The Foolish Quest for a “Silver Bullet” in Global Missions
We have an insatiable desire for fast results and quick fixes. Over the years I’ve lived overseas, it’s become clear that this yearning has touched our missions methods as well.
As I’ve read books on missions and sat through seminars, I can’t help but sense that we’re obsessed with finding a “silver bullet” for our Great Commission mandate. Like alchemists looking for the formula for gold, we’ve gone mad trying to unlock what everyone since the days of the apostles hasn’t discovered yet: the perfect formula for explosive, exponential kingdom growth.
In most cases, this search comes from hearts full of compassion and a desire to glorify God. But as these methods come and go—each claiming to be more biblical, more useful, and more replicable than the last—it seems we need to be reminded that we haven’t been given a commission to seek a “silver bullet.”
Of course, methods aren’t wrong. They’re inescapable, and we all have them. But when finding the perfect method or “the key” becomes the focus, we’re in danger of sacrificing present-day, imperfect faithfulness on the altar of future, “perfect” success. We sometimes fail and even refuse to evaluate the downsides of this so-called “miracle” method. When this happens, we’re inhibited from discerning real fruit from faux results.
CLASSIC MISSIOLOGICAL SILVER BULLETS
Books, articles, training courses, and seminars abound promoting the idea of rapidly multiplying churches and disciples as “the biblical pattern.” There’s much good in many of these programs. The problems, however, are threefold: less-than-careful exegesis, overly pragmatic evaluation criteria, and a failure to take into account the whole counsel of God’s Word.
For example, a discipleship program called Four Fields looks to parables that describe the kingdom of God and its growth without considering the purpose of those parables. There’s no mention that Jesus told these parables both to expose the religious leaders’ misunderstanding about the nature of God’s kingdom and to judge them for rejecting the Messiah.
Similarly, the “person of peace” approach appeals to Luke 10 as the model for kingdom expansion. Again, no one mentions the other commands in the text: to hurry, to take no clothes, and to eat only what is served. Why aren’t those as binding as the “find a person of peace” command? Other methods that were also used greatly by God in Acts—such as sermons to large crowds (Acts 2)—are also ignored.
Another program called T4T appeals to 2 Timothy 2:2, though without considering either the context it’s written in (the local church) or the qualifying requirement of training men who are known to be faithful, not simply eager or willing.
All these methods are promoted for their supposed biblical basis and their proven track record of yielding results. And in many cases, there is indeed fruit to be seen. But there are serious flaws in these systems that lead to other problems, some which won’t be realized until years later. The hurried development of “trainers” or “kingdom agents” and the furious searching for “men of peace” circumnavigates Paul’s long view for the training of “faithful men” a la 2 Timothy 2:2.
The focus on obedience in “discovery Bible studies” used in the CPM (Church Planting Movements) approach, combined with a lack of clarity on biblical conversion, easily leads to confusion that simply replaces one set of religious and moral norms for another. Leading people to become disciples without first helping them to understand why they weren’t a disciple in the first place leads to people claiming to embrace Jesus as “king” without clearly understanding their need for him as Savior. The result is people who’ve been “reached,” but not really.
Here’s the bottom line: no method is a “silver bullet.” As long as fallen and finite people are at the helm, no method will be perfect. I’m not intending to write off all methodologies as equally useless, nor do I hope to offer my own alternative method into the mix of the madness. I simply mean to point to some guiding principles for our methods, and hopefully get us to admit that simply more new methods are not what we need.
DRIVEN BY ONE QUESTION
There is a madness in missions driven by one ultimate question: “Does it work?” That question will usually be surrounded by lots of biblical language and qualifications. But at the end of the day, the argument made in defense of many methods is nothing more than pragmatism: “It works and you can’t argue with its results.” One man promoting CPM methods told me, “Numbers don’t lie.”
But he’s wrong; numbers lie all the time.
So how do we evaluate different methodologies? Well, this answer is simple enough: all methodologies must be tested as to whether or not they’re faithful to the biblical mandate.
Okay, but what is the biblical mandate?
THE MANDATE: “MAKE DISCIPLES”
Our mandate is most succinctly laid out in Matthew 28: “make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Unfortunately, the seeming simplicity of this mandate—proclaiming the glory of God in the face of Christ, displayed at the cross—is too often overwhelmed by the complexity of our methods. I fear that in our quest for the “silver bullet,” we’ve ceased to be stunned by the glory of Christ which compels us to say, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
This was the heart of Paul as he came to the end of his life. Motivated to a life of suffering by the grace he’d been shown by Christ, Paul reminded Timothy of the necessity of prioritizing preaching the Word and discipling faithful men. “Preach the Word, Timothy. And, since you won’t be around forever, get some faithful men and train them to do the same thing. Preach the Word to the end, even if people don’t want to listen.”
Paul had no need for charts or statistics. Why? Because he had a simple confidence in speaking the Word of reconciliation, resting in the knowledge that whether people receive it or not, whether we’re “effective” or not, Christ always leads us in triumphal procession.
Let’s end the madness. Let’s stop overcomplicating the mission.
Behold the glory of Christ and then proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
The woman at the well needed mercy to release her to speak. The demoniac needed deliverance to proclaim his Savior. Peter needed grace to compel him to boldness. Paul needed love for the chief of sinners to control him. Faith comes through hearing, and hearing through the Word of God. When we know the gospel, we speak the gospel, which over time leads new believers to gather eagerly around the gospel and be transformed by the gospel.
Ultimately, this is how the kingdom grows.