Learning from Ants: Missionary Teams and the Pyramid Model

“Perhaps we should build several “pyramids”—moderately
large agencies, each with its own particular niche to fill.”

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 (read how we got to this number by clicking here) over the space of a decade, then we arrive at a simple number: forty-three thousand teams.

How can we recruit and send that many teams? Last month we talked about the skyscraper model of mission. This month, we will look at the pyramid model.

Pyramids are an ancient construction, yet one thing can certainly be said for them: they endure. There are about one hundred known pyramids today in Egypt, of which the three best known were built at Giza over four thousand years ago.

Although many possible purposes for the pyramids have been proposed, most of the evidence suggests they were built as tombs—the smallest, for wealthy individuals; the largest, for the great kings of Egypt. The Great Pyramid at Giza was 481 feet high when it was originally built—about twenty percent of the size of a modern skyscraper. (It has since lost about thirty feet due to erosion). Each side measures about 750 meters feet in length, and is oriented to one of the compass points (north, south, east, west). The pyramid consists of approximately two million blocks of stone, each weighing more than two tons. (One source suggests there are enough blocks in the three Great Pyramids to build a one-foot thick wall completely around France).

Pyramids were not confined to Egypt. Some two hundred pyramids were constructed in Nubia (modern Ethiopia) as monuments for their kings and queens. The Mesopotamians also built pyramids, called ziggurats, but because they used mud bricks, little remains of them. Mesoamerican peoples built pyramids; the largest of these is the Great Pyramid of Cholula in Mexico. Pyramids have been found in ancient Rome, and there are also some in China.

There is considerable debate over how the Egyptian pyramids were built, and how many people it took. Some (mostly earlier) estimates suggested a workforce of over 100,000 people, mostly slaves (e.g., the Jews). More recent estimates suggest perhaps fewer than thirty thousand people were required to built the Great Pyramids, and these were mostly rural Egyptians who worked on the monuments during the flood season, when they could not work the fields. Whatever the truth of the matter, the pyramids represented a substantial investment of time and manpower.

What Can We Learn from Pyramids?

  1. Pyramids are carefully engineered to be stable and enduring. To design a pyramid requires a considerable amount of engineering know-how. Every pyramid is carefully designed so each side is equal, the angles on the corners are exact and each side is oriented to one of the cardinal points of the compass. This requires a significant knowledge of math, geometry and astronomy.

  2. Pyramids were designed for one particular purpose. One did not hold dinner or garden parties in a pyramid. They were, essentially, tombs. Egyptians invested time in these monuments so people who lived thousands of years after them would know they were there.
  3. Though not cheap, pyramids are relatively inexpensive. They require a substantial amount of time, manpower and resources to build, as well as some fairly advanced know-how; however, they are not necessarily cutting-edge technology.

Perhaps, rather than constructing a “skyscraper” agency, we should build several “pyramids”—moderately large agencies, each with its own particular niche to fill. If a typical agency has about one thousand workers, we would likely need between forty and eighty such agencies.

At present, about a dozen agencies with more than one thousand workers each exist. Some of these include the Baptist Bible Fellowship, WorldVenture (formerly CBInternational), Child Evangelism Fellowship, Nigeria’s Evangelical Missionary Society, the Friends Missionary Prayer Band in India, the modern Overseas Missionary Fellowship and WEC International. These typically have budgets between US$10 million and US$100 million. So for this scenario, to reach our goal of forty-three thousand teams, we would need about five times as many agencies as presently exist, each capable of raising over US$10 million.

One Example: Dell
Is it possible to build small niche organizations rapidly? There are several examples in the for-profit world. In the technology industry, there are a few good case studies of companies that have formed recently and enjoyed explosive growth. One in particular has grown to become the 88th largest company in the world. It owes much of its success to its singular focus and its ability to work fast, measure its progress and create opportunities. The company: Dell.

Dell is an American computer hardware company founded by Michael Dell in 1984. It became one of the five hundred largest companies in the world just eight years later. Today, it employs sixty-three thousand people worldwide and manufactures more computers than any other company in the world. It maintains assembly plants in Canada, China, Ireland, Malaysia and the United States. It is looking to open plants in other countries, including India. It has US$55 billion in annual revenue.

Dell has taken “just-in-time” delivery to an extreme. It focuses on one thing: selling computers. It takes orders via its Internet websites and by telephone (averaging one order every twenty seconds). Its suppliers' base is near Dell’s assembly plants. Within ninety minutes, needed parts are brought to Dell’s plant. Within four hours, Dell has merged the parts into a finished computer and shipped it out the door.

Dell strives to perfect this supply chain. It carries no inventory; it does not build a computer that has not already been bought and paid for. Further, its assembly lines and supply chain are one of the fastest, most efficient organizations in the world. According to the November 2004 article, “Living in Dell Time” in Fast Company, “Eleven years ago, Dell carried twenty to twenty-five days of inventory in a sprawling network of warehouses. Today, it has no warehouses. And though it assembles nearly eighty thousand computers every twenty-four hours, it carries no more than two hours of inventory in its factories and a maximum of just seventy-two hours across its entire operation.”

Dell does this by measuring every aspect of its operation. “When you have basically zero inventory, it’s like draining a swamp—all the stumps start to show,” says Kevin Rollins, Chief Executive Officer of Dell. “The problems reveal themselves, and you can take immediate corrective action to fix them.”

Dell is a “metrics-obsessed organization.” Company engineers viewed videotapes of the assembly of computers, constantly refining the construction of the computer models until today a trained technician can assemble one in three minutes. 

Dell also measures how well its suppliers do their job. It rates every supplier on its ability to compete and posts their scores daily on a private website. Future business is awarded based on past performance.

The Pyramid Model and Missions
It might be possible to rapidly build up mission agencies focused on core niches. For example, we might build mission agencies targeting each of the major world regions (Southeast Asia, South-Central Asia, Western Asia, North Africa, West Africa, East Africa, etc). Or, we might build up agencies targeting major issues: sports partnerships like KidsGames, development agencies like Compassion or Food for the Hungry, or agencies focused on persecution or education issues. We might create agencies focused on particular people group clusters (like the Horn of Africa peoples, the Iranian peoples or the Malay peoples). We might build up agencies for megacities or for particular religions (as Frontiers focuses on Muslim peoples).

By aggressively aiming for growth, and measuring and responding to every aspect of the mission, an agency could grow rapidly to fit its particular niche. They could attract people who agree with the core mission, and funding that could help them develop. However, there are some problems with this approach.

  1. Pyramids have a very narrow focus. Pyramid-like missions do not see much outside their interests. For example, I have had some good friends who work with a global network of Christians who are absolutely, passionately, sometimes overwhelmingly focused on children. This group has partnerships with other ministries to meet the needs of their target group—but I doubt it would do much work with the elderly. They are outside its narrow focus.

  2. Pyramids do not go out of their way to partner. The narrowness of their focus and their purpose means pyramid organizations are fairly self-sufficient. They often invite others to come partner in what they are doing, but rarely go out of their way to seek partnerships with organizations that have different goals. When they do, the partnerships are usually pretty formalized and important.
  3. Pyramids are fixed to their place and their niche. This is an advantage that lends them stability and endurance, but it is also a danger. When you build a structure of steel or stone, chances are you will end up staying right where you are. An organization can grow stagnant and dated. World trends can pass it by, and it can become ineffective. In the long run, the pyramids of Egypt are graves—monuments to kings long dead. If they are not careful, “pyramid” organizations run the risk of dying, too.

There is a third model, but I will warn you up front: it is a little buggy. We will look at it next month.

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.