Ask-a-Missiologist is a series in which we do just that: ask a missiologist a current pressing missiological question. This week’s contributor is J. D. Payne (Ph.D.), pastor of church multiplication with The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama. He is a missiologist, author of several books on missions, a podcast host (Strike the Match), and blogs at jdpayne.org. He may be found on Twitter @jd_payne. His book To the Edge: Reflections on Kingdom Leadership, Mission, and Innovation further addresses today’s question:
Is the sending church conversation only a global conversation?
Ask most church members about missions and it is likely that overseas Kingdom activities are the first things to enter their minds. Even with almost twenty years of conversations about being missional in the West, real missionary activity is never in one’s backyard; mission fields are everywhere else but home.
Though much could be written on the topic of the sending church and missions, I wish to draw attention to two issues that give us good reason to change the present narrative that the only genuine missionary activity is that activity done overseas.
Home Versus Abroad: A Non-Biblical Separation
First, the biblical text does not create a dichotomy between home and abroad. The call to make disciples comes without geographic distinction. We stand before an eschatological reality based on the preaching of the gospel throughout the whole world to all peoples (Matthew 24:14). No geo-political boundaries or nation states are the defining marks of missionary activity. The desire was for a widespread proclamation of the message that disciples would be made from all the peoples (i.e., panta ta ethne). The world is our parish.
Of course, we have been quick to interpret the practical outworking of Acts 1:8 as referring to our backyard, country, continent, and finally other countries. And while the book of Acts does reveal the early disciple making movement as beginning among the Jews, spreading to the Samaritans (Acts 8), God-fearers (Acts 8, Acts 10), and to much of the Gentile world, geography was not the primary issue. Matters related to race, culture, and worldview were more important than geographic location. What rocked the world of the Apostolic Church was not the fact that the gospel crossed beyond the borders of Israel, but rather it crossed over the cultural and racial gaps between the Jews and the world (Acts 15).
Missiologists recognized the importance of understanding cultural differences between the Church and unbelievers for better disciple making practices. This recognition resulted in the development of a typology to help understand the cultural distance (not geographical distance) between the evangelists and the unbelievers. The letter E (to refer to evangelism) and numbers (0-3 to refer to cultural distance) were used to provide a scale for understanding:
E-0 is referred to as evangelism within the fellowship of a local church. An example of this would be when the good news is shared in a worship gathering with the unregenerate present (1 Corinthians 14:24-25).
E-1 is the label attached to disciple making efforts conducted among those who are of the same culture as the one preaching the gospel, but done in the highways and hedges, and not within a local church gathering or event.
E-2 and E-3 are referred to as cross-cultural evangelistic efforts. Again, cultural distance is the defining factor, with E-2 being work done among those of a slightly different culture as the disciple maker and E-3 as that among those of a radically different culture.
The greatest disciple making needs in the world today are E-2 and E-3, both within the Majority World and in the West. Many of the unreached and unengaged-unreached will only be reached by E-2 and E-3 labors. Even many Majority World believers will have to practice E-2 and E-3 disciple making activities to reach the culturally-close unreached peoples around them.
Antiquated Thinking in a Globalized World
Second, migration has moved some of the world’s unreached and unengaged-unreached people groups into our backyards. When I wrote Strangers Next Door, my estimate was that at least 1200 unreached people groups are living in Western countries. The United States has an estimated 360 unreached people groups, making it home to the third largest number of unreached people groups in the world! My estimation for Canada is 180 unreached people groups, making the country home to the fifth largest number of such groups in the world! A great deal of E-2 and E-3 efforts is necessary to reach these groups in these countries. From what I have observed, most of the disciple making and church planting efforts in North America are E-0 and E-1 and taking place among reached people groups.
The movement of the peoples has blurred the line between home and abroad. Conversations and structures that keep North America in one category and the rest of the world in another are not only antiquated but also unhelpful in the Kingdom. Though the greatest needs for disciple making exist outside of the West, such is no reason to separate missions into home and abroad. The great need of the hour is for cross-cultural disciple making efforts among the unreached and unengaged-unreached who now live here, there, and everywhere.
One of the greatest challenges to mission agencies today is adjusting their complex structures designed for a world in which the Church understood home and abroad to be separate categories. Denominations and churches have rarely operated from an integrated strategic approach to making disciples of all nations. Few have asked how what we do at home affects what we do abroad and vice versa.
Related to this challenge is the reality that the Church in the West, particularly in North America, has never considered herself as existing geographically in a mission field. She is just now starting to awaken to the reality of the unreached people groups in Her community. However, because her missiology is so geared toward Kingdom labors overseas, She only knows how to reach unbelievers at home via pastoral methods and structures, not apostolic ones used overseas. Until She is able to embrace both pastoral labors in Her context alongside of apostolic labors, she may be talking about missions over here, but continuing to function as real missions is overseas.
Yes, context is important to the application of biblical principles of missions. Yes, North American labors and international labors must be different. But, I’m not referring to the contextualization of methods. That is another blog post. For now, we need to ask, Where does real missions happen?