Are there shortcuts in missions?
The book, “No Shortcut to Success: a Manifesto for Modern Missions” by Matt Rhodes piqued my interest as soon as I saw the title. Over the past couple of decade, I have often reflected on the question of what success means for missionaries. A number of the posts on this blog present those reflections.
How does the author define success?
Despite my expectation, Matt Rhodes does not put much effort into defining success for missionaries in his book. While admitting that every missionary dreams of success (p. 53), the author is quick to question the validity of many so-called “success stories” in missions (p.47). He is adamant that success can not be measured by numbers alone.
Ultimately, “success” in ministry isn’t a matter of numbers but of ministering in a way that honors the Lord.Rhodes, Matt. No Shortcut to Success (9Marks) (p. 56). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
According to Rhodes, the goal of mission work is to establish mature, multiplying and enduring churches among the least reached.
I’m specifically concerned with the type of missions that sees its goal as establishing Christ-centered churches that are sufficiently mature to multiply and endure among peoples who have had little or no access to Jesus’s message.Matt Rhodes, pp. 42-43.
So presumably, the author defines “success” as accomplishing that goal. But Rhodes does not give any guarantees that a missionary will be successful, even if that missionary follows the steps that he describes. Instead he wants to increase the effectiveness of cross-cultural workers by showing them how to become more “professional” in their preparation and strategy.
I want to be clear: acquiring these skills doesn’t guarantee we’ll succeed in raising up healthy churches. A doctor who has finished medical school cannot guarantee that she’ll be able to treat your cancer. In ministry, as in medicine, outcomes rest in God’s hands. But without these skills, we will find ourselves lost and unprepared, in the same way a tribal healer might be if he tried to treat that same cancer with a cocktail of mud, roots, and leaves. Despite his good intentions and insistence that his method has worked in the past, this tribal healer will leave a lot of people uncured and unhelped.
In the same way, amateur missions work can leave behind immature converts, unformed churches, and untaught disciples. Even worse, it can leave behind unconverted converts, false churches, and disciples who don’t know whom they’re supposed to be following. We may mistakenly assume that people have believed or rejected the gospel when in fact they’ve never understood it.Matt Rhodes, pP. 41-42.
DMM is a shortcut
So, Matt Rhodes’ goal in writing this book is not really to define success but rather to focus on the methods that we should use to plant healthy, multiplying churches. He particularly attacks methods which he terms “shortcuts”. According to Rhodes, these shortcuts are faddish, amateurish and harmful. They disregard the lessons of the mission heroes of past centuries. Most importantly these shortcuts are not biblical.
DMM (Disciple Making Movements) is chief among the shortcut methods which Rhodes questions. Rhodes believes that this method (and its cousins CPM and T4T) do not put sufficient emphasis on language learning, teaching of disciples and leaders, and the importance of long-term residential missionaries. For the sake of speed and quick results, they skip over those steps which are required for mature, well-grounded churches to develop.
Although Rhodes has some exposure to DMM-type ministry in Northern Africa where he serves, he apparently has never visited the places where this strategy has resulted in church planting movements in other parts of the world. His criticism is primarily based on what he has read rather than from his own observation.
Two excellent responses
Rather than seeking to respond to Rhodes’ criticisms of church planting movements, I will direct you to two excellent articles that were both published last year in Global Missiology:
- Discussing and Catalyzing Movements: An Invitation to Research, Sacrifice, and Commitment by Pam Arland and Warrick Farah.
- Book Review: Matt Rhodes, No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions by Dave Coles
I had already started a blog post about this book when a colleague of mine sent me the links to these two articles. I quickly realized that Arland, Farah and Coles had done a much better job of pointing out the flaws in Rhodes’ arguments than what I could, given my own limited experience with DMM methodology.
Let me just say that Rhodes does raise several valid concerns about weaknesses in cross-cultural mission strategies. But as the articles listed above note, these weaknesses are not exclusively or even predominantly found in DMM-type strategies. We have seen lack of attention to language learning, inadequate teaching of new converts and over-reliance on short-term workers in many of the more traditional missionary outreaches as well.
A straw man argument
Furthermore, Rhodes has unfortunately used a straw man argument. He has painted a distorted picture of the DMM methodology by referencing the writings of a few of its many proponents. Then he concludes that all disciple making movements are like that. As I have seen even within my own organization, the DMM strategy has many different variations. The strategy is continuing to learn and evolve, as practitioners are addressing some of the initial weaknesses.
In our organization, we allow mission teams to choose which church planting strategy they will use, based on their context, experience and missiological convictions. We respect different approaches and celebrate “successes” whatever strategy is used. We do not try to force everyone to adopt one method. In contrast, “No Shortcut to Success” does not adequately consider the possibility that there might be more than one effective church planting methodology.
What is wrong with shortcuts?
I want to focus on the second word of the title – “No Shortcut to Success”. A shortcut is “a quicker way of doing something in order to save time or effort” (Cambridge Dictionary). What is the problem with using a shortcut? None, unless it does not get you where you want to go or produces an inferior product.
Matt Rhodes claims that there are no shortcuts to establishing mature, reproducing churches. There are no quicker ways. We must take the tried and true path of William Carey, Hudson Taylor and Adoniram Judson. We must rely primarily on long-term residential expatriate missionaries with extensive theological training. These missionaries need to become fluent in the language through years of intensive study. Then they must do most of the training and teaching until mature local leaders develop, a process which also takes many years.
But by stipulating that there can be no shortcuts, are we not eliminating the possibility of innovation? Missionary work remains restricted to a traditional model of missions, which unfortunately is very Western in orientation.
Did Paul allow “shortcuts”?
Rhodes would argue that his “no shortcuts” method is the biblical method, used by Jesus and the apostles. Nevertheless, he would admit that Jesus and Paul never learned another language before beginning their ministry.
Many of Paul’s churches were planted on short visits, often not lasting more than a few months. Rather than focusing all his time on one location, he moved throughout the Roman Empire, starting churches in a number of locations. Paul sent team members to visit these new congregations to check on how things were going. He wrote letters to address weaknesses. He left Titus in Crete to finish the work of appointing elders.
Sometimes he did spend extended periods of time in a particular location, such as Ephesus, but even these lengthier terms were never as long as a typical missionary term of four years. He never visited the city of Colossae, even though a strong church was planted there (Col 1:3-6). The church planter was a Gentile from Colossae by the name of Epaphras (Col. 1:7-8). Paul apparently discipled and training Epaphras in Ephesus and then sent him back to plant a church among his own people (Col 4:12-13).
All that to say that apparently Paul experimented with some “shortcuts”. He did not limit the growth of the Gospel to the places where he himself could oversee the building of the foundation. He celebrated what others did in spreading the Gospel, even if he questioned the sincerity of their motives (see Phil 1:15-18).
Pray that the message will spread rapidly
As Arlund and Farah point out, the apostle Paul wanted to see quick results. In fact, he asks the Thessalonian church to pray for rapid progress.
As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.2 Thess 3:1 (NIV)
Furthermore, in this passage he speaks positively of the Thessalonian church plant model. Paul planted the church in about three weeks (Acts 17:1-10) at which time he had to flee because of opposition. Leaving after just three weeks was not Paul’s original plan. But he prays that other churches will be planted at a similar speed!
Be careful about applying labels
We must be careful to not quickly label a method as a harmful or unbiblical shortcut. Just because it is new and requires less time and effort than what we invested does not make it misguided. Matt Rhodes seems to make this mistake. He has not taken the time to carefully investigate the “success” claims that DMM proponents make. Rhodes recognizes the importance of learning the language well and thoroughly teaching new believers. He knows how long it took him to do so. Then he concludes that everyone else must put in the same time to accomplish the same results. When we say there are no shortcuts, we close the door to innovation.