by Stan Guthrie
Missiologists take a hard look at reasons for gospel resistance.
One day Johan Lukasse, president of the Belgian Evangelical Mission, was out evangelizing in his native Belgium, where nine in every 10 people are nominally Christian, but where only about one third of 1 percent of the mostly affluent population is evangelical. One man responded to Lukasse’s witness with a question. "Mister, what do you need?"
Lukasse, surprised by the non sequitur, groped for an answer. Then the man said, "Tell me what you need, and I’ll buy it for you."
Suddenly, it started to make sense to Lukasse. The man apparently thought the evangelist was a beggar asking for money, or that only the poor would be interested in Christ.
Before moving on, the man made it clear where he stood. "Do you see that we don’t need God any more?"
Sober realism. Sometimes, popular missions literature portrays the lost as eager to embrace the gospel, if only someone would share it with them. Missionaries usually know what to do in such cases. But what about those groups violently opposed to the message-or who greet it with an easy yawn? Instead of being acknowledged as high-minded ambassadors of the King of the universe, cross-cultural workers are scorned as those imposing a foreign culture, or as simpletons. Their self-sacrificing dedication counts for less than nothing in the world of the resistant.
Jesus said we would always have the poor. Much the same could be said about the resistant. Despite our hundreds of global evangelism plans, huge blocs of people continue on as they have for decades, if not centuries, untouched by the message of Christ.
At last summer’s Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Pretoria, South Africa, Ralph Winter voiced his own misgivings. "The world Christian movement has largely stalled in relation to the Hindu, Muslim, and Buddhist blocs of unreached peoples," the founder of the U.S. Center for World Mission observed. "We cannot reasonably expect to achieve the marvelous goals of the AD2000 Movement without a significant change in strategy. More of the same will not be enough."
Reflecting this sober realism, the theme of last November’s national meeting of the Evangelical Missiological Society was "Reaching the Resistant: Theology, Cases, and Models." Drawn to the Westin Hotel and Santa Clara Convention Center outside San Francisco to examine the topic were roughly 200 missions professors, practitioners, and mobilizers. While no manifestoes were issued, some key themes emerged. Perhaps most prominent among them was the recognition that overcoming resistance to the gospel is not ultimately in the hands of missionaries, but in God’s.
Emphasis on spiritual factors. "If the key factors to resistance were primarily sociological, then all we would need to do presumably would be understand people groups better and adapt our message more adequately," Michael Pocock, EMS president and a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, stated in an interview. "What has been missing (from modern missions) and what you are beginning to see is the realization that-after I’ve done a 100 percent great job, if that was ever possible- to form in the target people’s minds exactly what I mean, with no misconceptions, a person could still turn around and say, ‘I know exactly what you’re saying to me. Let me just repeat it to you to make it clear. Let me tell you something: I don’t believe it.’
"One hundred percent contextualization is not going to guarantee belief," Pocock continued. "What is? Nothing is going to guarantee belief, because it’s a spiritual dynamic. We don’t want to be too Calvinistic about the thing, or deterministic, but somehow it’s in God’s hands. People are realizing that."
Indeed, one participant, a professor of sociology, stood up and admitted that missiology’s recent "love affair with sociology and anthropology" was perhaps out of balance. He urged greater reliance on the Word of God.
David Brickner, executive director of Jews for Jesus, said theological considerations are foundational. "Many missiologists limit the role of theology," Brickner said. "They allow the Bible to say why it is important to go into all the world and preach the gospel, but they rarely consult it concerning the manner in which to proceed. Missiology should be an interdisciplinary study between theology and the social sciences. The Bible not only defines our imperatives; it also provides the foundational understanding of receptivity. It is through that theological grid that we must interpret the data of the social sciences and develop a strategic response."
In his paper, "Theological Reflection with Regard to the Resistant" author and Fuller Theological Seminary Professor Charles Van Engen said humanity’s sinful rejection of God must not be minimized: "This would imply that a missiological discussion of ‘receptivity/resistance’ should deal primarily with issues of spirituality, theology, and reconciliation with God, self, others and the world-and secondarily with matters of world-view, sociology, contextualization or strategy."
Pocock said the trend toward theology reflects not only greater reliance on God, but the broader cultural movement toward post-modernism, which he defined as distrust in the ability of the physical sciences to explain the universe, and increasing openness to spiritual explanations.
"We evangelicals are a part of this greater reality," he said. "So just as we are probably overly enamored of science and the sciences to produce an understanding of the world and how we should operate in the world, we have quietly moved with the rest of the world over to the decision that it has a spiritual dimension which we’ve got to know. That’s where our hope lies."
Who are "the resistant"? Most all of those present agreed that "resistant" is not a synonym for "unevangelized." Gary Corwin, EMQ’s editor and the deputy executive director of the Evangelical Missiological Society, defined them as peoples "who for whatever reason have not responded significantly to the gospel." Pocock said, "To me, the resistant are people that you have taken the message to, and you’ve discovered that you haven’t had too many ‘buyers.’ Even though you’ve put in the best efforts you know, with the most integrity and the best (adaptation) that you know about, you are still not getting a response. That’s resistance."
Van Engen noted that the concept of "resistant peoples" is of recent origin, a spinoff from the late Donald McGavran’s thinking about "peoples." Van Engen said, "I’m beginning to see that ‘receptive’ and ‘resistant’ have been essentially sociological terms, descriptive of an observable phenomenon…, not theological terms speaking about the spiritual state of a people group."
Timothy Tennent of Toccoa Falls College said "resistant peoples" is an "insufficient phrase" that is "too vague and too broad to say anything meaningful at the strategic planning level." Tennent sketched out four basic categories of resistance: the culturally resistant, the theologically resistant, the nationalistically or ethnically resistant, and the politically resistant. "Therefore, we must do a much better job articulating what we mean by ‘resistant peoples’ because the world encompasses a wide variety of reasons for resistance or perceived resistance… each of which requires different kinds of strategies if we are to be effective in the task of training which God has given to us."
Inevitably, of course, assumptions about resistance lead to real-world applications, which missionaries are responsible for. Suggestions for better communication were many in Santa Clara. Some at the meeting noted how missionaries themselves at times have been to blame for resistance.
"Just because there is a negative response to my particular approach or message may not necessarily mean the receptor group is ‘resistant’ in the sense of saying ‘no’ to God," Van Engen admitted."Their negative response to my instrumentality may, in fact, be more a commentary on my own ineffectiveness, sinfulness, foreignness, or inappropriateness as a bearer of the Good News. My church or agency and I may be bad news, rather than Good News."
Pocock reminded participants, "We may be using the idea of resistant’ to comfort ourselves or excuse ourselves from engaging and living among the yet unreached, when in reality we simply do not know what the disposition of these people may be to the presentation of the gospel."
The nitty-gritty of integrity. Integrity was another key theme. Although practical suggestions for reaching Jews, Muslims, Japanese, and secularized Catholics were offered, a philosophy of, "If it works, do it," was not in evidence. Doug McConnell, chairman of Wheaton College’s missions department, observed, "Sometimes our fears, pragmatism, and a desire to get involved surpass our ethical reflection."
Kevin Higgins, Asia director of Episcopal World Mission, said mat his involvement in contextualizing the gospel to Muslims has forced him to reflect on integrity, which goes beyond honesty and faithfulness. The message must not only be explained, but set within a context. "Integrity for me means a holistic congruence between my heart, my worldview, my job, my organizational ties, my roles in society, and more," he said.
"I know it is popular in some circles to affirm, ‘Yes, I am a Muslim,’ under the rubric that the word merely means one who is submitted," Higgins stated. "But this is not putting the messenger in context. It lacks a deeper integrity, though it is true enough semantically."
Higgins says that in most cases he no longer believes that foreigners should act, talk, preach, and pray as Muslims do, although his reasons are not theological. "I am instead more and more convinced that it lacks integrity to receive a missionary income via donations from Christians, and to itinerate among supporting churches on furloughs, but claim to be a Muslim and act like a Muslim ‘in the field.’"
Gary Corwin, who formerly served with SIM in West Africa, noted various poles in the debate about doing evangelism in hostile environments. One level of tension is between those who resort to "extraction," or removing new believers from hostile communities or governments for their own protection, and those who emphasize contextualization, or removing foreign stumbling blocks to the gospel to make the message acceptable to the community. Complicating the issue, he said, is the rise of "super-contextualization," which he described as "a new willingness to push the envelope of cultural and religious accommodation way beyond current practice."
Of concern to Corwin is the argument that all one needs to do is give new converts the Bible and step back, to "set them free to develop in whatever culturally relevant ways they will. Syncretism and unorthodoxy in many areas are to be expected, it is argued, but this will work itself out over time. In the end, they suggest, the Holy Spirit will guide them into all truth through his Word." Corwin said such an approach, although containing a large element of truth, seems to ignore New Testament models of leadership and church development, and the scriptural command to "make disciples."
Ralph Winter, on the other hand, says it’s not a question of pursuing "super-contextualization" as a strategy, but of what we do with the "super-contextualized, massive groups of some sort of believers" already in existence. Winter said the missions community should be optimistic about any group-whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the African Independent Churches-that fastidiously studies the Bible.
"Resistance may be evident by the burgeoning movements that are crazily heretical in many cases, especially in Africa," Winter said. "One-third of those 6,000 AIC churches are messianic, meaning that within their membership is a ‘divine person.’ (Calling them heretical) is a handy way to settle an issue, but… we should begin to take seriously what may be the work of the Holy Spirit."
Timothy Tennent urged missiologists to talk more about "bolder forms of contextualization," be they the so-called "Jesus mosques" in Bangladesh or discussion and discipleship groups in Japan modeled after those in the Soka Gakkai sect of Buddhism. Assuming that Muslim religious forms (and those of other religions) can be divorced from their meanings, he said, "we have to seriously discuss how Islamic or Hindu or Buddhist forms might be redirected toward Christian ends." However, if forms cannot be separated from their meanings, Tennent noted, "then it reverberates outward affecting all of our missiological strategy."
Strategies, or life choices? Integrity among the resistant also relates to tentmaking, several presenters indicated. One tentmaker was kicked out of a country after the government demanded evidence that he was actually doing the business specified on his visa. Since he viewed the job as merely his key to get into the country, he had no evidence. Later, the missionary returned and set up a legitimate small enterprise, while still receiving missionary support. A suspicious colleague discovered that he was "really" a missionary, which generated even more resistance.
"Tentmaking is not an entry strategy! " he admonished. "It is a lifestyle and a role one can choose to adopt for any number of reasons-only one of which should be the issue of access. But if chosen, the tentmaker better actually make-and sell-some tents!"
Gary Ginter, a businessman with Catalytica, Inc., in Chicago and an advocate of tentmakers as "kingdom professionals," gave a practical yardstick. He said tentmakers should spend no less than half their time at their jobs, with the rest devoted to intentional ministry.
"If you spend less than half of your time as a kingdom professional serving people through your vocation, you will soon begin to look like, act like, talk like, and ‘smell’ like something other than a professional in your field," Ginter said. "You become what you practice, what you do. Therefore, if you are more something else than you are a kingdom professional, then in time, you’ll come to be seen as being that something else by the people you are among. That may be a problem in terms of its impact on your long-term ability to be among these folk. It may also be a failure to adequately model for them how a Christian melds life and ministry into one integrated whole."
Of course, living a Christian life among resistant people who don’t think they need the God of the Bible sometimes means dying a Christian death. Karen White of Criswell College in Dallas worked for 20 years among Christians in a guerrilla war zone in a Muslim-dominated area of the Philippines and never once thought about martyrdom as a strategy, although she was willing to die if God so called. Now she sees the strategic possibilities, saying that God can, does, and likely will continue to use martyrdom as a means to reach the resistant.
"Believers in China, in orienting Western Christians who want to minister to them, say, ‘As for our pastors, each has served an average of 17 years and three months in prison for his faith, much of it in solitary confinement. Don’t come into this meeting to talk about or do anything that you are not willing to die for,’" White stated. "How missionaries respond to danger is a matter of great import, one which they must consider carefully before investing their lives in the evangelization of the least evangelized peoples of the world."
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