Editor’s Note: This article is an ABWE Executive Director’s counter-perspective on the ideas developed in this earlier post.
Explosive growth. Catalyzing change. Transformative leadership. Short-cycle missions. Viral movements. Rapid multiplication.
In one sense, we might regard these phrases as buzz words that don’t reflect what God is doing in many areas of the world. As North Americans we are drawn to anything that promises immediate results, and this is a tendency against which we must diligently guard.
Yet we must also acknowledge that it could be just like God to do “far more abundantly than we can ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20).
When we dismiss these terms and the movements represented by them, we must be careful to not throw stones too quickly at things we might not understand. Oftentimes, we are so ingrained in our own context and culture that we think God couldn’t use his Word in ways that differ from our tried and true (and, sometimes, culturally-bound) methods. The West, after all, is not the only culture that understands the Bible and the methods prescribed in Scripture.
God has been working with finite tools—us mere men—and involving us in his work for millennia. When we hear reports of explosive kingdom growth in the Muslim world and other restricted contexts, growth which could be characterized as nothing short of miraculous, we must recognize that this phenomenon is not limited to the last few years but defines the whole current generation.
What are the methodologies often linked to miraculous growth?
One of the major methods being used are discovery Bible studies—groups that require participants to understand the biblical text and answer questions that cut to the heart. Participants are required to take that biblical text and share it in the course of the week until the group’s next meeting. Then, they return and report on their week and receive more biblical teaching. Being required to both share and apply what they have learned instills the value of immediate obedience to Scripture and the beginnings of discipleship.
Another major method called “Any Three” encourages believers to engage every person one meets in the course of the day with chronological Bible stories and a meaningful gospel presentation in every encounter. Follow up includes more Bible stories and lessons designed to deepen the listeners’ understanding of redemption.
What these methods share in common is that they focus on engaging the lost with the word of God and helping them to personally understand it. In some of the places these methods have been used, young churches are seeing new churches planted even beyond the fourth generation in a matter of years. Prayer, Scripture, and discipleship are at the heart of these budding fellowships.
Whatever we believe about the risks of certain movements, these practices of prayer, Bible study, and discipleship should not be dismissed out-of-hand as merely the “world’s toolkits.” To the degree that any movement is concerned with the understanding and spread of God’s word, they should be commended.
Where are these methods being used?
When we debate missiological practices, we often forget that these explosive-growth movements are happening in the hardest to reach areas of the world—Islamic contexts, restricted-access countries—places where Western missionaries aren’t welcome.
Scripture and history both loudly affirm that God prefers to work through ordinary human messengers. Yet even in the shortage of field personnel, God is not bound. More than 400 of these movements of churches planting churches are happening in Muslim contexts. Varying statistics reveal the overall trend that more Muslims have professed Christ in the last 40 years than in the previous 1,400 years of Islamic history combined. While only 3 percent of the world’s missionaries are working in these areas, God is making the most of the few.
Chaff, Trees, and Fruit
We must guard against the temptation to see ourselves as somehow responsible to spark “movements,” as though using certain tools could guarantee results that are ultimately only in the hands of the Spirit of God. To fail to grasp this is to use these tools in the wrong way. Producing “movements” should not be our aim; the results are up to God, and he may choose to give 30, 60 or a hundredfold in his building of his church (cf. Matthew 13:8).
In Scripture, we might draw a comparison between grass which withers and trees in the courts of God—and of the two, it is grass, not trees, that are marked by rapid growth. It is important to remember that the most enduring growth in the kingdom of God is that which comes about in its own time, not necessarily overnight.
But Jesus did talk about a different type of tree in one of his parables (see Matthew 13:31-32). The tiniest of seeds can become larger than any garden plant and “becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” Importantly, it bears useful fruit and bears it quickly. This fruit effectively multiplies the tree. So we should not be surprised if God similarly decides to bless his church with multiplication.
An Unnecessary Debate?
We are often tempted to take sides on issues of theology and mission, as though a true polarity existed, when instead Scripture often calls us to live discerningly in the tension when brothers differ.
Let’s leave room for the fact that some miraculous movements we see across the globe are genuine works of God. No matter how quickly or how slowly Christ calls together his bride, the church and all of its local manifestations, our primary posture should be one of rejoicing and cooperation alongside our brothers and sisters in these hard-to-reach spots.
We must follow the biblical mandate to sow the gospel both broadly and boldly, both studying and proclaiming God’s Word, and spurring new disciples on towards immediate obedience. Perhaps in this regard, our brothers and sisters in largely unreached contexts have something they can teach the North American church.
Without sacrificing theological training, the biblical marks of a true church, and the mandate to preach the gospel authoritatively, we must also be willing to simply stand in awe of what God is doing around the world, using the simple reading and applying of Scripture to catalyze the growth of his bride.
“He turns a desert into pools of water, a parched land into springs of water. And there… he lets the hungry dwell, and they establish a city to live in; they sow fields and plant vineyards and get a fruitful yield” (Psalm 107:35-37 ESV).