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.

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