A Task Too Big for Loners (Pt. 1)

In this series, Justin Long equips you with ideas for building apostolic networks—what some may call pioneer missionary startups, or swarms. This will be your “band of believers” who will make a difference in the world.


As of 2014, 7.2 billion people lived on our planet. While 2.2 billion claim to be Christians, 4.8 billion say they are definitely not—they are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. Of those, missionary researchers estimated 2.1 billion were “unevangelized.” This means they had no knowledge of Christ, Christianity or the Gospel (International Bulletin of Missionary Research, January 2014:29).

This task is so big it requires the whole church—not just one part of it.

Tweet this: This task is so big it requires the whole church—not just one part of it. @justindlong @vergenations

I have estimated we need 1 missionary team (of 2 to 3 people) for every 100,000 non-Christians. This means, based on population, we need about 48,000 teams—or about 120,000 new workers—right now. Tomorrow we will need more: because every day the non-Christian world grows by about 60,000 people (births-deaths). Every week, we need three more teams than we did the week before, just due to population growth. By 2025, we will likely need 53,000 teams—about 150,000 workers—with about half focused on the unevangelized.

No single agency can take on the task of deploying 150,000 workers.

Consider Amazon or Microsoft, both of which employ over 100,000 people. To do this, they spend money on infrastructure: to recruit and hire people and their managers, organize them for work, and provide their tools. These costs of “doing business” are paid for out of revenues, and ventures lacking them can’t pay their costs and are quickly terminated. This obviously works less well in the mission world, where tasks like Bible translation, humanitarian relief, and large-scale evangelization don’t generate an income.

Now, consider two of the largest mission “employers”—the Southern Baptist International Mission Board (IMB) and Youth With A Mission (YWAM). The IMB is big, centralized, and sends 5,000 workers, for which it raises $150 million from its denomination’s churches annually. YWAM is large, decentralized “society” with about 20,000 workers, all of which raise their own funds through their own channels (no centralized funding mechanism). Both have had notable funding and expansion challenges, particularly related to the ability to raise funds. With nearly every agency facing similar issues, how can we even consider practically doubling the existing mission force?

Really, the closest parallel to Amazon or Microsoft is a denomination. Just stretch the imagination for a moment and think of churches as “local franchises” or “departments” of one large corporation—each church being a “profit center” that must pay its own bills—and you can see how 100,000 might be deployed. The problem in that model is this: to reach non-Christians, we need to start new churches in places where there are no believers, and this requires supporting the “startup costs” of the missionary venture during the years it takes to collect enough believers to sustain a local congregation.

No matter what strategy is used, two challenges must be met. The first: where are we going to find 150,000 who will go to the ends of the earth? The second: wherever we find them, there will be a cost to the finding, to the training, and to the sending until the local church can sustain itself. These two questions are significant—who goes, and how do they pay the bills. If we don’t solve this, millions will be born, live, and die in a Christless existence.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about how you’re actually reading this article. It’s on a website on the Internet, reached through a web browser. Though it is perhaps hard to remember, just 20 years ago websites and web browsers didn’t exist. Just ten years ago, social media sites like Twitter and Facebook did not exist. You may even be reading this on a smartphone—which, just 7 years ago, largely did not exist either. That you’re reading this at all, and especially that you’re reading it for free, is amazing. It’s possible only because over the past two decades, the explosive growth in communications technologies have shrunk the cost of communicating, networking and sharing information. Many of the costs of organizing people have since plummeted toward zero. As a result:

  • We can meet new people via email introduction.
  • We can talk to each other via voice-over-computer technologies like Skype or VSee.
  • We can manage projects conducted over a vast distance with tools like Producteev or Trello.
  • We can send digital files that are perfect reproductions: audio, video and print materials.
  • We can even have groups that meet together via videoconferencing.
  • Funds exchange (Paypal, Square), travel (Tripit), shipping, logistical coordination—all of these activities can be done very cheaply.

These activities used to cost a lot of money, so only big companies could do them. Technology is pushing the cost toward zero, which makes it possible for individuals and small groups to do far more for causes they are passionate about. Early adopters have used these tools to become famous writers, journalists, lobbyists, political activists, and teachers. The church and mission have seen these tools likewise used for special causes (raising funds mostly, but also for training missionaries and interacting with people from other cultures). Could these tools help us solve our problems in reaching the unreached? Could we, for example, mobilize “the whole world” to evangelize the lost—through the Internet?

Of course, a little bit of thinking shows us the Internet isn’t a silver bullet.

Tweet this: In reaching the unreached . . . the Internet isn’t a silver bullet. @justindlong @vergenations

It can “superempower” individuals, making it easy for them to communicate, broadcast, and self-promote. But with great power comes a great temptation to pride: do we really need to work with others?

And yes, the Web does make it easier to connect with people in distant places—nearly 2 billion people are on Facebook alone. But the siren of laziness asks if it’s really necessary to go abroad, and we have to remember all the people who aren’t on the Internet at all.

Laziness preys on us in other ways: the same tools that make it possible for us to build massive networks can also lead to a temptation to apathy. Many fall prey to hours spent in seedy sections of the Web. More fall prey simply to distraction: hours spent laughing at the antics of cats and the latest celebrity video.

And the web can be a force of despondency, swamping us in an information-river where bad events are hyped to gain our attention. In a world of 7,000 million people, one-in-a-million events happen every day, and are flashed up on the pages of Google News. This never-ending stream of terrible headlines can bring us to despair of any good being done.

Darker still, the power of the Web can be turned against workers, and used as a tool of surveillance. This can lead to fear, paranoia and paralysis. Although we might think the mission world is fully connected, in reality those working in the most sensitive places are least likely to be found easily online. It makes it difficult for the newly-inspired, just emerging fresh from a Perspectives course, to find a network to connect to. Because of the security issues, we face a conundrum: less sensitive places are more easily promoted, and draw more attention. Yet precisely because these places are less sensitive, they are often already heavily targeted for mission work, while the unreached are in places forgotten.

And even if we surmount all these challenges, just because it’s easy and cheaper to work together doesn’t mean we work together well. Technology is not a cure for the basic conditions of pride, greed, competition, and being easily provoked.

Maybe—it’s horrible to say it—but maybe it can’t be done.

Maybe there are places that we just can’t reach—not yet, not now. We don’t have the manpower to reach all the world. We don’t have the money to pay the manpower to reach all the world. We don’t even have the money and ability to pay the recruiters we need to find the manpower to reach all the world. And the church, left to its own devices, seems to be spending a lot more time laughing at cat videos and arguing with itself over the meaning of obscure Hebrew or Greek words than it is reaching out to the lost.

Maybe the world has sunk so far into sin, and the true church is so small, that all we can do is dig in as a remnant and wait for rescue. Or, maybe God intended the Great Commission as something we were to be doing, but knew it wasn’t something that would ever be done.

Or maybe it can.

Matthew 24:14 gives us a promise: this Gospel will be preached to all the nations, and then the end shall come. This promise has never been fulfilled, but still stands—not to say we can bring Jesus back, but to say that Jesus will come back, and before he does, the task will be finished. When we stand on the side of the completion of the Great Commission, we stand on the side of this promise.

Tweet this: Jesus will come back, and before he does, the task will be finished. @justindlong @vergenations

Steve Moore and MissioNexus have a line which I think very important: “The Great Commission is too big for anyone to accomplish alone and too important not to try to do together.” Just because we don’t work together well yet doesn’t mean we can’t work on it. Just because the task is big doesn’t mean we can’t make a start on it, and “do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.” (Zechariah 4:10)

Tweet this: Great Commission is too big to accomplish alone, too important not to try to do together. @missionexus @justindlong

Might we take what we have learned from existing mission structures, and what we know of new, technology-empowered, decentralized “swarmish” structures, and build something more effective?

We know that millions of people need to be reached, and modern technology makes it easier to reach thousands: we need evangelism and discipleship activities that can scale up to reach many more than a single congregation.

We know that one person can be easily distracted, can fall into despair, can be tempted from the mission, but three or more are not easily broken: we need community that binds us together and helps us endure.

We know that there is a lot of work to be done, but we can each take a small chunk of it, and technology will help us coordinate this: we need to learn to collaborate better together in every task.

We know that we don’t know precisely how the task is done: we need to learn how to encourage one another and endure in the task of experimenting, measuring and adapting.

We know that individually, and even as organizations, we don’t have the money to pay for all the infrastructure and resources needed: we need to get better at sharing freely and reducing costs to something more manageable.

We know that we don’t have enough workers: we need to get better at influencing other believers around us to take up the same banner and do simple evangelism and discipleship activities with those in their circle of influence.

Finally, we know that no matter what, we need a lot more missionaries for all those places we can’t reach yet: rather than despairing, we need to get better at multiplying ourselves by finding the workers of tomorrow in the souls harvested today.

I refuse to believe the task that has been given to us is impossible.

Tweet this: I refuse to believe the task that has been given to us is impossible. @justindlong @vergenations

John saw a vision of the end that has reverberated through time: every tribe and tongue before the throne (Revelation 7:9). I am convinced when we stand in the stream between Matthew 28 and Revelation 7, we stand firmly in the river of God.

This way is not easy. It cost Christ his life (Revelation 5:9), and it will cost the church in blood (Revelation 6:9). Yet we know we have been given great gifts, and the greater danger to our eternity is to bury those gifts in a hole in the ground.

Tweet this: This way cost Christ his life (Rev 5:9), and it will cost the church in blood (Rev 6:9). @justindlong @vergenations

You are God’s handiwork, created in Christ to do good works, which God prepared in advance for you to do (Ephesians 2:10). This is how you can get off the bench and into the game—and bring others with you.


Photo Credit: Riley Briggs [CC0] via unsplash.com