Getting out of the “Leave it to Beaver” age of Evangelism

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I’ve watched every rerun of that show. And here’s the picture of America I remember. Everyone had a mom, a dad, a single family ranch-style house in a suburb, and a car. Everything was neat and tidy and of course, everyone was white, even the guy who would star in “Kung Fu” years later. I’m extrapolating here, but I would imagine that everyone went to church and held the Bible to some authority. Sometimes, I feel the church’s “way” to reach people is stuck in “that” era. We still assume people know the Bible, that everyone is essentially white, and much more. Let me explain…

125199C9-6355-4948-A55B-B8E0F0D83BC9(graphic courtesy of YWAM-San Francisco)

Here’s what the “world” looks like for me here in the Bay Area. I live in a hyper-diverse place that looks like anything BUT what I saw in those old reruns. 60 of these ethnic groups alone come from nations where there is no home church. Switching from the “Beaver” reference to an “Oz” one, it’s certainly true that we’re “not in Kansas anymore.”

However, churches are still mainly using a Western approach to share the Gospel AS IF we were still in the pre-civil rights 1950s. This worked fine in past generations when many of the popular Gospel presentations were written before immigration opened up in the mid 1960’s to waves of immigration from the East. Trouble is, many Christians are not even aware that their approach is rooted in the West; for a large majority, there is no other known option. So we keep sharing a Gospel that’s very propositional, one that assumes an individual sense of self, one that assumes an authority of Scripture, one that appeals to guilt, and much more. In other words, the very way we share the Good News invisibly says, “this is a Western gospel.” At its worst, this approach says “you are invited into the Kingdom so long as you have our Western culture.” From my perspective, it’s no wonder how the church in China did not grow phenomenally until after all the Western missionaries got kicked out. The majority church today is ill-equipped to share anything other than the Western gospel.

This problem of a Western approach is compounded by an age-old rural approach to the Bible, and henceforth, a rural approach in our methodology. This approach is losing grip in the context of today’s world, where people are increasingly living in urban cores. Consider what percent lived in urban places a hundred years ago compared to today:

  • 1900 – 8%
  • 2014 – 54%
  • 2050 – 60%

Much of the population growth is happening in Asia and Africa. In the US, the minority culture will soon outnumber the majority culture. This will be true in the nation’s colleges within a decade (and already true in many colleges), and will be true with the overall US population in a few decades. So far, I’ve pointed out that the world is BOTH urbanizing AND “Asianizing.” Yet, training to reach the nations that have come to our backyards, especially those who relate to an Asian culture, is vastly underdeveloped. This is sad when we consider that both of these things compounded together represents the forefront of missions today. Theologian Ray Bakke says this:

“Asianization’ and urbanization are the twin engines propelling the planet into the next century… Missions is no longer geographically distant, they are culturally distant.”

How did our churches get here?
For decades, we’ve seen “church-flight”, where churches leave the urban core to move to suburbs. And historically, when urbanization “catches up” to a once-suburb, churches will move again to the next suburb. Sometimes, these suburban churches end up being “clumped together” in “church row.” When I visit these churches, I watch my driving, knowing that most every car will be a church-goer (which I need to pay attention to since I’m often the preacher). I’m NOT saying that there should not be churches in suburbs. People live there and need churches. But I AM addressing an approach, a perspective. If we expect to grow in our intimacy with God, in our compassion to others (that was the Greatest Commandment right there), the church needs to widen its approach to more of an urban, multi-ethnic one.
That “multiethnic” term is dangerous and needs a bit of definition. I’ve seen many movements pursue ethnic tokenism without doing the hard work of being multi-ethnic in approach. The “multiethnic” term is also dangerous in that a reader might think that homogenous churches are “not biblical.” We can’t get hung up on where the church is or who is in the church, though those are important. But the approach and the lens by which we look through is far more important. For it will require surrender of old ways, and submission to others, ultimately to the King himself.
What I intend to do in the next few posts is to lay a framework that 1) I’ve had to wrestle with in my own life to move towards an urban-Asian approach and 2) a framework I’ve shared with many congregations. It’s a work in progress. Just yesterday, I preached the nuggets of what I intend to share in these posts. I preached twice in the same church, and even those two sermons were different from each other.

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