A Simplistic look at Mission Research

Jan 17, 2023 | Uncategorized

Today, there is more qualitative and quantitative research on the core missionary task than ever before. Those not involved in research or directly receiving the information often do not fully understand the purpose, benefit, or process of good missiological research. The role of missiological research is to inform and support the greater Christian community with relevant and accurate data to see the Great Commission accomplished. This post will outline the four foundational questions that motivate mission research, provide a brief overview, demonstrate the beneficial uses of research, and introduce how ministry teams contribute to mission research. 

Mission research seeks to answer four foundational questions:

  1. Who are the people?
  2. What are they like?
  3. How can they be reached?
  4. How are we doing?

1. Who are the people?

This question is probably the most important and likely the most divisive of the four. “Who are the people?” seeks to define the harvest field and what is considered a success. Who are the people segments or groups that make up the geographical harvest field the ministry team is seeking to enter? Then, which people segment will the ministry team prioritize or focus on engagement? 

Defining the focus of the ministry is important because, ultimately, it requires the ministry team to say no to things that do not fall within the focus. It is potentially divisive because opponents of people group thought (Homogenous Unit Principle) will project that creating divisions among people is contrary to the unity that God desires. God does desire unity among the body of believers. Although, defining people groups is for evangelism and church planting purposes. 

Defining a focus people requires three key aspects. 

  • Who are the people segment of focus?
  • Where is the geographic focus?
  • What is the extent of desired gospel transformation?

An example is our team trusts God for healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches among Behdini-speaking Kurds in Northern Iraq. 

  • People segment – Behdini-speaking Kurds
  • Geographic focus – Northern Iraq
  • The extent of gospel transformation – healthy, indigenous, reproducing churches

Defining these three key aspects allows the ministry team to determine high-value activities, metrics to track, and the ability to communicate a clear vision cast for the work that God has commended the team to accomplish. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

Research or mission organizations provide people group lists to help ministry teams identify strategic opportunities for ministry engagement. Most people group lists give a status of the evangelical witness or a priority score to highlight the people with the least chance of hearing the gospel in a culturally relevant way without outside influence. This data aids in making informed decisions on how to use precious resources. Beyond a static people group list, the ministry team on the field will need to further segment beyond ethnolinguistic groupings to population segments within the ethnolinguistic group for further research, strategy, and engagement. Ultimately, the people group list is the starting point for answering the question, “Who are the people?”.

2. What are they like?

Once a focus people segment has been prayerfully selected, the ministry team must begin to understand the people’s worldview, culture, and language. A few scientific disciplines, like anthropology and ethnography, help the missionaries answer this question. There are many volumes written on the concept of understanding culture. In short, the missionary team needs to know the focus people well. Some key categories are language, history, family relations, religion, leadership, customs, common vocations, communication method, learning styles, etc. 

There are three ways to learn about a focus people. First, the ministry team learns about them by reading and researching online publications. Learning about them is a limited but essential exercise. This research lays a foundation and prepares the researcher for the next step. Second, the ministry team learns from them by observing and interviewing people from your focus people segment. It is a combination of being a cultural observer of their festivals, traditions, and practices alongside interviewing cultural insiders that this process yields the best results. There are three types of people you should seek to interview: religious leaders, community leaders, and people off the street. 

Another post will deal in detail with ethnographic interviewing. In general, your interview should be conversational. Although, you should go into your interview knowing the questions you need to ask to clarify your understanding of your focus people. There are four general types of questions to ask.

  • Grand Tour – asking for a broad overview of some subjects – “What are the religious beliefs of Bangladeshis?”
  • Mini Tour – exploring a more complex subject – “You mentioned that the Bangladeshi Muslims have different beliefs than the Hindus. What are the religious beliefs of the Muslims of Bangladesh?”
  • Experience – ask for illustrations from the interviewee’s first-hand experiences – “You mentioned that a good Muslim prays five times a day and attends mosque on Fridays. When did you personally start participating in the prayers and mosque day? What influenced you to do so?
  • Native Language – requesting explanations of language-specific terms – You said your goal is to go on the hajj one day. What is the hajj? 

After concluding your interview, it is important to go immediately somewhere where you can write out a long version of your notes. Ensure this is done right away so that most details can be expounded. Review your notes and determine things you need to clarify or ask at your next interview. 

In engaging your focus people with a strategy and learning their culture and worldview, there will come a time to learn with your focus people. The process of learning with them is coming alongside them and the Word of God to determine what it looks like for them as a people within their culture to follow Jesus, be obedient disciples, gather as believers, and multiply to new peoples and areas. The learning process takes a lifetime because culture is complex, and outside influences always shift culture. Continue to learn about, from, and with the people throughout your life. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

Published people group profiles provide the initial foundation for learning about a people segment. Those who have gone through the work of doing in-depth worldview studies can provide additional insight. Beyond that, the ethnographic process provides ministry teams with the tools to implement a season of cultural observations and ethnographic interviews. 

3. How can they be reached?

With a focus people segment and an understanding of their worldview, we apply the information to develop a plan for seeing the people segment in the geographic area transformed by the gospel. In developing a plan, there is research to find best practices and resources that have been effective among the same or similar people segments.

Research serves the ministry team by identifying existing gospel resources. Does scripture exist in their language translated in a relevant way to their worldview? Are there evangelistic websites, videos, tracts, etc.? There are examples of scripture translations into a native language that does not relate to a focus people’s worldview. Translations can use dated vernacular or are framed with a worldview different from the focus. Audio and video resources often are specific to a certain dialect and will not likely have the same impact for all people segments among a language group. Research and mission organizations catalog these resources to serve as a starting point. Once current resources are identified, resources that need to be modified or created are discovered. 

Similarly, the ministry team should research best practices. Who is engaging the people segment in your city or a different city? What are the best practices that have already been implemented with receptivity? Suppose there have not been best practices tested. In that case, the ministry team will seek God’s wisdom in determining culturally informed methods for evangelism, discipleship, church, and leadership development that may be a best practice or a modification of a best practice among a similar culture. At times, best practices do not currently exist for a people segment. It then becomes an exercise of being informed by the culture to develop and test approaches to discern receptivity. 

How does research help ministry teams answer this question?

People group websites and private servers catalog gospel resources according to language and people segment. Other sites, such as Scripture Earth, track the progress of scripture translation. Best practices are less accessible through public channels, but through networking and relationships, the ministry team can learn best practices. 

4. How are we doing?

There has been an identified people segment focus and a growing understanding of worldview and culture, with an implemented strategy using best-known practices. In that case, progress should be tracked to gauge how the work progresses. There are innumerable ways to track progress. Below are a few examples of monitoring progress.

Starting with the macro, we want to track overall progress among the people segment. This is as simple as the number of followers of Jesus compared to the total population. The percentage of evangelicals among a people group feeds into people group lists. This metric is one of the critical components that help gauge how much and what kind of outside influence the Christian community needs from a cross-cultural worker. This also helps inform what to track in the micro. 

For example, if there are no known believers among a people segment, the ministry team will not be tracking the generation of churches. The ministry team will need to track things like prayer, engagement, gospel shares, mobilization, and relationships. A helpful tool for monitoring progress is the seven phases of engagement. These phases range from people group adoption to sustained gospel presence. Following a phase or stage, the approach can help the ministry team track relevant metrics for their current phase to measure (health) and to track metrics that will lead to the next stage (expansion).

Tracking progress allows the ministry team to establish model zones to trial new resources or best practices to gauge receptivity and effectiveness. Although, rather than implementing the tool among all of the ministry team or network, the tool can be trialed by a few people in a specific area to track understanding and receptivity. 

Answering the question, “How are we doing?” should be considered often and among all activities of the ministry team to continue to grow in practice and inform the larger body of Christ about the work among your focus people segment. This information will update data found in people group lists so that as new ministry teams seek to identify a focus people segment, they are informed with the most recent and relevant information. The ministry team is both a recipient of and contributor to mission research.

In conclusion, The role of mission research is to inform and support the Christian community with relevant and accurate data to see the Great Commission accomplished. Four foundational questions guide the ministry team that engages new people and places. The whole body of Christ benefits from mission research and should grow in its ability to be a data contributor. 

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