my own ignorance. It starts very early when people (especially evangelists) begin to correlate certain methods with certain results (either bad or good). We can already see an obvious focus on using right methods to get right results in the Second Great Awakening, the rise of revivalism, and some of the developments of Methodism. However, the introduction of the science of the management, method, and measurement to spiritual / church growth began with a paper presented by Dr. Donald McGavran in 1974 at the International Congress on World Evangelization in Lausanne.1 His paper was based on research into why some churches on the mission fields of India grew rapidly, while other churches stagnated or even declined. He made a strong argument for the necessity of cross-cultural missions, the irrelevance of the “mission station”, and emphasized the enormity of the unfinished task of reaching the unreached. McGavran defined the problem and solution of the Great Commandment as follows:

  1. There are places where God has uniquely prepared the populace for rapid growth
  2. There is a significant relationship between methods and church growth.
  3. The resources devoted to mission are limited.
  4. We live in the last days. The time to accomplish the Great Commission is also limited.
  5. Therefore, the resources of the church should be invested in places most amenable to the gospel and use methods that favor the occurrence of rapid church growth.

The formulation of the problem already assumes the management paradigm and the ability to measure success. The paper is based on the numerical growth of certain churches as opposed to other churches. McGavran makes two very simple assumptions. He assumes that the correlation of certain methods with numerical growth means that those methods (in some sense) cause church growth AND that numerical church growth is an appropriate indicator of the accomplishment of the Great Commission. Voila! The Great Commission becomes a classic management problem. How do we achieve our objective (Great Commission) while making the best use of limited time, money, and human resources while maintaining program quality? One of the first steps that McGavran takes is to redefine quality so that it can be measured2.

With this paper, the Church Growth school of missiology (and with it the era of managing mission) entered the mainstream, and promptly took over. The discussion shifted towards methodology (how to accomplish the mission of God). Methodology was judged by its success or failure in producing converts and/or growing churches. Management became an unquestioned paradigm for the most part. Mission agencies increasingly focused on strategy, resource mobilization, and methods / techniques. The historically astute reader will notice that this was not a new development. It is part of the warp and woof of a modern, scientific, deterministic worldview. In essence, this was a continuation of the 2nd Great Awakening’s search for the perfect method (as exemplified by Charles Finney, for example) and the early 20th century sociologists search for the perfect social structure (for example, Max Weber’s “rationalization” of the world, Jacques Ellul’s emphasis on technology).

But there can be no strategy without evaluation. We must be able to see and measure which method works the best, which place is the most amenable to the gospel, and which strategy is the most effective. This (re)raised difficult theological questions. “What is a true church?” “What is a true conversion?” In other words, what do we want to see in a transformed life, church, region? The field of church growth made some simplifying assumptions. McGavran took the position that “discipling” and “perfecting” are two different things, not to be confused. This makes the measurement problem inherent in managing spiritual/church growth disappear because you can just count baptisms.

The school of church growth was not confined to the “foreign” mission field, it also took root in American churches. The “seeker sensitive” movement is a direct outgrowth of the school of church growth. There is no doubt that, judged on its own terms, the school of church growth has often succeeded and has provided some needful correctives to mainstream Christianity.

In the end, the school of church growth, and therefore the management paradigm, has won the battle of ideas in the West. Few indeed are the churches who have not hired a growth or giving consultant. We track indicators and measure results: attendance, giving, focus group discussions. Many lessons have been learned from the foreign mission field that have helped today’s Western churches, Christian organizations, and missions agencies become the largest, richest, most successful in the history of the church. .

So what’s the problem? That’s what we will discuss next time.

1I am indebted to Lesslie Newbigin’s helpful recapitulation of this history in Lesslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission, Revised edition (Eerdmans Publishing, 1995).