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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.