by C. Peter Wagner
C. Peter Wagner responds to George Harper’s article “How Valid Is Receptivity in Determining Mission Strategy?”
George W. Harper has made a valuable contribution to the current discussion of missiological strategy with his article on resistance-receptivity theory. He gives a good summary of the position of various advocates of this theory, and raises important issues that bear on its application. I am grateful to the editors for this opportunity to carry the discussion a step or two further.
The first point I would like to make derives from a somewhat embarrassing quote that Harper took from one of my early books: "Time and resources are not wisely spent on sowing the seed in soil which obviously will never produce fruit." Later Harper suggests that resistancereceptivity theory may pose the question as to if (whether or not) a group ought to be approached with the gospel at all, and comes to the conclusion that perhaps peoples which are resistant "’must be bypassed."
It is undoubtedly true that in earlier years some of us tended to overstate the case. Unfortunately, Harper is not the only one who has interpreted resistance-receptivity theory as advocating that some people groups should be bypassed. This, however, was never the intention of McGavran, Tippett, myself, or any other church growth leader I am aware of. McGavran’s advice all along has been that we bypass no group, but that some should be "held lightly." We try to say as emphatically as we can that the gospel must be preached to every creature.
If resources are unlimited, then proper strategy would dictate an equal effort for every unreached people group. But as a matter of realistic fact, our resources are not unlimited, at least at the present time. This means that when resources are limited, priority decisions are forced upon any plan for action. Battlefield surgeons know this well. If there is one surgeon for every wounded person, no problem exists. But if not, they are trained to divide the wounded into three groups: those who are so badly wounded that there is scant hope of saving them, those whose lives may be saved by immediate treatment, and those who may be in considerable pain, but whose lives are not in immediate danger. They will treat the middle group first in order to maximize the total effect of the limited resources available.
While Jesus doesn’t use a battlefield surgeon analogy, he uses a similar one, namely the harvest. Every farmer knows that all crops do not reach the harvest point at the same time. But when a particular harvest is ripe, that is where the bulk of the agricultural workers must be concentrated. The unripe crops cannot be bypassed-they must be cared for-but at all stages up to the harvest, a relatively small number can handle the work. Jesus said, "Pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers."’ But where? Obviously into the ripened harvest fields.
What is it that makes a harvest of souls ripe? Paul said that he planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. It is God and God alone who produces the harvest both in agriculture and in world evangelization. For each people group there is a kairos-a specially appointed time, and occasionally more than one. Making the priority decisions for the deployment of Christian workers, in my view, is primarily discerning where the Holy Spirit himself has chosen to work, where he has given the increase, and then moving ahead with the Spirit. Such decisions may be tough ones to make, but if made wisely they will help maximize the limited resources we now have for world evangelization.
The second issue I want to pick up is George Harper’s observation that, "…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." I agree. Harper has said it well. When an evangelistic effort is not bearing fruit, two simultaneous diagnostic questions must be raised: (1) Could it be that this people group is resistant? and (2) Could it be that they are receptive, but that I am using the wrong methods? The latter is frequently the case. If I go into a beautifully ripened wheat field with a cornpicker, I will get no harvest. An increasingly helpful contribution of missiological theory is the discovery of indicators that help provide accurate answers to the two diagnostic questions. Harper’s paragraph on the Muslims’ understanding of the Trinity is an excellent case in point.
The third and final issue that I would like to discuss is Harper’s thesis that cultural distance is a key determinant of resistance-receptivity. I heartily concur that cultural distance is a vital consideration in planning missiological strategy. However, the application of cultural distance to resistance-receptivity is a mixed bag. Sometimes it applies and sometimes it does not. I would like to try to explain this by introducing, for the first time in print, a pair of technical terms: etic receptivity and emic receptivity.
1. Etic receptivity. The degree of etic receptivity (or resistance) in any given case is determined by factors introduced by the particular evangelizing agent. Here the cultural distance between the evangelizing agent and those to be evangelized does play a significant role. Even more important, however, might be a prejudice barrier that exists between the two groups. For example, in the years following the Second World War, non-Christian Koreans would presumably be quite resistant to the gospel message brought to them by Japanese evangelists. For 35 years previously the Japanese had been the despised oppressors. But the same gospel was gladly received from American missionaries. Americans were the liberators. And all this despite the obvious fact that American missionaries were at a greater cultural distance from Koreans than Japanese.
When there is no prejudice barrier, however, cultural distance itself frequently determines the degree of etic receptivity, as Harper argues. For example, I have long advocated the feasibility of Bolivian Aymara missionaries attempting evangelism and church planting among American reservation Indians who now seem resistant They would, it seems to me, find them to be more receptive than, say Norwegian missionaries. It is a matter of cultural distance. For the Aymaras this would E-2 evangelism, but for the Norwegians it would be E-3.
2. Emic receptivity. The degree of emic receptivity (or resistance) is determined by factors inherent in the group or individuals to be evangelized. From this perspective, the cultural distance between them and the evangelizing agent is of relatively little significance. Let"s test this by holding cultural distance constant, first in cross cultural (E-2/3) situations, and then in monocultural (E-1) situations.
The great years of receptivity on the part of Japanese to the gospel message as brought by American missionaries were the seven years following World War II. Then the harvest passed. For the next 25 years, American missionaries coming from the same cultural distance, and with methodologies which presumably were at least no worse than those they had previously used, found that the Japanese had turned quite resistant. Research has shown that this was due to emic factors. The demise of the emperor-god during the war produced a temporary spiritual vacuum. MacArthur called for missionaries and they came with a message of hope that was welcome in a time of great national despair. But then economic recuperation brought another source of satisfaction to the Japanese. The social psychology changed. The gospel message was not perceived to be as relevant to immediate felt needs as it had been. Resistance set in. Some observers feel that the situation might be changing again and that the Japanese might be more receptive in the years ahead. Admittedly, this is an over-simplification of the Japanese situation, but purposely so in order to illustrate the point.
Similar examples of changing emic receptivity could be multiplied. During the Viet Nam War, many people groups that had resisted the gospel for years were forcibly driven out of their ancestral lands and then opened their hearts to the gospel brought to them by the same people they had previously rejected. After the Indonesian revolution of 1965 a great national receptivity to Christianity began with no reference to the cultural distance of the evangelists. In the 1970s internal migration of rural Quechuas in Bolivia, who had resisted the gospel for generations, saw large numbers of families completely open to Jesus Christ within only months after their move from the highlands to the lowlands. Cambodian refugees who fled to the camps in Thailand a few years ago were ready to hear the gospel from the Americans, even though the cultural distance was considerable.
In E-1 situations, by definition there is no cultural distance. Research has shown, however, that emic resistance or receptivity can be predicted to a degree, at times quite a significant degree. For example, people who visit the church are usually more receptive than people who do not visit. Wise use of evangelistic resources will begin with visitors. Newcomers to the community will usually be more receptive than well established residents. People with felt needs that a particular church can meet will be more receptive than others. Families that experience trauma or crises are frequently more receptive than they were before the experience.
In summary, it may be said that resistance-receptivity theory is somewhat more complex than many realize. It might be noted that George Harper’s primary sources from church growth advocates McGavran, Tippett, Guy and Wagner are dated between 1964 and 1972. In this response I have attempted to reflect some of the advances made in the field over the last decade.
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