Friday, March 20, 2020

A Missiology of Social Distancing: Ministry Innovation in the Midst of Biosecurity Events

The extent to which biosecurity events like this current COVID-19 pandemic affect the world, including mission, are yet to be determined. But big changes to ministry are (probably) coming and things may never be the same again. It may leave a lasting impact on various contexts for generations to come.

We need to think through how “social distancing” will affect communities and peoples- if this Coronavirus continues off and on for 18 months, there may be a psychological crisis worldwide as well. Suicide, depression, pornography, substance abuse, etc. are likely to rise.

If infection curves do not flatten, and health care systems are stretched beyond capacity, then the Church could step up and serve (indeed many are already), but it will require personal sacrifice. Some could even die.

One relevant case study is a West African movement that was featured in Miraculous Movements. When the Ebola epidemic began in 2014, they were planting 2,000 churches per year. It decreased to 200 per year during the 18 month crisis.

But the movement met needs that the government was unable to- church planters volunteered to serve in remote areas. The radio station that was being used for evangelism and preaching began an awareness campaign to counteract the rumors that Ebola was just a CIA conspiracy. Several volunteers died after traveling to villages to teach those who had no awareness of how their burial customs were spreading the virus.

These volunteers built such goodwill with those communities that many churches were planted after the epidemic ended in 2016, and the movement continued. We could draw similar examples from the early church’s growth during the plagues in the Roman Empire.

Such a loving response requires a robust theology of suffering. We will need to learn to pray. The marginalized and the invisible in our communities will be the most vulnerable.

During social distancing, we need to examine how the use of various internet technologies will affect the "diffusion of innovations" in communities, especially as it pertains to the gospel. What will happen to large, attractional, program-driven churches? Will ecclesiology become deinstitutionalized, and could this enable discipleship movements? 

Or will oikos (social-familial) structures become less communal, and could this constrain discipleship movements? Will individualism increase?

When charitable giving dries up with the collapse of economies, what will happen with our current model of support-raising missionaries? What about churches and seminaries in the Majority World who depend on wealthy churches in the West?

Will there be more resistance to mobilizing ministers to serve in places that lack an indigenous church, often countries with weak health care systems? Will xenophobia, racism, and even theological tribalism increase? But could this simultaneously increase the number of people who care about peace-building and ecumenism?

I wonder if there should be space for biosecurity events built into many areas of missiology, whether it is research, worship and music, preaching, peace-building, teaching, strategy, training, leadership development, theological education, etc.

We are only just beginning to think through what prolonged and sporadic cycles of social distancing will mean for mission. But we have hope, and there are many opportunities ahead. For faithful followers of Christ in uncertain times, apostolic innovation is required.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Hills and Hiding? A Response to Travis Myers | Kevin Higgins

Below is a guest post from Kevin Higgins (President of William Carey International University) written May 1, 2019 but not previously published. It is a response to an article published at Desiring God on April 23, 2019: A City Under a Hill: Five Problems with Insider Movements. Feel free to comment below.

Hills and Hiding? A Response to Travis Myers

Kevin Higgins | May 1, 2019

I recently received the link to the article, “City Under a Hill: 5 Problems with Insider Movements” by Travis Myers (Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary).

I will primarily use the outline of the five points he raises, however I begin from one of his major subtitles near the beginning of his paper: “When the Gospel hides”.

By highlighting this comment and framing it as a major section of his paper he tips his hand to an assumption he is making about insider movements: they are secretive and hiding the Gospel. This is of course hinted at in his title as well (city under a hill).

While I welcome questions about insider movements and feel the discussions are a healthy process, I find responding to this idea that insider brothers and sisters are hiding their faith is just covering old territory in the long discussions about IM. The claim that insider movements are secretive or silent or don’t share their faith is a claim as old as the discussion itself (back to at least 2004). This has been frequently rebutted, and the number of Muslim followers of Jesus who face persecution and death because of their faith is also witness to the erroneous nature of this straw man argument.

Does every “insider” believer stand boldly? Certainly not. Does every Christian living in Muslim countries do so? Does every Christian in the USA? Of course not.

The real question then is what do godly leaders in such contexts teach and encourage their people to do? In the case of insider movements, the expectation is that disciples of Jesus make other disciples of Jesus. They share their faith and they bear witness.

They do not hide the Gospel.

Now to Myers’ five points. I use his terms, and each of the five is followed by a direct quotation from Myers’ article.

1) Hermeneutics

“IM is predicated on the misguided idea that faith in Jesus as Lord of one’s life can “complete” and be the apex of any religious tradition or religious identity.

Two responses. First, IM is not predicated on this point. Not every IM proponent even holds this position, and in fact, if fulfillment thinking is not true it would not change anything. IM practice or approaches or principles are not dependent on this theme. IM is predicated on many other biblical principles and passages. The literature is full on this point.

Second, in my own thinking the only mentions I have made of “fulfillment” thinking were extremely guarded and tentative and quite clearly distinguished from what we mean when we refer to Old Testament fulfillment. I was raising the point merely to explain how I understood things, because it was already being asked.

My contention is that Jesus does fulfill a number of dimensions of anyone’s cultural and religious backgrounds when a person comes to faith (and personal longings and hopes as well). It is frequently the case that in Jesus people can and do see a number of beautiful aspects of their heritage, including their religious heritage, which now seem to find a new fullness and beauty in Jesus.

Myers’ argument which assumes IM bases itself in fulfillment thinking is a generalization and inaccurate.

2) Integrity and Identity

“Core Islamic doctrine explicitly denies biblical doctrines that are central, and essential, to Christian faith.”

This is true. Core Islamic doctrine does deny biblical doctrines that are essential. No argument on this point has ever been put forward by any insider advocate I know of.

Muslims who follow Jesus (not all, but a number whom I know) do argue that on the basis of the Qur’an and the Bible a number of core Islamic teachings are incorrect and they seek to reform those understandings, including Islamic teaching about Jesus, the Bible, salvation, and more.

This is not at all the same thing as suggesting that Islam does not teach incorrect things. In fact, it assumes the opposite.

3) Discipleship

“The IM approach stunts Christian discipleship and spiritual growth.”

I am guessing, perhaps wrongly, that Myers has not met insiders personally or directly. His conclusions certainly seem to indicate this. The question here really is what are IM movements doing about these issues? How do they disciple believers?

The movements I have known and been involved with are all rooted in ongoing inductive study of whole books of the Bible in community. Also, increasingly, I see leaders focused on reflection on the doctrinal history and themes Christ’s people have wrestled with historically, as these leaders in turn wrestle with issues in their contexts.

This does not mean that every answer Christ’s people have arrived at in other epochs and contexts is simply swallowed whole into such movements. I would argue we don’t do so in the west either, and would add that I don’t think we should do so.

4) Ecclesiology

“One’s identification with Christ should entail identification with all of Christ’s people in the world today and throughout time. That is more fundamental, ultimate, and significant than ethnic, cultural, linguistic, family, or local identity.”

I hear this sort of claim from time to time from critics of IM. I can sympathize with its intentions and heart. However, several things need to be said.

First, what is meant by identification with “all Christ’s people in the world today and throughout time”? How is this even possible? How many Christians identify in this way? We have Christian denominations who do not see others as Christian, will not have communion together, do not recognize one another’s ordinations, and more. We don’t even share (fully) common creeds, confessions or canon of scripture. So, to ask insider believers to hold to a standard that the Christian church has not attained seems hypocritical. I am not suggesting Myers is hypocritical as a person, but that this standard is.

Second, even when we do pursue unity and identification as Christians with others, this happens very much on a small and personal and local scale: through relationships. And this also happens between insider believers and those who we would call Christians. I have seen it and facilitated it. There is no sense among the leaders of IM’s which I know that Christians are not also brothers and sisters in Christ. They welcome thinking of all believers in Jesus as members of the Body.

Finally, I know believers who are “insiders” who also pray regular for Christians. They do so as brothers and sisters.

5) Soils and Strategy

“Though admittedly difficult in many contexts, religious identity and ethno-cultural identity can and should indeed be differentiated. The former must be given up for Jesus and the church. We should reject the conflation of social and religious identity.”

I want to point out where I agree and disagree with Myers here.

First, where I disagree. I understand Myers’ point here but it is, from many points of view, simplistic and impossible to separate religion and culture. We think we can, in the west. And maybe in a western context this may be partly the case, with our assumptions about secular and religious life, and physical and spiritual dichotomies, and assumptions that religions are easily distinguished and identified.

But in most contexts, this simply is not as easy as Myers suggests. In a Muslim context where something as normal to daily life as brushing one’s teeth and using the toilet are guided by religious teaching, what would be culture or religion? Should one brush one’s teeth differently just to show one is not keeping one’s religion? If one continues to brush teeth as they have since childhood, is that keeping their religion or their culture? These are purposely “easy” sorts of examples, in order to show that it isn’t easy.

In the simple examples above most readers will likely be thinking, “well brushing teeth doesn’t matter so even if it is guided by religion, no problem.” This already suggests we are comfortable making distinctions about what is ok and not ok to keep, even from one’s religious heritage.

Where do I agree with Myers?

The fact is that obedient discipleship will require changes. It will require replies of yes and no to all sorts of things, cultural, religious, emotional, personal, relational, attitudinal, philosophical, etc.

Thus, for me, the point is not whether one can keep culture but must jettison religion, or even whether that is a distinction we can make. The point is how do needed changes happen, how are they identified, who makes such decisions, and how do they decide, and for what reasons and motivations?

This is why we have taken great care in the movements I have been involved with to cultivate processes for handling such questions (for example, the questions of should we continue to do this or stop doing that). We have never given a blanket “yes, just keep doing everything”. Neither have we given a blanket no, on the other hand.

What we have done is asked, “what does scripture say on this issue? How do we obey? What does being faithful mean? How do we decide which aspect of our heritage is ‘ok’ and ‘not ok’?”


I have no expectation of being able to persuade every critic of the viability of the biblical faithfulness of IM as movements. And my aim here is not in fact to persuade. But I do hope to explain and, where possible, correct misperceptions and assumptions which result in misrepresentations. I do not for a moment suggest Myers intends to misrepresent anything about IM. But the five points do result in that at the end of the day.

To return to the title of Myers’ article, the IM examples I know of are not “cities under a hill.” They are seeking to both receive and share Christ’s light with all those around them, hoping that Jesus and His Gospel will be impossible to be hide.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

No DMMs in the USA


NATIONAL STUDY ON DISCIPLE MAKING IN USA CHURCHES: High Aspirations Amidst Disappointing Results



The following key points are a summary of the results from this study:

1. Fewer than 5% of churches in the US have a reproducing disciple-making culture – we champion and celebrate these churches. They are a model for other churches. But, at the same time, in light of the truth that disciple making is the core mission of the church, the study found a disappointingly low percentage of churches with a culture of and strategy for reproducing disciples and disciple makers (Level 4 and 5 churches).

2. An absence of churches reflecting viral-like disciple making movements (L5 churches) – we did not find clear examples of disciple making movements (DMM) in the US. Stated differently, we did not find in the established churches that were interviewed disciple making movement churches. These churches may exist in the USA, but they are not reflected in the data uncovered. Such churches are common in various other parts of the world. We delineate them from level 4 churches (reproducing disciples) by the level 5 viral-like features – these churches reflect a special movement of the Holy Spirit as they rapidly multiply disciples and disciple makers. We look forward to finding them in the USA.

3. Lack of commonly understood definitions – there is not a clear, compelling and commonly understood set of basic definitions for terms such as discipleship, disciple, and disciple making. This makes it very difficult to assess effectiveness within local churches and within the broader church community (consistent definitions do not prevail in Protestant churches in the USA).

4. Overestimating Impact – pastors are overly optimistic in their assessment of the disciple-making cultures present in their churches, and frequently overrating their effectiveness in discipleship and disciple making.

From page 13: “The USA lacks clearly defined examples of viral-like disciple-making movements (DMM). There are some 1,000 disciple-making movements around the world that match the following character traits. They are unique movements, reflecting a revival-like culture like that found in the early chapters of the book of Acts…"

Download the whole thing.