The Receptivity Principle: A Tried-and-True Guide for Missionaries

by John Michael Morris

Missionaries should test potential areas of service and do the majority of their gospel proclamation where it is likely to produce fruitful results.

The “Cash for Clunkers” program was popular in America in 2009. If a car was less than 25 years old, had a trade-in value of less than $4,500, was in drivable condition, and had a rating of 18 miles per gallon or less, then the car owner could buy a new car with a rating of 22 miles per gallon or better and receive a voucher worth $3500.

Unfortunately, because the dealers injected the engines with a liquid glass solution so that no one could drive the clunkers, consumers could not easily find inexpensive used cars. To a very limited extent, the program promoted better stewardship of fuel resources, but overall the huge waste of so many drivable vehicles provided ample evidence of poor stewardship.  

New car fever in the missiological sphere can cause some normally rational missiologists to embrace too quickly unproven concepts that seem to be on the cutting edge. David Hesselgrave warned that “left to their own devices, evangelical mission thinkers and practitioners tend to become overly creative and unduly adventurous” (Hesselgrave 2010, 278). In the rush to embrace new concepts, some missiologists may regard tried-and-true principles as clunkers.

The proper understanding and application of the “old” receptivity principle leads to efficient sowing of gospel seed and thus good stewardship of missionary resources. The principle was clearly defined by Donald McGavran: “Evangelism can be and ought to be directed to responsive persons, groups, and segments of society….Correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly” (McGavran 1990, 187-191).

Receptive areas contain a large number of people who have open minds about the gospel. The receptivity of a group can be affected by various factors (e.g., cultural change, materialism, the group’s perception of gospel messengers, average age of people in the group, strength of non-Christian religions, and most importantly, the activity of the Holy Spirit).       

The Biblical Basis for the Principle in Regards to Groups
When Jesus told his disciples to look at the fields that were white for harvest (John 4:35), he did not refer to all peoples; rather, he meant the receptive Samaritan people. He commanded his disciples, however, to focus on the Jews rather than the Samaritans (John 4:38): “I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored and you have entered into their labor.”  

Before many Jews became resistant to the gospel, Jesus had said to the disciples, “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:5-6). An early influx of Samaritan followers would have quickly increased the resistance of the Jews.

Within the Jewish group, Jesus acknowledged variations in subgroup receptivity (Luke 10:8-12).  If a Jewish city received two of the seventy disciples, the two disciples were to eat there, heal the sick, and discuss the Kingdom of God. In contrast, if the city did not receive them, they were to shake off the dust of the city. Jesus taught them to leave resistant areas after adequate efforts were made.

The Apostle Paul was familiar with the instructions of Jesus to the seventy disciples. He shook off the dust after experiencing persecution and expulsion in Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:50-51). Demonstrating God’s selective activity, he followed the Holy Spirit’s directions to avoid Asia and Bithynia (Acts 16:6-7). He went to Macedonia after receiving a supernatural vision, and he found a receptive woman in Philippi whose heart was opened by the Lord (Acts 16:9-14).  

A large number of Gentiles became believers in Thessalonica (Acts 17:4), but many of the Jews were resistant there (Acts 17:5-8).

The Jews in Berea, however, were very receptive (Acts 17:11-12):

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. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.

Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida explained that the Greek term for “noble-minded” (eugenes) means “a willingness to learn and evaluate something fairly—‘willingness to learn, to be open-minded, to be noble-minded’…the people there were more open-minded than the people in Thessalonica” (Louw and Nida 1989, 332). Again, receptive areas contain a large number of people who have open minds to the gospel, and such people are most ready to hear and receive the gospel.  

For the second time, Paul shook off the dust when he went from a resistant group in Corinth to a receptive group in Corinth (Acts 18:6-11). Many of the receptive Corinthians became Christians when they heard the gospel. The Lord then spoke to Paul by a vision, saying that he had many people in Corinth who presumably had not yet heard the gospel. Paul continued sharing the word of God with the receptive group in Corinth for a year and a half and thus demonstrated good stewardship of time and resources.  

Receptivity in Korea
I served as an International Mission Board missionary to South Korea for ten years; during that time, I learned of the superb stewardship of receptive conditions exhibited by early Protestant missionaries during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Generally speaking, Korean people initially resisted the spread of Christianity in their country, but in the 1880s and 1890s, several events occurred that affected their receptivity.

Horace Allen, an American physician who served as a medical missionary for the Northern Presbyterians, came to Korea in 1884 as the first long-term Protestant missionary there. He successfully treated a seriously wounded Korean prince following a coup attempt, and this medical victory helped him to win the confidence of the Korean king and queen. The Koreans were oppressed by neighboring countries and saw the American missionaries as people who could help them preserve their national identity.  

John Nevius visited Korea in 1890 and taught the young Presbyterian missionaries the indigenous principles of missionary work that he had learned in China. The early adoption of these principles by Presbyterians and other groups helped the missionaries in Korea avoid the perception of foreignness that plagued Christianity in China, and thus the receptivity in Korea was not squelched by American missionaries.

Fortunately for the early missionaries in Korea, no strong religious competition existed in Korea at the time. The Koreans would likely have been much more resistant to Christianity had Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism been strong. The unstable political conditions and the weakened state of competing religions in Korea were contributing factors to receptivity.

These missionaries were good stewards of the opportunities God set before them. Great growth occurred. However, many of the apparent converts who crowded into church buildings during the ensuing people movement to Christ were not genuine converts. According to J. Edwin Orr, “It thus appeared that accessions between 1895 and 1903 included numbers of people entering the church as interested disciples rather than regenerate members” (Orr 1975, 26).  

These missionaries prevented syncretism through the Bible class system (Clark 1962, 102). They laid a solid doctrinal foundation among their converts as they taught Bible classes or trained teachers. In 1907, Presbyterian missionaries from America ordained the first seven Korean ministers, the first graduates of the seminary in Pyongyang. A long period of healthy growth in evangelism and church planting followed.

McGavran emphasized the continuing role of missionaries in laying a solid doctrinal foundation:

God sometimes gives the precious beginnings of a people movement….There is a danger that the new churches will be confirmed, not in the faith, but in ignorance and nominalism….People movements to Christ require special care. The more socially and intellectually removed the missionaries are from the people being served, the more danger there is of their mishandling God’s gift. (McGavran 1990, 235)

Resistance in Asian Cultures near Korea
The perception of foreignness has hurt Christianity in other Asian cultures. In 1549, Francis Xavier introduced Christianity to Japan at a time when people were receptive. Later, because of the perceived foreign threat to their culture, the Japanese authorities persecuted Christians beginning in 1614. Christianity was legalized again in 1873, when Japan was more open to Western influence during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and some growth occurred as a result.  

The rise of State Shintoism, however, eventually caused the Japanese people to perceive a foreign threat when they regarded Christianity. The Japanese people knew they could absorb Western technology without Western Christianity. In spite of increased receptivity after World War II, Christianity was still viewed as an unnecessary foreign influence. Thus, because of the perception of foreignness, evangelism in Japan has been largely unsuccessful.

Matteo Ricci introduced Christianity into China in the sixteenth century after Christians tried but failed to introduce it in the seventh and thirteenth centuries. Unlike later missionaries, Ricci tolerated Confucianism. Confucianism remained strong, Christianity weak. Kenneth Scott Latourette discussed the situation in China after Confucianism collapsed:

For a brief time after the Revolution of 1911-1912 Christianity was almost popular and seemed to be moving in to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of Confucianism….In the 1920s, beginning in 1922 and coming to a climax in 1926 and 1927, ostensibly an anti-religious but actually anti-Christian movement swept the country….Missionaries were accused of being “imperialists” and Chinese Christians of being “running dogs” of the foreigners. (Latourette 1975, 1446-1447)

Chinese officials forced out all foreign missionaries by 1951; thus, Christianity eventually lost its perception of foreignness and became much more attractive to many Chinese people.

A Survey of Baptists in 2009
I used an email survey to find out what various types of Baptists (e.g., Southern Baptists, American Baptists, Free Will Baptists, and Independent Baptists) believe about receptivity.  Being a Baptist myself, I was curious to know the opinions of Baptists about the receptivity principle. I purchased 23,779 email addresses of Baptist churches and pastors. After survey questions were sent to all the addresses, responses were received by email from 690 people.

I separated responders into two groups: (1) Southern Baptist pastors and (2) all other Baptists (including Southern Baptist laypersons). Responses from the two groups were often quite similar (Morris 2009, 161).

Two questions on the survey related directly to the group aspect of receptivity. One referred to group differences in receptivity: Generally speaking, do you believe that some groups of people are more receptive to the gospel than are other groups of people? Ninety percent of the 255 Southern Baptist pastors answered affirmatively; 10% disagreed. Likewise, 90% of the 435 other Baptists answered affirmatively, and 10% disagreed.

Another question related to prioritizing some groups over others:

Do you agree with the following paragraph about group receptivity?: “An accurate assessment of the current receptivity of a group should always determine whether that group will be prioritized in terms of resources expended on that group in the immediate future. Some currently receptive groups may become resistant in the more distant future, and such groups should be effectively evangelized while an opportunity exists to do so.”

Fifty-six percent of the 251 Southern Baptist pastors who answered the question answered affirmatively; 44% disagreed. The percentages were reversed in the second group’s answers. Forty-four percent of the 428 other Baptists who answered the question answered affirmatively; 56% disagreed. Because the word “always” was in the paragraph, an affirmative answer was indicative of a firm belief in the receptivity principle as it relates to groups.

Missiologists could draw two possible conclusions from the differences in the answers to the two questions.

1. The results may indicate that although Baptists in America understand the receptivity principle as it relates to groups, they may not place much emphasis on it because of their individualism. Paul Hiebert explained the typical American’s worldview:

One of the most fundamental themes in the worldview of the United States is that the individual is the basic building block of society. Each human should be an autonomous person with his or her own separate identity. We learn this from childhood. At an early age we are taught to think and choose for ourselves….Even in our groups everyone is expected to retain his or her individuality.  (Hiebert 1985, 122)

Thus, Baptists in America may believe that a group’s influence on an individual member is not powerful. China, Japan, and Korea, however, are examples of countries where a group’s influence is indeed powerful.

2. Americans tend to agree with the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” Because of this belief, many Baptists in America are not willing to prioritize a receptive group over a resistant group. Our sense of fairness may cause many of us to believe that we should send equal numbers of missionaries to all groups and share the gospel with all groups at the same time. McGavran warned, however, that areas of low receptivity “should not be heavily occupied lest, fearing that they will be swamped by Christians, they become even more resistant” (McGavran 1990, 191).

Another problem with trying to focus on all groups at once is that there is a limited number of missionaries and a growing number of people groups. Edward Dayton explained, “The world is not growing simpler or more homogeneous. In fact, it grows more complex every day. New people groups come into existence, and old groups split into subgroups as they grow larger” (Dayton 1983, 30).

Stewardship of the Gospel
Paul said, “Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). Missionaries should be good stewards of the gospel. McGavran did not call for abandonment of resistant fields; rather, he called for plowing them (McGavran 1990, 190).  

If all resident missionaries leave a resistant group, the group should be monitored and prepared by non-resident missionaries so that effective gospel sharing can occur when the group turns receptive. As good stewards, however, missionaries should not do the major emphasis of their gospel proclamation where it is not received; rather, they should test potential areas of service and do the majority of their gospel proclamation where it is likely to produce good results.

God works in special ways in particular cultures at particular times to create receptive areas. Henry Blackaby described God’s role for the Christian: “Because He loves you and wants to involve you in His work, He will show you where He is working so you can join Him” (Blackaby 1990, 65). Missionaries should join God where he is working to produce receptivity. Good stewardship is a universal, timeless principle. Because the receptivity principle involves good stewardship, it is also a universal, timeless principle. The receptivity principle is not a “clunker”; rather, it is a vintage vehicle worthy of proper maintenance.     

Blackaby, Henry T. 1990. Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God.  Nashville: LifeWay Press.

Clark, Allen D. 1962. History of the Korean Church. Seoul: The Christian Literature Society of Korea.

Dayton, Edward R. 1983. That Everyone May Hear: Reaching the Unreached. 3rd ed. Monrovia, Calif.: Missions Advanced Research and Communications Center.

Hesselgrave, David J. 2010. “CONCLUSION: A Scientific Postscript—Grist for the Missiological Mills of the Future.” In Missionshift: Global Mission Issues in the Third Millennium. Eds. David J. Hesselgrave and Ed Stetzer, 256-293. Nashville: B&H Academic.

Hiebert, Paul G. 1985. Anthropological Insights for Missionaries. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. 1975. A History of Christianity. Vol. 2. New York: Harper & Row.

Louw, Johannes P. and Eugene A. Nida, eds. 1989. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. New York: United Bible Societies.  

McGavran, Donald A. 1990. Understanding Church Growth. 3rd ed. Rev. and ed. C. Peter Wagner. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Morris, John Michael. 2009. “An Evaluation of Gospel Receptivity with a View toward Prioritizing the Engagement of Groups and Individuals for Evangelism and Church Planting.” PhD dissertation, Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary.

Orr, J. Edwin. 1975. Evangelical Awakenings in Eastern Asia. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship.


John Michael Morris, PhD, is assistant professor of missions in the Roy Fish School of Evangelism and Missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.  He served for ten years as an International Mission Board missionary to South Korea. You can contact him at

EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 178-184. Copyright  © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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