In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul speaking to the Athenians, “Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers … said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 17:18). The Greek word translated as babbler means “seed picker.” The philosophers assumed that Paul was creating a new religion by picking up pieces of various deities. However, all good missionaries (and church planters) understand how to “seed pick” cultural norms, values, and behaviors for cross-contextualization.
Recently, a social media meme said, “You cannot reason and rationalize a person from a faith that they never reasoned or rationalized themselves into.” I’m not sure who the individual was that devised the statement. However, while everyone should know that memes are not exactly the best forms of truthfulness, they sometimes contain a portion of the truth. I perceive that the originator of the social media meme had apologetics in mind when crafting their statement. While there are similarities between apologetics and contextualization, we’ll focus on the latter.
Contextualization principles are visible throughout the Scriptures. In the Old Testament book of Nehemiah, it is recorded that the elders stood and “read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh. 8:8, emphasis added). The concept(s) of providing people with the ability to understand is essential to everyone’s daily conversations. We strive to ensure that we are understood.
For decades, missionaries have learned and applied the art of cross-contextualization. By employing specific techniques for understanding people groups, cross-contextualization helps a missionary or church planter relate and listen to a culture (hence, picking up seeds). A proverbial bridge to the gospel can be constructed by comprehending the culture’s sufferings, pains, and idolatries. Finally, contextualizing the gospel in a way people can understand is vital.
My desire in this article is to convey three essential principles of cross-contextualization. The objective is to provide practical insight and applications for reaching the unreached. The diagram below will be the basis of the three methods.
Michael Goheen rightly notes, “Contextualization will always be either ‘true’ if it is faithful or ‘false’ if it is not.”The biblical writers expressed the sinfulness of man, the need for redemptive salvation and restoration, along with God’s longsuffering, mercy, and steadfast love (2 Pet. 3:9). God’s longsuffering love for His creation is displayed in His words, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people … I know their sufferings” (Exo. 3:7). All people are created in the image of God, yet sin has distorted that image.
When viewing cultures, it is, therefore, essential to see them through the lens of Scripture—through an objective truth. We become conscious of the suffering of culture due to innate sin. Missionaries and church planters understand the plight and suffering of cultures because they first comprehend the suffering of Christ’s flight into Egypt as a newborn, no home for his head as a missionary, or His expression of Divine love with healing the diseased, marginalized, and broken-hearted.
The writer of Hebrews asserts:
But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb 2:9–10)
Thus, the gateway element begins with a view of culture seen through the lens of the biblical metanarrative. Consequently, at the forefront of the missionary mindset should exist a unique amalgamated trichotomy of human suffering due to sin, Christ’s suffering for sin, and man’s redemption and salvation through Jesus Christ. For cross-contextualization, a truthful view of the gateway provides a potential path.
Bridges are utilized to conjoin two separate entities. Likewise, building a contextualized bridge unites people but ultimately prepares a path of communication. Sometimes, good “exegetes” of culture utilize linguistics, demographics, sensory perception, or history to discern a diverse culture in order to build a bridge. Listening and observation are practical tools.
In Athens, Paul emphasizes, “I passed along and observed the objects of your worship” (Acts 17:23). The bridging stage is a discernment and internalization of viewing and dialoguing with the culture. For the bridge, the questions that need to be asked are: (1) Is there something the people cannot do without? (2) What do they love the most? (3) What do they worship?
The answers to the questions supply an internalization and discernment of the culture’s pains, sufferings, idolatries, and relationship with God or gods. Goheen asserts that within missionary observations, there should be the overall assumption of human brokenness because “the gospel will always be expressed in and therefore encounter a cultural story that is incompatible with it.” The bridge seeks to connect the culture’s brokenness to Christ’s wholeness.
Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost verify, “To contextualize is to understand the language, longings, lifestyle patterns, and worldview of the host community and to adjust our practices accordingly without compromising the gospel” Thus, contextualization is not a static process. Still, a dynamic one—it necessitates Holy Spirit illumination. For the most part, Holy Spirit-inspired contextualization relates to the missionary’s ability to receive particular wisdom concerning the Bible’s authorial texts, ascertain the text’s meaning, and then apply the appropriate meaning to the given situation. As the Holy Spirit utilized the apostles, we “can learn from the ways that [they] appropriated concepts and images from their world in order to shape audiences.” While this may seem like seed picking, it is intentional thought in order to communicate the gospel effectively.
For Paul in Athens, he reasons daily with the Epicureans and Stoics in the marketplace (Acts 17:17). He quotes a Greek philosopher and a poet during his contextualization. Subsequently, He utilizes general revelation (which he often does, cf. Acts 14:15-17). For Paul in Athens (and Lystra), he chooses to contextualize the God of heaven and earth by utilizing general revelation. General revelation refers to the understanding that God has provided humanity with a valid, rational, objective revelation of Himself to humanity through nature, history, and human personality; man does not need to observe, believe, or understand general revelation for it to be real.
Hence, the missionary’s ability to link together the host culture’s story with the biblical metanarrative isn’t merely that God created the heavens and earth, but that all things have been created through and for Christ (Rom. 11:36). General revelation expresses that God has always revealed Himself to humanity, while special revelation relates to “God’s manifestation of Himself to particular persons at definite times and places, enabling those persons to enter into a redemptive relationship with him.”
Nevertheless, the components of effective cross-contextualization possess three succinct categories (1) the gateway, (2) the bridge, and (3) the connection. All three of these components can find common ground in the incarnational redemption story of Christ. Contextualization is a process of understanding, discernment, and proclamation.
 Michael Goheen, The Church and Its Vocation, 142.
Research has demonstrated a decline within the Western Church for several years. While statistics have shown that 80–85% of American churches are either dying, declining, or plateauing, those numbers are nearly a decade old (Malphurs 2013, 200). Unfortunately, the statistical data has not improved. A recent Barna Group study that included 34 denominations discovered 1.5 churches closed for every church that opened (Barna 2021). Subsequently, the United States receives over three times more missionaries than any other country worldwide (Matsuo 2014). J.D. Payne suggests that “God is the Divine Maestro orchestrating the movements of some of the world’s least-reached peoples into Western countries” (Payne 2022, 168). Thus, America is the mission field of the world, while within her borders, its Church is in decline.
With that stated, America is in a historically unique situation. While the United States has always been a beacon of hope to all people groups, it is currently receiving more foreign-born peoples than ever before, gathering 44 million per year (Connor and Budiman, 2019). From Census data, The Center for Immigration Studies found that one in eight people living in the United States is an immigrant, and one in five is between the ages of 40 and 64 (Hagey 2007). Within the American Church’s midst exists the ethnēof the world.
A recent New York Times article noted that if America’s current immigration trend continues, it will exceed the immigration influx of Europeans that arrived at Ellis Island in the 1890s (Gabeloff and Jordan 2022). While American missionaries once circumnavigated the oceans to reach the unreached, the people of the nations are here. As President Jimmy Carter once declared, “We’ve become not a melting pot, but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, and different dreams” (Carter, 1976). The American Church has the opportunity to shape the world by cultivating gospel reconciliation among its minority and diaspora communities.
As Western Christianity gravitates toward enculturation and stagnation, it is presented with a paradigm-shifting opportunity to re-establish and cultivate missional movements that reach multiple diaspora cultures. Likewise, for the American Church to effectively cease its steady decline, it must redevelop itself, refocusing its attention as a global Church participant. David Bosch affirms, “The Christian faith must be rethought, reformulated and lived anew in each human culture, and this must be done in a vital way, in depth and right to the cultures’ roots” (Bosch 2009, 452). The American Church must reevaluate its thinking regarding the unregenerate among its communities and how it views itself within the global Church. Additionally, how the American Church recognizes and engages culture for multiplicative reproduction needs realigning.
Migration and Ethnic Enclaves
Enoch Wan asserts, “Urbanization is one of the global trends of diaspora” (Wan 2010). One study noted the increase of diaspora communities becoming essential developmental actors that improve socio-economic and cultural connections between the origin country and their hosts (Gamlen 2014, 180-217). Countries that mobilize diaspora for specific international training, business development, or cooperative assignments are not only becoming increasingly more relevant but a form of long-distance nationalistic mission.
Many countries, including China, India, the Philippines, Israel, and South Korea, recognize and implement the practical applications of using vast diasporas for economic, community, and organizational developments. For instance, foreign governments utilize specific student or working Visas for their people to study engineering or medical procedures abroad. Contracted diaspora gain a robust education through diverse cultural perspectives and practices.
Connected to the trending global migration, contracted diaspora, and urbanization is the aspect of settlement choice. Studies show that migrating peoples tend to gravitate toward largely populated areas and ethnically group together. For example, one population survey in Minnesota noted that 97% of the members of Hmong descent lived within the same region (Xiong, 2017). Not exclusive to the Hmong people, research specifies that ethnically concentrated enclaves formulate due to immigrants of a particular origin settling into areas where others from the exact origin live (Cheswick and Miller 2004). For that reason, it is imperative for local churches to effectively exegete their cities and communities to understand and engage the cultural and demographic shifts occurring.
Therefore, in researching migrating people groups, several commonalities exist: (1) urban environments are the chosen settlement (Singer 2013), (2) overcrowded, multi-family, and multiple generational family housing is the norm within diaspora people with the additional trend pertaining to all racial groups (Cohn and Passel 2018), and (3) migrating peoples create ethnic cultural enclaves. By definition, ethnic enclaves are concentrations of people that share culture and ethnicity within a distinct geographic location.
Cultivating Cultural Oikos from Cultural Enclaves
As a practitioner, studying demographics can be beneficial. However, exegeting the neighborhood or city is better. Learning to exegete or interpret culture is just as crucial as biblical studies. One method for the Church to exegete community is by examining existing data. Another method to exegete community is for churches or organizations to deploy small groups that collect data by walking, observing, and recording. This last method can be tedious but more thorough and complete.
Regardless, for this scenario, utilizing the microchurch model will be an effective strategy. The microchurch planter feels the call of God and the prodding of the Spirit to reach a particular people group (if you want to know more about microchurches, click here). After establishing a relationship with a couple, they become his “persons of peace.” For decades, missionaries have utilized the person of peace concept (Lk. 10:6). Jesus instructed his disciple-making apostles with their marching orders, declaring, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him” (Lk.10:5–6). As missionaries sought out the person of peace within a community, they rightly sought out hospitable and influencing type individuals that provided an opportunity to reach a village or people group.
There is a straightforward relationship between strategic church planting and immigrant overcrowded living, settlement, and housing. The comprehension that diaspora and migrating people create concentrated ethnic enclaves, dwelling within multigenerational and multi-family dwellings, relates to the attraction of utilizing the microchurch cultural oikos strategy. Biblically, the Greek word oikos refers to a household or dwelling. For church planting strategies, the organizational attributes of the oikos help cultivate intentional reproducible gospel reconciliation. Cultural enclaves can produce cultural oikos.
As the microchurch planter reaches and connects with his persons of peace, he has two developing scenarios. First, he can become the planter/elder/pastor to cultivate gospel reconciliation among the people group that he feels called to reach, or second, he can become the catalyst planter, discipling the persons of peace couple, so that they can be the elders/pastors of the microchurch. Regardless, without the persons of peace, reaching the ethnic enclave may not be easy.
In the diagram below, the planter becomes the lead elder, discipling the persons of peace. As they are discipled, they reach the cultural enclave, being invited to gather with the lead elder and couple. As the same nationality, ethnicity, and race, the cultural enclave is connected to the persons of peace. The persons of peace begin reaching others in their community enclave, in turn, cultivating the development of a microchurch cultural oikos.
Nevertheless, the closeness and constant communication within these dwelling places represent a cultural oikos in which greater opportunity for gospel saturation and reconciliation exists.
Subsequently, as someone more catalytic, helping the persons of peace become indigenous microchurch planters has similar features. The catalytic planter disciples the persons of peace in the same manner as the first strategy; however, he does not engage the microchurch plant as a participant. The catalyst’s role is to help cultivate as many microchurch cultural oikos’ as possible, by discipling persons of peace to engage their cultural enclaves.
Nevertheless, the goal is reproducible disciple-making. The missiological term cultural oikos only helps identify gospel engagement strategies. Understanding that diaspora and migrating groups are not models but people with deeply rooted rituals, ideologies, and beliefs—for the microchurch planter, the person of peace is vital. As one missiologist noted, “For many of these people groups, Christianity is viewed as a competing political and religious force that threatens to break up families and communities. These people need to be reached through a gospel movement emphasizing God’s blessing to heal and strengthen families. Many of these people groups have deep roots in their traditions, which can make it difficult for them to choose the gospel” (East West, n.d.). Gospel movements provide reproducibility and healing, restoring and reconciling the image of God, back to God. While a difficulty exists to infiltrate some traditions, rituals, and roots, the person of peace becomes the archetypal biblical Roman Centurion or Philippian jailer (Acts 10:2, 16:21). These reconciled men served as influencers among their people and became the gateway for their cultural enclave to become a cultural oikos to receive gospel reconciliation.
The primary content of this article was presented at the Evangelical Missiological Society Southeast Conference, March 19th, 2022. If you’d like a full copy of the article “Planting Urban Microchurches: Utilizing the Cultural Oikos to Cultivate Gospel reconciliation Among Minority and Diaspora Communities,” please feel free to contact me.
Over the last decade, the churches in America have witnessed an overall decline in size. A recent Lifeway Research study indicated that twenty years ago, churches of 100 or smaller constituted 45% of all American churches—today, that number has increased to 65%. While some analysts may view the statistics as doom and gloom, I always look at things either realistically, innovatively, or optimistically. I believe we can do all three.
As a missiologist, recognizing the continued trend of American churches becoming smaller is not a bad omen. The smaller churches paradigm opens five missional doors to propel the church for more significant cultural impact. Those five effectual doors are church multiplication, community outreach, missional giving, disciple-making, and gospel-reconciliation among diaspora.
One of the reasons for this article is not merely to present facts and figures or theoretical knowledge but to encourage and embolden the smaller church (and pastor). For far too often and far too long, small church pastors have been viewed as less anointed, skilled, favored, gifted, or even called. Small church pastor, and small church bashing, need to cease! The church growth movement has failed in producing disciple-makers and in multiplying.
For clarity, you may be inclined to deduce that smaller churches mean greater Christian decline—but the Lifeway data does not make those distinctions, nor are they factors concerning innovative pioneering and church movements. To be clear, every major church movement through ecclesiastical church history occurred through smaller churches—yet, as Americans, the “bigger is better” motto consumes evangelical thinking. The Western church must view itself as a global church partner (co-laborer), not an imperialistic superior. With that stated, let’s examine the five practical missional opportunities for the trending small church.
Yes, multiplication is the first and most significant opportunity for smaller churches. Everyone knows that simple is reproducible; the complex is not. Smaller churches have always been viewed as multiplicative. However, missional and communal have become synonymous with small groups or house churches. While house churches and microchurches are aspects of a smaller church, generally, they are viewed as an anomaly or part of some niche evangelical fringe. We want to focus on actual evangelical congregations of smaller than 100.
Conferences and books have exploited the small church pastor into thinking they are not good enough; that if they do not break the 200 person-barrier, they are somewhat incompetent and should feel shame. That’s a straight Satanic lie. Neither the big church nor the small church is wrong—both can be and should be utilized, but we need to see the beauty and significance of the small church. The global church must applaud the small church pastor equally as the megachurch one. Frankly, I’m glad that this trend is occurring. Why? Multiplicative church movements will not happen by attempting to utilize the large church methodology—it just won’t. I have nothing against larger churches; I attend one. Yet, I’ve been a planter and small church pastor—it’s time to celebrate and rejoice about the small church.
Thus, the research indicates that American smaller churches have grown exponentially from 45% to 65%. The research is not demonstrating that Christian decline caused the smaller church movement. On the contrary, linking the other factors of higher per person financial giving, increased fellowship, missional obedience, and discipleship, the smaller church is a cultural trend that appeals to Gen Z, Millennials, and some Gen X’ers. The days of bigger is better in America is not necessarily true anymore—that was the 80s yuppie marketplace, not the 20s inclusive society. Through social media, the 20s culture has relied upon being invested in the community—having a voice, being heard, recognized, and included—smaller churches answer those needs. Likewise, culture has shifted to smaller marketplaces, organic, and intimate settings—smaller churches are multiplying because they relate to the part of culture seeking this dynamic.
The Lifeway Research indicated that smaller churches increased (per person) in volunteerism and outreach. The statistics demonstrated what we have already known and guessed that larger churches tend to cause isolationism. This means that people in larger congregations may fade into a congregation without being needed, seen, asked, or want to participate. In smaller churches, believers practice their faith by engaging in communal and individual outreach. In a small church, you will be seen.
For clarity, a large church may indeed have a more significant impact upon a city with its ability to provide hundreds of volunteers. Again, the article’s point is not that larger churches are wrong, but that smaller churches are good and that the trend shows great opportunity. Smaller churches showed that more of their congregants participated in community outreach than larger churches. Is there a direct correlation between larger churches and inactive faith—perhaps—but, all believers should agree that while works are not salvific, we were created “for good works” (Eph. 2:8-10)? There can be no separation from the gospel and the mission of God.
As obedient Great Commission servants (Matt. 28:18–20), believers have always been compelled to give to the mission of God. While statistics demonstrate that Americans still give more to religious values than any other association, donations have never been higher. Research indicates that of church tithers, regular church attendees provide 81% of the offerings. Overall, smaller churches exhibited to have more active and dedicated members.
Studying over 15,000 congregations, smaller churches reported higher percentages of donations given toward missions. The analysis illustrated that smaller churches were invested more individually and communally. Individuals within smaller congregations tended to feel connected to their missional giving, sometimes having opportunities to witness and partake within the immediate mission. Additionally, the data demonstrated that smaller churches allocated larger percentages of cumulative giving to missions. Perhaps, the smaller church views the pastor as an example? While subjective, with their moderate to lower-income (than larger churches), means of living, and sacrifice of giving for the mission of God, it may propel the smaller church members to participate with the pastor.
Cruciformity & Disciple-Making
Having mentioned participating with the pastor, as the apostle Paul stated to the Philippian churches, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things” (Phil. 4:9). As the more intimate fellowship of believers exists in the smaller church, the witness of example also exists. Closeness may not always imply cruciformity, but there can be no cruciformity without it.
Cruciform communities consist of devoted and sacrificial individuals. They engage and partake in one another’s hardships, sicknesses, trials, joys, celebrations and collectively embrace them all. While an aspect of a larger church produces excellent worship experiences, the smaller church employs intimate and communal prayer. These folks walk with one another through the daily rhythms of life. For this reason, disciple-making tends to be more genuine and engaged in smaller churches.
Pastors of small churches should embrace this one concept if none at all. Rejoice in the participation of spiritual formation and transformation—the testimony of spiritual renewal. As the Holy Spirit begins to work within the body of Christ boldly, you can experience God’s faithfulness with each individual. You partake in each wedding, funeral, graduation, Bible study, VBS, and more. You watch infants grow into youth and from youth to adulthood—seeing the fruit of your disciple-making labor. Smaller churches instinctively produce a greater cruciform community and disciple-making environment.
Diaspora are globally displaced or scattered peoples from their land of origin. Global migration has reached its zenith, whether through intentional international workplace contracts or illegal immigration. Additionally, United States immigration has reached the heights of the 1890s Ellis Island days. The unreached people groups of the world have come to our shores seeking refuge, asylum, freedom, and prosperity. While some analysts see the Western church in decline, we should see opportunity! The gospel provides refuge, asylum, freedom, and wealth in God.
Due to the astronomical impact of diaspora, the American church, more specifically the smaller church, has an amazing opportunity to reach, disciple, and bring gospel reconciliation to their communities. Knowing that diaspora people tend to cultivate ethnic-cultural enclaves, smaller churches can bring gospel reconciliation to these diaspora communities. As the Philippian jailer and Roman Centurion witnessed gospel reconciliation occur within their households, the intimacy and closeness of small church cruciformity and discipleship are similar. By reaching diaspora, the Western church can reach the world.
Consequently, while the small church possesses these five effective missional open doors, I do not believe they are exclusive to the smaller church. Yet, as this trend continues to rise, the objective is to finally rejoice in the small church. We ought to applaud the consistent hard work of the small church pastor. We ought to embrace the opportunities that the Lord has blessed us with. Through multiplication, community outreach, increased missional giving, disciple-making fellowship, and diaspora enclaves, Christian decline in the West can not only be reversed but it can engage in global church partnership. The moral, whether small or large, the Lord of the harvest is seeking laborers (Luke 10:2). Collectively, we must rejoice in all components of the mission of God.
 Aaron Earls. 2021. “Small Churches Continue Growing—but in Number, Not Size.” Lifeway Research. October 20, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2021/10/20/small-churches-continue-growing-but-in-number-not-size/.
 For the record, America receives more missionaries each year threefold than any other country. America is the mission field of the world, not vice versa.
As someone who assesses cultural trends, demographics, and global movements, it is not easy in today’s shifting world as a visionary and trainer.
One of the hardest aspects for “early adopters” is translating what you see coming and then getting others to invest in that vision. For the most part, only a small percentage of people are early adopters of vision and even a smaller part are vision casters.
The Reality of Inner City Churches
It’s amazing how we view the works of Schaeffer, Wagner, or McGavran with deep regard (at least some, do), yet when they were writing, the church didn’t seem to pay attention to them. But, their words have become somewhat prophetic as the church leads into the 21st century. We see before our eyes the proofs of global movements, urban areas, and immigration.
If you’re a church planter or pastor and haven’t heard the term diaspora, you will. If you want to know what is coming to urban churches then you need to become a student of diaspora movements (and immigration).
One of the major shifts in global population is the flowing dispersion of immigrant people groups. God is sovereignly moving people around the globe like never before. As a church planter to the military, I purposefully see the reaching, equipping, and sending as an identifiable diaspora-like movement.
If we couple the influx of hipster urbanites, gentrification, and urban renewal, it’s a massive powder keg awaiting implosion within inner-city churches.
Because most of our inner city and suburban older churches are not prepared for what is coming. The reality—these churches will die out. With the movement of refugees—either fleeing persecution or temporary visa status for work—they’re coming to cities all over the world.
What Immigration Tells Us
Western churches in urban areas will be forced to reach people of ethnicity. It’s not that urban churches haven’t always tried to reach ethnicities—but cities will be more ethnically and culturally diverse than ever. We should know that immigration to the United States is the only cause for population growth.
And, where do most immigrant groups go? Cities.
Without immigrants (legal), the United States would not be growing in population—but plateauing or even declining. Just to clarify, if you’re linking immigration with the Hispanic culture, let me help you. Currently, Germany and Ireland are the top two countries with diaspora peoples coming to the U.S.—Mexico is third, but only by a small portion of one percent, compared to the United Kingdom (4th).
How Does This Change Urban Evangelicalism?
Immigration and diaspora models play a major role in engaging urban areas with the Great Commission (Matt 28:18–20). As well, the combined hipster, gentrification, and urban renewal (for taxation) models will come into effect.
I’ve heard it said, “We need to stop mega-churches from “gobbling” up old city churches for satellite campuses because they know nothing about the people in the city” or “we already have ‘churches,’ they just need more people in them.”
Supposedly, as the theory goes, mega-churches and Anglo church planting in urban areas won’t work because both are viewed as outsiders looking in. The theory suggests that anglo planters and megachurch models do not understand an inner-city culture, and will not be able to engage the people.
This erroneous theory is caused by thinking Anglo church planters cannot reach African Americans, which are the prominent majority of the urban population.
This argument suggests that Anglo planters and mega-churches should solely invest in small “indigenous” churches, working with and alongside already existing minority inner churches—but not create new spaces of worship. While I may have agreed with this model ten years ago (for outreach purposes)—it’s as archaic as the tape cassette—well, maybe the CD.
Within the next five to ten years, domestic churches and church planters will be forced to reach across the cultural lines of socio-economic barriers, engage ethnic diversity evangelistically with E–2 to E–3 evangelism, and evaluate demographic and ethnic data. If a church doesn’t know who is in its neighborhood, it cannot reach it.
Research any recent urban demographic data and compare it to fifteen years ago. However, census.gov reports won’t provide a true picture—as many people groups within a city, either fail to report their true identity or will not report at all (mainly because of privacy, legal issues, or fear). Think about the major influx of Islam—in just fifteen years this people group has surpassed caucasian and evangelical reproduction.
Do you know how many mosques are now within your city?
While I devoutly pray that brothers and sisters in Christ would no longer view skin color, race, or religion as barriers—the fact is—immigration is a game-changer!
Even the inner-city African American culture will be melded into the many ethnic cultures already here and those arriving in the future. To reach an entire city the church must yield to a concerted effort.
Most cities are becoming more and more ethnically diverse: Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, and European. To think that things are going to stay the same, especially in light of gentrification (even though I disagree with it, doesn’t mean it’s not happening), are antiquated and ignorant. Urban churches wishing to survive must engage foreign people groups.
The Good News
First, we have the ability to know, study, engage, meet, and communicate with every people group within our cities. Major mission organizations are working side-by-side in mapping the nations within cities. This information is available and can assist churches and church planters in engaging urban areas with the gospel.
Second, nationalities within city-limits sometimes have unreached people groups (UPGs) among them. Many of the refugees will one day desire to go back home—so, what better way to engage missions than to have UPGs return to “go and make disciples” in their own homeland.
Lastly, churches should be working together, collaboratively, as kingdom workers to reach every city with the gospel. However, this is going to take a multi-pronged approach. Existing mega-churches should find ways to purchase dying empty church sarcophaguses—keeping these “kingdom properties.”
Targeting areas of resurgent growth and ethnically diversified areas with house churches works well, too. Strengthening and revitalizing churches, which can be saved, and churches within lower socio-economic areas are a must.
As well, traditional style church planting (having a sending church) and more innovative church planting techniques (parachuting) must be implemented.
We’re all on the same team—let’s reach our cities and the peoples of the world.
Are you a disciple-maker? A church planter? A revitalizer? Pastor? Missionary? or maybe just an early church geek?
Over the next several weeks, I’m going to be listing some of the books that I’ve read. Most of them will have the same theme—reproducible disciple-making (my passion), but they all derive from a different aspect and have a different purpose.
I know that several of the books that I list will be academic in nature—but they’re excellent resources, while yet others are extremely practical and may seem to not have much depth. In all, they work well together and I’m sure that you can glean from them.
If you don’t see a particular book, don’t worry, I have over 500 books regarding missiology, discipleship, and church planting. But, feel free to ask me—maybe I’ll post it next.
Here, are ten books—not in any specific order of importance, but ones that I find edifying.
Hastings, Ross. Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2012.
Ross Hastings has served as a pastor and professor of pastoral theology. I truly love this book—one of my all-time favorites! Hastings provides thoroughly academic work—always footnoted and cited—yet highly captivating. His book reflects upon the character of God and his mission on earth. There’s a working thesis that correlates with John’s Great Commission (Jn. 20:19–23) that Hastings utilizes as the focal point. The book is divided into two parts: (1) discovering and (2) disseminating the shalom of God, through the Church, to the world.
Missional God, Missional Church is (in my opinion) a must-read for anyone interested in missiology and the revitalization of the Western church. For Hastings, the missional church’s identity in Christ becomes more revealed when sharing the Trinitarian presence. He analyzes the importance of John 20:19–23 in a Christocentric engagement within daily worship, liturgy, and practices, as they relate to how the church incarnates within a diverse Western culture—that is something the modern church needs.
One thing I love about Hastings’ book is its refreshing and comprehensive approach to missional cultural engagement of the Great Commission, NOT deriving from the Matthean gospel, but from the Apostle John—very insightful and illuminating.
Hull, Bill. Conversion & Discipleship: You Can’t Have One Without the Other. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.
If you’ve read any books on discipleship, you’ve come across Bill Hull’s work. Hull has authored several well-written books regarding the topic of discipleship; add Conversion & Discipleship, the newest of Hull’s books to that list.
Hull does a remarkable job in illustrating the dilemma facing evangelicalism regarding the aspects of “completed conversion and a salvation-culture,” compared to disciple-making and gospel-culture. Why is this important? Because the modern church has neglect disciple-making by replacing it with a once saved always saved ideology causing apathy. From page one, Hull compares the varied views of the gospel and how each f them will determine the disciple’s worldview.
For Hull, a false view of the gospel will not develop disciples. He establishes a gospel-centered thesis for making disciples—I love that! Conversion & Discipleshipoverflows with biblical insight, rich theological examination, ecclesiological dilemmas, spiritual formational applications, and personal accounts. This may be Hull’s best-written book on discipleship.
McGowan, Andrew, B. Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014.
Well, this is another academic piece, but I really enjoyed it.
It’s been stated that if you want to know the future then look back at the past. Andrew McGowan, president, and dean of Berkley Divinity provides a transparent picture of the early church’s construction, practices, and worship, helping you gain a fresh perspective of orthodox Christianity.
McGowan writes about the ritual lifestyle of early Christian communal faith, spiritual development, and sacramental practices—something that I’m somewhat of a nerd about. But, Ancient Christian Worship offers a comprehensive researched and thought-provoking book with excellent insight into biblical and extra-biblical works.
McGowan’s contextual attention toward Greco-Roman, Roman, and Judaic culture surrounding the Eucharist was well established. Ancient Christian Worship would not be considered a light read or probably desirable for a new believer, but it is one worthy for scholarly research or greater early church understanding.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.
Ok, seriously, what can we say about anything of Newbigin’s?
Lesslie Newbigin has been credited with being one of the greatest missiologists of the twentieth century—indeed. The books that Newbigin wrote still have an impact and application upon today’s culture and missional life.
Newbigin’s book was first published in 1978 and has been revised, but the thesis concerning the mission of the Church being an “Open Secret,” has not. The Open Secretmay seem prophetic to the modern reader as if Newbigin had revelation concerning the Church’s enculturation and decline–I believe he did.
But, I also love the Trinitarian depth, theological exploration, missiological truths, and practical experience—they are beyond impressive. Any person engaging or contemplating vocational or bi-vocational church planting would do himself or herself a favor, by reading Newbigin’s Open Secret.
Ogden, Greg. Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time. Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2003.
This is a decent book, not the best, but still very edifying. To write his book, Ogden utilizes his involvement as the director of the doctoral program of Fuller Seminary and his pastoral experience. He illustrates how Jesus and Paul utilized discipleship as transforming and empowering agents of people and the church.
Exposing today’s weak manner in which churches engage discipleship, Ogden provides biblical solutions to assist in fruitful multiplication. I thought Ogden’s book was well developed, reflective, and very practical, but it’s not a “one size fits all” band-aid to correct years of church disciple-making neglect. For Ogden, discipleship and transformation take patience and time and occur best in sharing life.
Schnabel, Eckard, J. Early Christian Mission: Jesus and the Twelve. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
This two-volume work is by far one of my all-time favorites. In actuality, I think I love anything written by Schnabel—his work is very thorough. Schnabel teaches New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and has been a missionary to the Philippines and Germany. This exhaustive and immensely in-depth academic work make Early Christian Mission a must-have resource for any serious student of Christian history.
Jesus and the Twelve(vol. 1) contains over nine hundred pages expounding upon the early Jewish Christ-following movements into pagan societies and their missionary practices. Leaving nothing out, Schnabel’s work includes illustrations, a multitude of scholarly resources, biblical exegesis, cultural hermeneutics, theological analysis, first-century missionary strategies, and more.
Schnabel’s work becomes an excellent resource for information, background, and understanding of early Christian mission.
Watson, David, and Paul Watson. Contagious Disciple Making: Leading Others on a Journey of Discovery. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2014.
Contagious Disciple Making won’t be considered a comfortable read. The Father and son duo, David and Paul Watson, analyze the differences between contextualization and understanding culture, teaching doctrine and Great Commission obedience, and the importance of making disciples, not converts.
The Watsons do create an easily readable format, but if you’re a traditionalist, be forewarned, their hard-hitting emphasis on thinking outside of traditional practices may cause your blood to boil.
Far from the classic style of classroom discipleship models, Contagious Disciple Making will stretch your understanding of mission with practical experiences of church planting movements and perspectives. Overall, the Watsons’ book illuminated me for innovation and development of new and extant methodologies concerning the goal of making disciples—but really good for parachuting church planters.
Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1991.
AWESOME! This is the all-time best book regarding the theology of mission—but, be prepared, it is NOT an easy read. This book even comes with a manual on how to read it! The picture shows a yellow cover, mine is purple, so it may be different, but the content is the same.
But, Transforming Mission has become one of the most popular books concerning mission. David Bosch was a missiologist and professor at the University of South Africa. Bosch’s book illustrates the shifts within the ecclesiastical mission throughout the centuries. He identifies the dilemma of postmodernism and the paradigm shift that needs to—or must—occur.
Bosch expertly explains how to see and engage the mission during the shift. For Bosch, Christian mission transforms the realities of everyday life that surround it. Bosch’s in-depth biblical, theological, and ecclesiological understanding of the Great Commission makes Transforming Mission a bank vault of knowledge. With nearly six hundred scholarly pages of research, Bosch’s book should be on every church planter’s library shelf—I’m not kidding.
Green, Michael. Evangelism in the Early Church. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004.
I think this book has also become one of my favorites, but once again, I’m an early church nerd.
Michael Green is not some academic push-over, he has served as the senior professor of research at Oxford University’s Wycliffe Hall. Green has also published several books illustrating his knowledge regarding the early church—yet, I think this is his best work.
Green revisits the early church and the secularized relativistic and pluralist society it lived within. He addressed how the modern church would benefit to engage the first-century church’s evangelistic fervor. For Green, the modern church lives when it sacrifices itself and it grows when it gives itself away.
In this revised edition, Green examines the transforming power of the gospel. As well, Green validates his points with hundreds of footnotes from scholarly sources—that’s the real deal. With multiple mentions concerning the early church’s baptismal rite and the Great Commission, Green’s work can be beneficial to revitalizers, planters, and disciple-makers.
Ok, I threw this one if the pile. It’s not one of my favorites, but it is well written. Floyd McClung has published over fourteen books. He founded All Nations, a church movement that engages disciple-making, leadership training, and church planting—so, he’s got the clout.
Plus, this isn’t McClung’s first go around regarding discipleship. I will admit, Basic Discipleship far exceeds anything ordinary, for this reason, do not expect the basic definition of discipleship. McClung challenges the aspect of obedient discipleship and an enacted Christ-centered faith. A consistent theme of Christ’s Lordship over life, seeking God through humility, and the compassion of others, reveals Basic Discipleship as an edifying tool for spiritual formation and Great Commission living. Disciple-maker…put this book in your quiver.
Dr. Fretwell is passionate about reproducible disciple-making, church planting, and church revitalization. Seeking to publish his next book on reproducible disciple-making, he has already published 4 books and edited two others. He frequently writes for other sites and is available for consulting work and speaking.
If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.
Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.
Demographics & Exegeting Culture
Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.
If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.
So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.
Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.
Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.
Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.
Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?
Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.
Demographics & Spiritual Pulse
Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.
I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.
Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.
If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.
Demographics & Sermon Delivery
Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.
Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.
As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.
There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.