A rapidly changing context presents new opportunities for evangelism, church planting, and related outreach. Christians can and must become missionaries in their hometowns and cities throughout the US.
Introduction: Beyond Past Assumptions
How do you picture the state of missions in the United States? Do you think of sharing the gospel narrative with people who have never heard the story? In my team’s experience with the growing number of citizens of non-religious America and among adherents of various world religions, this is an accurate picture. Do you think of reaching out to Muslims? The church in the United States may have an emerging consciousness when it comes to loving our Muslim neighbors. In places like New York City, where one out of ten people is a Muslim, or in cities like San Francisco, Tampa, Atlanta, Houston, or Minneapolis, encounters with Muslims are increasingly commonplace. Do images of lovely countryside chapels come to mind, or does mission in the United States—a society long considered to be eighty percent urban—conjure up images of high-rises, ethnic enclaves, and sprawling suburbs?
The changing face of the US and Canada now means that Somalis in Columbus, Arabs in Brooklyn, Sikhs in Vancouver, and Kurds in Nashville represent our newest neighbors. It may mean that the emerging leaders of the American church speak English only as a second language. In large states like Texas, California, and Florida, Hispanic/Latino populations represent a growing demographic. For instance, in California Latinos have surpassed whites as the largest group profile in the state.1 Dan Rodriguez’s work in A Future for the Latino Church documents some of the most dynamic new churches in the US, which stunningly are still not considered “mainstream.”2 While we may not think in terms of people who have never actually heard the gospel narrative before when we think of missions in the United States, between the growing number of religiously unaffiliated households and an influx of immigrants from the majority world, it is increasingly common to encounter individuals who have never heard of Jesus.
Our world is increasingly a globally connected place, and that affects the American church. The first step in addressing missions in the United States may be to move beyond our assumptions and see the dynamic, diverse harvest before us. There can be little doubt that our context for missions has been experiencing some shifts in the cultural landscape. While there are emerging challenges, we must recognize the opportunities for missions in the twenty-first century.
We must recognize the opportunities for missions in the twenty-first-century US.
Globalization & Migration
As I have discussed at length in Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization, and Evangelism, flows of migration, globalization, and urbanization deeply impact the context for Christian missions.3 This is especially true in the United States, as it is a top receiving country of immigrants. This reality presents opportunity. It means that the majority of American Christians can participate in cross-cultural missions without moving to another country. In some cases the most unreached nations or tribes in our world are within our own cities or neighborhoods. This global reality also entails some significant challenges. Can the American church move beyond nationalist ethnocentrism and cultural isolationism to reach out in friendship as a respectful witness to the “other”? Will leaders of evangelism and church planting efforts in the US be mindful of missions principles such as contextualization and avoid the pitfalls of syncretism? Will Christians in the US be willing to follow experienced Christian leaders who don’t sound or look like them, or will they relegate them to second class status in our leadership circles? The current realities of the American context raise numerous, pressing questions.
The United Nations has forecast that by 2050 nearly seventy percent of our planet’s population will live in metropolitan areas, and the United States is already an urban majority nation.4 Yet, the churches of the Stone-Campbell tradition, like other evangelical traditions, come from a rural background. Will we be able to overcome our origins to face the urban reality? These days, most missions leaders in the US realize the need to launch their ministry efforts in cities, but I can’t help but wonder if we are only scratching the surface of urban realism. In other words, ministries strategies will need to adjust to the changing environment impacting the task of Christian missions. With increased urbanization comes increased stresses impacting the psychology of daily life. Therefore, how do we form disciples facing increased pressures on people’s time and availability as they labor within the oppressive demands of the global economy? How do we develop grassroots leaders in markedly fragmented societies? How do we nurture families and build community despite the busyness of urban life? Are we prepared to take advantage of the missional opportunities presented by a networked society? I suspect that we have only begun to shape our ministries around the questions raised by a predominantly metropolitan existence.
While international immigration, the global economy, ongoing urbanization, and similar factors are making an impact on the cultural landscape of the US, there is another cultural current that has been steadily on the rise: a post-Christendom culture. Christendom is a context in which cultural Christianity holds the position of greatest influence and authority in a society, especially when it comes to shaping laws, influencing common values, and impacting moral expectations. In very recent years, it seems that a growing number of Christian leaders are acknowledging the demise of Christendom, exchanging it for something that we can presently only label as “post.” This leads to more questions. How do followers of Christ evangelize among groups of people who do not inherently assume the Bible speaks with authority? How do churches pursue spiritual formation among a community that is only hearing the gospel narrative for the first time? How do we approach church planting in communities that are suspicious of the church as an institution? The American church is being forced to recover its identity as aliens in a strange land.
The US church is being forced to recover its identity as aliens in a strange land.
Meeting the Challenge
When we began Global City Mission Initiative (http://globalcitymission.org) only a few years ago, we recognized that there is a need to address these challenges head on and to embrace the opportunities that this new world presents. We saw the need for a missions organization to work strategically to advance evangelism through the context of global cities. In our first three years, we have connected with several evangelistic contacts who have in turn shared what they are learning from the gospel to family or friends in their home country. Working locally in urban neighborhoods in the United States, we have encountered numerous Americans who have never heard the most basic stories of the gospel. We are a network of missionaries working intentionally to spark disciple-making at global intersections where local and global often overlap.
Meeting the challenge for the American church means embracing our identity as a missionary people. This is more than just a conceptual self-understanding. It means that American Christians will need to learn how to move across cultures if they want to reach their neighbors. Church planters in the United States will need to take contextualization seriously. Churches will need to earn trust rather than assume it. Many of our friends are going to be starting from different authority structures than we might have for ourselves. And it means that multitudes of Christians in the United States will have the opportunity to share the story of Jesus with those whose ears would hear it for the first time.
American Christians will need to learn how to move across cultures to reach their neighbors.
In a global world, old dichotomies of missions as “foreign” or “domestic” are not only less relevant, they may even be a hindrance. Indeed, many of the structures built to advance Christian missions were not constructed with the emerging realities of our contemporary society in mind. It wasn’t very long ago that the idea of “change” represented a religious battleground of sorts, but in an urban world change is the only constant. Adaptability is an essential ministry skill in the twenty-first century. A world once built on stability is now operating around the axes of mobility and connection. This new world might seem scary and intimidating for the American church and its leaders. However, I want to raise a rallying cry here to open our eyes to the harvest and seize the amazing and unprecedented opportunities that overshadow even the greatest challenges. Global partnerships offer new possibilities for the mission of the church, and leading theological voices from around the world can provide what we need for us all to learn together in mutual humility. Not only can American churches participate in global missions within a few square miles of their building and share the joy of the gospel with first-time hearers, but the enormity of the challenge, I believe, is actually forcing the American church to recover her true identity as a missionary people—as exiles in a foreign land.
Dr. Jared Looney is the executive director of Global City Mission Initiative (http://globalcitymission.org). Serving in NYC for 15 years, he has worked in evangelism, church planting, and teaching in multicultural communities, and has spent several years training new missionaries in NYC sent from multiple missions agencies. He currently lives with his wife and daughter in Tampa, Florida.
1 Javier Panzar, “It’s Official: Latinos Now Outnumber Whites in California,” Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2015, http://latimes.com/local/california/la-me-census-latinos-20150708-story.html.
2 Daniel A. Rodriguez, A Future for the Latino Church: Models for Multilingual, Multigenerational Hispanic Congregations (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011).
3 Jared Looney, Crossroads of the Nations: Diaspora, Globalization and Evangelism, Urban Ministry in the 21st Century (Portland: Urban Loft Publishers, 2015).
4 United Nations, The World Urbanization Prospects: The 2014 Revision (NY: United Nations, 2015), https://esa.un.org/unpd/wup/Publications/Files/WUP2014-Report.pdf.