Thursday, September 21, 2006

Responsiveness to the Gospel

Should we send most of our missionaries and resources to responsive areas (until those areas turn resistant or until the national Christians can take over the evangelistic task) while lightly seeding resistant areas (until they turn responsive)? Some quotes:

“Mission strategists like Cal Guy felt that such a tremendous investment of money and personnel into a resistant area was unwise. Guy told his students, many of whom were added to the Foreign Mission Board’s missionary force, that advance ought to be made in directions of response. He advocated token forces in resistant areas until the situation ripened and favored heavy commitments of men and money in areas obviously responsive to the Holy Spirit.”

Jessie C. Fletcher, Baker James Cauthen: A Man for All Nations (Nashville: Broadman, 1977), 247.

“Correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly. The harvest will ripen someday. . . . While they continue in their rebellious and resistant state, they should be given the opportunity to hear the gospel in as courteous a way as possible. But they should not be heavily occupied lest, fearing that they will be swamped by Christians, they become even more resistant. They should not be bothered and badgered. . . . While holding them lightly, Christian leaders should perfect organizational arrangements so that when these lands turn responsive, missionary resources can be sent in quickly.”

Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, Third Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 191.

“I find nothing extrabiblical or antibiblical in this principle of concentrating on the responsive elements of society—the principle is thoroughly biblical. . . . The church as a whole must surely concentrate its resources on the ripe field, particularly since the responsibility for proclamation has been fulfilled to an unprecedented extent in our day. Yet forces to cultivate the fields yet unripe are still necessary. Further, we need representative forces in the totally unresponsive fields to serve as outposts to vindicate the name of our God, to glean, and to reconnoiter for signs of life and response.”

J. Robertson McQuilkin, Measuring the Church Growth Movement (Chicago: Moody Press, 1974), 42-43.


Blogger David Rogers said...

John Piper also had some interesting things to say about this in the last chapter of "Let the Nations be Glad." Have you read that?

What do you think?

Fri Sep 22, 10:22:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Baptist Theologue said...

David, it has been a while since I read Piper’s book, but I glanced through it today so that I could answer your question. My impression the first time I looked at the book was confirmed today when I looked at it again. Piper obviously disagrees with Cal Guy (a professor at SWBTS who was there when we were there), McGavran, and McQuilkin. A couple of quotes from Piper follow:

“The task of missions may not be merely to win as many individuals as possible from the most responsive people groups of the world but rather to win individuals from all the people groups of the world.”

Piper, Let the Nations Be Glad!, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 157.

“Since the eternal destiny of every individual hangs on knowing Christ and embracing him gladly as the highest value of life, is then the task of missions to maximize the number of people redeemed or the number of peoples reached? The biblical answer is that God’s call for missions in Scripture cannot be defined merely in terms of crossing cultures to maximize the total number of individuals saved. Rather, God’s will for missions is that every people group be reached with the testimony of Christ and that a people be called out for his name from among all the nations.”

Ibid., 233-234.

Notice again the contrast with McGavran:

“In an era which has not focused on church growth, but has carried on good church and mission work everywhere, regardless of response, great growth is constantly averaged against no growth. This, however, will continue true only on one assumption—that we continue to send as many reapers to cold unproductive fields as we send to those waving with yellow grain. If, on the contrary, we begin to work to a new pattern, focus on church growth, learn all we can about it, and concentrate on winning the winnable now, the whole rate of church growth can be radically increased.”

McGavran, How Churches Grow: The New Frontiers of Mission, (London: World Dominion Press, 1959), 9.

Let me make a few observations:

1. God is at work everywhere, but He works unevenly. This explains why some groups are responsive and others are not. The resistant groups may be under His judgment, or it simply may not be time for their harvest. Going where people are responsive means joining God where He is working in a special way (the principle identified by Henry Blackaby in Experiencing God).

2. The Great Commission indeed directs Christians to go to all the people groups to proclaim the gospel, but it doesn’t say we have to reach all of them at the same time. The best strategy is to go to the ones that are currently responsive (before they turn resistant). That is just good stewardship of time and resources.

3. Representatives from all people groups will be in heaven, but they weren’t necessarily reached at the same time. I believe that all infants dying in infancy go to heaven, and because all people groups experience some degree of infant mortality, all people groups will be represented in heaven by their dead infants. Piper discussed this and the fact that some people groups have already disappeared:

“One of the questions raised by those of us who believe God means to pursue worshipers from all the peoples of the world is, ‘What about peoples who exist and then die out before any gospel witness comes? If you believe these people are lost, as you have argued, then none of them will be represented in the worshiping host of heaven.’ I have three responses to this question: (1) I do not know for sure that the biblical assurance that Christ has ‘ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation’ must include those who live and die out before any can believe. (2) While the biblical teaching on the final state of those who die in infancy is not explicit, I hold the view that infants who die do not perish but prove to be elect and are brought to faith in Christ and eternal life in a way we are not told. . . . Therefore, those who have died as infants in the vanishing tribes would be represented among the redeemed. (3) But the way I argue in this closing section as to why diversity glorifies God points in another direction for the decisive answer. Among the main reasons diversity glorifies God is that conscious allegiance to one leader from a greatly diverse group magnifies the glory of the leader. . . . But this would suggest then that perhaps the decisive aim of God in commanding our pursuit of living peoples is that only those who hear of Jesus and consciously follow him will glorify him in this way. This may suggest that the issue of vanished peoples is simply not in view when the ‘every’ of Revelation 5:9 is contemplated.”

Piper, 198.

Matthew 10:14 mentions the command of Jesus to shake off the dust and leave when encountering resistant individuals or communities. Paul shook off the dust in regard to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:51) and the Jews at Corinth (18:6). Piper did not deal with the issues in these passages. Interestingly, the Jews in Berea were more responsive than those in Thessalonica, according to Acts 17:11:

“Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.”

John Polhill, a professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, discussed the Greek word for “noble-minded” or “fair-minded”:

“He used a word (eugenesteros) that originally meant high born but came to have a more general connotation of being open, tolerant, generous, having the qualities that go with ‘good breeding.’”

Polhill, “Acts,” vol. 26 in The New American Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 363.

Fri Sep 22, 04:36:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Mark Spence said...

My only question is what is missions success?

In my opinion, using numbers as a sign of success is more western/efficiency driven than scriptural.

My parents serve in Central Asia. They have seen hundreds come to a saving faith in Christ & are sharing their faith in the face of incredible persecution.

Before they left, the country they were sent to would be classified as unreachable. However, the gospel was sowed and people are being reached.

How can we identify the countries that gospel sowing would be successful unless we go?

But how can they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe without hearing about Him? And how can they hear without a preacher?
Romans 10:14 (HCSB)

Is success in the mission field in sowing or reaping (or both?)

Again, in my opinion, the commands of Christ in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 would compell us to go to all the nations even where sowing may not seem to be successful.

Fri Sep 22, 10:47:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Baptist Theologue said...

Mark, I saw your church from a distance many times when I was at SWBTS in the early 80s. I was working as a youth minister at a church in Haltom City. I really enjoyed my time in Fort Worth.

You asked some interesting questions:

1. “My only question is what is missions success?”

I think missions success is effectively making disciples in non-resistant groups and effectively preparing to make disciples in resistant groups. Jesus told us to make disciples in Matthew 28:19. It’s obviously difficult to make disciples in resistant people groups, and sometimes it’s difficult even to prepare to make disciples in particularly resistant people groups. This reality should affect missionary policy as to where personnel and resources are sent. In the case of very resistant groups, sometimes more is not better in terms of the number of missionaries sent there.

You said,

“In my opinion, using numbers as a sign of success is more western/efficiency driven than scriptural.”

Dr. McQuilkin, a former missionary to a resistant country, stated,

“Numerical church growth is indeed a crucial task in missions, including the number of people coming into the church and the number of churches constantly increasing. . . . Numerical growth is not everything; it is not the only way to measure vitality, but it is one way. Numerical increase is normally one index of quality. Growth does not of itself produce spiritually weak churches. Ordinarily and ideally, each reinforces the other. . . . The early church did not fear to count those who were being added to the church—three thousand, five thousand, multitudes both of men and women, a great company of priests (see Ac 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 11:21; 16:5). Indeed the whole book of Acts is response-oriented, not proclamation- or vindication-oriented.”

McQuilkin, Measuring the Church Growth Movement, 30-32.

2. “How can we identify the countries that gospel sowing would be successful unless we go?”

In some countries, it’s very simple. A missionary organization can hire a local polling group to take a random sample and ask whether the nationals are interested in hearing about Jesus Christ. Obviously, for various reasons, that is not always possible. McGavran listed some factors that typically affect receptivity: new settlements, returned travelers, conquest, nationalism, religious change, and freedom from control. News travels fast. Sometimes we hear about other Christian groups that are having success with a particular people group. McGavran, a former missionary to India, stated,

“Indeed, today a trained observer can judge with a fair degree of accuracy that a given homogeneous unit is in a state where its members will welcome change. But in practice, rather than carry on an elaborate program of measurement, the church or mission has at hand a quicker and more reliable method of ascertaining receptivity. Are groups of persons becoming Christians? As Jesus Christ is proclaimed to this population and his obedient servants witness to him, do individuals, families, and chains of families actually come to faith in him? Are churches being formed? Is any denomination working in similar peoples planting self-propagating congregations? If the answers are in the affirmative, the homogeneous unit concerned is receptive.”

McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 187.

If a particular people group has no Christian or missionary presence, then the mission organization would be wise to assign only a very few missionaries (observers) to that group on a temporary basis to ascertain receptivity. If the group is found to be responsive, then others can be sent. If the group is found to be very resistant, then perhaps the organization will determine to wait until the group turns more receptive before investing many resources.

3. “Is success in the mission field in sowing or reaping (or both?)”

It’s both, but the resistant groups should be lightly seeded while most resources are dedicated to the fields that are ready for harvest. If a missionary is in a very resistant field for an adequate period of time and is unable to accomplish anything, then I think he should consider leaving that field unless he sees some sign that things will change. It’s important to understand that there is a continuum between the extremes of very resistant groups and very responsive groups, and this affects methodology:

“Where the gospel is strongly opposed or forbidden, not even superior methodology in the hands of compassionate and sensitive evangelists will win many. Where a people group is coming into the church faster than it can assimilate them, almost any method will reap the harvest. We say almost any method because experience shows that a particularly bad methodology can stop a people movement in its early stages. Methods make the most difference in the middle range of receptivity. Where there is moderate interest or resistance, the selection of a proper method can make enormous differences in the final results.”

Edward Dayton and David Fraser, Planning Strategies for World Evangelization (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1990), 178-179.

You said,

“Again, in my opinion, the commands of Christ in Matthew 28:19-20 and Acts 1:8 would compel us to go to all the nations even where sowing may not seem to be successful.”

We currently don’t have enough missionaries and resources to go to all the people groups at the same time. I believe that God wants us to go to the ones that He has made receptive. The receptive ones may become unreceptive in the future, and the unreceptive ones may become receptive. Jesus clearly didn’t intend for his disciples to go to every people group at the same time; He told them not to go to the Samaritans (yet) in Matthew 10:5. When Jesus sent out the twelve, He told them to shake off the dust and leave when a city was resistant (Luke 9:5), and He gave the same instructions to the seventy (Luke 10:10-11). Again, God is working everywhere, but He works unevenly. We need to join Him where He is working in a special way, as Blackaby has explained.

Sat Sep 23, 12:11:00 AM 2006  
Blogger David Rogers said...


You make some interesting observations here about an issue that concerns me personally, as Spain is not exactly a "harvest field." At the same time, what Piper has to say makes sense to me as well. I am currently working through a biblical understanding in my own thinking of this whole question.

Just curious. Does your personal experience lead you take a special interest in this question as well? Or is it more academic?

Sat Sep 23, 07:55:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Baptist Theologue said...

David, I guess personal experience has a lot to do with my interest. I served as an IMB missionary to South Korea for ten years. South Korea was in general very responsive for a long time. Lately, however, it has not been as responsive except for a few population segments such as the military. The people there have prospered economically, and the culture has turned somewhat postmodern. It is much more difficult to start a church with growth potential there than it used to be. Some Christians have developed a consumer mindset in regard to churches. The large churches that offer a lot of programs are prospering, but the small churches seem to be suffering to some degree. I can see some parallels with America. About 100 years of steady growth in percentage of Christians in South Korea did occur, but lately the percentage of evangelical Protestants has been plateaued at 19% (which is very good in comparison with other countries). Like America, South Korea would be considered to be in the middle range of responsiveness/resistance, and thus evangelistic methodology is very important. I think that the South Korean Christians are probably working as hard at evangelism and praying as hard as they did during the years of tremendous growth, but the South Korean culture is not as responsive to the gospel as it once was.

Sat Sep 23, 05:28:00 PM 2006  

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