I am staggered to read in Key 73’s statement of primary purpose the phrase, “to confront every person in North America with the Gospel.” Can this be done? To do it requires us to confront each of the subgroups we read about in Charles Kraft’s article in this issue. I sincerely doubt that the plans as now outlined will lead to this. Key 73 has immense planning and diligent creativity and is now borne aloft by millions who are praying and working for its success. Never before has so vast an evangelistic campaign been galvanized into action. But “to confront every person in North America” requires something new in American evangelism: planting new congregations in subcultures strange to those who are doing the evangelizing. Why?
The newly appointed missionary leaves behind an America that he may assume to be relatively unified. When he returns he has new vision. He has bumped up against cultural barriers big and small, and now he sees at least what Nixon’s campaign managers saw—the 40 million ethnic voters of twenty-eight nationalities we read about in Kraft’s article. Unlike the campaigners, the missionary may even sense the striking differences among people who speak the same language, such as Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, Cubans and Argentinians. And there are still other differences of great significance to those who would evangelize: each of these ethnic subcultures has its aristocracies and its social residues. To suppose that all these different people, divided in so many ways, are going to fit easily into existing churches is simply folly!
And so, I believe that the present Key 73 plans are, in one central, crucial respect, drastically inadequate: they assume that existing congregations are ends and not means. Although there are some small exceptions in the materials, the overall deficiency is plain. The consistent assumption throughout is that we can win America merely by renewing and expanding our existing churches. Key 73 leaders may feel this good but limited approach is necessary in order to attract local churches and denominations into enthusiastic involvement. But the limitations of this approach can doom Key 73 to very limited results.
I realize full well that Key 73 strategists may have felt they could not enter into the complexity of specific denominational procedures for founding new congregations. And I realize that many churches might think they don’t need any more competitors. But if the Key 73 planners cannot speak about this subject, may I?
All around the world today we see outstanding examples of thriving church growth in dozens of different subcultures. Most of this growth has come through new congregations, not enlarged ones. There are 3,000 new congregations a year in Brazil, for example. Let me show how this applies in the United States by referring to three of the many axioms of church-growth theory.
Axiom 1 states that evangelism is truly effective only where those who are won become incorporated into ongoing Christian fellowship. Everyone knows this, and the church-based plans of Key 73 do not overlook this point. It is set forth here because it makes the next axiom more significant.
Axiom 2 says that people do not readily join Christian fellowships that clash with their own cultural backgrounds. This truth is, I believe, mainly overlooked in the Key 73 materials. This omission is tragic when you consider the cultural diversity outlined in Kraft’s article! How successful will Key 73 plans be if it turns out that most of un-won America is either isolated or alienated from the cultures and life-styles represented by the existing churches? How successful will any method of evangelism be that counts on people’s joining churches they are simply not going to join? Should we blame the newly won? Or must we rather face the urgent necessity that we develop the skills and tools to establish brand new congregations in the un-won subcultures of America?
Axiom 3 acknowledges the need to penetrate the subgroups and goes on to observe that churches as churches are unlikely to punch through successfully into pockets of people that are significantly different from themselves.This would seem to fly in the face of the Key 73 emphasis that total mobilization is essential for success. That’s because Key 73 is not talking about winning “different” people. Very few churches as churches have been successful in founding new congregations, and fewer still have done this across cultural barriers. The average church member, the average pastor, and the Key 73 materials I have seen do not recognize the need for bringing new congregations into the world and the method of doing it.
What does it take to win America? It is essential to talk more specifically about various kinds of evangelistic methods suited to the various kinds of “cultural distance” between us and the people to be won. This cannot be avoided if Key 73 is to work seriously toward its stated goal of touching every person in North America.
Let’s see if we can diagram the situation.
The Evangelism-One (E1) sphere is where we can, Key 73 style, reach people of our own language and culture and realistically expect to bring them into our own churches.
The Evangelism-Two (E2) sphere includes all those people with whom we have some common ground culturally, some kind of head start in evangelism, but who nevertheless are far enough away so as not to be candidates for membership in our own local church. E2 people for me are those whose mother tongue is Spanish (which, compared to Chinese or Navajo, is practically the same as English), or the American blacks, whom I understand only partially, or new immigrants from Europe, whether from England or the Continent.
The Evangelism-Three (E3) sphere includes all those people beyond any significant common ground of language and culture, that is, people totally strange to us. For me, E3 people include most of the Navajo Indians, the newly arrived refugees from Hong Kong, many of the Koreans among us, and so on.
Granted, not all E2 people are equally distant from me. I find it easier to talk to an Englishman than a Frenchman. The point is simply that people must be dealt with by “Evangelism-Two” methods when they are sufficiently distant to feel uncomfortable in the congregation where I feel at home. Of course, when people are totally strange to my church and culture, “Evangelism-Three” methods are essential.
If I were to sit down in a Chinese restaurant and be introduced to a Chinese family newly arrived from Hong Kong, it might be a courteous gesture to invite them to my church. But if I am in dead earnest evangelistically, I have to distinguish between the courteous and the feasible, and if it is not feasible to invite them to my church, I must be prepared to do something that is feasible. As a matter of fact, I know a Chinese family that is quite happy in a predominantly Swedish church. There is nothing wrong about this. But this just does not happen to be the best solution to the winning of all those thousands of Hong Kong refugees. I’m not saying we mustn’t let Chinese join Anglo churches; I’m only saying that our evangelism plans will be inadequate if they assume that, in general, Chinese will join Anglo, or Swedish, or black, or Japanese churches.
“Can’t Chinese win Chinese, Koreans win Koreans, and Navajos win Navajos?” you might say. “Isn’t it true that a Chinese family newly arrived from Hong Kong might be E3 to me but would be E1 to some other Christian?” Not necessarily. The family I mentioned above is most likely not E1 but E2 even for most Chinese in the United States. Why? Because the thousands of Cantonese-speaking refugees from Hong Kong coming into Los Angeles are not going to feel at home in an English-speaking Chinese church, or in a Mandarin-speaking Chinese church, or in a Swatow-speaking Chinese church, or even in a Cantonese-speaking Christian church where the members are well-established or second-generation Americans. We will not begin to reach out to the real America if we are not willing to recognize that a large proportion of those needing to be won are at an E2 or E3 distance from all existing congregations.
Is it only the experienced foreign missionary who does not boggle at the problem of cultural diversity? No. Many, many parents of long-haired children have put their natural reactions on the shelf and honestly tried to understand the need their children have both to make sense and to be understood by their own substantially changed new generation. These parents with the missionary’s “cross-cultural” awareness are likely the ones most prepared to acknowledge that the many other subcultures of the United States (and Canada) are also unlikely to become nicely assimilated members of existing Key 73 congregations.
Such people will, it is hoped, see the need for evangelism to go beyond the “half-way house,” the assumption that people won to Christ will eventually come the rest of the way over to the evangelizers’ home church. They may be the first to be willing to establish “no-way” houses that “no way” are going to become part of their own home church. A “no-way” house is very simply a permanent Christian fellowship in addition to, and perhaps even quite different from, the churches we now have. The “no-way” house you do not assume to be merely a transition to your own church. It is not a part of your own congregation, and may not even affiliate with your denomination, because it simply isn’t half-way.
The great difference between the missionary and the ordinary Christian witnesser is that the missionary is working with people whose resulting Christianity will very likely be different from that of his home church. The missionary may more easily come to this approach overseas, but the approach is not less necessary in the United States.
The “Jews for Jesus” are a case in point. They have come to Christ, but they are not likely to join your church or mine. Are Key 73 methods designed to deal with this probability? Will Christ allow people who are not like us to worship him and serve him if they do not set up shop in exactly our Christian pattern?
Or take the Jesus people. Like the Jews for Jesus they have emerged with precious little help from the straight churches. Not churches as churches but church people in many para-church organizations, such as Teen Challenge and Campus Crusade, have gotten a little closer. But are we going to be satisfied only if the Jesus people become straight Presbyterians or Methodists or Baptists? Missionaries on many fields have faced the toughest test of their careers in seeing the power of the Gospel burst forth in ways they had not expected. But new wine needs new wineskins! And churches that seek merely to save their own lives will lose them.
But there is hope: even older denominations are recognizing wall-less congregations. A breath of fresh air is blowing as Fuller Seminary opens its Extension Division, allowing laymen to meet the ordination requirements of the established denominations. Churches with more than 1,000 members may learn both to foster discipline and to allow unprecedented autonomy to subgroups within their membership—just as Mormon stake houses keep adding semi-autonomous wards.
Churches call in fund-raising experts when they need that kind of help. Churches with vision for people at a cultural distance around them may call into being similar specialized para-church organizations that will coach some of their people in the specialized tasks of founding and fostering viable, autonomous congregations within the needy pockets. Resulting new “mission” congregations can often be associated in some way with the “mother” church, but there may be more wrong ways than right ways to do this. And we must realize that association is not the most important thing.
One pressing need is for churches to evaluate the vast number of para-church organizations, like Young Life, Campus Crusade, Inter-Varsity, Navigators, Christian Business Men’s Committees, and International Christian Leadership. These are often the organizations that are dealing with the un-won subcultures. Yet traditionally church denominations in the United States have supported neither the para-church structures nor the idea of para-church structures.
If some of these organizations are not all they ought to be, this may be due in great part to neglect by the churches. Those para-church structures that make every effort to cooperate with the denominations, like Campus Crusade, the Billy Graham Association, and the American Sunday School Union, are so cowed by potential ecclesiastical opposition that they dare not even think about starting congregations in even the most exotic subcultures. The American Sunday School Union has been held at bay on this point for over 100 years. Yet the planting of churches by para-church organizations is quite common in the so-called mission lands. Hudson Taylor’s famous China Inland Mission planted churches for the Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, and others simultaneously, all the while holding them in a larger fellowship. Why can’t this be done in North America?
One thing is clear: All the various pockets of North America’s un-won cannot be reached unless the Key 73 churches become means, not mere ends—means to an end that is far greater than present Key 73 plans. Once the full scope of the task is understood, the details can be elaborated. Only in that way can the yawning chasm between Key 73 plans and Key 73 purposes be eliminated.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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