The Western World As The Mission Field

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Western Christianity is hemorrhaging!

70% of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday, less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service.[1] Even more sobering is the reality that American churches would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population growth (some research states 15,000).[2]

In an interview with a Liberian church planter, he revealed that God called him to come to the United States to plant churches; he’s not the only one among the diaspora missionaries from Africa.[3] With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline,[4] there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the missio Dei, the sending of God, and shift to a missional praxis. The Western world has once again become the mission field.

When relating to Western culture, I understand the ambiguity involved in such terminology; therefore, for the purpose of this article, the term “Western culture” refers to the United States of America. I hope to illustrate our culture’s need for an apostolic movement and a call for a reestablished Trinitarian mission.

First, I’ll address the historical and present reality of the Western church’s decline and imperative nature as a mission field. Second, I’ll explore a biblical and theological reflection on the Western church within culture.

Historical and Present Reality of The Western Church

We don’t need to go too far back into American history to notice that a transformation has occurred. Just one hundred years ago, back to the 1920’s, Christianity was once was so enmeshed within its culture that capitalism and faith were nearly inseparable—it was virtually improbable to receive a bank loan without church membership.[5] John D. Rockefeller, who organized the Interchurch World Mission (IWM) once proclaimed, “A Christian is a Christian no matter what church he belongs to…What nobler aim can a man have in life than to be Christlike?”[6]

Studying Rockefeller’s business practices, it would not be against popular opinion to question his biblical faith, but as many Americans, Rockefeller assumed that everyone in American society were automatically Christian. Alan Hirsch clarifies, “In the American expression, Christianity was not married to the state but is nonetheless seen to be an inextricable part of American culture and identity; until the last thirty years or so, if you were American, you were a Christian.”[7] Church membership was more about being a part of the social norms and values than it was conviction of the heart.

An interesting statistic from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) shows research concerning American churches. NAMB found that in 1900 there were twenty-eight churches for every ten thousand people; by 1950 that number declined to seventeen; by the year 2000 it declined even more to twelve, and by 2004, it was down to eleven.![8] There are no current numbers, at least that I have discovered.

As stated, Olson’s statistics display that only 17.5% of the population in North America is attending Sunday services, but Doug Murren of the Murren Group, declares that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging a bit behind—his ghastly number of only 12% is staggering.[10] Furthermore, Murren’s research indicates “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”[11]

The Western church is surely in decline and hemorrhaging, as the culture pulls away from Christianity. The Barna Group assesses that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.”[12] With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only.[13] As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.”[14] The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.

However, while it’s good to recognize numbers and statistics, the church should not become depressed—only motivated. As the culture shifts, the contemporary church must be reminded that it’s not in the first-century. As early church historian Michael Green notes, “They lived in a world more relativist and far more pluralist that our own.”[15] Of course, to some, like Ted Turnau, who projects in his book, Popologetics, that “each idolatrous cultural act inspires another that is darker and more deceptive,”[16] this would place humanity into a more darker culture than ever before.

It’s probably safe to say that humanity is, well, humanity, and a depraved unregenerate people will not flock to the gospel, but toward sinful tendencies. One cannot fault culture for shifting, nor for humanity in embracing relativism, new age spiritualism, or even atheism. If the church is not spreading the love of the gospel and making disciples within its community then the current culture cannot be faulted for failing to possess a Christian worldview. David Hesslegrave defines, “A worldview is formed by hearing and learning a big story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”[17]

The church is failing to present a transformation story in Christ, filled with the Scriptures, and the application from within our current lives. Society is only doing what is expected of it, to live life according to the desires of the heart. Western culture must be a mission field engaged by a missional people with a passionate and harmonious unified church at its core. The culture has shifted from the church to the workplace—hence, the church must engage the marketplace—and engage it as a movement.

The call for an apostolic movement is vital. If as Malphurs stated, “Only five to twenty-five percent of pastors are equipped to turn around churches”[18] then only a paradigm shift in thinking will work. J.D. Payne rightly observes that the American church, which once was filled with missional church planters has developed into a pastoral missiology of “maintenance and conservation of structures and organizations.”[19] Hirsch adds to this line of thinking, “We forgot that it’s not so much that the church has a mission as that the mission has a church…missional church is apostolic church.”[20] To combat the decline of Western culture, the church must reengage its apostolic past, while communally embracing its missional future.

Biblical and Theological Reflection on The Western Church

            As Lesslie Newbigin so eloquently, yet blatantly put it, “The Christ who said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” also said to those same disciples, “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” and showed them the scars of his battle with the rulers of the world (John 20:20-21).[21] John’s passage reveals the Greatest Commission;[22] the missio Dei, it’s theologically steeped foundation within the Omnibenevolence of God.

To know God is to love him. Jesus told his disciples that they must love their neighbors as they love themselves; this is the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). When questioned as to whom was their neighbor (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with a story pertaining to the Jews’ detested race of people, the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-35).

In connection, the story of the Good Samaritan is an applicable imperative to know and love those within our culture. Christ’s incarnation provides an example of not only understanding culture, but tabernacling within it (John 1:14). In Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Everyday Theology he explains, “Cultural literacy—[is] the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—[it] is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”[23] To effectively engage Western culture, the church must not abandon the ancient faith, striving to embrace secular values to become relevant, but adhere, apply, and act within Trinitarian koinonia.

At the heart of the reconciliation of all things, whether Western culture or otherwise, is the love of the Father, explicitly sending the suffering Son, to vicariously be victorious over sin and death for humanity, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The love of God cannot be disseminated from the three persons of the Trinity, nor divorced from the missio Dei, as the conceptual understanding of homoousis underlies the Christ as the same eternal substance with the Father; so to, Christ is the head of the church.

Robert Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World expresses the church’s role and functions within a changing culture— “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.”[24] The church was given a mandate to make disciples while going about life (Matt 28:19), through the worship of the Father (Matt 4:10; John 4:23), obedience and submission to Christ (John 14:15), by intentionally heeding the Holy Spirit’s voice (John 14:26; Acts 1:8).

Making disciples means that the church expresses,reveals, and manifests to culture the reality of the Trinity’s nature, by the gospel of Christ. As Adam Dodds confirmed, “Jesus cannot rightly be identified without describing the triune nature of God…Although the gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this gospel begins with the Father sending the Son who is conceived by the Holy Spirit.”[25] Therefore, for the church to engage the Western culture with the gospel, it is to reveal God’s Omnibenevolence with the missio Trinitas. A call back to understanding that the Godhead propels and sustains the missional church community is at its core. Woodward validates, “since the church is the icon of the Trinity, true personhood is found in community.”[26]

When the Apostle Paul was called to go to Macedonia, he first made plans to go to Asia, but as Erwin McManus linked, “The entire Trinity got involved in keeping Paul from going to the wrong place.”[27] Currently, the Western church is not listening and it seems to be going to the wrong place. The church abides in Christ, having its resolve to fulfill the missio Dei, as the Imago Dei. As Christ’s body on earth, the church’s missional DNA (mDNA) exists in Jesus as Lord.[28]

Enculturation occurs when “an existent, prevailing culture influences” a church to “imbibe its accepted norms and values.”[29] By enculturation, the contemporary church has separated itself from the imago Dei. Rather than retaining its innate DNA (2 Cor. 5:17), Western Christianity has lost the power of the cross, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and the fear of Almighty God. The church’s enculturation has stripped it of the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (John 16), causing, in part, the West to become the mission field.

However, all is not lost. As Jesus stated, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b). The church, from its earliest inception, faced political, religious, and even internal opposition with councils, proconsuls, governors, kings, and tribunes, but the “powers that be,” hinder as they may attempt, could not and cannot cease a missional movement of God.[30] When the church relinquishes control of all earthly things to God and basks in his presence, it can expect an apostolic Trinitarian movement to occur.[31] During trials, tribulations, and opposition from society, the New Testament (NT) church was in the midst of an expansion explosion, and God was on the move.

The church must re-engage Western culture by relinquishing its boundaries to the missio Trinitas. Rolland Allen expresses this as the church’s primary fear, “There is always something terrifying in the feeling that we are letting loose a force which we cannot control; and when we think of spontaneous expansion in this way, instinctively we begin to be afraid.”[32] As the Apostles Paul and John declared, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and respectively, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). Therefore, in moving ahead within the cultural divide, the church must relinquish its thoughts of controlling Christ’s body. The church has all the resources, power, vision, people, and God-given authority to reach the West for Christ—may we be so emboldened to do it!

[1]David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.

[2]Ibid., 181.

[3]J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.

[4]Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.

[5]Charles Edward Harvey. 1982. “John D Rockefeller, Jr and the Interchurch World Movement of 1919-1920: a different angle of the ecumenical movement.” Church History51, no. 2: 203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 7, 2015).

[6]Ibid., 200.

[7]Alan Hirsch and Dave Ferguson, On the Verge: a Journey Into the Apostolic Future of the Church(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 130.

[8]Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), 9.

[9]Olson, The American Church in Crisis,181.

[10]Doug Murren, “De-Churching or Re-Gathering,” themurrengroup.com, March, 2015, accessed March 2, 2015, http://www.themurrengroup.com/de-gathering-or-re-gathering.html.

[11]Ibid., 5.

[12]George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless:Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2014), 16.

[13]Aubrey Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches For the 21stCentury: A Comprehensive Guide for New Churches and Those Desiring Renewal, 3rdEd. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 12.

[14]JR Woodward, Creating a Missional Culture: Equipping the Church for the Sake of the World(Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 30.

[15]Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church. Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 21.

[16]Ted Turnau, Popologetics: Popular Culture in Christian Perspective(Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2012), 65.

[17]David J. Hesselgrave, Planting Churches Cross-Culturally: North America and Beyond(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 146.

[18]Malphurs, Look Before You Lead,173.

[19]J.D. Payne, Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church(Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 24-25.

[20]Hirsch and Ferguson, On the Verge, 130-132.

[21]Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 124.

[22]Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West(Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 19.

[23]Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 19.

[24]Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 17.

[25]Adam Dodds. “Newbigin’s Trinitarian missiology: the doctrine of the Trinity as good news for Western culture.”International Review Of Mission99, no. 390 (April 1, 2010): 17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 6, 2015).

[26]Woodward, Creating A Missional Culture, 91.

[27]Erwin Raphael McManus, An Unstoppable Force Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind 2001 Publication(Loveland, CO: Group Pub. Inc., 2000), 77.

[28]Hirsch and Ferguson, On the Verge, 158.

[29]Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church, 18.

[30]Steve Walton. “What Does ‘Mission’ in Acts Mean in Relation to the ‘Powers That Be’?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society55, no. 3 (2012): 546.

[31]Grant Osborne. “Moving Forward On Our Knees: Corporate Prayer in the New Testament.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society53, no. 2 (June 2010): 259.

[32]Roland Allen, The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church: and the Causes That Hinder It(Grand Rapids, MI: Wipf & Stock Pub, 1997), 13.

Why Demographics Matter

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This article was published in May 2016 Church Planter Magazine

If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.

Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.

Demographics & Exegeting Culture

Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.

If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.

So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.

Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.

Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.

Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.

Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?

Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.

Demographics & Spiritual Pulse

Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.

I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.

Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.

If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.

Demographics & Sermon Delivery

Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.

Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.

As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.

There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.

 

Tools for How to find demographics:

Mapping: www.peoplegroups.org; www.census.gov; www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00

Community facts: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

Race/Ethnicity: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?ref=addr&refresh=t

Psychographics (lifestyles, values): www.neilsen.com/us

Religious Data: www.thearda.com; www.religions.pewforum.org

Armored Communities & Bomb Sniffing Chips: How The Gospel Answers Fear

One of my professors suggested that our doctoral cohort study culture and trends—something I was already inclined to do, but he offered a website that provides great insight. While the site, Faith Popcorn, doesn’t provide much analysis, it provides provoking thought and reflection. Reading the predictions through gospel lenses allows me stay a step ahead of culture.

I realize that this title may sound somewhat Orwellian, but humanity has arrived in the twenty-first century technological age. There are no flying cars, yet, or humanoids; however, not unlike the twentieth century we are still—perhaps even more so—engaged in an age of fear, anxiety, and paranoia.

Faith Popcorn predicts, “people will want guarded homes, there will be ways to filter your water, maybe bullet-proof houses, working more at home, not wanting to travel, armored communities where you will swap privacy for the privilege of living in a safe bubble.”

While some fear may be substantiated, Popcorn noted that “74% of Americans fear ISIS,” so the trends of tiny techno chips and fully disclosing our lifestyle seem to be the writing on the wall.

What do these future trends reveal?

Living With Full Disclosure

Does living within an armored city sound appealing to you? What about having all of your emails, phone calls, texts, and social media updates viewed and scrutinized—for the good of the community?

I see something grander at work here than protection or information gathering. I believe if people swap their privacy for safety something radical may occur. A community may accept sin as normal and justifiable.

Man will always desire to gratify himself. Sin feels good, tastes, good, and looks good. So, to think that an armored community would halt this would be naïve. Since the fall of humanity, man quests for pleasure, while also longing to hide the sin (inject Cain and Abel story, here). While armored communities may sound somewhat attractive at first, the realities of having every near-thought recorded and dissected will inevitably change how we will view sin.

If this future trend of walling ourselves in and being monitored by the thought-police occurs then we will inevitably be encountering some way to moralize or justify sinful behavior. Basically, no sin will be hidden from prying eyes, so to justify one’s actions; acceptability of the sin becomes normal. The community’s hearts become seared and accept sin.

Armored communities could easily become modern Sodom and Gomorrahs, not necessarily in a sexual sense, but in the sense of Ezekiel 16—following vanity and self-gratification.

The Fitbit Frenzy & Fear

Fitbits are probably some of the neatest gadgets manufactured. To think that this Star Trek-like accessory can sense our heart rates, fitness activity, record calories, receive text and call alerts, play music and wirelessly sync with our smart devices is pretty amazing. Newer technology trends are being developed to alert us if someone is strapped with C4 explosives or some type of dirty bomb.

I know, you’re probably thinking, how does this reveal the need for the gospel? A bomb sniffing Fitbit is just a man-made device created to help protect humanity—that’s good, right? Sure it is. But it is also revealing. It’s not the Fitbit itself that is so revealing; it is the reason for the ability’s design and demand. Why would people demand such a device? Surely, Apple would not create a product that people wouldn’t purchase—so, what does this tell us?

How These Trends Reveal and Plead For The Gospel

These two future trends reveal the hearts and minds of fearful living. The gospel’s power delivers people from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:13–14). Paul asserted, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).

There’s nothing wrong with protected neighborhoods, many well-known pastors live within them, and nothing wrong with an explosive-sniffing-micro-chip—don’t misunderstand me, but the fact that we live in a society where these are good things, detects more than bombs—it detects man’s bondage to fear, lack of love, and trust in God—something which only exists in the gospel.

The art of neighboring seems to be long gone. Both of these trends spell out what the church will be faced with in the coming future—fear and paranoia. But, we, as gospel-centered people, must strive to boldly proclaim man’s redemption from sin, God’s graceful gift of joy, and the freedom from the bondage of fear, to the world. We are ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation, as God makes his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:17–20). Trends of fear should be countered with gospel-saturation. “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Why Demographics Matter

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If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.

Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.

Demographics & Exegeting Culture

Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.

If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.

So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.

Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.

Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.

Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.

Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?

Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.

Demographics & Spiritual Pulse

Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.

I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.

Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.

If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.

Demographics & Sermon Delivery

Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.

Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.

As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.

There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.

 

Tools for How to find demographics:

Mapping: www.peoplegroups.org; www.census.gov; www.census.gov/quickfacts/table/PST045215/00

Community facts: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml

Race/Ethnicity: www.factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/searchresults.xhtml?ref=addr&refresh=t

Psychographics (lifestyles, values): www.neilsen.com/us

Religious Data: www.thearda.com; www.religions.pewforum.org

 

Urban Areas Are Dynamically Changing—And Why The Church Better Prepare Now

As someone who assesses cultural trends, demographics, and global movements, it is not easy being a visionary and trainer. One of the hardest aspects for “early adopters” is translating what you see coming and getting others to invest in that vision. For the most part, only a small percentage of people are early adopters of vision and even a smaller part are vision casters.

adoptioncurve1

The Reality of Inner City Churches

It’s amazing how we view the works of Schaeffer, Wagner, or McGavran with deep regard, yet when they were writing, not many evangelicals paid attention to them. So, this leads us into what is happening with global movements, urban areas, and immigration.

If you’re a church planter or pastor and haven’t heard the term diaspora, you will. If you want to know what is coming to urban churches then studying diaspora movements (and immigration) is essential. One of the major shifts in global population is the flowing dispersion of immigrant people groups. God is sovereignly moving people around the globe like never before.

If we couple that with the influx of hipster urbanites, gentrification, and urban renewal, it’s a massive powder keg awaiting implosion with inner city churches—they are not prepared for what is coming. The reality—these churches will die out. With the movement of refugees—either fleeing persecution, or temporary visa status—for work—refugees are coming to cities all over the world.

What Immigration Tells Us

Western churches in urban areas will be forced to reach people of ethnicity—not that urban churches haven’t always tried this—but cities will be more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever. We should know that immigration to the United States is the only cause for population growth.[1] Where do the immigrants go? Cities.

Without immigrants (legal), the United States would not be growing in population, but plateauing or even declining. Just to clarify, if you’re linking immigration with the Hispanic culture, let me help you. Currently, Germany and Ireland are the top two countries with diaspora peoples coming to the U.S.—Mexico is third, but only by a small portion of one percent, compared to the United Kingdom (4th).[2]

How Does This Change Urban Evangelicalism?

Immigration and diaspora models play a huge role with engaging urban areas with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20); as well as, the combined hipster, gentrification, and urban renewal (for taxation). I’ve heard it said, “We need to stop mega-churches from “gobbling” up old city churches for satellite campuses because they know nothing about the people in the city, plus there are extant churches available, which can do a better job.

Supposedly, the theory goes, there should not be mega-churches, or any Anglo church planters in urban areas because they are outsiders, do not understand the culture, and cannot engage the people. Another argument is Anglo church planters cannot reach African Americans, the prominent majority of urban population (I’ll refute this in a moment), and cause their churches to dwindle in attendance. The argument suggests that church planters and mega-churches should solely invest in small “indigenous” churches, working with and beside them. While I would have agreed with this model ten years ago (and to some extent do)—it’s as archaic as the tape cassette—well, maybe the CD.

Within the next five to ten years, domestic churches and church planters will be forced to reach across the cultural lines of socio-economic barriers, engage ethnic diversity evangelistically with E–2 to E–3 evangelism, and evaluate demographic and ethnic data. If a church doesn’t know who is in its neighborhood, it cannot reach it.

Ethnic Diversity

Take a look at any recent urban demographic data and compare it to fifteen years ago. Census reports won’t show the true picture, as many of the people groups living within a city either fail to report their true identity or will not report at all (mainly because of privacy, legal issues, or fear). Think about the major influx of Islam in just fifteen years and how many mosques are now within your city.

Earlier I stated that I would refute why African American churches should be the only churches to plant churches or do Great Commission work in urban areas. Why not? It makes sense, right? The reason is because the advice is antiquated. It’s a tape cassette. While I devoutly pray that brothers and sisters in Christ (and all people) would no longer view skin color, that we would invest in urban African American projects, events, and churches, and have more African American church planters, dialogue, and such—the fact is—immigration is a game-changer! African American culture will be melded into the many ethnic cultures already here and arriving. To reach an entire city it is going to take a concerted effort of all peoples.

Most cities, like Richmond, Virginia (a smaller scaled city) are becoming more and more ethnically diverse: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European. To think that things are going to stay the same, especially in light of gentrification (even though I disagree with it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening), are antiquated and ignorant. Urban churches wishing to survive must engage foreign people groups. They’re here and more are coming.

The Good News

First, we have the ability to know, study, engage, meet, and communicate with every people group within our cities. I personally know that major missionary organizations are working side-by-side in mapping the nations within cities. This information is available and can assist churches and church planters in engaging urban areas with the gospel. Here’s a good resource from Keelan Cook.

Second, the nationalities sometimes have unreached people groups (UPGs) among them. We’ve seen this here in Richmond. Many of the refugees will one day desire to go back home—what better way to engage missions than to have UPGs return to “go and make disciples” in their own homeland.

Lastly, churches should be working together, collaboratively, as kingdom workers to reach every city with the gospel. However, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. Existing mega-churches should find ways to purchase dying empty church sarcophaguses—keeping these “kingdom properties.” Targeting areas of resurgent growth and ethnically diversified areas with house churches works well, as a church planting movements may manifest. Strengthening and revitalizing churches, which can be saved, and ones within lower socio-economic areas are a must. Some of these areas may need food dispensaries, job creating, and addictions help—to break chains of poverty. As well, traditional style church planting (having a sending church) and more innovative church planting techniques (parachuting) must be implemented. We’re all on the same team—let’s reach our cities and the peoples of the world.

 

[1] Steven A. Camarota, “Projecting Immigration’s Impact On the Size and Age Structure of the 21st Century American Population,” http://www.cis.org, December, 2012, accessed September 3, 2015, http://cis.org/projecting-immigrations-impact-on-the-size-and-age-structure-of-the-21st-century-american-population.

[2] Susanna Groves, “Http: //www.diasporaalliance.org,” http://www.diasporaalliance.org, March 13, 2015, accessed September 3, 2015, http://www.diasporaalliance.org/americas-largest-diaspora-populations/.

Urban Church Planting and The Diaspora

If you’re a church planter and you haven’t heard the term diaspora, you will—soon enough. One of the major shifts in global population is the flowing dispersion of immigrant people groups. Envision how airplane traffic controllers track flights.

The world is seeing great numbers of people shifting from country to country. Whether the movement is due to refugees—fleeing persecution, or for temporary visa status—for work—regardless, the peoples of the world are on the move—and God is doing something amazing! He’s bringing people to us.

What Immigration Tells Us

Western churches, especially urban church plants, will be forced to reach people of ethnicity—not that urban churches haven’t always done this—as cities become more diverse than culturally segregated (think Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.). The good news comes to us by reaching the diaspora of the nations.[1] Almost makes me think of Psalm 2:8, “All the nations you have made shall come…”

Immigration to the United States is the cause for population growth.[2] Without immigrants (legal), the United States would not be growing in population, but declining. Just to clarify, if you’re linking immigration with the Hispanic culture, let me help you. Currently, Germany and Ireland are the top two countries with diaspora peoples coming to the U.S.—Mexico is third, but only by a small portion of one percent, compared to the United Kingdom (4th).[3]

Being Great Commission Churches

Great Commission (Matt 28:19) churches will need to engage the diasporic peoples in order to see the gospel delivered domestically and globally. With the recent news of the IMB’s shortfall and need to release close to 800 people, churches will once again have the pressure of the Great Commission task. This may be a good thing (not people being laid-off, that’s always bad), in the sense that churches will be forced to evaluate their understanding of the missio Dei.

So, if we cannot send more missionaries overseas, what is the answer that God may be giving us? Here’s the bigger picture: there are immigrants who choose to return back to their homeland after getting settled within a new country; those who do return are known as the diaspora.[4] Reaching the diasporic peoples within urban communities is one way to help spread the gospel, while alleviating the costs of training international missionaries.

How Does This Effect Church Planting?

The immigration “game” and diasporic models play a huge role in urban church planting. Since urban areas across the globe are growing (urbanization) then planting more churches within the urban context is necessary. Domestic church planters will be expected to reach across cultures, socially and evangelistically. We call this E–2 to E–3 evangelism.

To see a true church planting movement (CPM) occur within the U.S., church planters must be prepared to contextualize the gospel with simplicity—for the purpose of reproducibility. The current model is not sustainable; meaning, we cannot expect to wait for church planters to graduate seminaries and become some type of dynamic leader. Only a lay leader style of bi-vocational (at best) ministry is simply reproduced through discipleship—much like the first century or any major CPM in history.

Regardless, things are changing, and if you’re an urban church planter or a pastor, you might want to begin considering how you are going to reach these people groups. But don’t worry, this stuff is what guys like me study and try to develop (working on it now!). Just think about it. Tell me your thoughts…


[1] J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.

[2] Steven A. Camarota, “Projecting Immigration’s Impact On the Size and Age Structure of the 21st Century American Population,” http://www.cis.org, December, 2012, accessed September 3, 2015, http://cis.org/projecting-immigrations-impact-on-the-size-and-age-structure-of-the-21st-century-american-population.

[3] Susanna Groves, “Http: //www.diasporaalliance.org,” http://www.diasporaalliance.org, March 13, 2015, accessed September 3, 2015, http://www.diasporaalliance.org/americas-largest-diaspora-populations/.

[4] Payne, Pressure Points, 9-10.

How Should Church Planters Respond To Gay Marriage?

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This is the cover article for this month’s Church Planter Magazine.

The Reality

After twelve years, he was leaving his wife and kids, “I realize that I can no longer live in the shadows and secrets of my day-to-day life,” was the way that he revealed being gay. I’ll be honest—I saw it coming—it was just a feeling that I had. And so, I had waited for him to talk to me about it. I’ll also admit that as a pastor I felt torn inside, one part of me wanted to weep for him, while another had compassion, while yet some other deeper aspect realized that he had just entrusted me with a hidden secret, one that he knew would change his life. He wasn’t confiding in me to explain a struggle; this was a decision to live life. If you’re like me, you’ve had one of these conversations and if you haven’t—you will.

In a recent doctoral seminar, my professor stated, “Our culture is now living in the shadows of the Church.”[1] This means that the early church lived within a pre-Christian culture, not knowing anything about Jesus; however, this is not the case today. As George Barna asserts, ninety-nine percent (99%) of unchurched people are aware of Christianity.[2] As church planters and pastors, our calling hasn’t changed. The gospel must be preached, transforming hearts to turn from sin, while the compassion of Christ must be evident within our lives. So, we need to ask some important questions: (1) How do we exegete our modern culture? (2) What is the church planter’s biblical response to gay marriage? And (3), how do we respond, practically?

The Shadowed Life

While my friend described living in a secret life of the shadows, he actually didn’t know how right he was. In the twenty-first century, believers and unbelievers are living within the shadows of two thousand years of Christendom. In exegeting our culture, church planters must be able to discern it, comprehend it, and then properly engage it. This is a non-negotiable; it will be and must be an aspect of every planter’s toolbox.

Church planters are cultural architects; we’re the innovators and creators who navigate through any society and people group. So, first, let’s acknowledge that there is a dilemma within evangelicalism, one that we can’t look at exhaustively here, but one which must be mentioned, that of gay Christians. For our discussion, we’re going to assume that we’re trying to engage a gay culture of unchurched people, who know about Christianity. We also must assume that all culture will disrupt, influence, or change the liturgy or worship of the ecclesia, whether by music, clothes, food, art, or values and beliefs. Aubrey Malphurs clarifies, “Culture affects all churches. There are no exceptions.”[3]

A church planter cannot engage any neighborhood rightly, without first (1) understanding who the people are (discernment), (2) what they’re values and beliefs are (core values), (3) how they repeat or translate those values and beliefs (ethos), (4) and how they practice them (praxis). We must gauge all four of these before we can truly understand the people that we’re going to engage. Paul does this in Athens, as he walks around, he assesses their religious idols and liturgies, so that he can contextualize the gospel (Acts 17:16-31). So, in exegeting our Western culture, it is clear that there is a paradigm shift in sexual morality. We have to ask ourselves, what is the church planter’s biblical response to gay marriage, as we stand within the shadow of the church?

Biblical Response

First, let’s be honest, homosexuality is not a new practice, nor is it a new challenge to the Church. The Apostle Paul, arguably the best church planter ever, noted that the early church was filled with gentiles who practiced idolatry, drunkenness, or some form of sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:9­–11)—and somehow, the Church squeaked by in growth. I say “squeak by,” tongue and cheek because we know better, the Church grew exponentially. This meant that the gospel was more than sufficient to reach and transform any people group and sin-laden behavior. Admittedly, I view homosexuality as sin, I’m not going to apologize, but I do empathize with people who are seeking companionship in emotional and physical connections. As well, I view sexual immorality the same way that I view drunkenness or idolatry; I don’t categorize the yearnings of our flesh. Biblically and historically speaking, homosexuality was ingrained into the Greco-Roman culture and was engaged by the church head on. And even though it was not God’s intention, the early gentile church was filled with regenerated sexually immoral people.

Sometime near 30-33 AD, as recorded by Matthew (19:4), Jesus provided the creation mandate, that God created mankind male and female—even though the context’s question is about divorce—Jesus is not defending our current definition of marriage. What He is clarifying is that, pre-Law, God created two people who would come together in a duality of oneness. The distinct proponent of the marital bond between a man and a woman is not solely about a blessing or even abiding within the Law, but that the twoness of God’s design would become one “flesh.” For this reason, two like-sexes can never establish the duality of one (or twoness of one) because they only possess an innate design of the same gender. It’s really not about law, ethics, or marital rights; it’s about God’s design and illustration of the miraculous unity of two people—to become one flesh. God’s design is a harmonization of souls, which symbolizes the beauty and uniqueness of the Godhead.

As well, evangelicals recognize that all people are sinners (Rom. 3:23) and in need of God’s grace. This means, just as the early church, in our modern culture, church planters must acknowledge that sin exists and is defeated by Christ’s work on the cross. Yet, we must also destroy the hierarchal structure of “forbidden” sins, which keep people from the grace of God. This means that we cannot pick and choose which sins we tolerate and which ones we do not. One of my biggest objections to those who strongly oppose gay marriage is their quick defense of heterosexual fornication and co-habitation. Their defense states that it is “OK” to have two church members of the opposite sex living together and engaging in sex (i.e. “we’ll look the other way”), but God considers two people of the same sex engaging in the same sexual behavior, as an abomination.

My point: no sin is justified. The biblical response demands that the Church not turn a blind eye to sin, but have compassion to those struggling with sin, and create relationships with all people, for the sake of the gospel. So, whether hetero or homosexual, the holiness of God demands that each person examines his or her own “body” (1 Cor. 6:12–20). As an ex-drunk, I realized that my drinking was idolatry. This does not mean that consuming alcohol is idolatry, but it certainly was with me. I allowed alcohol to take the place of God. In retrospect, I was saying that God could not handle my stress load, or relate to my hard work and anxiety, but the cold beer or glass of wine, could. Likewise, in this case, there is no distinction between drunkenness and someone’s sexual immorality; both are not God’s intended creation for the body or relationship with Him.

Practical Engagement

If we’re engaging an unchurched gay culture that has knowledge of Christianity, to some extent, then let’s assume that most gays have a presumption about judgment and sin. It’s pretty safe to say that gays have heard the fire and brimstone message of Hell. I’ll also assume that they’ve shut that door—pretty hard. They’ve probably also heard about the biblical Leviticus, Romans, and Corinthians’ arguments and know how to navigate those confrontations. So, why are we trying to engage a culture with confrontation, debate, and argumentation? As if winning a debate has ever brought anyone closer to Christ? Let’s try another way.

One of the beautiful aspects of the gospel is not only the grace provided through salvation in Christ, but the connected deliverance, freedom from sin, and joy in which it brings. A recent Barna poll showed that Americans are increasingly lonely, stressed, and worried about their future.[4] The gospel meets all of those needs; that motivates me. We live in a day and time when gospel engagement is not only necessary, but is vital. So, how do church planters practically engage the gay marriage issue?

The honest and right answer is to respond to gay marriage in the same way that the Church engaged it within the first century. With love, grace, and truth. Each new convert to Christianity was called to embrace holiness, acknowledge grace, receive forgiveness, and rest in the hope of eternal salvation through Christ Jesus. In the first-century, the gospel was infectious within a perverse and immoral culture, and it always will be—as long as the people presenting the gospel acknowledge their own sin and communally express the love of Christ. Church planters can engage the gay marriage issue in the same way that they engage any immorality or sin—through the lens of Christ coupled with a fresh recognition of their own salvation (Eph. 2:8–9).

For us, it must be about praxis. Jesus made a point of going to the demonized, outcasts, prostitutes, and extremely diseased. He touched them, sympathized with them, and embraced them. Jesus ate with them, walked with them, and sometimes even defended them (though, not their sin). Our difference in ministry is that we are presenting Jesus, being incarnated within community, to those who are affected by sin, sickness, or culture. We expect sin-blinded people to “get it,” even though we, ourselves, never “got it.” We must admit, there is no little girl that wakes up desiring to become a prostitute one day. We exegete culture because sometimes culture causes people to become things they do not desire to become. Jesus was the best example of how to read and incarnate into culture.

So, church planter, —it is your calling to exegete the culture. You should contextualize the gospel and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to help transform a broken and hurting heart. You should assist a gathered community of Christ-followers to help, not hinder, reconciliation. Church planters are bringing a resurrection community into a worldly society. And, while some in the gay community may not be “struggling,” certainly we acknowledge that, but we do not change the way that we present gospel truths or compassion, empathy, and the reality of sin’s captivity. Therefore, church planters are bringing with them the kingdom of God and must view the gay marriage issue as every other sin—redeemable by the blood of Christ.

[1] J. D. Payne. Contemporary Issues Facing The Church. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. August 7, 2015.

[2] George Barna, and David Kinnaman. Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishing), 48.

[3] Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 74.

[4] Barna, 20.