U.S. Christians live in one of the world’s fastest-growing mission fields
It was January, 2001, and we had just launched what is now the Church Ministry division of The Mission Society. The good people of Trinity United Methodist Church in Opelika, Alabama, had invited us to present the Global Focus Seminar to their annual church leaders’ training meeting.
At one point during the seminar, we were explaining the concept of “unreached people groups” and showing that most of them were found in a geographical region known as the “10/40 Window.” One of the participants interrupted to make a startling observation. He was the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus director at Auburn University.
“Among the student body at Auburn,” he said, “there are people from 70 of the unreached people groups found within the 10/40 Window.” I was stunned. Opelika is a little town with only about 25,000 residents. But less than 10 miles away was a university that was home—at least temporarily—to some of the least reached (and no doubt hard-to-reach) peoples on the planet. If Jesus followers in Opelika wanted to share the gospel with 10/40 Window unreached people groups, they didn’t have to get a passport or buy an airplane ticket. The just had to drive to Auburn!
The least reached among us
The Mission Society was established in 1984 to take the gospel “where it had been least heard or heeded.” Two years ago, we adopted a new Statement of Mission that placed a strategic priority on joining Jesus in His mission, especially among the “least reached” people.
The original Joshua Project criteria for declaring a people group “unreached” was that it was less than two percent Evangelical Christian and less than five percent Christian adherents. While that was an admittedly arbitrary percentage, the assumption behind it was sound; namely, that the believing community within a people group could not be reasonably expected to evangelize the rest of their group without outside assistance if less than this minimal percentage were witnessing Christians.
While the distinction might seem only a matter of semantics, we have chosen to use the language of “least reached” rather than “unreached” people groups. The reason is simple: “least reached” is a relative term, one that applies in any country or area of the world. Anywhere you go, there are individuals, population segments, and people groups who are “less reached” than their neighbors. The implication of our mission statement is that whether you live in Louisville, Kentucky or Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia, it’s incumbent on Christian disciples to identify and then reach out to those who have had the least opportunity to “hear or heed” the gospel.
The opportunities before us
The February 2012 issue of Leaven - A Journal of Christian Ministry (published by the Religion Division of Pepperdine University) carried an article, “The Mission Field Next Door: A Status Report on North American Missions.” In it the authors observe, as many have, that North American Christians today live in the midst of one of the world’s fastest-growing mission fields. The article outlines theological, cultural, and church realities that define the missionary challenge and opportunity faced by the church right here in the United States.
In relation to the cultural realities, the authors note that the environment in which American Christians minister today is radically different than the one our grandparents or even parents faced. “(F)or us to be faithful to God’s mission now we cannot escape becoming cross-cultural workers. Ministry in America today is cross-cultural.” The authors go on to highlight six cultural factors that call for a cross-cultural approach to ministry on the part of the American church.
1. Urbanization – Two generations ago, 75 percent of the population of the United States lived in rural settings. Today, 75 percent live in cities. Churches have not kept pace with this massive change, either culturally or geographically.
2. Pluralism – America has moved from E Pluribus Unum (from many, one) to a nation of many tribes. Whereas in the past Americans tended to downplay our nation’s diversity—for better or for worse—today our differences are celebrated, as well they should be. However, this presents the church with a major challenge. Unless it learns to minister cross-culturally, these differences will present major barriers to sharing our faith.
3. Globalization – In a word, the world is moving to North America. A few years ago, I might have needed to document this. Today, that’s unnecessary. I daresay that your city or town or neighborhood is living proof of this fact. Tragically, most congregations have hardly begun to address the opportunities, much less the challenges, presented by the increasing diversity of our population.
4. Segregation of the poor – While the poor have always existed in America, “(w)hat is changing in America is the concentration of the poor into ghettos and the character of their poverty,” the authors write. “The layers of brokenness among America’s poor recently won us the distinction of having the most disadvantaged poor children of the developed nations.” The article goes on to note that congregations that are reaching the poor with the good news are, sadly, the rare exception rather than the rule.
5. Decline of institutions – With the near universal access to information, people today are less dependent upon—and committed to—the institutions that used to guide their thinking, define their community, shape their lives, nurture their faith, or command their allegiance. As a consequence, the church needs to reimagine what it means to be “faithful to its ancient faith” while at the same time being relevant to its contemporary neighbors.
6. Post-Christendom – From the time of Emperor Constantine until very recently, the church has held a privileged position in the Western world. One does not have to be a particularly astute observer of the times to know that this is no longer the case. “In a culture now being described by many as neo-pagan,” write the authors, “the church is often disrespected and marginalized.” Unless the church simply throws in the towel and slips into ever-increasing irrelevance, it will have to learn to cross an enormous cultural chasm in communicating the gospel to a world that is largely ignorant of its teachings, indifferent to its doctrines, and hostile to its proclamation that “Jesus is Lord.
Together these cultural trends present an extraordinary challenge and an exciting opportunity to the North American church.
The Life who leads us
This issue of Unfinished addresses some of the ways in which we can begin to respond to our least reached neighbors, whether rich or poor, black or white, young or old, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution or recent immigrants. But no effort to reach the least reached in our back yard will have any prospect of fruitfulness unless it reflects what is arguably the single most important characteristic of effective cross-cultural ministry: it must be truly incarnational.
Before the Apostle John declared, “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son,” (John 3:16a, The Message), he made the amazing statement that “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).
The American church will have little impact on the least reached among us until it leaves the safety of its sanctuaries (what an interesting word we use to describe our places of worship!) and gets meaningfully engaged with the most unreached segments of the population—unless it “moves into the neighborhood” of American youth culture; moves into the neighborhood of our teeming cities; moves into the neighborhood of the immigrants and refugees who are trying to make new lives for themselves within our borders; moves into the neighborhood of the Saturday night clubbers and the Sunday morning golfers.
I’ve visited several churches that posted signs at the exits of their parking lots announcing, “You are now entering the mission field.” It’s true. May God help the American church to discover and embrace the least reached in our own back yard.
The Rev. Dick McClain is president and CEO of The Mission Society.