The Power of Precedent
by Steve Smith
As a CPM trainer, I often get requests from missionaries to send them CPM case studies. Their preference is for a study that exactly matches their situation. I get requests like this:
Do you have an example of a CPM among educated, post-modern Middle-Eastern Arabs living in Western Europe?
I check my files. Nope. No case study for such a group. Their response seems to say:
Well, that proves it! A CPM can’t happen in my people group!
Their logic makes no sense. The absence of a case study only proves that we don’t yet have a CPM among that people group!
So, I send them case studies from China. They respond: “Don’t send me these. Of course CPMs can occur there; that’s China!”
They don’t realize that CPM pioneers in China in the late 1990s were told: “It takes an average of four years to win a Chinese atheist to the Lord.”
So, I send them several Indian case studies.
They reply: “Don’t send me these case studies. Of course CPMs can happen there. That’s India. So many people speak English there!”
They don’t know that the area was historically called the “Graveyard of Missionaries” because of its unresponsiveness.
As I’m beginning to get frustrated, they say they really want a case study for reaching Muslims. So I send them a case study of the largest Muslim-background CPM in the world. But their response is: “Don’t give me this. That’s in South Asia. It’s easy there!”
They don’t understand that believers in that movement gather offerings to rebuild burned-down homes of persecuted Christians and assist Christian women who have been raped by their persecutors.
Finally, I send a confidential case study of a Muslim-background CPM in one of the most restricted countries in the Middle East. The response I get is: “Impossible. They must be lying!” (I’ve actually been told this several times.)
At this point, I see that for some people no amount of case studies will convince them. There is a basic disconnect in their faith in the very nature of God and His heart to reach the nations.
Someone has to be first
There are indeed places where we have no CPMs – yet. The number and diversity of places for which we DO have CPMs increases each year. Just a few years ago, I could count 10-15 CPMs. This past year I felt pretty confident about 30-35.* But interactions with other CPM trainers and mission leaders indicate that the number is much, much higher. What we know is just a fraction of what God is doing.
“And there are many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25, NASB)
You must assume that God is doing more than you are aware of even when your heart doubts.
Today, we prepare new missionaries going to Asia to expect that CPMs will develop. It’s not hard to create this expectation because we have examples of CPMs there. We have precedent.
But there was a time when there were no CPMs in those places.
There was a time when there were no CPMs in China, India, and Southeast Asia: someone had to be first.
There may be no CPM where you live — yet. Someone has to be first. Be that first one! In the beginning, when there is no precedent, someone has to be first.
Fortunately, in some places in the world, we do have precedent for CPMs. These precedents are a great encouragement to believe that a CPM is possible and to provide a model for what it can look like. This is illustrated well in 2 Samuel 15-22.
Now when the Philistines were at war again with Israel, David went down and his servants with him; and as they fought against the Philistines, David became weary. Then Ishbi-benob, who was among the descendants of the giant … intended to kill David. But Abishai … struck the Philistine and killed him … after this there was war again with the Philistines … Then Sibbecai … struck down Saph, who was among the descendants of the giant. There was war with the Philistines again … and Elhanan … killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. There was war at Gath again, where there was a man of great stature who …had been born to the giant. When he defied Israel, Jonathan … struck him down. These four were born to the giant in Gath, and they fell by the hand of David and by the hand of his servants. (NASB, emphasis added)
This is a remarkable record: four giants killed by the hand of David’s followers. Imagine the situation with the first one Ishbi-benob. The giant spots David and rushes toward him, intending to kill David.
But David is not the one who slays him. Instead, Abishai, one of the army commanders does.
Shortly thereafter, another descendant of Goliath, Saph, fights against the Isrealites. David doesn’t slay him either. Sibbecai does.
Later, a descendant of Goliath fights Israel. David doesn’t slay him. Elhanan does.
Finally, the greatest of the descendants fights against Israel. But David doesn’t slay him. Jonathan does.
What’s happening here? How can four men in succession slay vengeful giants when less than a generation earlier, the entire nation of Israel cowered in fear? How did they learn to slay giants?
They had precedent
David showed them how to slay giants; now they had a model and the faith to reproduce it. One after another, these men slew giants that only a generation before stopped an entire army.
That’s the power of precedent. When you have it, you know how to find victory. The precedent gives you a model and the courage to attempt the same thing.
What seems radical today will be commonplace tomorrow. There was a time when CPMs were unusual. Now it seems like everyone is talking about them. That’s the power of precedent.
But what do you do when you have no precedent?
This article was adapted from the final chapter of Steve Smith with Ying Kai’s book T4T: A Discipleship Re-Revolution (Richmond: WIGTake Resources, 2011), the inside story of the world’s fastest growing church-planting movement. It was first published in Mission Frontiers Magazine.
About Steve Smith: Steve Smith planted a church in Los Angeles and then helped initiate a church planting movement (CPM) among an unreached people group in East Asia. He trained believers in CPM and worked with the International Mission Board (SBC) in reaching Southeast Asian Peoples. Steve graduated to heaven in March 2019
*CPM numbers have since grown.