Learning from Ants: The Possibility of Missionary Swarms

In the last several issues, we asked how many pioneer missionary teams (forty-three thousand) were needed to serve the unreached of the world, to help find and raise up the local evangelists who can complete the task. We asked what kinds of models could recruit, train, send and support that many teams. We looked at skyscrapers (one central monolithic agency), pyramids (niche agencies) and swarms (decentralized groups). This month, we are going to look at whether a missionary swarm could be created.

Can missions be a swarm? Let us put this in missionary terminology. Consider the current “buzz” about the concept of a church planting movement.

Elements of a Church Planting Movement
Every Church Planting Movement (CPM), we are told, has ten universal elements.1 So stretch your imagination with me, and consider CPMs in the context of an ant colony:

1. Prayer. Ants don’t pray—at least as far as we know. There is perhaps one parallel. Through prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit, evangelists are led to their “person of peace”—someone who is open to the gospel.2 Ants, likewise, wander seeking their “man of peace”—a food source. (The analogy is a little loose, but the idea is that both wander randomly, instinctively, until they find the thing they are seeking, and then both summon other workers to help.)

2. Abundant gospel sowing. Ants don’t abundantly sow the gospel to make converts. However, if we are striving to make “disciple-makers,” we can think of these queens as “ant-makers.” They make hundreds of thousands of new ants each year.

3. Intentional church planting. These queens don’t just make new ants for their own hive—they make queens who can create new nests. Most ant nests will send out over four thousand females every year to start a new hive.

4. Scriptural authority. Ants don’t have a Bible. However, why is a Bible important? It is God’s word to us, and it gives us a basic standard of discipleship. It ensures that every disciple has the same basic values as every other disciple. Ants already share common values. In a sense, the instinct built into ants serves as the ant-Bible.

5. Local leadership. Ants don’t have leaders. It is one hundred percent lay leadership. They take “local leadership” to an extreme: every ant a leader, every leader an ant.

6. Lay leadership. Most CPMs are driven by lay leaders who are bi-vocational. As the movement grows, paid clergy can emerge, but it is probable that lay leadership will continue to be the main driver. Ants are similar in some ways: ant nests have a small number of queens in proportion to the larger number of workers.

7. House churches. Ants build contextualized houses. Some can be small; some can be big. They are always built from local materials—ants forage, dig, bury, drag and move dirt, leaves and wood to create the ant hill. Ant hills in a desert are not the same as ant hills in a jungle or in a city. Church planting movements emphasize house churches, but I would argue the form of the church should be contextualized to the place. In some places, buildings are more appropriate. In others, it might be better to be in a restaurant, a theater, a business or some other unusual place.

8. Churches planting churches. In CPMs, the initial church is planted by a missionary. As the movement begins to multiply, the churches themselves plant additional churches. We can see this in ant colonies: nests plant nests. Rapidly. It is instinctively what ants do.

9. Rapid reproduction. One queen ant can lay on average 1,500 eggs per day. Some colonies have one hundred or more queens, for a total of some 150,000 eggs per day. A mature colony can produce over four thousand queens in one year. When these queens are sent out to start a colony over ninety percent of them fail! Yet, despite this, an area the size of half a football (soccer) field can be home to over 100,000 queen ants. Ants dominate by the sheer rate of colony planting.

10. Healthy churches. There are not any ant-doctors and ant-psychologists; however, ants still practice member care. The queen ants and female ants are kept deep inside the mount and cared for. Worker ants labor to expand the hive, to store up food and to generally provide for the colony’s health.

Theories about Church Planting Movements
In addition to these ten universal elements, theories about CPMs also list ten common factors.3 These factors are often, but not always, found. These are less applicable to ants; however, there are some parallels. They are:

1. Worship in the heart language. Obviously, not really applicable for ants. (Perhaps ants sing hymns by St. Anthony?)

2. Evangelism has communal implications. Virtually everything an ant does has communal implications. Ants just are not individualistic creatures.

3. Rapid incorporation of new converts into life and ministry. Once ants are out of their infancy they begin working. They start work in the nursery, graduate to food maintenance and eventually become foragers or colony-defenders.

4. Passion and fearlessness. Since (as far as we know) ants don’t really have emotions, it is hard to attribute passion and fearlessness to them. Still, we can see the results of seeming fearlessness. Ants are single-minded creatures. If you see an ant on the pavement, try putting your finger down next to it. Likely, the ant will move away from you but keep on walking. Ants just do not understand the concept of quitting.

5. A price to pay to become a Christian. This isn’t really applicable to ants, since ants do not have a choice about being ants. They are born ants and, viewed as pests, pay a price—but they do not personally choose to pay the price.

6. A perceived leadership crisis or spiritual vacuum. Ants do best in empty biospheres—areas without any natural ant predators. They can rapidly expand into these areas.

7. On the job training for leadership. This pretty much defines the life of an ant. We do not know how ants “learn”; however, there are no four-year degrees in Queen Care or Lizard Stripping.

8. Decentralized leadership authority. Repeat after me: every ant a leader, every leader an ant.

9. Outsiders keep a low profile. Once the queen ant lays the first few eggs in a new territory and cares for them until they hatch, she buries herself deep in the colony. She continues to lay eggs, but never comes out again. That is pretty low.

10. Suffering persecution. Ants successfully endure nearly any level of “persecution.” As one writer said, “Any attempt to eradicate an ant colony is at best only a temporary solution, because ants simply cannot be destroyed.”

Relationship to Mission Swarms
So is it possible to build a “mission swarm” that can recruit and send out forty-three thousand teams? That can tackle any problem it is faced with—be it lack of the gospel, poverty, disease, corruption or war? Where multiple “colonies” can become a “super-colony,” while not losing their distinctives? Where shared values and purposes enable the accomplishment of the overall goals?

I would be very interested in articles published here or elsewhere which examine this concept. Puff it up or rip it apart, but I think it deserves time to put words on a page. In that vein, I offer the following points. A swarming mission structure would, I think, share these values:

1. Its members would daily live by common purposes and principles. A swarming mission structure would be built by people who agree to pursue a singular, multifaceted vision whole-heartedly. They would spend time at the beginning getting everyone “on board” with the purpose and values, so that later they can decentralize leadership and authority as much as possible by trusting people to make the right decisions.

2. Its members would prize cooperation over command or coordination. Without leaders, collective action must be cooperative rather than coordinated. Mission swarms must empower people with tools—like the ant pheromones—to cooperate and partner with each other.

3. Its members would focus on rapid reproduction. Right now, according to David Barrett and Todd Johnson, births are the primary cause of growth of the Church.4 This is not enough to make a difference in the unreached world. We must increase the number of converts (disciples) we make. We must strive to increase the reproductive rate of our churches through conversion, conscientiously removing every barrier in the way.

4. Its members would be rapidly incorporated in to the work. We must increase our own ability to rapidly train disciples and get them started making disciples as well. This may mean, as much as possible, getting away from four-year schools and seminaries. Apprenticeships, mentoring and coaching will be key tools. However, we should not get rid of four-year schools altogether. Established higher-education schools provide centers of advanced learning and research which can be invaluable.

5. It must join together to form super-colonies. A swarming mission must be able to connect small mission “colonies” in specific cities, tribes, provinces, countries, regions and globally into super-colonies focused on expansion. It must become diverse, incorporating the cultural giftings and resources, in order to meet the challenges we face. It must have a significant amount of grace for each other’s cultural and professional differences and methods.

6. Its members will refine their macro-planning while dramatically improving their micro-planning abilities. There are many “big-thinkers” and “visionaries” in the Christian world. I have sometimes been labeled as one of these. What is interesting to me is that ants do not have big thinkers and visionaries. There are no strategists, no researchers, no surveyors, no planners—or are there? Isn’t every ant a researcher—of their area? Each ant uncovers its environment and communicates its discoveries to its near neighbors. Ant research is less like a scientist mapping the human genome and more like a radar set for a plane. They very quickly “strobe” their environment and react to the immediate vicinity. A swarming mission can and should utilize macro-research; however, we need to vastly improve our micro-research and communication ability. We need to take advantage of both the big picture trends and the immediate field realities.

7. Its members must increase their ability to measure. Everything having to do with our daily ministry work should be measured and reviewed: recruitment, training, deployment, support, strategies, execution and so on. For example, if we are seeking mission applicants, then we need to know answers to questions such as: What is the ideal application for each position? Where are we recruiting these applicants? How many applicants did we get? How many were accepted? Of those that were not accepted, why did they “fall through the cracks”? How might we improve this in the future? Measuring and analyzing every single step will help us increase the quantity and quality of our work.

8. We must increase our accountability. This is one area where we are better than ants. Bugs generally do not have accountability partners. If an ant wanders too far from the nest, it dies. The nest as a whole does not seem to weep much or miss him. Humans are different, and we need to put strong systems in place to help each other be accountable for the plans we implement and the way we work.

9. We can use technology, but we should not dependent on it. Technology can empower people. It enables individual people to do more with less effort. However, we must not become dependent on technology—incapable of doing any work without it. The more our ministry requires technology, the less our ministries can be passed on to others who lack sufficient technology. This limits the speed at which swarms can expand.

10. We must be committed. We need to increase our commitment to reach the unreached and labor against our desire to build our own empire. I am not saying we should not plant new colonies—we must. These may be vast structures, every bit as complicated as a skyscraper or a pyramid. They may have vast storehouses full of resources. They may contain media centers, printing presses, Bible schools, bookstores, medical research centers, micro-enterprise banks and every other thing we can think of. But at the end of the day, our goal is not to build state-of-the-art nests, but to make ant-makers. We would do well to keep this in mind.

C.S. Lewis once said, “Writing is like herding sheep: if you leave a gate open, some of the sheep will wander through it.” So, let me close some of the gates by clarifying what I am not saying regarding comparisons.

1. Parachurch versus Church
I am not making a statement about which—the agency or the church—is better. Humans are not ants, and we use multiple forms of organization. I believe both churches and agencies can make a significant impact among the unreached. Agencies generally have more experience at doing this than modern churches because they have been doing it longer. Both can do it better than they have in the past. Both, I think, can benefit from swarming concepts. But most important, both should spend more time concentrating on improving what they do rather than concentrating on how they are the “best” or theologically “correct” option.

2. Nationals versus Expatriates
Swarms recruit from where there are workers, and send workers to where there are none. Locals obviously find it easier to bridge the cultural divide; however, they are not always the best choice. Expatriates may have certain advantages, but they are not always the best choice either. Swarms use what they can find—whether it is a local or an expatriate.

3. Professional versus Lay Workers
Workers should be trained, and trained well. It is better to give workers adequate salary and resources than insisting each work to raise his or her own support from distant sources; however, I know there are powerful arguments for self-support. An ant colony finds all its own support from the land where it is placed. Every ant within the colony works to provide for every ant—the ant-makers, the ant-foragers, the ant-defenders and the ant-workers. The old saying “One for all and all for one” fits them well. Perhaps it would be best to look at a continuum. Ants progress from infant to supported nursemaid to bi-vocational colony-builder to self-supported and supporting forager. Could this be done in missions as well?

4. Big Structures versus Little Structures
This is not about complexity of structure. Ant colonies can be every bit as complex as pyramids or skyscrapers—they are just less noticeable and more mobile. Some ant colonies, as we read, are massive. Some ant colonies are in small little cracks on the sidewalk, but no less integral.

5. Mission versus Non-mission
Swarming does not exclude things like business as mission, medicine, development, crisis response, humanitarian relief, etc. These are important parts of being a blessing. There is clearly a place for this within the concepts of a colony and a swarm.

Moving Forward
I would like to propose an ongoing discussion—through chats, articles, comments, blogs, whatever—about these concepts and how they might be better implemented.

When ministries are being launched, how might we make them more like ants from the start? How can we define our mission and principles in such a way that everyone clearly understands them and signs on? How do we decentralize power? How do we give individuals authority, yet with safeguards to prevent its misuse?

How do we better enable basic communication? We need to have some simple ways to say “food here” or “danger there.” Maybe this can be done via cell phone SMS, maybe by email or maybe at a morning meeting. The more complicated the system, the less likely it is to be used; ants just “use their noses.”

How do we better interact with others so that we form super-colonies? How do we get away from partnerships that must be formalized, and into simple cooperation? How do we identify the best places for planting new swarm colonies? How do we logistically get people there?

In that vein, next month I am going to begin with some research I have done on swarms. I will identify seven specific features of swarms, and the properties that can help make your group more swarm-like.


1. Garrison, David. Church Planting Movements. Richmond, Virginia, USA: International Mission Board. Found online at: http://www.imb.org/CPM/Chapter3.htm.

2. Ibid. http://www.imb.org/CPM/Chapter2-Bholdari.htm

3. Ibid.

4. Barrett, David and Todd Johnson. 2001. World Christian Trends. Pasadena, California, USA: William Carey, 59, Global Diagram 41.

Justin Long manages strategicnetwork.org and is senior editor for Momentum, a magazine devoted to unreached peoples. He can be reached at [email protected].