Can Mission be measured?
Missions has been defined narrowly as "carrying the gospel across cultural boundaries to those who owe no allegiance to the Jesus Christ," (Glasser & McGavran 1983:26) and more comprehensively as missio Dei – God’s mission in the world. This contrast of viewpoints is illustrated by attempts, primarily through evangelical missions efforts, to quantify missions. Numerical growth of converts and churches is often used to measure the success of missions. Others view organic and incarnational growth as having greater importance, with numerical growth considered a byproduct when the church is fulfilling its true role. When one defines church as an event of believers in communion together, rather than as an institution, missions becomes much more than "planting churches" in the sense of starting visible social organizations.
The sole use of quantitative criteria to measure the effectiveness of missions can tend to undermine the essence of church as a spiritual community. Because "authentic growth is within" some have gone so far as to suggest that missions should be thought of in terms of deepening rather than extension, since conversion is a qualitative change (Amaldoss 1994:70). While the either-or language may be questioned, the concern is a serious one because true spiritual growth demands both the holistic growth of the believer within the body of Christ as well as a transforming impact by the church upon society.
Quantitative concerns can cause us to carelessly tread on holy ground as we focus on human accomplishments. Like David’s arrogance in counting his soldiers, our fondness for numbers may stem from a yearning to control and a desire for numerical assurance that God is truly with us. When missionaries are the experts who work to fulfill their goal of church planting, the temptation is to glory in numbers rather than in the cross. However the common experience of missions and thus, perhaps, the proper focus of mission, is to take on the pain of the world without expecting recompense or the satisfaction of "success".
The mission I work for, FEBInternational, is unabashedly a "church-planting" mission. During our time in Pakistan a controversy over church planting arose. Because that was the buzz word of the time, every ministry (evangelism, health care, Bible correspondence school, etc.) was described in church planting terms. Some of those who were trying to gather believers together into worshipping groups were frustrated by this and called for priority for those who were (in their eyes) truly doing church planting. My wife then pointed out that if church was to be defined this way, then the only ones who could truly be called "church planters" were those who had actually managed to gather together a visible church. Since we were working among an unresponsive Muslim people group, no one had managed to plant a self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating church and therefore no one could be labeled a church planter!
The point is well made: if missions is church planting defined according to the "3-selfs", then the failure to produce a visible church is a failure in missions. Such a quantitative approach inappropriately dismisses many other aspects of the way God is working through his people in building his kingdom organically and qualitatively.
But is any and all quantitative evaluation invalid? Can missions in some sense be measurable? The opposite inclination of viewing the conversion event of individuals as insignificant compared to organic and incarnational growth must also be rejected. A lack of concern for numbers may indicate a carelessness of the call to be agents of gospel transformation. Jesus did call people to a conversion event of following him, and the book of Acts records numbers to demonstrate the impact of the Holy Spirit upon those who heard (e.g. 2:41). Numbers quoted can reflect a concern that people are becoming true followers of Christ, rather than from a desire for false security and power and so should not be totally dismissed as an indication that God is bringing people to salvation.
(updated Feb 2009)
- Amaldoss, M., 1994. Mission as Prophesy, in New directions in missions and evangelization 2.
- Theological foundations, edited by J.A. Scherer & S.B. Bevans, Mayknoll: Orbis, 64-72.
- Glasser, A.F. & McGavran, D.A. 1983. Contemporary Theologies of Mission. Grand Rapids: Baker.