How do we measure the effectiveness of the missional church? Part 1

Read time: 9 minutes

I work with an international mission organisation called Communitas. We have a small presence in the UK, and if anyone wants to know more about us, please get in touch. This is the personal background for the question that I want to address in a couple of posts: how do we measure the effectiveness of what we do?

There are some obvious metrics for what is basically a “church-planting” organisation. How many “churches” are we planting? How many people are joining those churches? How many of those people are actually new to the faith?

In the Western context, however, it feels as though that sort of impact assessment is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

We may like to give the impression that we’re paddling hard against the current of the swollen river of history and making reportable progress, but by any honest assessment the river is carrying us downstream at a much faster rate. We’re being swept into the same future as everyone else, only backwards (we’re not looking where we are going) and more slowly.

So we may begin to wonder whether it’s less about quantity and more about quality, less about growth and more about influence, less about evangelisation and more about symbolic presence. But how do we justify that shift biblically or theologically? How do we measure its impact?

I’m not a missiologist so I’ll do my usual thing and start with the New Testament and see where that leads us. The basic thesis is that “mission” begins not with anthropology (humans are sinful, alienated from God) but with history (Israel is in crisis, alienated from God). Therefore, the effectiveness of mission must be measured in historical terms.

Mission in the New Testament

So we start with the question of what the “mission” of the early church was. Or more accurately, what the missions of the early church were. There was a mission to Israel about Israel, and there was a mission to the nations about the nations. These two enterprises had very different outcomes in view—one aimed at reform, the other at annexation. But the methodology in each case was more or less the same.

This is already a rather unconventional way of approaching the subject. The task was not to save people from their sins, or start churches, or care for the poor, or campaign for social justice. The task was to make known what the God of Israel (we have to keep this nationalistic aspect in mind) was doing to transform the political-religious landscape of the ancient world. Everything else was a corollary to that.

It is unbiblical to say that the mission of the church is to save souls or build churches as though history doesn’t matter. Scripture, before anything else, is a record of the dynamic, disruptive and transformative presence of the God of history.

So there were two parts to the mission of the disciples and churches in the New Testament: 1) the prophetic conviction regarding the intervention of God in history to reform his people and establish his own rule over the nations, which was the coming of the kingdom of God; and 2) the work of announcing—first to Israel, then to the nations of the Greek-Roman world—that this “eschatological” process was underway and would reach its climax in a foreseeable future, which was the good news.

Simply put, there were visions of what the God of Israel would do in the future, and there was the proclamation of those visions.

That “this eschatological process was underway” perhaps needs explaining. The popular “now and not yet” account of New Testament eschatology highlights a proper tension but misses the point. The early churches believed that their world was soon going to change dramatically—the form of their world was passing away; and they believed this because Jesus had been raised from the dead and had poured out the gift of the Spirit on his followers (Acts 2:32-36).

So on the one hand, it was the spurned Son of Man, the stone rejected by the builders (Mk. 12:10-11), whom the leadership of Israel would see enthroned at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven on the day of God’s wrath against his people (Mk. 14:62).

On the other, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the evidence that God had fixed a day when he would judge the Greek-Roman world in righteousness, bringing its long political-religious hegemony to an end (Acts 17:30-31). The Jew first, but then the Greek (Rom. 2:9).

These new futures were guaranteed by the agency of the Son who became a servant to the circumcised (Rom. 15:8-12), and in this respect at least, Jesus was the means to the political-religious end. In fact, the narrative gives us what we might call the “trinitarian” basis for the whole eschatological process.

  1. God the Father was doing this in order that his name might be “hallowed” among the nations and his rule established on earth as in heaven (cf. Matt. 6:9-10).
  2. He would bring about the new future through, and for the sake of, the descendants of Abraham, but not because of Torah observance. It would happen because people—Jews and non-Jews alike—believed that God had raised his Son from the dead and had seated him at his right hand to judge and rule in the midst of his enemies.
  3. What enabled the eschatological “mission” of this renewed servant people was the Spirit of prophecy and of a new covenant given to them.

The measure of missional success in the New Testament

If, then, the narrative of mission was the proclamation of a new future, first to Israel, then to the nations, from Jerusalem to the ends of the Greek-Roman world, the effectiveness of that mission had to be measured in both space and time.

On the one hand, geographical reach was more important than the numbers of Jews and Gentiles “converted” to the eschatological vision along the way. Numbers didn’t matter that much because eventually every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the God of Israel.

The disciples were sent to proclaim to all nations the good news of what YHWH was doing to reform his people. For the twelve to achieve this goal they would have to make more disciples from among the nations, who would help to spread the message (Matt. 28:19-20).

Paul, no doubt, would have liked to see large numbers of people become part of the movement of eschatological transformation, but his priority as an apostle was to ensure that the whole Roman Empire, as a political entity, from east to west, from the bottom to the top, got to hear about the impending take-over of the region by the God of remote Israel (Rom. 15:14-29).

On the other hand, the churches were required faithfully to proclaim and live out the message until the end of the age, until the dawning of the new political-religious order. When that day came, the job was done.

The mission to Israel would terminate with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome, and the vindication of the Son of Man for having called Israel to repent and rebuild on the rock of his vision for a new future. If his disciples had faithfully carried out the task entrusted to them, they would hear the words: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:23). They would inherit the age that would succeed the age of second temple Judaism.

The mission to the nations would be completed when Jesus was officially confessed as Lord across the Empire and the churches were publicly vindicated—shown to have been in the right—for their adherence, sometimes in the face of intense opposition, to the gospel of the coming reign of YHWH and his anointed king, which we call Christendom. They would stand before the judgment seat of God (Rom. 14:10-11) and would be rewarded for their faithfulness—or not, as the case may have been.

Only then could the church really claim that the mission had been a success. But as we know, there is also a realised part to New Testament eschatology.

The realised part…

Over the intervening decades—indeed, centuries—there were countless incidental markers of the effectiveness of these undertakings. People came to faith, demons were cast out, the sick were healed, lives were transformed, Jews and Gentiles worshipped the one God together on the same terms, enemies were reconciled, powerful figures were won over, difficult moral decisions were taken, martyrdom was bravely faced, plague victims were cared for, and so on.

But these things were not the mission. They were secondary effects, by-products, spin-offs, foreshadowings of the large-scale political-religious realignments to come—straws in the powerful theocratic wind that was sweeping through the ancient world. First and foremost, it was about the glory and sovereignty of the living God.

So when it comes to determining the effectiveness of the missions of the churches, there are three questions to ask. First, did they communicate the message about the future intervention of God to the full geographical extent of the commission? Secondly, did they persevere in this task until the end, through to the moment when God did in history what he said he was going to do? Thirdly, were there signs along the way that the apostles and the churches were on the right track—that they were on the right side of the God of history?

There we have, in outline, an eschatological model of mission in the New Testament; and if anything deserves to be called missio Dei, biblically speaking, it is this: reform Israel, annex the Roman Empire. We also have a fairly clear set of provisional and final criteria by which it could judged successful or not. But is this model usable in the modern context?

Which way is the wind blowing?

The church in the West is going through a perfect storm of crises at the moment: the steady decline of Christendom, the rise of a confident and assertive secularism, the purging of the malign legacies of colonialism, the decay of the capitalist paradigm, the shift in global power from the West to the East, the impotence of churches during coronavirus lockdowns, and the looming and deeply ominous prospect of ecological catastrophe in the lifetime of our children.

If we are going to think biblically about what we are doing and why, we cannot separate our missional programmes from these narratives. It is unbiblical to say that the mission of the church is to save souls or build churches as though history doesn’t matter. Scripture, before anything else, is a record of the dynamic, disruptive and transformative presence of the God of history.

So just as there was a powerful divine wind blowing through the political-religious convulsions of the first Christian centuries, to which the early churches bore painful witness, there is, I venture to suggest, a powerful divine wind blowing through the global—indeed, planetary—convulsions that are marking the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene.

What that tells us about the mission of the church and how its impact might be measured will be considered in part 2.

I like what you sketch here and look forward to part 2. When you state that the wind is blowing in terms of “the rise of a confident and assertive secularism,” I would include within this that it works with pluralism, challenging the hegemony of past Christendom privilege in the public square (particularly in America), so that those minority religions and areligions now seek a voice and expression. We need to understand that secularism is not to be confused with atheism as a challenge for the church’s missional agenda.   

@John Morehead:

Agreed. But the public square is firmly in the hands of institutions that operate entirely on secular or rational or materialist principles—government, education, scientific bodies, the market place, the media.

The conflict between the secular French state and Muslims over the freedom to lampoon religion illustrates the point. Macron was reported today as saying, “We believe in the Enlightenment and in women having the same rights as men. People who think otherwise, let them do it somewhere else, not on French soil.” Because of its history, France feels more strongly than any other Western country that the fundamental principles of the enlightenment must be defended, and acts as though it is fully justified, intellectually and morally, in asserting its control over the cultural arena.

Secularism is mostly permissive and tolerant, but it will not let go of the reins.

Takashi KOJIMA | Wed, 11/04/2020 - 12:59 | Permalink

Your “unconventional way of approaching the subject” of missions is interesting. It sheds light on the hitorical “outreach” esp. of Paul’s missonary effort to the entire Roman empire.

I have a question regarding “anthropology” side of missions, or more accurately “ecclesiology” side. It seems the church is a means for the missionary outreach but doesn’t it have a telos of its own?

You say, the church’s mission is eschatological and it would “reach its climax in a foreseeable future, which was the good news.”

But I say the good news has its climactic point also in Jesus’ announcing the the release from the continued exile (Wrightian), freedom from the curse of the Law, enabling the promised new covenant in forming the renewed people of God in Jesus Christ, which is the good news (Pauline).

Is it perhaps a difference of accent?

@Takashi KOJIMA:

Thanks for this.

I take it that the overarching telos of the church is faithfully to worship and serve the living God as his own priestly, new creation people in the midst of alienated peoples and cultures, throughout history.

At certain moments in history, however, the priestly people of God faces a crisis. In the first century the crisis was the war against Rome and the end of Israel’s presence in the land, centred on a real temple and priestly caste. No doubt return from exile motifs come into play in the telling of this story, but it’s not a return from exile that happens. I think Wright overstates that argument. What happens is another Babylonian invasion, which is interpreted as a consequence of Israel’s sins, both directly (in terms of rebellion) and covenantally as punishment for Israel’s long history of disobedience (cf. Matt. 23:29-36).

So the Law, paradoxically, brought everything to a dreadful end, but Jesus’ death outside of the Law served as a propitiation of YHWH’s wrath (Rom. 3:21-25), at least to the extent that a remnant was saved to go and proclaim among the nations YHWH’s faithfulness to his promises (cf. Is. 66:19).

So through this tragedy God’s priestly people were judged, re-formed, and restored, but that was not the mission of the disciples. Their mission, I think, was simply to proclaim what YHWH was doing and what the outcomes would be, first to Israel, then to the nations.

This might have resulted only in a renewed Israel, living according to the Spirit rather than the Law, or something along those lines. But because Gentiles began to believe that God really had raised his Son from the dead and made him Lord, the eschatological vision—and with it the mission—was expanded to include the eventual rule of Christ not over Israel only but also over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.

Then finally I would say that since the church faces another existential crisis today, our eschatology is somewhat like New Testament eschatology—and with that perhaps also our mission. The point is that the emphasis ought to be on what God is doing, not on what the church is doing.

@Andrew Perriman:

Thanks for reply.

I guess what I’m getting at by my first comment was how we, interpreters of the biblical narrative, position ourselves.

I’m basically getting inside the NT writers’ point of view. They identify themselves, in various ways, at the climactic point in the (thus far unfulfilled) whole scriptural narrative. They saw themselves as the culminating receivers of the ancestral promises, esp. given to Abraham.

The story, however, is not over. Because they have been “redeemed from the curse of the Law,” which had obstructed their carrying out the mission to be the light to the nations due to their own sin problem, they are now in the position to take up anew the mission with the indwelling Spirit.

Our difference, if I may describe in this way, is that you interpret the overarching narrative without the NT writers’ distinctive contribution to the narrative. I guess, if you view the history of the entire people of God as basically continuous, disregarding the Old and the New Testaments, their misssion itself has been unchanging and their successes or effectiveness have mixed results (or more or less a series of failures).

That’s more or less my impression. I may be missing some of your points more pertinent to the “effectiveness” of the church’s mission to the ongoing global ecological crisis.

I’d like to look forward to the second part.   

@Takashi KOJIMA:

Our difference, if I may describe in this way, is that you interpret the overarching narrative without the NT writers’ distinctive contribution to the narrative. I guess, if you view the history of the entire people of God as basically continuous, disregarding the Old and the New Testaments, their mission itself has been unchanging and their successes or effectiveness have mixed results (or more or less a series of failures).

I’m a bit surprised you say that. It seems to me that we can talk about a basic continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament without losing sight of the “distinctive contribution” of the New Testament writers.

A people is called in Abraham to be a new creation in microcosm and to serve the living God as a priesthood. A priesthood is required to meet high standards of righteousness and justice, so some time after Abraham Israel was given the Law. The Law, however, could not change the hearts of God’s people, and in the end could only condemn them to the final destruction of AD 70. Jesus saved his people from complete annihilation, opening up a narrow path of suffering that would lead to life in the age after second temple Judaism.

That constituted a dramatic change in the constitution of God’s priestly new creation people, but it didn’t change the basic function. It was not what they did but how they did it that had changed—no scattered among the nations, proclaiming the crucified Jesus as their risen Lord, and instructed by the Spirit rather than by Torah.

There was also significant “political” consequence of the transformation that is described in the New Testament. The nations of the Greek-Roman world are converted from paganism to worship of the living God. But even this development is subject to historical change—Christendom came and went. It is the priestly task of service to the living God continues that is constant, and now we have to work it out under new and unforeseen circumstances.

@Phil L.:

Right, so we now have a LIKE button. I’m not sure it’s going to be much use, and it may not survive long, but we’ll give it a go. I’m glad you liked the post, anyway.

@Andrew Perriman:

Tremendous!  Well, I’ll use it.  There are plenty of times when I’ve wanted to affirm what you wrote but felt a little silly leaving a comment that amounts to basically, “Great stuff!”

Samuel Conner | Thu, 11/05/2020 - 14:56 | Permalink

Thank you, Andrew. This is, as always, very helpful.

I wonder whether it might be valid to look outside the NT canon for precedents for or analogies to the present situation of the churches. For me, in my (US) context, the situation has the “feel” of “Old Israel in exile”. We aren’t a “New Testament” church as much as in an “intertestamental” situation, with tangible evidences of God’s favor substantially withdrawn or concealed.

In local context, there is also a bit of the “feel”, at least in terms of things that get a lot of public notice, of “bad shepherds feeding on the flock”. So perhaps we’re pre-exilic, but just barely. 

In such a situation, perhaps the “mission” of the “people of God” is a bit simpler, to simply “hang on” or “preserve itself without excessive compromise”. 

I see a resemblance between my concerns and TK’s above. Perhaps the “leaven” analogy could be milked for additional mileage (forgive the mangled metaphors); in unfavorable environmental circumstances, yeasts can form inert spores that can persist for long periods, later reviving and proliferating when conditions are more favorable.  

@Samuel Conner:

I have mixed feelings about the exile metaphor. It carries connotations of punishment and disgrace, but in biblical terms there is always the hope of return to the land. I don’t really have that conviction.

I agree that the “mission” of the church for the foreseeable future may just be to hang on in there, with gritted teeth, etc. But it would still be nice to know what we are preserving ourselves for. It’s a bit like keeping staff on furlough during lockdown. Will we still have a job to do when it’s all back to the “new normal”?

I’m not myself at all pessimistic, but realities need to be faced.

Good and helpful post, Andrew. I have my usual reservations about what your account seems to imply about God’s character and agency, but I found myself basically in agreement with the post.

Well, until this: “annex the Roman Empire”! Even though I know this is part of your biblical theology it still startled me when it appeared near the end of the post. As I wondered why I was so startled, I had the sense that I couldn’t connect this with anything that preceded it—that this claim of missional annexation didn’t follow from what you said.

Given the rather literal way in which you use “political” (I agree), I find talk of annexation either metaphorical (its not like typical political annexations) and thus a departure from your narrative-political-religious hermeneutic, or it is literal in a way that seems a bit problematic, from a practical point of view (what might that even look like, if the church were to seek to echo it today?).

@Tim Peebles:

Hi Tim,

I’m not trying to speak for Andrew, but I thought your questions were really interesting, so I wanted to offer my own take.  I hope that’s ok.  Feel free to scroll past!

As to your first question about annexation flowing from the article, parts of the article have a dependency on more thorough arguments made elsewhere.  I can’t think of a specific article off the top of my head that focuses on this topic, but Andrew has argued that part of the eschatological hope of the apostles is that God would become God of “the nations” and His people would rule over them.  This is not in a spiritualized sense, but in a quite concrete sense.

From a historical perspective, we might identify this as the pagan power structure of Rome being overtaken by a Christian one (Constantine, etc.) which becomes for all practical purposes the state religion and the dominant political power in Rome.  Obviously, we could debate whether that was the case or not.

As to your second question, I’d say we don’t have to echo it any more than we have to echo the conquest of Canaan or the Crucifixion or the siege of Jerusalem.  These are historical events the people of God had to move through.  I think it’s appropriate for us to discuss how our knowledge of those events is relevant for us navigating our own situations, but I don’t think we have a mandate to recreate them.

Part of Jesus’ mission, for example, was to save faithful Israel from the destruction of Jerusalem.  We don’t have that mission, but those events and the commentary on those events may help us understand our own situation.

@Tim Peebles:

I don’t have much to add to Phil’s astute response.

I wonder if the phrase “missional annexation” is the problem? At least the way I presented the argument, the mission and the annexation are two different things. The church believed that the God of Israel would “annex” the pagan empire—that is, extend his rule on earth over the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. In this regard, “annexation” is neither more nor less metaphorical than “kingdom.” The mission of the apostles was not to make this happen but to proclaim that it would happen. Certainly, this is problematic from our post-Christendom point of view, but I think Jewish believers in the resurrected Davidic messiah saw things differently. What differentiated Jesus from Caesar was not the scope of his authority but how he attained it and how he exercised it.