We all like shortcuts. Why take that long hard road when this road is faster? If we can get things done in a shorter time with the same or even better results, why shouldn’t we? It’s a no-brainer. What if I told you there is a shortcut to missions? For the Great Commission. Would you take it? Does that shortcut even exist? Find out in today’s book review.
Hi, my name is Terence and I’m your host for Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Today I review “No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions” by Matt Rhodes. 272 pages, published by Crossway in February 2022. It’s available from Amazon Kindle for USD12.82 as of this recording.
Full Disclosure: I got this book for free from Crossway’s Blog Review Programme. They have no input on this review.
This book came at just the right time. I’ve been wanting to read a book-length response to the Church Planting Movement (CPM) and Disciple-Making Movement (DMM) ever since I read how some proponents trash the established church’s mission work today as complacent (some truth in that!) and hopelessly outdated. They say that we cannot keep looking back to the glory days of William Carey and Hudson Taylor. Those methods worked a hundred years ago but don’t work today. Look at the church in Acts, fast-growing, outward-looking, soul-saving. So get with the Church Planting Movement or Disciple-Making Movement or some other programme, and see the Great Commission in action.
I disagree that the old ways are outdated but what do I know since I am not a missionary. I have an opinion but I can’t say that the old ways still work, because I don’t know. But Matt Rhodes knows and he can!
Rhodes is a missionary who has lived in North Africa, serving as part of a church-planting team to a previously unengaged people group. So he has credibility.
From his vantage point, in the missionary world, he sees many rushing to use Church-Planting Movement (CPM), Disciple-Making Movement (DMM) and related methods. These methods are, according to Rhodes, are attractive because they are shortcuts. But stay away, so says Rhodes. For there is no shortcut to success.
Professionalism is Good
The book is divided into two parts. Part One is titled: Where Shortcuts Have Led Us: Surveying the Problem. Part Two is titled: Correcting Our Course.
In the first chapter, Rhodes argues for professionalism. Wait, didn’t Pastor John Piper write a whole book titled, “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals”? Rhodes mentions Piper’s book. But the way Rhodes defines professionalism here is to excel in your field, to not be amateurish and slipshod about it. For example if you are going to reach out to an unreached people group, then learn the language. It’s not enough to tell them that Jesus loves you over and over again.
Rhodes sees professionalism as contrary to the CPM-style approach. He describes CPM-style approach as follows:
- An Overemphasis on Speed
- An Overdependence on “Silver-Bullet” Strategies
- An Oversized Role Given to Short-Term Mission Trips
- An Overweening Skepticism of Intellectual Preparedness
He elaborates on each point. And reading each point, just when you think his criticism is too sharp, stabbing deep into the CPM-practitioner’s heart, you read chapters 2 and 3. Yikes! Chapter 2’s title is “Movements and Rumours of Movements”. Chapter 3’s title is “In the Scales of the Scriptures”.
Before I go into some of his criticisms here, I want to point out the method behind his criticism. After briefly listing what he defines as CPM-style methods and their proponents, Rhodes writes:
In what follows, I’ll do my best to characterize each method fairly, drawing quotes from popular resources written by the known leaders and principal designers of these methods. For example, to describe DMM, I’ll generally refer to books by David and Paul Watson and Jerry Trousdale. I don’t assume, of course, that every DMM practitioner agrees with Trousdale or the Watsons in every particular.
He follows that by saying:
I should also note that there’s much to be praised in today’s most popular methods. Whenever we look at any ministry method, we must attempt to learn what we can.
That being said, I’ve asked a DMM trainer and practitioner to read the book, which he did. We then had invigorating conversations on the book. I’ll share what I learnt from that conversation later, after I describe Matt Rhodes book.
Movements and Rumours of Movements
As I was saying, the second and third chapters are the spiciest of the book. In the “Movements and Rumours of Movements” chapter, Rhodes quotes David Watson, who wrote that in Northern India, DMM led to 2 million Hindus being baptised in a few short years. This then became 4 million, then 5.4 million and finally 10 million baptised believers. Rhodes asks, “Are these numbers true?”
These amazing successes have supposedly resulted from new methods that depart markedly from the slow, thorough path I’ll be advocating. And I must admit: the numbers are enticing. What missionary doesn’t dream of such success? And who but the most hard-hearted could doubt that these stories are true? After years on the field with little tangible success, many missionaries are ready to try something new; many missions organizations, after long years in the doldrums, eagerly embrace new methods. And so they send their missionaries to be trained.
I repeat: no one wants to rain on a good parade. But if we care about the lost, we must do our due diligence.
Rhodes worked in population-based statistics for eight years before entering the mission field. He explains possible reasons for what he sees as exaggerated numbers. He shares the experience of other missionaries, including himself, who served in those areas but don’t see the explosive conversion claimed in these books. He writes:
… publicists of the Bhojpuri movement acknowledge that “sometimes people travel through an area where a movement has been reported and they don’t see evidence of it” but assure us that “you can walk in a jungle and never see any animals. That doesn’t mean there are no animals in the jungle.” This may be true, but it becomes less plausible when the type of jungle animal in question is purported to have a population of 10 million and when all of the other jungle animals object noisily to its presence!
In the Scales of Scriptures
Chapter three is titled “In the Scales of the Scriptures”. And no surprise, Rhodes finds the CPM-style methods to be found wanting.
He breaks this chapter down to five sections. I’ll just share one. The section is titled, “Overemphasis on Rapid Growth”. He references David Watson and Paul Watson’s book, “Contagious Disciple Making” to write:
For example, in Disciple Making Movements (DMM), four generations of churches must be planted every three years for a genuine “movement” to have occurred. That is, within a three-year period, a new church must plant a second new church, which in turn must plant a third new church, and that third church must also plant a fourth new church. In other words, a brand new church should plant another new church in only nine months.
Rhodes makes an effort to show that he is not putting words into the these guy’s mouths. He has the receipts. Chapter three consists of 40 pages and there are 133 footnotes to these authors.
He tries to be fair. He give credit where credit is due. He writes:
I love CPM-style practitioners’ desire for lots of people to come to Christ—and quickly. As promoters of CPM-style methods often point out, the church did grow quickly in the book of Acts, and the gospel did spread throughout the entire Roman world within a few hundred years after Jesus’s resurrection.
Yet in the scales of Scriptures, speed is not the over-riding priority in Scripture. Rhode writes:
Paul writes that he proclaimed Jesus by “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). According to Paul, then, the ability to teach “with all wisdom” is necessary to lead others to maturity. Until they gain this wisdom, new believers will be seriously limited in their ability to disciple others and plant new churches.
And later concludes this section with the following words:
We can contentedly follow the pattern of Jesus; he often avoided the crowds in order to spend time with his disciples. It was only when their maturation process was complete that he committed the growth of the church into their hands. We had better not push too hard for grandchildren before the children are fully grown!
If you have heard of CPM or DMM or T4T or other similar methods but not much more than that, then you will appreciate Rhodes reading all these books, summarising what they have in common and giving a strong critique, not as an armchair pundit (like me!), but as a missionary who cares very much for the lost and empathises with what these proponents are trying to achieve. He doesn’t see them as the enemy, at most he sees them as terribly misguided. There is the question of whether he understands what he read and analysed, but I’ll save that question for later.
Rhodes says, what is needed is a course correction. That’s the title of Part Two of the book. I won’t be spending as much time on Part Two of the book, not because it’s less important, far from it, but because I want to get to the possible pushbacks against Rhodes.
Again, Part Two is important and I would argue more important than Part One. It’s easy to destroy an idea, it’s harder to build up.
Ultimately, this book is not a hit piece on CPM-style methods. Remember, the subtitle of the book is “A Manifesto for Modern Missions”. He makes that point clearly, credibly and boldly in the remaining seven chapters of the book which have the following chapter titles:
- Ambassadors for Christ
- New Testament Missionary Communication
- Communicating Clearly Today
- Credibility and Boldness Today
- A Long-Term Path for Missionaries
- Equipping and Sending
- Work and the Holy Spirit
Any one or any church with an interest in missions must read these 7 chapters. By missions, Matt Rhodes is not referring to any and every activity that reaches to the lost, e.g. your soup kitchen or youth concert or personal sharing. By missions he is referring to a long term gospel work to unreached people groups. We are talking about following in the footsteps of William Carey, Hudson Taylor, Adoniram Judson and so on.
Rhodes argues that missionaries need to learn the language, maybe even translate the Bible into their language. They need to understand the community’s worldview and religion in order to best proclaim the gospel. And proclaiming gospel is the goal, not teaching English, not building houses for the poor, not starting up an orphanage. These are all worthwhile initiatives that may happen alongside gospel proclamation but we cannot let secondary objectives becomes the primary. We cannot let the good works, not the good news, become the mission.
Rhodes gets down to the nitty gritty details. Are you single, are you willing to stay single? Are you married, is your spouse willing to go into the mission field? Do you have children, will your children be safe where you are going?
How will you choose where you are going? By throwing a dart at a map? Does the Holy Spirit answer these questions by giving impressions? Is it wrong to try to figure out the answers with our minds?
What is the role of the church? What are milestones to expect? So many questions, so many answers, all from the horse’s, I mean missionary’s, mouth. Another title for this book could well be, “How to be a Missionary and Succeed”.
So Part One questions the prevailing CPM-style methods. He writes as if his way is under threat of being overwhelmed by all these new methods, which is funny to me, because the people he is criticising tend to write as if they are the minority and traditional churches are the ones stomping on them.
Part Two, to me, is less a manifesto and more of a down to earth look at what mission should look like and how you and your church can prepare for missions.
Objection: False Dichotomy
As we now move to a critical evaluation of the book, my aim here is not to attack or defend Rhodes but to enlarge the conversation.
Let’s look at one objection. Rhodes sets up a false dichotomy. The way Rhodes presents it, it is as if what is in Part Two is not part of CPM-style methods. For example, Rhodes emphasises language acquisitions. Just because some proponents dismiss the need to learn the local language does not mean that learning languages is antithetical to CPM-style methods. Some are even translating the Bible into the local language!
To be fair to Rhodes, he did say that he can’t comment on the broad spectrum of practitioners and can only critique what the architects or designers have written. Be that as it may, if the movement is truly bigger than the architects or popularisers and practitioners have adapted the ideas to address the gaps, then Rhodes’ criticisms weakens.
Not just on learning the local language. If other practitioners are able to show that they do not over-emphasis on speed, they do not over-depend on “silver-bullet” strategies, they do not give an oversized role to short-term mission trips and they are not skeptical of intellectual preparedness, and they agree and do much of what Rhodes suggests, then we may not have to choose between two methods. The distinction does not need to be as sharp as Rhodes writes here.
If that was true, and I can’t say that it is, because the spectrum might be wider, it might be narrower, then I would like to think that Rhodes would be happy to be wrong. He would be happy to have more missionaries see and address the gaps in Watson, Garrison, Smith and others, regardless of whether he perceived those gaps accurately in the first place.
If true, then someone really should write a book-length response to Rhodes, to correct the record, so that we can feel the real tension between the two approaches. As Proverbs 18:17 puts it so eloquently:
The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.
In this book, Rhodes has given us a critical evaluation of Watson, Garrison and others, so let’s hope someone comes and examines Rhodes.
Finding A Real Difference Between The Two Methods
Did Rhodes completely fail to distinguish between the essential core of the two methods, for example on the issue of language acquisition? Cause if he did, then it is a waste of time to read a poorly-researched book that gives the wrong picture of the subject.
I don’t think so. Let me share one example which came as a big surprise to me. What I thought was an exaggerated description of what had happened seems to be a sought-after outcome of CPM-style methods.
… CPM-style methods even encourage unbelievers to lead if they seem intent on obeying Scripture. James Nyman tells the story of Aysha, a woman who has read some stories about Jesus and the prophets and reports having obeyed the Bible by arguing less with her husband. Aysha is not even asked whether she has trusted Christ as her Savior — or if she even knows what it might mean to trust Christ as her Savior — before she is asked to coach Wati, another unbelieving woman, as Wati leads Bible studies with her family. As a part of this arrangement, Aysha must decide if Wati’s family “has misconceptions about faith in Jesus” in order to determine which Bible stories Wati’s family should study.
As is his way, Rhodes gives in the footnote the author, book and page number for this story. And he also pre-empts the reader’s possible incredulity that this is actually endorsed by listing the endorsers:
Lest readers imagine Nyman’s approach to be unusual among CPM-style practitioners, it is important to note that his book receives high praise from David Garrison, David Watson, Steve Smith, Steve Addison, Kevin Greeson, Stan Parks, Curtis Seargant, and many other promoters of CPM-style methods.
Are you shocked? Then be even more shocked. What I thought was indefensible is actually pretty defensible. Thanks to a DMM practitioner/trainer who helped me understand what is happening here.
- The unbeliever is not leading a Bible Study as we traditionally understand leading. A better description is facilitating. She is a facilitator rather than a leader.
- The questions are fixed and the answers are found in the given passage. Both questions and the passage are given by the Christian mentor who is not in the group but is actively coaching the facilitator, so the unbeliever is kept, in a manner of speaking, on a tight leash.
They have more reasons for having a non-believer facilitating a Bible Study. But as I try to argue that the leader should be a Christian because only the Christian knows the high-stakes, the eternal stakes involved, only the Christian would pray for the souls of the people in the study, spiritual things are understood by the Spirit and should be conveyed by believers, as I make that case I find that I am arguing against Christians who have an incredibly high view of Scripture, a view that believes anyone who reads and understands the plain meaning of Scripture, will be open to the power of Scripture.
I still disagree, strongly, but it’s not as incomprehensible or irresponsible as when you first hear it. Many famous conversions happened, for example John Wesley’s, just by hearing Scripture, unmediated, without commentary. It’s just strange to make it the default approach rather than seeing it as a singular, highly unusual, Road to Damascus event. Paul, Luther and Wesley, however they were converted clearly intended for Scripture to be taught and explained to believers and unbelievers.
I Like My Way Of Doing It Better Than…
As I argued with my fellow brother in Christ who sees great value in DMM, I recognised in my own heart a desire to win the argument for how I think missions should be done. So if you are like me, I want you to remember this quote from D.L. Moody.
Someone criticised his way of evangelism. Moody replied:
It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.
One day, I was listening to a Voice of the Martyrs podcast episode on Afghanistan. The interview was on what is happening to the Christians after the fall of Kabul. It was clear that the missionary being interviewed is using CPM-style methods because he was using CPM-style language.
On a different day, I was listening to Recorded, a podcast from the Gospel Coalition. The episode title was “Escape from Kabul”. I listen to the story of an Afghan believer who eventually interned with Capital Hill Baptist Church, which is Mark Dever’s church. Mark Dever, if you recall, is the guy who wrote the foreword to Matt Rhodes’ “No Shortcut To Success”. This Afghan brother has a different journey which is no less harrowing than the earlier one.
We have brothers and sisters in Afghanistan who are suffering for their faith. They are practising both mission methods. Maybe one way is indeed better, more biblical than the other. But our heart, our posture in this discussion is not I win means you lose but let us find a way to win souls together for the Lord. As Rhodes puts it rightly, “Whenever we look at any ministry method, we must attempt to learn what we can.”
In conclusion, if you are following Church-Planting Movement, Disciple-Making Movement, Training for Trainers, or any other mission method, new or old, you should still read Matt Rhodes. You will not like what he says. You will say he got many things wrong. But since he is quoting those books, then maybe a part of the wrongness is coming from those books.
If you are serious about missions, as all Christians should, then No Shortcut to Missions: A Manifesto for Modern Missions, is a must read. It’s a book, especially Part Two, that missionaries would say, “I wish I had read this when I decided to be a missionary.”
This is a Reading and Readers review of “No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions” by Matt Rhodes. If you like this book review, then make sure toe subscribe to Reading and Readers, a podcast where I review Christian books for you. Thank you for listening.
- “No Shortcut to Success: A Manifesto for Modern Missions” by Matt Rhodes. Amazon.
 In the podcast, I said Northern Africa when I meant Northern India.