by George Harper
Church growth theory, as elaborated by some of its proponents, has continued to arouse opposition.
Donald McGavran and his associates at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Mission have certainly done yeoman duty for the advancement of God’s kingdom. As a result of the basic research of such men as McGavran and Peter Wagner, Christian workers are in a position to understand, at least in part, why some fledgling Christian communities have mushroomed overnight and rapidly claimed entire people groups for Christ, while others have stagnated for years and found themselves excluded from the mainstream of their societies. Under the tutelage of McGavran and Alan Tippett at Fuller, missionaries have learned to apply the insights of cultural anthropology in encouraging mass movements to Christ and in planting truly indigenous churches within responsive cultures. McGavran and his students have engaged in a thorough-going reassessment of the relationship between the gospel and its cultural dress.
From its original novelty, the concept of contextualization has finally come to be seen as, not merely an expedient for encouraging responses in cross-cultural situations, but also as a fundamental principle that helps to explain how a transcendent Creator interacts with his creation. Innovative missionary strategizing thus has served as a major stimulus in recent years to creative evangelical theologizing.1
Yet church growth theory, as elaborated by some of its proponents, has continued to arouse opposition. One major area of contention has been over cultures that are judged not to be receptive to the gospel. In light of the apparent openness to Christianity of, say, the Adi people of India, runs the argument, can the commitment of resources to ministry among the much more resistant Muslims of South Thailand be justified? The answer would seem to be no. Wagner argues that closed people groups represent "barren soil" and that "time and resources are not wisely spent on sowing the seed in soil which obviously will never produce fruit. "2 McGavran concurs: "Only after the hundreds of thousands of responsive individuals have been discipled is the world church justified in spending treasure in witnessing to the millions of gospel rejectors."3
McGavran goes so far as to allow for a "mission station" presence in such an environment: "Abandonment is not called for …. No one should conclude that if receptivity is low, the church should withdraw mission. Correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly. They will turn receptive some day."4 Until the day, the role of the missionary is essentially passive: he should avoid "bothering and badgering"’ people lest they be "in effect inoculated against the Christian religion."5
Resources that have been squandered in unproductive work in such areas are to be transferred to situations with real potential for growth.6 R.C. Guy suggests that "part the existing work must be pruned and part redirected …. If church growth possibilities are to be fostered, the administrator must direct his resources to the places of greatest harvest. "7
Alan Tippett asserts that the key is the matter of timing: "Not all populations are responsive. Fields come ripe unto harvest. The harvest time has to be recognized, and the harvesters have to be sent in at the correct season."8 Efforts spent on a field that is not yet ready are just as foolish as failure to harvest a crop that is ripe.
Thus, gauging a group’s "receptivity" is basic to determining how, or even if, it ought to be approached with the gospel. Peoples who are judged to be stubbornly resistant to the gospel must be by-passed. Peoples who are considered receptive ought to be the recipients of the preponderance of missionary manpower and resources.
As J. Robertson McQuilkin has pointed out, most of the opposition to this line of argument has focused on three issues: the nature of the Holy Spirit’s guidance; the scope of the Great Commission; and the nature of our service. While these objections are not without merit, McQuilkin correctly notes that they fail to make full allowance for the means through which the Spirit ordinarily works in calling peoples as well as individuals to Christ.9
However, there is a more fundamental objection to be raised, one which points to a basic inconsistency in the thought of many missions strategists. The entire ripening field" model depends for its validity as a prescriptive device on a dangerously oversimplified view of the nature of receptivity itself. Receptivity or resistance, in Tippett’s metaphor the field’s "ripeness," is taken to be a single value determined by internal conditions alone. Given a thorough description of some particular group, a single number can in theory be assigned that will plot on a continuum that group’s openness to the gospel. This receptivity index" can then be compared to the indexes of other people groups, and on the basis of this, decisions can be made. Does this group represent difficult soil? Is "harvesting" inappropriate? Perhaps only a token presence is called for. Might our limited resources not be more effectively expended among other people groups who are more receptive?10
The difficulty here is that humans never encounter the gospel in the abstract. While the Christian message is universal in scope, with claims on every culture, it is always heard in the terms of some particular proclamation.11 Since others’ ability to respond is thus unavoidably bound up with our facility of communication (surely beyond dispute!), our judgment of a group’s resistance or receptivity will be as much of a function of how we have expressed the message as of how they have responded to it. Nor will it be possible to isolate these two variables from one another: message and response are so inseparably fused that efforts to speak of receptivity as though it were an abstract and isolatable commodity are dubious at best and may be dangerously misleading.
Missionaries’ experiences bear this out. A people may reject the gospel for years and be judged unresponsive until the proper point of contact or redemptive analogy within its culture is finally found and exploited. It will then be labeled responsive, but surely no one would argue that this represents any "ripening" on its part: rather, we have finally done the work necessary to bridge the cultural gap dividing us so that we can state the gospel in a way to which they are able to make a reasoned response. Although Wagner himself notes that often claims of a group’s unresponsiveness spring from this sort of breakdown, he fails to draw the clear implication of this insight.12
Having said this, it would not be correct to conclude that the idea of a receptivity index has no value: rather, its value lies in describing the cultural distance separating one group from another, and thus defining the extent to which, for example, our own expressions of the gospel differ from forms that might be readily received by some other people group. The point is that this index is specific to our own relation to other cultures.
As the editors of Unreached Peoples ’79 put it, "the resistance /receptivity scale helps us to know how much research we are going to have to do in order to reach a particular people."13, While they go on to suggest that "we can say that people who are highly receptive will probably respond to almost any evangelistic method, while people who are highly resistant are going to need a great deal of special care,"14 it would be more accurate to say that people whom we judge to be highly receptive (and whom others could conceivably see as less receptive or even resistant) will probably respond to an evangelistic message differing little from what is appropriate to our own culture.
The receptivity index thus becomes, not a means of deciding whether or not evangelism can bear fruit in a given group, but a way of gauging how much work awaits us (not necessarily another group) in preparing an enculturated form of the evangel to which they can be expected to make a reasoned response. This is what David Hesselgrave is getting at with his proposal of a "quantitative analysis of cultural distance."15
This has immediate implications for missionary strategy. The oversimplified model of receptivity found in the writings of many church growth strategists leads inexorably to McGavran’s proposal that the church maintain a passive low-budget "mission station" presence among peoples judged to be resistant and devote its resources to those who are thought to be more receptive. But clearly the result of such a strategy is that, when a culture once fails to respond to pioneer missionaries" first presentations of the gospel, no matter how socially incomprehensible and poorly enculturated the preaching may be, it draws to itself the label of resistant. Subsequently, resources and personnel will be channeled away from these people to more immediately promising groups.
Very likely, the few missionaries who may be left behind in a holding action will have neither the time nor the resources to develop the thorough understanding of this culture that would make possible the adaptation of redemptive analogies and the thorough enculturation of the Christian message. Once judged unresponsive, the group will not be likely to extricate itself from this category: the resistant will seem increasingly resistant, while the receptive, to whom went the resources, will seem more and more open, in a marvelous display of self-fulfilling prophecy. It might be noted, in response to those who cite such passages as Matthew 10:11-15 in defense of such an approach, that one cannot "shake the dust off one’s sandals" at long distance!16
A broader understanding of receptivity, such as that advocated in this article, will lead to the understanding that people who are judged resistant-that is, culturally more distant from an ability to participate in our own understanding of the gospel-require neither more nor less resources, but resources of a different nature. Where the common view of receptivity argues for a passive, low-profile "mission station" strategy that can lead at best to a handful of dislocated converts, this different understanding argues for a strategy of extensive research and experimentation aimed at bridging the cultural gap, so that truly indigenous churches may be planted within each people group.
The work of Donald McCurry’s Samuel Zwemer Institute in Islamics is a good example of the sort of effort that ought to be directed at every group now considered to be closed to the gospel. After all, the driving principle of the church growth school has been that, while leaving to the Holy Spirit his own work in conversion, everything possible ought to be done to lower human barriers hindering response to the gospel. In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:14-15), all the seed except that which falls on the path actually germinates and Produces some sort of plant. The soil is not in itself barren, rather, potentially fertile soil is encumbered with rocks and briers. Even the path might be successfully tilled if it were first broken up with a plow.
It is our responsibility before God, not merely to sow seed in those isolated patches of his field that have been providentially left free of rocks and weeds, nor even to hope for the wind to carry away the briers and thorns so that we may expand his acreage, but to involve ourselves in burning stumps and removing boulders so that we may one day Plant the entire field and present our thank offerings to the Lord of the harvest.
1. A good example of this is Charles Kraft’s recent Christianity in Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979).
2. C. Peter Wagner, Frontiers in Missionary Strategy (Chicago: Moody, 1971), P. 108.
3. Donald McGavran in Church Growth Bulletin, November 1964, p. 10 quoted in J. Robertson McQuilkin, How Biblical is the Church Growth Movement? (Chicago: Moody, 1973), pp. 24-25.
4. Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), pp. 229-230.
5. Ibid., p. 230.
6. Donald McGavran, The Bridges of God (New York: Friendship Press, 1955), pp. 112-114.
7. R.C. Guy, "Directed Conservation," in Church Growth and Christian Mission, ed. Donald McGavran (Harper & Row, 1965), p. 199.
8. Alan Tippett, "The Holy Spirit and Responsive Populations," in Crucial Issues in Missions Tomorrow, ed. Donald McGavran (Chicago: Moody, 1972), p. 97.
9. McQuilkin, pp. 24-32.
10. R.C. Guy, "Eliminating the Underbrush," in Church Growth and Christian Mission, ed. Donald McGavran (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), p. 142; a prime example of this sort of thing is MARCs effort in its Unreached Peoples volumes to define a "resistance/ receptivity scale" and arrange people-groups in classes of roughly equivalent receptivity.
11. Kraft, pp. 25-31.
12. Note, for example, the "Index by Receptivity" of people-groups in Unreached Peoples ’79, pp. 292-301: the only Muslim group not considered to be "very reluctant" are Muslim immigrants in Great Britain.
13. C. Peter Wagner and Edward Dayton, eds., Unreached Peoples ’79 (Elgin, IL: David C. Cook, 1979), p. 30.
15. David Hesselgrave, Communicating Christ Cross- Culturally (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), pp. 101-105.
16. See Phil Parshall, The Fortress and the Fire (Bombay, India: Gospel Literature Service, 1975), pp. 106-113.
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