Gospel & Culture blog
By Ken Nehrbass
This year's theme of the Evangelical Missiological Society was "missions and evangelism in a secular age." There were many discouraging trends about the "nones"- millennials who no longer see themselves as religious. Much of the discussion centered on how we can help make the church more palatable to secular folks. A palatable church would be a compassionate one (Eph 4:32), one that creates space for disagreement and questioning of the faith, one that is not judgmental (Matt 7:1). This doesn't mean watering down the message, or selling out to the world, it just means sending a message of love in a way that the world can understand.
Yet the more I thought about my own experience with missions and evangelism in a secular age, I began to think through the men and women I know who have moved from "nones" (non religious) to faith in Christ in the past ten years. As I recalled the faith journeys of these new members of the family of Christ, I realized that each of them converted because 1) they were in a crisis in their lives, and 2) a Christian explained that the Bible is trustworthy, that God demands repentance, and that following Jesus is the only way to peace and purpose.
In other words, it was the testimony of believers, and the power of God's word, that brought these people from secular to saved. Just like in the gospels and the book of Acts-- Jesus and the other preachers told people "repent and believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31). Reaching a "none" is just like reaching people from the first century Palestine, and like reaching people from every other century: the Word of God, the testimony of believers, and the timing of the Holy Spirit in a person's life are the keys to evangelism.
with guest contributor Denis LaClare
The new GodTools app from CRU was designed to help people share the gospel in any setting from a phone or tablet. In addition to the iconic “Four Spiritual Laws”, there are 2 versions of “Knowing God Personally” and “Satisfied”, which explore the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
And the newest tool is called “Honor Restored" which is aimed at sharing the gospel among the more than one million international students who are in the USA. Many of these students come from honor/shame cultures. In simplistic terms, the first of three primary worldviews can be summarized as “Western”, which emphasizes an interpretation of the world through the lenses of guilt and innocence.
A second worldview element for many international students is based on fear and power. Any culture with indigenous peoples (Africans, Native Americans, etc.) or cultures that try to appease the spiritual world out of fear, fall into this category. A third worldview encapsulates almost all of the Asian, Arab and Persian world and is motivated by honor and shame. The avoidance of shame and the acquisition of honor for themselves and their families are their highest virtues. The Honor Restored digital tool gives them an opportunity to understand the good news in terms that make sense to them. Released in January, 2018, the tool has 2400 “hits” and at least one international student has given their life to Jesus after walking through Honor Restored with a fellow student. Cru hopes to see thousands of students understand and embrace Jesus as a result of this tool.
Once people groups are identified, strategists begin to catalog these groups in terms of evangelistic response and need, for the purposes prayer (Johnstone, 2001). And mission organizations begin to direct mission resources to the fields (i.e., people groups) 1) that were seen as “ripe” (receptive); or 2) to those where no work has been done. If it were not for the concept of people groups, mission mobilizers would not have come to emphasize unreached people groups in the 1990s. Beginning with the world’s 7000 distinct languages (P. Lewis, Simons, & Fennig, 2013), the Joshua project took into account features such as religion, and ethnicity, (“Global Statistics,” n.d.) to arrive at a list of over 16,000 people groups.
Missiologists (Bush, 2013) have, understandably, connected the concept of ethnolinguistic people groups to the use of ethne in the New Testament. For example, they contend that Matthew 28:19 means “Make disciples of all people groups.” This argument is fraught with difficulties:
Think of the difficulties in interpreting ethne as ethnic groups: Is the child of an African-American father and Korean mother a member of a distinct ethne—yet another ethne that must be evangelized and will be included in the “all cultures in heaven” list? Would reaching a Korean-African American be considered as one new ethne or two or three ethne? What about people like Tiger Woods—“Cabalasians” who have numerous ethnicities in their background (as in fact, we all do)? Are they included as a distinct ethne? Are Caucasian Americans in the twenty-first century—with the innumerable combinations of Scandinavian, Mediterranean, Eastern European ancestry—to be understood as a single ethne? If we extend ethne to mean “however people identify themselves ethnically” or “all possible ethnic permutations” then we are left with so many possibilities that we may as well just say “all people.” In fact, that is exactly what many theologians conclude: We must interpret “every tribe and nation” as a metaphor for many people from all over the world. (Nehrbass, 2016, p. 71)
The model of people groups has now been amended to include seventeen major “affinity blocs”, including the Arab world, East Asians, Eurasians, Jews, Malay, North Americans, Pacific Islanders, etc. As affinity blocs are highly reductive and do not take into account these major differences in ethnicity, language or religion, the concept may appear to be a regression from “people groups.” However, affinity blocs are also a missiological application of the homogenous unit principle: Mission strategies within the Arab world will be tailored differently than they will among North Americans or East Asians.
The concept of people groups, combined with the 20th century push for “evangelization in this generation” led to the discourse of unreached people groups. Once these unreached people groups could be identified, mission mobilizers suggested adopting people groups, especially in a geographic region missiologists called the 10/40 window.
By Kenneth Nehrbass
Jesus used various motifs to describe what He meant by “disciple.” He told some simply, “Follow me” (Matt. 4:19). The authors of the gospels never spell out criteria for who among the crowd following Jesus was a disciple and who wasn’t. It’s safe to say that there was no specific criteria for membership; disciples were those who came to Jesus for teaching (the core of the word “disciple” is one who adheres to the teachings of another). Davis (2015, pp. 29-32) suggests that perhaps the reason that practical theologians cannot agree on a definition of disciple is that it is, after all, a fuzzy (rather than bounded) set. Discipleship is not a program, or a twelve-step process. It is a lifelong process of transformation, and it is personalized- so it is a bit fuzzier to define.
Another motif for discipleship is based on Jesus’ teaching of the kingdom of God. Those who are under the rule of God, in whom the Kingdom is growing (Luke 17:21), are disciples.
Two main activities have characterized missiological understandings of making disciples: proclamation and obedience. Below I’ll explore both briefly.
Discipleship as persuasion
Church growth missiologists understood discipleship as primarily about proclamation. Wagner (1973) said the process of discipling involved helping “unbelievers to make a commitment to Christ. Wagner deliberately distinguished this activity from a separate stage, perfection, which involves “teaching them all things” (Rainer, 1993). Yet this narrow definition of discipleship is no longer in wide use. Scholar-practitioners now recognize that discipleship is more than bringing people to conversion.
As a professor of missions, I often hear people say "you can be missionary right in your own neighborhood." As with any academic field, it's important to get the terms clear. While you can be an evangelist in your own neighborhood, "missionary" and "missions" should not be confused with "evangelism" or "discipleship."
Missions is cross-cultural discipleship, so some very important work that we do as the church is NOT missions. Drawing a boundary does mean excluding some work from the definition of missions (thought such work may be missional and strategic for the church). Consider the following true examples from my students:
Sharon, from the USA, teaches English in Thailand. She was not sent by her church, is not under a mission agency, and receives a salary from her university. While she is working cross-cultural, she does not see herself as a missionary because her presence in Thailand is not particularly about making disciples
Miguel, from the Philippines, is studying theology and missions in the USA, but plans to plant churches among his own ethnic group in the Philippines. He considers himself a church planter, but not a missionary.
Carmen, from the USA, is financially supported by members of her own church to do the bookkeeping for a mission organization in West Africa. She does not particularly “teach them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” but her mission organization does have an overall plan to make disciples. Carmen sees herself as a missionary because of her important role in an organization that is doing missions.
If a cross cultural worker digs wells but has no overall plan for “teaching them to obey all Jesus commanded,” then while it is obeying the first commandment to manage the earth for the flourishing of humankind, it is not part of the narrower aspect of the churches mission to make disciples across cultures. And in all fairness, I must add, if an organization plants churches and hands out tracks, but is not actually “teaching them to obey all Jesus has commanded,” then it, too, is not actually doing missions.
Of course, in our day-to-day experience, the set of activities which are involved in making disciples is fuzzy. Healthcare can be done in a way that teaches people to obey Jesus, or it can be done without touching on issues of discipleship. A Christian could work cross-culturally in such a way that she makes disciples in her secular workplace, or she could hide her light under a bushel. By defining missions narrowly as cross-cultural discipleship, I am not as much excluding certain activities as I am focusing on the setting (does it cross cultural boundaries) and strategy (does it make disciples) that drives those activities.
The activities (methods) and purpose seem to fall in three general categories. The most obvious is witness. Some “teach them to obey all Jesus commanded” by planting churches, teaching in international seminaries, exorcising demons, and preaching to crowds at college campuses. But in 2016 we reached the threshold where more than 50% of people who call themselves missionaries say their primary activity is not witness, but service, development, healthcare, or cultural production through the arts. A second category of missionary methods includes engagement in public life. And a third we may label as “cultural production.” The below shows how these categories fit together in the bigger picture of making disciples across cultures.
The apostle Paul said “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12 ESV). Yet Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs remind us that some are experiencing much greater levels of persecution than others. Open Doors' “World watch list” breaks down persecution of Christians into three “impulses” or pressures on Christians: tribalism (factions, in-fighting), secularism, and exploitation. Some persecution is acute (which Open Doors refers to as “the smash”) and some is more chronic (“the squeeze”). Religious intolerance, factionalism and tribalism are increasingly dangerous to believers. It was Justin Long who reported “During this century, we have documented cases in excess of 26 million martyrs. From AD 33 to 1900, we have documented 14 million martyrs.” The Vatican says that 75% of people who are killed for their faith are Christians.
Historically, theologians have been ambivalent the role of persecution in Christianity. Tertullian noted that “the blood of the martyrs is seed [of the church]" (Apologeticus, Chapter 50). This was more descriptive than prescriptive. That is, Tertullian wasn’t advocating for martyrdom as a church growth strategy; he was observing that rather than stamping out the church, martyrdom rallied the faithful. Why is this? Maybe because stories of persecution are inspiring. They help us think through our own priorities. We think, “If someone ordinary- not a super saint- had the courage to stick to their convictions, then maybe I can too.” Westminster Abbey's statue to ten 20th century martyrs from all six continents received wide attention because of the inspiring stories and adventuresome lives of Bonhoeffer, Dr MLK Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero and others.
Why do governments and factions persecute Christians?
Some postcolonial theorists find the martyrdom narrative within Christianity to be disturbing, so they discount the degree to which the church has been, and still is, persecuted. Most notably, New Testament scholar and contributor to the National Geographic Channel Candida Moss has argued that the persecution complex gives license to Christians to vilify their opponents:
Instead, Moss says, early accounts of martyrdom were few and far between. Such accounts were highly stylized to suit the author’s purpose. Christians, Moss argues, were prosecuted, not persecuted, for a crime that made sense to the ancient world. In order to further distance Christianity from its historical claim of disproportionately high levels of persecution, Moss argues that the act of martyrdom was not original, but followed motifs in the life of Socrates and the Greek romance novel. Or perhaps, Moss fancies, early Christians “couldn’t help themselves” from rehearsing the passion narrative!
While persecution is one of the greatest threats to Christians, Patrick Fung (Director of OMF) tried to keep this perspective: “The greatest challenge to missions isn’t martyrdom, but a diluted gospel” (NA Mission Leaders’ conference, Chicago, Sep 21 2012). Interestingly, Glenn Penner, CEO of Voice of the Martyrs takes a similar radical stance: “I do not believe that persecution is the greatest threat to the continuing spread of the gospel. I am much more concerned about something that, at first glance, seems benign and even helpful but which I contend is far more insidious. I am referring to the dependency creating practices that ministries are increasingly promoting in the name of ‘partnership.’”
The issue of martyrdom raises a number of questions for Christians
These days, "locally sourced" and "organic" are seen as great selling points for a product. Actually, mission leaders have long recognized the value of local resources. Church growth should be locally sourced- in fact, the goal of missions is to strengthen the local church so that discipleship, leadership and education are all locally sourced, rather than dependent on the expatriates.
Church growth is also organic and natural. Programs and pre-determined "formulas" don't work. That's why Rolland Allen referred to the "spontaneous expansion of the church."
What other trends in the market also match with values within missionary work?
Free range? At one point in time, missions was not so free-range; the wisdom of the day was to move converts to a mission station where they learned a trade and how to read. But missiologists and practitioners in recent decades have seen that this artificial environment did not help new Christians learn how to live out their faith in their own villages or communities. Now evangelism, discipleship and education happen in people's natural cultural and geographic environment.
Cross-cultural workers in recent decades have begun to recognize that the communities and people where we work must benefit as much from the missions effort as the sending churches do- in that sense, there's a "fair trade" ring to missions work. If your church in the USA is getting all the kudos and joy from your short term missions projects, whereas the host community is left unheard, something's wrong.
I suppose you could even say church growth is gluten free in many parts of the world- the only bread is the Bread of Life in parts of the world where rice or taro are the food staple, not bread.
Kenneth Nehrbass, Ph.D.
Associate Professor at Biola University, Author, Pastor