Relationships. Humans have relatedness and relationship because of the Creator. Humanity was created in the “image” and “likeness” of God (Gen. 1:26-28). Our relatedness and relationship ability define humanity as different than any other created thing. We were made for relationships.
Through the Scriptures, the reassurance of our purpose and design in being relationship-driven is validated. The only time within the creation narrative that God mentions anything negative is in man’s isolation and loneliness (Gen. 2:18). Humanity was made for relatedness and relationship, with God and with one another. What does this have to do with a cultural mandate?
The cultural mandate, as it is known, states, “God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
The misconception about the cultural mandate is that people believe that it merely applies to human reproduction. However, in light of the continuity of Scripture, and the wholeness counsel of God, there is a link to multiplicity and a correlation to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). Yet, as we note from the beginning of creation, an intimacy of relatedness (to God, one another, and creation) and the primacy of love is innately encoded into our DNA, by the Creator.
As Adam and Eve walked with the Creator in the garden, they were gaining an intimate understanding of living with God within the daily regularities of life. The proclamation “to be fruitful and multiply,” or cultural mandate, was a commission—to fill the earth as image-bearers of God.
Think of this—if Adam and Eve had not committed sin, their mandate would have driven them to expand the Garden of Eden to fill the entirety of the earth. The Garden of Eden would have possessed no boundaries. Every person, beginning at birth, would have come to know, love, worship, and serve the Creator by becoming a disciple-maker (talking about God and living for God). For this reason, we can see the correlation with the Great Commission multiplicative mandate to make disciples of every tribe and nation (Mt. 28:19-20). Life is about knowing God and making Him known (multiplying).
As a student of God’s Word, the metanarrative of Scripture is God’s story—the Scriptures reveal the One True God to humanity. As Michael Goheen notes, “The gospel places us between creation and consummation, the beginning and end of cosmic history … we find ourselves in the middle of the Bible as one story whose central thread is the missional vocation of God’s people…” The Old Testament and the New Testament are not divorced from one another—nor are they separated stories, but one continual story, much like a thread of comments on an Instagram post.
Therefore, I believe the cultural mandate is much like the Great Commission—a direct order given from the Creator to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:26-28; Matt. 28:18–20). While there are some distinctions between the two, both relay a kingdom ethos. Like the cultural mandate, within Christ’s command to make disciple-makers is the tantamount awareness of relatedness and relationship—with man and with God.
To understand the Great Commission is to understand that each person alive today has been created in the image of God and participates within God’s story. The Great Commission must compel God’s redeemed people to look beyond discipleship as conversion therapy, but as the very definition and story of what it means to be human. God’s story is “the true story of the whole world.” Discipleship begins at relationship, not conversion.
Next, the Great Commission is a divine directive for those who have been saved by grace and filled with the Holy Spirit of God to “be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). The church actively partakes in, and participates with, the Triune God. There is a divine koinonia, of cross-centered living and sharing of possessions, emotions, and relationships that constrict a cruciform community. The Great Commission has direct kinship to the cultural mandate because God, through Jesus Christ, renews the image-bearers of God. Christ re-creates humanity (2 Cor. 5:17), breathing new breath into them (John 20:22), and placing them back into the Adamic state of relationship (yet, not yet, sinless).
The cultural mandate is an “evangelistic mandate” and an “imperative to make disciples.” I know that some scholars may disagree with me, but I can’t help to connect the dots within the metanarrative of God—that God created man in His image and likeness to know Him, love Him, and serve Him, and to fill the earth as His protectorates.
The cultural mandate mirrors the Great Commission as Christ, God in the flesh, the reigning cosmic King, with all authority and an omnipotent presence, journeying with mankind, as disciple-makers make disciple-makers (Matt. 28:18–20). In the Garden, Jesus, the second and last Adam, lived out the mission of God, by and with obedience, something that the first Adam failed to do within his garden.
So, we arrive at a destination—a course in which God in Christ, by the power of the Spirit, is leading us and directing us in a sanctifying life of mission. As well, our end goal should be the drive, zeal, and desire to be more holy, missional, and like Christ. Jesus was the ultimate reproducible disciple-maker. He was the penultimate image of God (Col. 1:15). And, if we were created for him, to him, and through him (Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16), then our lives must have intentionality in living out what He said and did (Matt. 28:19).
 Wagner, C. Peter. Strategies for Church Growth, 111.
 Goheen, Michael, The Church and Its Vocation: Lesslie Newbigin’s Missionary Ecclesiology), 8–9.
“Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them” (Numbers 11:26).
During the forty-year desert wandering of Israel, things were not so easy. Quite honestly, things are not so easy, today. And, not unlike our own “wandering” in the wilderness of our faith, seeking a “not-yet” Promised Land, Israel began to complain about God’s provision. This account in the book of Numbers demonstrates (once again) how God obligates Himself to humanity, for His mission.
The Israelites complain about the constant supply of manna (God’s miraculous provision) and instead yearn for meals prepared during their Egyptian captivity. It seems food has and will always be an obstacle for man. The leader, Moses, is burned out from the constant complaining and the never satisfied attitudes of the Israelites.
I believe many pastors can relate to this passage, but with hope, should continue reading.
Besides the Lord’s anger toward the people’s petulant behavior, Moses is grieved with leadership-despair. Moses cannot handle the encumbrance of the masses, he insists, “The burden is too heavy for me” (Num. 11:14). And yet, in the midst of God’s displeasure with the people, He hears the cries of Moses and the complaints of the people. The Lord’s hand is never shortened (11:23).
The Lord instructs Moses to gather seventy elders of the people. The elders will become “anointed and appointed” leaders. God promises to “take some of the Spirit” that is on Moses and lay it upon the seventy (11:17). God obligates Himself by providing grace, power, and wisdom.
A great contrast can be seen. The people craved and lusted after food from their enslavement, instead of being satisfied with God’s provision (manna). The Hebrew word for manna means, “What is it?” Yet, the Lord sees Moses’ leadership dilemma and provides, yet again, giving the people (what is it?) — anointed and appointed Spirit-filled community leaders.
The seventy elders gather before the tent of meeting with Moses—the Lord comes down in a cloud and anoints the elders, they begin to prophesy! But, not all of the leaders were at the tent. Two of the leaders never made it—they remained in the community. Afterward, “a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (11:26).
While Joshua is confused and jealous, Moses understands God’s mission and wisdom—to fill His people with the Holy Spirit to live among one another. Eldad and Medad— two anointed and appointed leaders for community mission (Missio Communitas). Moses declares, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” (Num. 11:29).
Indeed, God has brought to fulfillment the snapshot of Eldad and Medad. As recorded in the book of Acts, Peter stands before the entire assembly at Pentecost and recites from the prophet Joel:
“And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants;
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy”
(Acts 2:17-18; Joel 2:28-29).
Anointed and appointed for missio communitas.
Every believer of Christ has been anointed and appointed by the Spirit of the living God for community mission—to weep, rejoice, breath, eat, sleep, and live among the people. God’s children are gospel-centered and Spirit-empowered. In agreement with Moses’ declaration, I wish that all believers were like Eldad and Medad, prophesying or speaking the very Word of God within their communities. And more than that—living as anointed and appointed Spirit-filled people.
I have long been intrigued and captivated by the early church. What I mean by early church is the New Testament era and the first two centuries succeeding. I love the narrative of Acts and its apostolic association with “belonging to the Way” (Acts 9:2). I crave for their sacrifice, and for their disciple-making devotion. While I understand that the early was far from perfect and had vast dysfunction—they also possessed dedication, piety, and desire.
Because of my captivation, I find myself diving deeper into the depths of ecclesiastical disciple-making (See Church Planting by Making Disciple-Makers). My journey has currently positioned me within an early document known as the Didache. If you’re not familiar with the Didache (pronounced, Did-ah-key or Did-ah-kay), it is not without its controversies, as it seems to have been lost for fifteen hundred years.
As history notes, in 1873 a Greek Orthodox bishop named Philotheos Bryennios was in the library archives of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem sifting through the early manuscripts. Bryennios wasn’t exactly sure what he had discovered, as the Didache was “sandwiched between other early church documents;” namely TheEpistle of Barnabas, 1 and 2 Clement, 12 letters of Ignatius, and several others. While Bryennios’ contemporaries had common knowledge that Origin and Athanasius had referenced the Didache, many scholars believed that no extant manuscript existed—until Bryennios.
A Little More Background
By the early nineteenth century, the universal church was not monolithic regarding the dating of the Didache. While a small debate ensued regarding the text, some even considered it to be fraudulent. However, with ongoing German and French research, the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran in 1945, and the critical work of Willy Rordorf, the dating of the Didache was credibly proposed as preceding the Gospel of Matthew.
Nancy Pardee believed that the Didache’s early dating demonstrated an “important witness to the composition and development of the New Testament.” She stated, “Such an early date and stature by themselves would make the Didache an important witness alongside the New Testament of the development of the early Church, but the additional fact that the text is of more utilitarian nature means that it does not merely supplement the biblical texts, but compliments them.” Indeed, the Didache does compliment the synoptic Gospels.
Breaking It Down
The Didache itself is only sixteen short and concise chapters (a quick 20 minute read), instructing in the ordinances of the church, prophets, apostles, bishops, and deacons within the church, and some brief eschatological views. I found the section on the Eucharist, “breaking the loaf,” to be incredibly illuminating and missional. With the disciple reciting back the words during the Lord’s Supper (I paraphrase):
“As the seed that produce the loaf is scattered over the mountains,
And then gathered in and became one,
So may your church be gathered together into your kingdom,
The Didache is truly an amazing document, but it was never intended to be equated with Scripture, as it was a practical learning tool (orally taught) for new converts. Perhaps this is the reason for its disappearance? Yet, as someone that thrives to reach the world’s lostness, the Didache’s practical guidance regarding reproducible disciple-making is what I find the most intriguing.
If the dating of scholars is true, as one reads the Didache, the Gospels are immediately apparent. As well, the writer of the Didache notably assumes the reader understands the Sabbath days, rejecting the Roman days of the week with “second” and “fifth days of the Sabbath” being set aside as fast days. Most noteworthy is how the two ways of life are taught to a new convert; once learned, the “disciple-maker” baptizes the new convert, after a day or two of fasting. The reason I find this so noteworthy is its implication for rapid multiplication.
The Way of Life
The first several sections of the Didache are the two main aspects of the “teaching.” In perspective, we shouldn’t be surprised with the Way of Life and the Way of Death as central tenets, as a latter title for the Didache was “The Lord’s Teaching to the Nations through the Twelve Apostles.” The Didache is missional, devotional, and multiplicative. Yet, within the two ways they provide a glimpse into an early devoted and dedicated community—devoted to holiness and dedicated to Christ and one another.
The Didache begins with the introduction consisting of the two ways (1:1) but immediately proceeds with the first four succinct chapters describing the Way of Life. As a believer, I instantly see the value of guiding of a new convert through these first thirty-seven “verses.” The Way of Life begins with the greatest commandment, “You shall love God who created you; second, your neighbor as yourself; all those things which you do not want done to you, you should not do to others” (1:2).
The abstention from “carnal desires” and how to practically treat others is resounding (1:4). Giving is not a motto for the Way of Life but emphasizes God’s generosity to the adherent (1:5). It is easy to see the Ten Commandments interwoven throughout the Way of Life (2:2–7), as well as humility, patience, justice, hard work, and respect for the image of God. The new convert is reminded not to neglect the “Lord’s commands, but to hold fast to what has been handed down to you” (4:13); the very nature of disciple-making!
The Way of Death
Contrasting with the Way of Life, the Didache does not possess any gray area for the believer. You either walk in the Way of Life, or you’re cursed by wickedness—most notably, the Didache does not sugarcoat lasciviousness. Those who follow the Way of Death “do not know their Maker” (5:2). The warnings for the new converts, not to be led astray from the Way of Life, are foundational.
One might assume that the Didache is merely a set of rules and regulations, a means of legalism, but to the contrary:
“If you are able to bear the whole of the Lord’s yoke,
you will be complete.
However, if you are not able to bear that yoke,
then do what you can” (6:2).
In reflection, the Way of Death denotes the “old self” and the ways of the world, but as a student of the Bible, the Didache reads as a mixture between Jesus’ words and Pauls’ epistles. The Way of Death ends in chapter six and is much shorter than its counterpart, the Way of Life. The Way of Death is utilized as a practical guide of admonition, encouragement, and sanctity.
Spending the last several months researching the Didache has been more than rewarding; it’s been enlightening and informative to view an early community of steadfast believers. Without Scriptures, Paul’s epistles, the Gospels, and Revelation, it is eye-opening that such a document could have existed and point to biblical values (i.e. Great Commission teaching). The Didache demonstrates that the early church was not merely concerned with “Jesus loves me this I know” and that’s enough, but with multiplication, perseverance, righteousness, and humility.
The remaining chapters of the Didache are no slouch, either. Understanding its views of baptism, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist, church administrative structures, and end times may not be prescriptive or inspired, but they are revealing as to how the early ekklesia communities lived out the rhythms of life. Any time the modern church can utilize documents like the Didache, I believe it to be edifying. Again, while the Way of Life and Way of Death are not inerrant and inspired, they are definitely biblical—there’s no doubting their veritas.
 O’Loughlin, Thomas. The Didache: A Window on the Earliest Christians (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2010), 4–5.
 Milovec, Aaron. The Didache: Faith, Hope, & Life of the Earliest Christian Communities, 50-70 C.E. (Newman Press: NY, 2003), 4.
 Even though there is ample evidence that Paul’s letters were circulated among the early churches, early dating of the Didache would predate the over a third of the New Testament, including the Gospels.
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.
70% of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday, less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service. Even more sobering is the reality that American churches would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population growth (some research states 15,000).
In an interview with a Liberian church planter, he revealed that God called him to come to the United States to plant churches; he’s not the only one among the diaspora missionaries from Africa. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the missio Dei, the sending of God, and shift to a missional praxis. The Western world has once again become the mission field.
When relating to Western culture, I understand the ambiguity involved in such terminology; therefore, for the purpose of this article, the term “Western culture” refers to the United States of America. I hope to illustrate our culture’s need for an apostolic movement and a call for a reestablished Trinitarian mission.
First, I’ll address the historical and present reality of the Western church’s decline and imperative nature as a mission field. Second, I’ll explore a biblical and theological reflection on the Western church within culture.
Historical and Present Reality of The Western Church
We don’t need to go too far back into American history to notice that a transformation has occurred. Just one hundred years ago, back to the 1920’s, Christianity was once was so enmeshed within its culture that capitalism and faith were nearly inseparable—it was virtually improbable to receive a bank loan without church membership. John D. Rockefeller, who organized the Interchurch World Mission (IWM) once proclaimed, “A Christian is a Christian no matter what church he belongs to…What nobler aim can a man have in life than to be Christlike?”
Studying Rockefeller’s business practices, it would not be against popular opinion to question his biblical faith, but as many Americans, Rockefeller assumed that everyone in American society were automatically Christian. Alan Hirsch clarifies, “In the American expression, Christianity was not married to the state but is nonetheless seen to be an inextricable part of American culture and identity; until the last thirty years or so, if you were American, you were a Christian.” Church membership was more about being a part of the social norms and values than it was conviction of the heart.
An interesting statistic from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) shows research concerning American churches. NAMB found that in 1900 there were twenty-eight churches for every ten thousand people; by 1950 that number declined to seventeen; by the year 2000 it declined even more to twelve, and by 2004, it was down to eleven.! There are no current numbers, at least that I have discovered.
As stated, Olson’s statistics display that only 17.5% of the population in North America is attending Sunday services, but Doug Murren of the Murren Group, declares that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging a bit behind—his ghastly number of only 12% is staggering. Furthermore, Murren’s research indicates “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”
The Western church is surely in decline and hemorrhaging, as the culture pulls away from Christianity. The Barna Group assesses that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.” With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only. As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.”The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.
However, while it’s good to recognize numbers and statistics, the church should not become depressed—only motivated. As the culture shifts, the contemporary church must be reminded that it’s not in the first-century. As early church historian Michael Green notes, “They lived in a world more relativist and far more pluralist that our own.” Of course, to some, like Ted Turnau, who projects in his book, Popologetics, that “each idolatrous cultural act inspires another that is darker and more deceptive,” this would place humanity into a more darker culture than ever before.
It’s probably safe to say that humanity is, well, humanity, and a depraved unregenerate people will not flock to the gospel, but toward sinful tendencies. One cannot fault culture for shifting, nor for humanity in embracing relativism, new age spiritualism, or even atheism. If the church is not spreading the love of the gospel and making disciples within its community then the current culture cannot be faulted for failing to possess a Christian worldview. David Hesslegrave defines, “A worldview is formed by hearing and learning a big story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
The church is failing to present a transformation story in Christ, filled with the Scriptures, and the application from within our current lives. Society is only doing what is expected of it, to live life according to the desires of the heart. Western culture must be a mission field engaged by a missional people with a passionate and harmonious unified church at its core. The culture has shifted from the church to the workplace—hence, the church must engage the marketplace—and engage it as a movement.
The call for an apostolic movement is vital. If as Malphurs stated, “Only five to twenty-five percent of pastors are equipped to turn around churches” then only a paradigm shift in thinking will work. J.D. Payne rightly observes that the American church, which once was filled with missional church planters has developed into a pastoral missiology of “maintenance and conservation of structures and organizations.” Hirsch adds to this line of thinking, “We forgot that it’s not so much that the church has a mission as that the mission has a church…missional church is apostolic church.”To combat the decline of Western culture, the church must reengage its apostolic past, while communally embracing its missional future.
Biblical and Theological Reflection on The Western Church
As Lesslie Newbigin so eloquently, yet blatantly put it, “The Christ who said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” also said to those same disciples, “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” and showed them the scars of his battle with the rulers of the world (John 20:20-21). John’s passage reveals the Greatest Commission; the missio Dei, it’s theologically steeped foundation within the Omnibenevolence of God.
To know God is to love him. Jesus told his disciples that they must love their neighbors as they love themselves; this is the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). When questioned as to whom was their neighbor (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with a story pertaining to the Jews’ detested race of people, the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-35).
In connection, the story of the Good Samaritan is an applicable imperative to know and love those within our culture. Christ’s incarnation provides an example of not only understanding culture, but tabernacling within it (John 1:14). In Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Everyday Theology he explains, “Cultural literacy—[is] the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—[it] is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”To effectively engage Western culture, the church must not abandon the ancient faith, striving to embrace secular values to become relevant, but adhere, apply, and act within Trinitarian koinonia.
At the heart of the reconciliation of all things, whether Western culture or otherwise, is the love of the Father, explicitly sending the suffering Son, to vicariously be victorious over sin and death for humanity, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The love of God cannot be disseminated from the three persons of the Trinity, nor divorced from the missio Dei, as the conceptual understanding of homoousis underlies the Christ as the same eternal substance with the Father; so to, Christ is the head of the church.
Robert Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World expresses the church’s role and functions within a changing culture— “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.” The church was given a mandate to make disciples while going about life (Matt 28:19), through the worship of the Father (Matt 4:10; John 4:23), obedience and submission to Christ (John 14:15), by intentionally heeding the Holy Spirit’s voice (John 14:26; Acts 1:8).
Making disciples means that the church expresses,reveals, and manifests to culture the reality of the Trinity’s nature, by the gospel of Christ. As Adam Dodds confirmed, “Jesus cannot rightly be identified without describing the triune nature of God…Although the gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this gospel begins with the Father sending the Son who is conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, for the church to engage the Western culture with the gospel, it is to reveal God’s Omnibenevolence with the missio Trinitas. A call back to understanding that the Godhead propels and sustains the missional church community is at its core. Woodward validates, “since the church is the icon of the Trinity, true personhood is found in community.”
When the Apostle Paul was called to go to Macedonia, he first made plans to go to Asia, but as Erwin McManus linked, “The entire Trinity got involved in keeping Paul from going to the wrong place.”Currently, the Western church is not listening and it seems to be going to the wrong place. The church abides in Christ, having its resolve to fulfill the missio Dei, as the Imago Dei. As Christ’s body on earth, the church’s missional DNA (mDNA) exists in Jesus as Lord.
Enculturation occurs when “an existent, prevailing culture influences” a church to “imbibe its accepted norms and values.” By enculturation, the contemporary church has separated itself from the imago Dei. Rather than retaining its innate DNA (2 Cor. 5:17), Western Christianity has lost the power of the cross, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and the fear of Almighty God. The church’s enculturation has stripped it of the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (John 16), causing, in part, the West to become the mission field.
However, all is not lost. As Jesus stated, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b). The church, from its earliest inception, faced political, religious, and even internal opposition with councils, proconsuls, governors, kings, and tribunes, but the “powers that be,” hinder as they may attempt, could not and cannot cease a missional movement of God. When the church relinquishes control of all earthly things to God and basks in his presence, it can expect an apostolic Trinitarian movement to occur. During trials, tribulations, and opposition from society, the New Testament (NT) church was in the midst of an expansion explosion, and God was on the move.
The church must re-engage Western culture by relinquishing its boundaries to the missio Trinitas. Rolland Allen expresses this as the church’s primary fear, “There is always something terrifying in the feeling that we are letting loose a force which we cannot control; and when we think of spontaneous expansion in this way, instinctively we begin to be afraid.” As the Apostles Paul and John declared, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and respectively, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). Therefore, in moving ahead within the cultural divide, the church must relinquish its thoughts of controlling Christ’s body. The church has all the resources, power, vision, people, and God-given authority to reach the West for Christ—may we be so emboldened to do it!
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.
Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
Charles Edward Harvey. 1982. “John D Rockefeller, Jr and the Interchurch World Movement of 1919-1920: a different angle of the ecumenical movement.” Church History51, no. 2: 203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 7, 2015).
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 124.
Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West(Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 19.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 19.
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 17.
Adam Dodds. “Newbigin’s Trinitarian missiology: the doctrine of the Trinity as good news for Western culture.”International Review Of Mission99, no. 390 (April 1, 2010): 17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 6, 2015).
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.