Learning from Ants: Missionary Teams and the Skyscraper Analogy

Our question from the last issue was: How many pioneer missionary teams do we need to serve the unreached of the world, to help find and raise up the local evangelists who can complete the task? If we assume any given missionary team can mentor a local church planting movement that will impact at least 100,000 people over the space of a decade, then we arrive at a simple number: forty-three thousand teams.

So, then, how can we recruit and send that many teams? That is a question we will begin to address in this issue.

The Task Before Us
First, we need to remember that this number is too simple and that we must not take it too literally. The unevangelized world is far more complicated. For example, many ethne are very large. How should teams be allocated? By countries, provinces or cities? By sociopolitical grouping? By age group? For men, for women? We may indeed need more than one team per 100,000 people.

And, some ethne are very small, perhaps only ten thousand people. Do they still need a team? Should teams be sent to “clusters” of peoples? Does an ethne having different castes within it need separate teams? How many people should be on a typical team? These are truly very difficult problems that will affect the total number of teams needed and the number of workers required.

The real value of the forty-three thousand figure is this: it opens our eyes to the scope of what is required. Let us assume each team has, at minimum, two people (a stretch, but the bare minimum for the word “team”). Think of D. L. Moody and Ira Sankey. With two people each, we need eighty-six thousand individuals.

Does anyone come close to this? Let’s look at the big picture in rough estimates:

For denominations,

  • International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention (IMB-SBC), four thousand workers

  • Assemblies of God, 3,500 workers
  • Mormons, forty-three thousand workers (mostly short-term)
  • Catholic Society of Jesus (Jesuits), twenty-five thousand workers

This gives one pause for thought. How can forty-three thousand teams—perhaps eighty thousand to 160,000 people—be recruited, deployed and sent? Trained and equipped? Networked and informed? Cared for? We might be tempted at this point to throw up our hands and say, “It can’t be done.”

Yet the simple fact is that it must be done. Black and white digits on the page hide the people. In your mind’s eye, seek them out. Billions of faces: red, yellow, brown, black, white. Men, women, children. Old, young. Being born, living, growing up, dying—without ever once hearing the name of Jesus, without understanding the good news.

If they are to hear the good news, workers must go among them, bringing them the gospel. Whether the workers are nearby locals or foreigners from around the world, someone has to go. And if someone is to go, then they have to be sent. This implies some structure for sending them. They must be recruited, given a certain amount of training, have their support issues resolved and be able to get to their destination. For maximum impact and sustainability they should be linked with others as well.

Three Types of Sending Structures
There are probably three “types” of sending structures: skyscrapers, pyramids and swarms. In this issue we will discuss skyscrapers. In the months to come we will discuss the latter two.


Taipei 101 was the first building to break the
half-kilometer mark in height.

Skyscraper Analogy
Skyscrapers are huge buildings. They must be at least five hundred feet tall to be given the title. For skyscrapers, wind is usually a greater problem than the weight of the building itself. Most are built using steel and reinforced concrete. The Empire State Building, the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower (all located in the United States) each briefly held the record as the tallest skyscrapers in the world. The Petronas Towers (452 meters high) in Malaysia took the record in 1998, but it was surpassed by Taipei 101 (509 meters high) in Taiwan in 2004.

Taipei 101 was the first (and currently only) building to break the half-kilometer mark in height. It opened on New Year’s Eve 2004 as one of the most advanced buildings ever built. It features one-gigabit Internet connections and the world’s fastest doubledecker elevators (running at 37.5 miles per hour; able to go from the main floor to the eighty-ninth floor in thirty-nine seconds). A mass damper on the eighty-eighth floor can reduce up to half the tower’s movements, stabilizing it against earthquakes, typhoons and wind. It is designed to withstand events such as catastrophic earthquakes and super typhoons that occur only once every millennia. It has over 214,000 square meters of office space, 77,500 square meters of retail space (with a six-floor retail mall) and seventy-three thousand square meters of parking space. There was some concern that its’ sheer weight might re-open an ancient underground fault that could cause future earthquakes.

The interior of the skyscraper was designed by a feng shui master (this is Asia, after all) and is filled with symbols of financial success. The exterior design represents eight gold ingots, the ancient royal currency of China. Each “ingot” has eight floors. The number eight sounds like “earn fortune” in the Chinese language. And someone spent one. The entire project cost US$1.7 billion from start to finish.

Taipei 101—like all other skyscrapers—is well known. They are huge towers that draw the eye for miles around. They become well-known “addresses.” Their fame can bring them good publicity—and bad publicity. As we have all seen, it can bring outright hostility. Skyscrapers are unavoidably very public.

Taipei 101 may soon be surpassed by several other buildings planned for 2008, including the International Commerce Center in Hong Kong, the Fordham Spire in Chicago, the Shanghai World Financial Center and the Freedom Tower in New York.

None of these, however, are the most likely future “tallest building.” The next record-holder—at least, according to its promotional literature—belongs to the Middle East. “At the crossroads of India and the Middle East, equidistant between Europe and Asia, Dubai is fast becoming the financial and cultural hub for over a billion people. At the center of that hub stands the most exclusive address in the world.” The exact planned height of the Burj Dubai is kept secret, but when it is finished in 2008 it will probably be at least seven hundred meters (2,296 feet—nearly half a mile) high. “Only a privileged group of people will call it home,” says the promotional material.

Skyscrapers are certainly highly technological, very modern creations. Each has had a great deal of pride associated with it. For its short time in the sun, the owners have bragging rights to “the tallest building.” There have been gentle (and not so gentle) debates over which tower is highest, and what can be counted for the purpose of computing height (the general conclusion: things that are part of the architecture can be counted, but things like radio antennas or satellite dishes cannot).

Skyscrapers are also concentrated strength. Within their offices are high-value businesses with power and influence. They have a tremendous collection of intelligence, money and technology. The Burj Dubai is promoted as “a structure with the power to change history.”

Yet this means skyscrapers also tend to be elite. Only the best of the best have access. Of the Burj Dubai, it is written, “There are a select few who possess the vision, resources and opportunity to live in the world’s tallest building. If you have that opportunity, you are assured not just unparalleled luxury, but a place in history and in Dubai’s future.” A modern Babylonian tower indeed.

Ultimately, skyscrapers are self-contained units. The best cooks, shops, offices, recreational and fitness centers, theaters and so forth are found there. Those who live inside may never need to interact with anyone outside because a skyscraper has everything a person needs.

Can a mission be a skyscraper? Think of a single agency with the capacity to recruit, screen, train, commission, send, support and retire forty-three thousand mission teams or some 100,000 workers. It is safe to say such a “skyscraper” does not exist—right now. It would be the “Burj Dubai” of the Christian mission world. It would require a vast global presence, an enormous budget, a sizable administrative staff and an incredible donor base.

For an idea of the size, consider the largest mission agencies today. In order to provide for a workforce of four thousand career missionaries and one thousand short-term workers, the Southern Baptists have created a recruitment arm, the largest evangelical missionary training center in America (if not the world), a corporate structure and a well-polished fundraising campaign (the Lottie Moon Offering) that raises US$150 million over a single week.

Building a “skyscraper” capable of supporting 100,000 workers would be the equivalent of building an organization twenty times larger than the International Mission Board—both benefits and problems would be twenty times larger as well. Looking at our example of skyscrapers, we can see most buildings incrementally improve on the most recent “tallest building.” Building an organization with such a magnitude greater than any mission agency presently in existence would be a very tall task indeed.

It is not without precedent. There is a company that certainly is monolithic. The largest employer in the world, and the second largest company in terms of revenue: Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is an American public corporation founded by Sam Walton in 1962. It is the largest retail store chain in the world, with 6,500 stores employing 1.8 million workers in fifteen countries, having 176 million customers weekly—roughly twenty-four million per day. It is the second largest company worldwide in terms of revenue. In 2006, it had US$316 billion in sales and a net income of US$11.2 billion.

Wal-Mart operates a variety of stores in different cities, depending upon the market. It has discount stores, supercenters, neighborhood markets and warehouse clubs. It operates 2,700 stores (one-third of all its stores) in countries outside the United States; together, they are responsible for about twenty percent of Wal-Mart’s sales.

However, being huge, Wal-Mart is often a target for criticism.

Certainly, being “big” makes a company more visible. Skyscrapers have been targeted by hostile people. A monolithic mission agency would be more visible too. It would be criticized by those who dislike missions. It would be a target for those who are hostile. It would become politicized by workers, staff, donors and other stakeholders. Like skyscrapers, it could possibly become overly-expensive, self-contained, proud and uncooperative. We don’t need anyone else, such an agency might say. We have everything we need within our own organization. We are the best.

I rather doubt a single, monolithic agency is possible. But perhaps something a little smaller? Next time, we will talk about pyramids.


Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at justinlong@gmail.com.