Church-Planting Metrics: Measure What’s Important (Part One)

Measure outcomes, not activities.

A few years ago I was part of a breakout group at a church planting roundtable where we discussed the question, “What is church?” The group was comprised of international and regional directors of church planting organizations. About fifteen minutes into the discussion it became apparent that very few of the leaders had a working definition of church that was common to their entire organization. Taken together, these leaders represented hundreds of church planters.

I began to wonder how church planters could be sent to the field without a clear concept of what they are commissioned to do. Would that be acceptable in any other setting? How successful would car manufacturers be if their leaders told factory workers, “Make cars!” and did not provide them with detailed specifications of what they were to build? Absurd! Yet it seemed like that was exactly what many church planting organizations had done.

When church planters don’t have a working definition of church, they are left with important questions they can’t answer:

  • How do they know when they’ve finished the job?
  • How do they give credible progress reports to supporters when there is no clear definition of what they are progressing toward?
  • How do they know that what they are doing today is getting them to the goal?
  • How do they decide where best to use their resources?
  • Furthermore, from an organizational perspective, if leaders have not defined the end goal clearly, can they truly know whether the day-to-day activities of their church planters are actually fulfilling the organization’s mission?

This article presents a method for developing a measurement instrument that can guide leaders to define the end goal (i.e., “church”) …

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ICE Deports Christian Who Fled Persecution Back to Indonesia

Man who sought asylum in New Jersey church caught up in 100-day surge in non-criminal arrests.

Four years ago, eight Indonesian Christians living in New Jersey received some encouraging news: despite overstaying their visas for more than a decade, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents would not be deporting them.

This year, ICE changed its mind.

In March, four men in the group attended an annual check-in meeting with ICE officials in Newark. There, authorities asked them to return with their passports in May. But when the men returned last week, this time joined by a lawyer, they were arrested and sent to an immigration detention center.

Yesterday, one was deported back to Indonesia, part of a 40-percent surge in ICE arrests in the first 100 days of the Trump administration. This includes 100 arrests a day of undocumented immigrants with no criminal record.

Their arrest came the same week that Indonesia’s most popular Christian politician was jailed for blasphemy, just weeks after losing a gubernatorial reelection bid. The world’s most populous Muslim country had been recently visited and praised by Vice President Mike Pence for its “tradition of modern Islam.” Christians make up seven percent of Indonesia’s nearly 260 million people.

CT reported in 2012 how record religious violence in Indonesia was bolstering the men’s claim for asylum.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom listed Indonesia as a “Tier 2” country in its 2017 report. The Pew Research Center ranked Indonesia in its most restrictive categories measuring government restrictions and social hostilities in its 2017 report on global religious restrictions. (The report uses data from 2015.)

In 2014, Pew called out Indonesia (along with several of the world’s 25 most populous countries) …

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Lutherans Celebrate Reformation Where Germany Committed Genocide

Lutheran World Federation assembles in Namibia for 500th anniversary of Martin Luther.

Hundreds of Lutherans gathered this week for a global celebration of the Reformation. But they didn’t do it in Germany, where their namesake Martin Luther was born and where he hammered out his 95 theses.

Instead, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) gathered in Namibia, a country of just 2.5 million in southern Africa.

Luther’s “rebellion against Rome was also an inspiration to us during our country’s liberation struggle against the injustices of apartheid and occupation,” Namibian president Hage Geingob, himself a Lutheran, said when welcoming the delegates.

“We are taking a leaf out of Martin Luther’s writings, as we also seek to build a new society in reconciliation. I recall Luther’s inquiry into the nature of atonement—or reconciliation—that presupposes a broken relationship. Atonement brings about the restoration of the relationship. Our policy of reconciliation draws on this experience.”

Perhaps the relationship most in need of restoration is that with Germany itself.

Germany’s historical presence in Namibia is strong—in 1884, as Europe was carving up Africa, Germany claimed Namibia and called it German South West Africa. The discovery of diamonds increased interest, and thousands of Germans swooped in, claiming both land and forced labor from indigenous Africans.

The native Herero people rebelled, killing more than 100 German civilians. The response was ruthless: German troops indiscriminately killed men, women, and children from the Herero tribe, and later the rebellious Nama tribe. They drove tens of thousands into the desert and trapped them there with no food or water, then imprisoned many more in concentration camps. More than 100,000 were …

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Five Things You Should Know About Reinhold Niebuhr

From Carter to Comey, the legacy of “Washington’s Favorite Theologian” endures.

Nearly 50 years since his death, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr still routinely makes headlines. A high-profile documentary, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuted earlier this year. Recently deposed FBI director James Comey “almost certainly” used his name for his private Twitter account. Ten years ago, TheAtlantic declared “Everybody Loves Reinhold”; last month, Religion & Politics called him “Washington’s Favorite Theologian.” He commands respect from left (Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama) and right (John McCain, David Brooks). So what’s the attraction?

Here are five aspects of Niebuhr’s work that help explain his enduring relevance.

1. He thought big.

Niebuhr titled his 1938–40 Gifford Lectures (the most illustrious theology lecture series in the world) “The Nature and Destiny of Man.” On page 1 of the published volume 1, he wrote, “Man has always been his own most vexing problem. How shall he think of himself?” By page 2, he was pondering “the admitted evils of human history,” “the question of the value of human life,” and “whether life is worth living.” These are not questions limited to a single church, era, or school of biblical interpretation. The resources Niebuhr brought to bear on them were similarly broad, encompassing Hebrew and Christian Scriptures; ancient, medieval, and modern theology and philosophy; and the social sciences.

Positively, the grand scale of Niebuhr’s work meant that he could engage almost anyone. Who hasn’t wondered about the problem of evil or the value of human life? (Scribner’s was sufficiently convinced of the appeal of The Nature and …

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Cambodians Usher in a Miraculous Moment for Christianity

How the Southeast Asian country went from an underground church to a church-planting boom.

Dozens of pastors crowded around Hun Sen with smartphones extended, snapping selfies to commemorate the Cambodian prime minister’s first-ever meeting with local Christians.

The government session with 2,500 church leaders last summer was a significant gesture in an overwhelmingly Buddhist nation where Christians were martyred and forced underground only a few decades ago.

Hun’s meeting “was a historic event that never happened before,” said Tep Samnang, executive director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Cambodia (EFC), an interdenominational network representing most of the country’s believers. “It’s a sign that [the government] accepts the Christian community more publicly.”

While persecution still percolates in other Southeast Asian countries, Cambodian Christians enjoy a promising sense of openness from leaders and neighbors.

“You are at peace, and I appeal to all religions in Cambodia not to harass you or your sects,” Hun told the pastors gathered in a luxe city hall in Koh Pich, the fast-developing “Diamond Island” in the center of the capital, Phnom Penh. Though Christians were not allowed to pray or share remarks during the meeting, Tep said, “at least it’s a spark to keep the fire burning.”

Christians remain a small-but-growing 2.5 percent of the 16 million people living in the former communist nation, where gold-trimmed temple rooftops twirl over both city skylines and rural landscapes. The temples serve as gathering places for dozens of nationally observed Buddhist festivals throughout the year.

But Cambodia finally has a generation of church leaders with the training and freedom to evangelize on a nationwide scale—and these …

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The Theology Beneath the Comey-Trump Conflict

How the former FBI director’s interest in Reinhold Niebuhr shaped his approach to political power.

Two months before he was fired, FBI director James Comey inadvertently revealed something about his theological leanings that may have pointed to his inevitable fallout with President Donald Trump.

In March, Gizmodo reporter Ashley Feinberg followed a string of clues to the Instagram and Twitter accounts of a user named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who she believed to be Comey. Many of the user’s tweets had to do with the FBI, including one linking to a report about a meeting between Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and a Russian emissary. But what tipped off this particular account was its user name.

While a student at the College of William and Mary, Comey wrote his undergraduate thesis on Niebuhr. The Protestant theologian seems to have left an impression, judging from Comey’s references to him in public speeches and from this apparent pseudonym. Within a few days of Feinberg’s article, the owner shut the accounts down, though not before sending one last tweet that seemed to confirm the identification: a link to FBIjobs.gov—perhaps a job offer to Feinberg—and a quote from the movie Anchorman: “Actually I’m not even mad. That’s Amazing.”

Together with my colleague Sylvester Johnson, I published a book about the FBI and religion a few weeks before Feinberg outed Comey’s social media accounts. Our book traces the history of the FBI’s interaction with different religious communities and addresses the beliefs of some of its leaders and agents. I realized that Comey and Niebuhr were a part of the story we were trying to tell.

Niebuhr’s moral pragmatism

As Gene Zubovich notes, politicians caught trying to balance moral idealism and clear-eyed realism often look to Niebuhr, …

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Cambodia’s Child Sex Industry Is Dwindling—And They Have Christians to Thank

From rescues to legal reform, a faithful minority changed the country’s criminal landscape.

Sek Saroeun first read the Bible at a Phnom Penh bar where young girls were illegally sold for sex. Hamburgers were $1.00, draft beers were $1.50, and bigger bills could get you a companion for the night.

The Buddhist law student worked as a DJ at Martini Pub and had recently begun serving as an undercover informant for the Christian human rights group International Justice Mission (IJM). He scanned the room to scope out suspects as Michael Jackson boomed over the speakers. He cracked open a loaned copy of the Bible—a curiosity introduced to him through IJM—and began to make his way through it in the DJ booth.

Sek took part in the organization’s earliest sex trafficking investigations in Cambodia. The Southeast Asian country had turned into a cheap, shabby hotbed for sex tourism in the decades after its notorious genocide and resulting civil unrest. In 2003, IJM launched the first large-scale attempt to fix the Khmer kingdom’s public justice system that allowed pimps and pedophiles to go free.

Excited, disgusted, and afraid of being found out during his capital city spying, Sek repeated Romans 12:12 to himself: Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Over time, “fear led to longing; longing led to transformation that is unimaginable,” he told colleagues at an IJM conference a decade later, explaining how he became a Christian and the group’s top lawyer in Cambodia.

“God didn’t just change me,” said Sek. “He also changed a family, a community, a nation.”

Between 2004 and 2015, Sek and his team watched the prevalence of underage girls in busy brothels, roadside massage parlors, and neon-lit karaoke bars steadily drop as they partnered …

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The World’s Biggest Trafficking Problem Remains in the Background

How Christians in Cambodia are drawing attention to labor trafficking and the quiet power of prevention.

At a shelter in Cambodia, 16-year-old girl points to the scar where she tried to slit her wrist with a broken plate.

Two years before, she left her province when offered a job as a cleaning lady in South Korea. Instead, she was sold into marriage in Beijing, where her new husband kept her locked up and demanded she give him a child.

“It was like hell,” she tells CT through a translator. “I just wanted to die.”

When she got pregnant soon after, the teen bride escaped at her first doctor’s appointment and contacted her friends 2,000 miles away, who called a hotline to arrange her rescue and repatriation. She and her 11-month-old daughter live in a home operated by Agape International Ministries, among dorm-style bunk beds with about 50 other girls.

In 2015, consulate officials brought 85 trafficked brides back from China, as cross-border labor trafficking of all kinds surged throughout the region. Recent economic partnerships have opened up connections between Cambodia and its neighbors—Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar—making it the easiest time in decades to get in and out. “There were new opportunities,” said Helen Sworn, founder of the anti-trafficking coalition Chab Dai, “but new risks for exploitation.”

Child brides, domestic servitude, and other employment scams fall into the broad category of labor trafficking. It happens on a massive scale around Cambodia; some recent studies estimate a quarter million Cambodians are victims of modern-day slavery.

Yet, “it’s one of the quieter human trafficking problems,” said Barry Jessen, manager for Samaritan’s Purse’s safe migration program in Cambodia. “Sex trafficking is much easier …

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Interview: Jen Pollock Michel: God Is a Homemaker Who Does ‘Women’s Work’

And other thoughts on the biblical and theological significance of home.

Home sweet home. Home is where the heart is. Human beings have crafted a multitude of expressions that testify to an innate desire for rootedness, comfort, and belonging. In Keeping Place: Reflections on the Meaning of Home, writer Jen Pollock Michel (also the author of Teach Us to Want, CT’s 2015 Book of the Year) explores this universal longing through biblical, theological, and practical lenses. A. J. Swoboda, author of The Dusty Ones: Why Wandering Deepens Your Faith, spoke with Michel about our “spiritual homelessness” and the God who prepares a place for us (John 14:3).

Why do you argue that all human beings are spiritually homeless?

It is easy for us to say that those inside the church are spiritually “homed,” while those outside the church are spiritually homeless. I see us all as spiritually homeless in this world. The home that God wants us to have is not fully realized. We may gloss over spiritual homelessness by saying that we have God and then moving on. But we are not home yet. We live in a broken, inhospitable world. I believe the church can do a better job of sympathizing with the condition of homelessness in our world, particularly among our neighbors, but we also need to identify it in ourselves.

You write at length about the “spirituality of housekeeping.” I was reminded of Brother Lawrence’s description of “the God of the pots and pans.” Can we find Jesus while doing the dishes?

It means demolishing the divide between the sacred and the secular. Even just last evening, around the dinner table, my family and I were talking about Christ’s call to serve in John 13: How do you serve? Whom do you serve? What are the qualities of Christian …

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NORP Think and the U.S. Criminal Justice System

NORP = Normal Ordinary Responsible Person

The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration. Although America is home to only about 1/20 of the world’s population, we house almost 1/4 of the world’s prisoners.

Criminologists have coined the term “mass incarceration” to capture the 500% increase in the prison population in the U.S. over the last 40 years. According to the Sentencing Project, changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. Despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety, the results are overcrowding in prisons and fiscal burdens on states.

Perhaps you have heard the phrase, “You can’t fix what you don’t know.” In this article, I hope to open your eyes to some of the faulty thinking which contributes to our current criminal justice crises so that you can be more informed and, as Proverbs reminds us, we can “speak up and judge fairly.” I admit to once having this faulty thinking until my eyes were opened to the truth.

Judge Dennis Challeen has coined the term NORP, which is an acronym for a Normal Ordinary Responsible Person who is self-reliant, understands responsibility, and knows what is morally right. The problem is that being a NORP comes with faulty thinking, which contributes to the policies and laws which currently drive our criminal justice system.

Below are some of the current faulty thinking out there, and the truth which negates these.

Faulty Thinking #1
All criminals think like NORPs, but simply choose to be irresponsible and immoral.

Truth: It may be foreign for you to think that people grow up in a family and community with a moral vacuum of responsibility. They may have …

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