Monday, July 24, 2006

The Harvest we Don't See: A Call for a Renewed North American Missiology

Over the past two decades, Evangelicals in North America have been very effective in reaching the lost, discipling them to maturity, and as a result extending the Kingdom of God into darkness . . . .that is, if you are a white, moderately-educated, middle-class, middle-income family! If you belong to any other social strata, any other socio-economic level, or any other ethnic and/or language group, you are simply not even on our radar, and it's high time that changed!

Largely due to the phennomenon of globalization, the ethnic and cultural landscape in North America is becoming more heterogenous every year, with the anticipation that by 2050, there will no longer be a majority Anglo culture in our nation. Major North American cities now share more in common with their sister-metroplexes across the ocean than with the small towns located just a few miles from city limits. In my own mission field of central Maryland, over 160 different languages are spoken, and in some places, such as the Howard County seat of Columbia, all ethnic categories are outpacing Anglos in population growth by double-digits!

Given these striking realities, one would think that those who claim the most commitment to the propogation of Biblical truth would be modeling that commitment via an aggressive missiological strategy to reach all people. Instead, the past two decades have seen Evangelicals basically ignoring those whom God has sent our way, and crying out for the next most effective strategy for reaching people who are just like us!

Such ambivelence toward those of other cultures is not new. In fact, Jesus contended with such cultural myopia in His own disciples. In John 4, He leads His disciples through Samaria toward His ultimate destination of Galilee. Samaria was definitely the wrong side of the tracks, and as far as the disciples were concerned, it had been that way for over 700 years. During the 8th century B.C. the Assyrian army had invaded this same area and scattered 10 of Israel's 12 tribes to the furtherest corners of the earth, leaving only a few in this area who eventually intermarried with the Assyrians, resulting in a new mixed race called the Samaritans. To the Jews, these were "second-class citizens." The disciples of course want nothing to do with this area, or the people who occupy it. But Jesus has other plans, which include a divine encounter with a woman at Jacob's well. Yet in spite of this life-transforming event in her life, the disciples still don't get it, and their ignorance and missiological near-sightedness become the impetus for one of Jesus' greatest challenges: "Look I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest."

In short, Jesus says "you think the harvest is in Galilee, but I have brought you through this place you don't like, and to a people with whom you will not associate, to show you that the harvest is here as well . . . . right in front of your eyes! Look!"

As Reggie McNeal well notes; "It's amazing what we don't see when we aren't looking!"

Fast-forward 2000 years, and we find the same problem. Those we are successfully reaching in North America are, for the most part, exacly like us. As for the few other groups that are successfully being reached (i.e. Asians, Hatians), the credit belongs less to an aggressive North American missions strategy and more to the indigenous evangelical history out of which these groups come. But what kind of attitude causes such a disjointed approach to mission?

For years, Evangelicals have required International Missionaries to learn the language, adopt the dress and cultural practices, and immerse themselves totally in the culture of the people they aspire to reach with the Gospel. But when similar moves are tried in North America, a double-standard results, as many churches simply trying to contextualize the Gospel are accused of compromise.

The cause of this double-standard is multi-faceted, but at the source is an assumption that the United States, unlike every other geo-political nation-state in the world, is monocultural. Because terms like "multiculturalism" were hijacked early-on by the political left in an attempt to bless sinful behavior, Evangelicals have reacted sternly against any suggestion that the term just might have some redeeming quality. One well-known seminary dean even exclaimed that in America "We have ONE culture," and in a moment of imperial superiority invited all to "come and join it."

This is the common misunderstanding: This dean, like many Evangelicals, believes that because our nation shares the same system of government, a common currency, a lingua franca, and a geo-political boundary that we as a result are all a part of the same culture. Nothing could be further from the truth! These boundaries alone do not define a culture.

Further complicating this issue are those on the other side of this debate, who seem to find "people groups" in just about every sub-strata of American life. The result of this kind of thinking is the manifestation of "cowboy churches," "biker churches," "Gen-X churches," and "35-to-40-year-old scored-greater-than-120-on-18-holes-bad golfer churches." Phillip Connor of the Center for Missional Research rightly states that while innumerable affinity groups could be identified in our culture, "it is a stretch to say that each of these population subgroups constitutes an actual 'people group' as defined in the original Greek text found in the Great Commission."

In short, as a biker, I can freely attend the church of which I am a member, and find teaching, encouragement, ministry, and friendship from those who have never availed themselves of the priviledge of mounting a Harley! To put it succinctly, the singular fact that I ride a motorcycle does not produce a significant barrier to my ability to hear and understand the Gospel.

What then does cause significant barriers to hearing and responding to the Gospel? Being a biker in and of itself produces no significant barrier. But what if I am an Hispanic biker immigrant who works two jobs to support my family? To such a person, a church full of white people speaking English, driving Lexus' and meeting at 10:00 on Sunday morning might be an issue! What follows is but an example of the investigation that should be taking place in and around every major metroplex in the US:

The language they speak: Several years ago I was working in North Africa. I was to land in southern Spain, receive briefings on the work to be done, and then cross the Mediterranean Sea to the African continent for a week. After many hours of delayed flights, I found myself re-routed from Chicago and Madrid to Newark and Zurich, Switzerland, finally touching down on the costa del Sol some 12 hours past my scheduled landing. Moreover, my contact had given up on meeting me and had returned to Africa. Of course, being an American, I spoke not one word of Spanish. I had no national currency, no way to get to my destination, and no guidance. After finally locating the phone number of my contact, it was wonderful to communicate with someone who understood me, and who I understood. To me, the English language had never sounded so beautiful!

Likewise, while those from other nations usually come to our shores with some working knowledge of our language, hearing their own dialect instantly removes all communication barriers! It is imperative, as we begin to investigate the various people groups in North America, that we identify the common languages, both official and tribal, that exist among these people. Furthermore, North American missionaries called to reach these people should do all within their power to make the Gospel available in the "heart language" of the people. Connor notes that those living in North America who represent the most unevangelized areas on the globe (i.e. the Middle East, Eastern Asia) appear to have the fewest number of indigenous churches available to them. While a number of barriers must be breached for this to change, the language barrier is, to many of these groups, primary.

The demographic context in which they are found: This of course, addresses a host of issues such as race, income, education, marital status, living conditions, and even age. While much criticism has rightly been leveled at "generational theory," I find that many are throwing out the baby with the bathwater by stating that a person's generational grouping is of no consequence. While it is correct that much of what was published in the past concerning generational theory was aimed primarily at white suburbanites, I still contend that this is still an important factor in determining an appropriate missiological response. For example, African-Americans born prior to 1964 had much different experiences than African-Americans born after 1980, and these various experiences will affect both the metaphysical and epistemological grounds of their respective worldviews.

Likewise, there has been an increasing dichotomy between residents of rural areas as opposed to those living in the nations' cities. Much of the world and life view of these two groups is formed, at least in part, on the basis of their location. Such a factor cannot be ignored when considering how best to reach people. In fact, most of the church planting failures I have witnessed came as a result of missing this key differentiation. If you are in a socially-conservative rural area, you simply cannot "copy-cat" a ministry model perfected in the city!

The questions they are asking: Ed Stetzer has observed that while 20% of the US population still wonders about what will happen to them when they die, the other 80% are largely ignored by Evangelicals because our canned evangelistic approaches are only addressing the question of life after death. While a person's eternal destination is one of the most important reasons we practice evangelism, we must meet these people at their point of concern, and for many, that concern simply isn't about the afterlife. Our task as missionaries to North America is to discover the questions that disturb the various groups we are trying to reach. No matter what they are asking, the Gospel is the answer! But in order to know how best to present that answer, we must make sure we are reaching them at their point of greatest perceived need.

The bottom line of all this is simple: We excel in reaching people who are exactly like us, stink at reaching anyone else, and as a result, at least 2/3 of the 320 million people living in the US are without a relationship to Jesus Christ. If we want that to change, we must stop deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are still a "Christian nation" with one culture, one voice, one purpose, and one set of beliefs and values. Over the past half-century, Jesus has been in the process of bringing the nations right to our door. And unlike the church in any other nation, American Christianity has the means and resources to take the Gospel to them all. But the one thing required for this is that which we have not yet done: Lift up your eyes and see the harvest!

Further Resources:

Discover more helpful information at the Center for Missional Research by clicking the link below:

Connor, Phillip. 2006. A Biblical Missiology for North American People Groups. Accessed 16 July, 2006 at

McNeal, Reggie. 2003. The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.