Breakthroughs in the advance of the Christian movement always occur on the fringe and never at the center. So it should be no surprise that the “father” of the evangelical missionary movement was an impoverished village cobbler and part-time Baptist pastor with limited formal education. His name was William Carey (1761-1834).
Carey was compelled by Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. He argued that it is the duty of all Christians to engage in the proclamation of the gospel. He challenged Protestants to commit to the Great Commission, as equally binding on them as it was on the first apostles.
Radically for his day, Carey saw missionary work as a five-pronged advance. First, the gospel must be preached widely by every possible method. Second, the preaching should be supported by the translation and distribution of the Bible in the language of the people.
Third, local churches should be established outside the control of Carey’s denomination back in England. Fourth, workers were to study the background and worldview of those who were to receive the gospel. Fifth, local believers must be mobilized quickly to spread the gospel.
More than any other individual, Carey turned the tide of Protestant thought in favor of world missions. As reports of his work reached home, others took up the challenge of world missions. Carey had laid a foundation for the most expansive spread of the gospel the world has ever seen.
It’s About Being Adaptive
Adaptive methods enable a movement to function in ways that suit its changing environment and its expansion into new fields. A movement’s commitment to both its core ideology and to its own expansion provides the catalyst for continual learning, renewal and growth. Dying institutions display the opposite characteristics—willing to sacrifice their unique identity, conservative in setting goals and unable to face the reality of their mediocre performance.
Dynamic missionary movements reject the demand to choose either a white-hot faith or adaptive methods. They live in the creative tension between them. The most effective and sustained movements live in the tension between the chaos and creativity of spiritual enthusiasm and the stability provided by effective strategies and structures. Passion must be matched with discipline for a movement to be sustained.
Adaptive methods serve the purposes of a movement without becoming an end in themselves. Adaptive methods are recognized by their fruit. These methods are functional, responsive, simple, sustainable and resilient.
Movements that drift away from their core beliefs are always at risk, but so are movements that regard the way they currently function as sacred. Every method must be evaluated against the desired outcome. That means we need to be very clear about our unchanging message and mission, and clearly distinguish them from our continually changing methods. We are responsible to remain true to the gospel and to continually evaluate the fruitfulness and effectiveness of our methods. If we don’t, self-preservation will become our mission.
Pioneering Something New
There is a cure for movements that have lost touch with a changing world. They must revisit their core beliefs and then give the young and the young at heart freedom to pioneer something new. Necessity is the mother of invention. New ideas come from fresh challenges.
Are our methods so simple that the newest believer is employing them? That’s how movements multiply disciples, groups and communities of faith. They democratize their methods and allow every follower of Jesus to participate.
Methods must be simple enough so they can be reproduced easily, rapidly and sustainably. Centralization and standardization are the enemies of innovation. Remain true to your cause and find different ways to pursue it, then test the fruit and multiply what is effective.
There is only one gospel, and there is only one church, but they must be expressed in an endless diversity of forms. Look around you. God loves diversity. That’s why I like churches of all shapes and sizes and styles. That’s why I would rather see 10 different approaches to reaching African refugees with the gospel than just one. Adaptive methods ensure that a movement can respond effectively to a changing environment over the long haul.
Jesus and Adaptive Methods
As the Word made flesh, Jesus fully entered into our world. He chose to communicate and minister in ways that matched His context and were easily picked up by His disciples. His message was profound but simple. It was readily transmitted, shaped and passed on by His disciples. Here are just a few examples of how Jesus made use of adaptive methods:
(1) His teaching. No other rabbi taught like Jesus. His sayings and stories were brief, pointed and pregnant with meaning. They were visual and poetic, and He told them repeatedly so that they would be easily remembered and passed on to others, which is what the disciples did as Jesus sent them out. By the end of Jesus’ ministry, the content of His message was imprinted on the disciples’ minds and hearts. In 2,000 years, His teachings and stories have not lost their appeal or power.
(2) Dialogue with individuals. Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman (see John 4:1-42) shows how He adapted His message to the needs of His audience, even if it was an audience of one. He used her language in communicating His message. He also addressed her personally and dealt with the key issue in her life. He had a universal message but shaped it in a way that was meaningful to this woman. He was patient and allowed the truth of who He was to gradually dawn on her. Later, in Acts, we see how the disciples applied what Jesus taught them about ministry to individuals and different audiences.
(3) Leadership development. Jesus trained his disciples in a way that was reproducible and transferable. He did not place unnecessary restrictions on who could be trained and entrusted with significant ministry. He expected faithfulness to the gospel in word and deed, but there were no artificial academic or institutional requirements for trainees. Furthermore, Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit would come and guide His followers into all truth and empower them for ministry.
The early Christians carried out the mission entrusted to them with great courage, ingenuity and flexibility. Their strategy was simple: They wanted to win as many people as possible to faith in Jesus Christ and gather them into communities that became mission centers as they eagerly awaited His return.
Adaptive methods are the scaffolding of a movement, not the building itself. They remind us that the kingdom of heaven must be grounded in everyday practicalities. A living organism cannot survive without effective systems that can adapt to different environments.
The Good News of Jesus Christ is unchanging and eternal, yet its form must continually change in response to each situation. Our methods must serve our message by ensuring that the gospel can spread unhindered across cultural and geographic boundaries.
Adapted from Movements That Change the World: Five Keys to Spreading the Gospel by Steve Addison, copyright 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. No part of this article may be reproduced or redistributed in any form.