The Grand Strategy: Discover Receptive People
George G. Hunter III
The Church Growth movement’s greatest contribution to this generation’s world evangelization will be its stress upon receptivity. The church is called to discover, reach, and disciple receptive people—i.e., people who are now ready and open to really consider the Christian possibility for their lives. Because of extensive historical and cultural research, much more is now known about what causes receptivity in people and how receptive people can be identified than has ever been known before. Congregations and denominations will find, in the principles and strategies of receptivity, a gold mine of possibilities.
The strategy of focusing on receptive people has significant biblical warrant and is elaborated much more by writers like Donald McGavran and Peter Wagner than I will do here. The missionary movement recorded in the New Testament believed that God prepares certain “harvests” of peoples, and he wants to send out his missionary laborers to gather those harvests (Lk. 10:2).
Some populations are analogous to the “good soil” which, when the seed of God’s Word is planted in it, will take root, grow, and multiply. We must let those people hear the gospel who have ears to hear (Mk. 4:9). Jesus admonished those being sent out to “shake the dust” of resistant towns off their feet and hurry on to the next town which might be more receptive to the message of the inbreaking reign of God (Lk. 9:5).
Many passages in the Book of Acts reflect this strategy in action. For instance, the initial target population that Paul typically engages in a new town or city is the “godfearers”—the Gentile fellow-travelers of the synagogues who were attracted to the religion of the Jews, but unwilling to become Jews culturally. When one of the apostles preaches the new Faith that is both continuous with Judaism and also its fulfillment, but which allows Gentiles to keep their own culture, he finds these prepared people very receptive. So consciously and strategically he begins with this most receptive target audience in each city. This principle has been demonstrated in hundreds of populations and mission fields throughout the centuries. Today, it emerges as a more explicit strategy than it has been in quite some time.
Why does this strategy work? Or rather, when people become receptive, why do they? There is much mystery in the phenomenon of one person (or people)’ being receptive, another interested, another indifferent, another resistant, and still another hostile. Christian theology does not even pretend to have satisfactorily explained this. This is an ultimate and largely unprobed mystery about human beings. The Calvinist doctrine that some people are simply elected by God for salvation (and some are not) represents one historic attempt to take this mystery seriously.
A twofold explanation will give the evangelizing congregation enough knowledge to form a basis for action. First, some events and circumstances in the life of a person (or a people) open doors that stimulate an openness to new life-possibilities and permit the reception of previously screened-out messages. Second, God’s Holy Spirit works through the events and circumstances of some people’s lives to create receptivity, to “warm the heart” for the gospel. This is the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace. Our gracious God goes before us into the hearts and consciousness of people, preparing for an evangelical harvest, which then takes place as he makes his actual appeal through us, his ambassadors (II Cor. 5:20). So, the Church’s major strategy is to find those whom the Father is drawing to himself (John 6:44). Arthur Glasser explains that:
There is a time when God’s Spirit is peculiarly active in the hearts of men. They become “ripe unto harvest” As a result, all evangelistic activity should be in response to an awareness of where God is at work. Down through the years, as a result of a great deal of “soil testing” and field research, we have found that wherever this empirical factor has been deliberately made determinative of strategy, God has abundantly confirmed with good harvests. Indeed we feel we have leaped over the inscrutable mystery that down through the years has provoked endless theological debate and ecclesiastical division, and have put strength where it furthers, not hinders, the ongoing of the Christian mission. In seeking to win those whom God has made winnable we have not unnaturally gained new insight into what it means to be co-laborers with God in the building of His Church.
A NEW MOTIVATION FOR URGENCY
In the teaching of the Church Growth movement, the new motivation for evangelistic urgency comes from the fact that people who are receptive and winnable today may not be tomorrow—or at least, next year. Donald McGavran sees the world (and each society) as a “mosaic” of people with their own particular cultures and subcultures. At any given time, some “pieces” of the colored mosaic are receptive (or “warm”) to the gospel, others are resistant (or “cool”), and others are at various degrees in between. This colorful mosaic is complicated by the fact that the pieces do not remain the same color indefinitely. The relative receptivity of each subculture (and each person) fluctuates. McGavran contends, on the basis of extensive research in many cultures over forty-plus years, that:
The receptivity or responsiveness of individuals waxes and wanes. No person is equally ready at all times to follow “The Way.” . . . Peoples and societies also vary in responsiveness. Whole segments of mankind resist the gospel for periods— often very long periods—and then ripen to the Good News.
McGavran warns that receptivity wanes as often as it waxes. Like the tide, it comes in and goes out. Unlike the tide, no one can guarantee when it goes out that it will soon come back again.
That fact of fluctuating receptivity should be a cause for the missionary congregation’s evangelistic urgency. The Church must find and win winnable people while they are winnable. The history of missions is strewn with cosmic embarrassments—cases of peoples who were ripe for God’s harvest, but whom the church ignored until receptivity had diminished, new resistance had set in, and it was too late to reap God’s harvest. The strategic congregation is called, in each season, to discern and reach those who, for now, are receptive. The church that so cooperates with the prevenient grace of the Lord of the harvest will be a growing church with contagious power.
INDIGENOUS METHODS FOR RECEPTIVE PEOPLE
It is possible, however, to be amidst a receptive people and not reap the harvest that the Spirit has prepared. This is the case for the same reason that one might enter a ripe wheat field with a corn picker and not in fact be able to gather the wheat into the barn. Despite our timeliness and good intentions, if the method we use does not fit the particular harvest, we will be ineffective. In evangelism too, our approach and method must fit the target harvest. McGavran declares that “no single method will fit all populations.” Part of our task is to discover or fashion an approach that is indigenous to the particular person or group.
Expanding Jesus’ fishers of men metaphor, McGavran and Win Arn show why “in great measure, responsiveness is related to approach.” At a given time, a certain species of fish may be responsive to one particular bait, but not to another, or may be interested by one type of fishing (say, fly casting), but not by another (plug casting).
The good fisherman continues to seek responsiveness until he discovers the right bait for a particular fish during a particular season. He knows when he has the tight bait—he’s catching fish. As fish respond to one approach and not to another, so do people.
And likewise, we know when we are employing the right outreach approach for a particular subculture when significant numbers are responding to the gospel in faith and are becoming disciples of Jesus Christ and responsible members of his church.
Mind you, no approach can win very resistant people while they are resistant. And, almost any culturally appropriate approach can harvest very receptive people. But for people somewhere in between strong resistance and strong receptivity, the use of the most indigenous and effective strategy possible is all-important. Because approach and method are such important variables, no congregation should glibly or prematurely give up on people until all attempts at inventing an indigenous method have been exhausted.
What factors inform our discovery of approaches and methods that enable fairly receptive people to respond? McGavran and Arn, in stressing that fairly receptive people will respond to some approaches (but not others), comment on one factor as follows:
This is the truth behind the common opinion that a friendly church is a growing church. It is a matter of response. If a church is friendly, genuinely interested in people, and meeting their needs, it will find people responsive. They will be open to the Good News. On the other hand, if a Church is cold and reserved, that Church will probably find people in its ministry area cold and indifferent.
Let’s list; somewhat systematically, several more factors that help inform the “right approach” for the population you have targeted.
1. The people of the church are friendly toward those receptive people, not merely friendly in general, but genuinely and specifically interested in them and affirming of them.
2. The church effectively assimilates receptive persons into its worship, group life, ministries, and leadership.
3. The preaching, witnessing, and teaching of the church “speaks their language” so that they discover revelation coming through the words—they really understand and sense that the faith is good news for them, not an alien propaganda.
4. The message and ministries of the church engage their strongest motives and felt needs.
5. The church and its ministries “fit” the prospects culturally. There is an absence of class intimidation or cultural imperialism. The target people subjectively and spontaneously resonate with the Church’s music, architecture, hymnody, and worship and preaching style.
6. Who reaches out to prospective Christians is an important factor. (a) If the witnesser is a person within their intimate social network (a relative, friend, colleague, etc.) who is a transparently credible Christian and has some influence with them, then the chances of positive response are generally the greatest.
(b) If the witnesser comes from outside their social network but is a member of their “homogeneous unit,” the chances of positive response are next greatest. (c) If the witnesser is an especially credible Christian, is gifted in cross-cultural communication, appears to love them, wants the best for them, is willing to take risks to reach them, and is willing to contact the same person a number of times—then positive response to the messenger and the Message is also possible from many receptive persons in a target population—but probably not all. In a new target population the first messenger will frequently be an outsider (c), but the movement of witness will move to (b) and especially to (a) as rapidly as possible.
7. The congregation should reach out to individuals in proportion to their relative receptivity on the resistency-receptivity continuum. That is, the more receptivity they now reveal, the more often one would visit them.
THE POLICY FOR RESISTANT PEOPLE
Parenthetically, I must add that in our emphasis upon reaching receptive people we must not abandon or “write off’ people who, for now, are resistant (see the previous chapter). While strategic mission will send disproportionate numbers of witnessers to receptive people, some Christians will be placed within resistant pieces of the mosaic—especially Christians with special gifts, such as: strong inner faith, little need for multiple “victories” to keep incentive going, ability to love without immediate reward or returned love, sensitivity to where people are, good sense of timing, patience, and a deep conviction that people are worth spending one’s life for.
A ministry among resistant peoples will mainly be one of presence, service, seed sowing—saying what is possible in a given situation without repelling people. McGavran counsels us to “occupy fields of low receptivity lightly.” We should never appear to swamp or badger resistant people with too many witnessers or too much preaching—which would only drive them further away and make rigid their already hard hearts.
Such strategy for resistant people is intrinsically valid, and our very presence may help cause their greater receptivity in measurable time. Our loving service among them may turn out to be one circumstance in their life and setting through which God’s prevenient grace works to warm their hearts. For many peoples, this period will prove to be a very necessary season of plowing, seed sowing, cultivating, and watering in order to enable that harvest which will come to fruition in God’s own time. Besides, we must have some presence among them so that when they do turn more receptive we shall perceive this and then send more laborers into the ripening field. Having no advocates among a resistant people is to risk our missing the time of their visitation.
This background raises what is perhaps the supreme question of evangelization strategy: “How do we discover receptive people, while they are receptive? The answer of all Church Growth researchers and strategists can be summarized in one word: indicators. An indicator is a phenomenon that is frequently found in a people’s setting, history, or experience during and/or shortly before they turn to the Faith. For instance, (to use a ludicrous example) if most people become left-handed before turning toward the Christian possibility—that would be an indicator. A strategic church would be on the lookout for homogeneous populations in the process of becoming left-handed and would then saturate that population with missionaries. Notice, it does not especially matter whether the indicating phenomenon causes the receptivity or whether both the phenomenon and the receptivity have a common (but perhaps unknown) cause. That the phenomenon is frequently to be observed before or during actual receptivity is enough to serve as a useful indicator for locating receptive people.
We can discover many indicators by examining the history of evangelism, and if any past awakenings among many peoples were accompanied by a certain phenomenon, then when we perceive this phenomenon among a people today, we may reasonably guess that they are ready for a turning to the faith. Naturally, many indicators are “soft,” and any strategy based upon using them cannot pretend to be foolproof. But, where several indicators are observed in the same population, the probability of actual receptivity being there increases. In any case, no strategic congregation should rely only on indicators to identify a target population for top priority saturation outreach. The church should “test the soil” by sending some surveyors or actual witnessers to make an adequate inquiry into the population’s responsiveness. The indicators tell us where to test the soil.
The literature of Church Growth and Missionary Anthropology gives us several broad indicators that are helpful to begin with.
1. Dissatisfaction: People are frequently open to the Christian possibility when they are deeply dissatisfied with themselves and their lives. They are at a turning point when their needs are not being met and their motives are not being fulfilled by their current methods of coping. Consciously or subconsciously, they desire something new that will satisfy their needs or motives.
2. Cultural Change: When significant elements of a culture are changing, this indicates weakened cultural foundations or goals, and a search for new ones. Examples would include: changes in marriage and family patterns or values, changes in kinship structures and patterns, political change, economic change and changes in speech or language patterns. Edward Pentecost reports that “if Christianity is presented as the answer to the felt needs of economic, social, and political unrest and dissatisfaction, then it may receive a hearing at that level.” Pentecost does caution that in settings of culture change, Christianity must be presented and perceived by the people not as the destroyer, but the fulfiller of their culture. When people are experiencing cultural change, the amount of personal change will vary with individuals. Wagner recommends that “those who change their life-style most radically will be the ones approached first with the gospel . . . those who cling to their former ways will come lower on the priority scale.”
3. Individual Stress: Persons experiencing stress, especially increasing stress, will increasingly look for new ways to cope with or reduce that stress to a tolerable level. The kinds of symptoms people reveal under stress depend on their personality type. Flexible persons may be seen experimenting with various options. Regressive persons display such symptoms as alcoholism, extreme passivity, intragroup violence, disregard for kinship and sexual mores, or forms of depression and self-reproach.’
4. The masses: In general, the church will usually find “the masses” to be more responsive then “the classes.” Missionary strategy has often been very wrong in emphasizing outreach first to the classes and only later to the masses.
5. Growing Religions: Roy Shearer points out that probably the only reasonably perfect indicator is the existence of an already growing religious body in the target population. Obviously, “wherever we see a growing non-Christian religion, we can be sure the people in that place are potential receptors of the Gospel.” Christians should not presuppose that a growing non-Christian religion is actually fulfilling peoples’ needs—it may only be engaging their needs in ways that will later prove unfulfilling—analogous to a thirsty man’s drinking salty ocean water and engaging his thirst but not satisfying it. Christians should know instead that a growing religion or ideology indicates receptivity and therefore the call of the Lord of the harvest to his church. The time is ripe to move in and make Christian discipleship a live option for the searching people.
THIRD WORLD INDICATORS
Some more particularized indicators have been observed in the populations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, which constitute the Third World. These indicators are not without relevance to North America’s mission field, and are especially relevant to immigrant peoples and ethnic minorities who have Third-World linkages. Several representative indicators follow.
1. New Settlements Settlements of newly moved-in populations typically contain many receptive persons. This is especially the case when people have recently left their former clan and friends. They are now separated from the old pressures to conform and are free to make new friends, explore new possibilities, entertain new ideas. McGavran’s research shows that many “are in a phase of insecurity, capable of reaching out for what will stabilize them and raise their spirits.” The Church should saturate such populations with missionaries to evangelize and plant new congregations. But Wagner reports that “entire ethnic units which migrate to a new area for colonization but which retain their traditional language and customs will not usually be fruitful unless reached by evangelists from their own culture.”
2. Conquest or Oppression People are still being conquered in many parts of the world. This experience has a shattering effect upon the entire culture of the conquered. “Their pride is humbled, their values trampled underfoot, their institutions abolished, and their gods dethroned.” Frequently, conquered people will be very receptive to the gospel—especially if it is presented by someone not identified with the conquerors.
3. The Removal of Oppression Wagner reports that “when a people are oppressed for an extended period of time and do not enjoy liberty of thought and action, they often become highly receptive to the gospel when the oppression is finally removed.” This principle applies to the lifting of many kinds of controls on the action and behavior of people—such as release from the pressure to conform in family, class, or ethnic groupings or release from the government’s former restrictions of freedom of conscience or religious freedom or release from the power of the society to ostracize deviants.
4. Other Kinds of Political Change Many other kinds of political change also induce receptivity among people. For instance, a country in the midst of a political revolution usually has responsive people. Likewise, a wave of nationalism may aid the growth of the Church. Responsiveness under such conditions should be perceived as temporary; therefore, these receptive people must be reached quickly.
5. Social and Economic Change Peter Wagner explains that:
Whenever people are undergoing rapid or radical social and economic change, churches are likely to grow. People who are uprooted from familiar social surroundings and located in new ones find themselves searching for a new orientation to their lives. They are disposed to listen to the gospel, and many of them will recognize that Christ can become the integrating factor they need in their personal lives and in their community.
He adds that “Areas of rapid urbanization almost invariably contain large segments of population receptive to the gospel.”
GUIDELINES FOR DISCOVERING
RECEPTIVE MAINLINE AMERICANS
Many of the indicators of receptivity mentioned above—discovered primarily in research of growing churches and Christian movements in the Third Word—are relevant to America too, or to some of the subcultural pieces of America’s population mosaic. As in other mission fields, our strategy for evangelizing this one should be informed by available indicators of receptive people. What follows are ten indicators, expressed as guidelines, which are especially relevant to much of America’s mission field. Some of these indicators are from American Church Growth research, others from Third World research—but are saved for now or repeated now because of their special potency for the Christian mission to America.
1. Pray to be led to receptive people. God’s Spirit works by his prevenient grace. Through certain events and circumstances, he is preparing people to hear the gospel, to perceive his call to them, and to accept reconciliation with him and become followers of Christ. This same Spirit desires to lead us to those whom he is now preparing to meet him.
Therefore, pray to be so led. If you pray to be led to receptive people, you will “coincidentally” discover them—lime and time again. Stop praying to be so led, and the “coincidences” will stop occurring! This is such a basic principle of missionary outreach that all of the other guidelines are its servants, We are not teaching a nonspiritual technology for evangelism, indeed, such is not possible because evangelism is the Holy Spirit’s work at every point: he prepares those whom he desires to call; he prepares and leads those whom he sends out; and if receptive people sense his approach through our outreach, and respond in faith—this too is his work.
2. The people visiting and wanting to join your church are receptive people. I begin with what must read like an excessively obvious indicator. I assure you that its obviousness cannot be assumed. In the year and a half prior to this writing, I have been in no less than seven congregations in which I happened to ask someone, “Are you a member of this family of Christ?” and the embarrassing reply has been (with some variation)— “No, I want to join. I’ve indicated this two or three times on the registration pad, but I’ve not heard from anybody. Say, how does a fellow join this church, anyway?” Yes, some congregations do not perceive the obviously receptive people.
Although visitors to our churches are very receptive people, their receptivity (at least to that church) is frequently short lived, and wanes rather quickly, Dr. Larry Lacour of the First United Methodist Church of Colorado Springs, Colorado has fashioned a strategy for reaching visitors. The first invitation to every visitor is to join a four-session orientation class—at the end of which it is hoped that each person will decide to profess faith in Christ and join the church. Joining the class is encouraged by three contacts—a phone call within twenty-four hours, a visit that week by the minister of evangelism, and a visit, also that week, by a team of lay people. Lacour reports that when they carry out this schedule some 90 percent join the class; if they are a week late, 50 percent join, if a month late, 10 percent.
3. People who have recently lost faith (in anything) are very receptive. Contemporary America is characterized by religious anarchy. With so many options for religious and quasi-religious devotion, people are “into” everything from astrology to Zen, from Mormonism to Moonism, from drugs to the ancient superstitions of the Druids. These and many other religions and philosophies promise more than they deliver. A man places his confidence in one of them this year; that confidence erodes next year. McGavran explains that:
Man is a believer by nature. If faith in old religion fades, he becomes responsive to some new religion—of science, communism, or an updated version of his ancestral cult He may deify a new leader, his secular civilization, a political party, or Man—but worship he will.
The missionary church should constantly be on the lookout for people “between idols.” They constitute a receptive field of continuing harvest in most communities.
4. People among whom any church or religion is growing are receptive. Because this is the one absolutely certain indicator, it deserves mention again. If any church, religion, or philosophy is growing among a people, the Christian church should reach out to them and make Christian discipleship a meaningful option to them.
Do not presuppose that the non-Christian religion is actually fulfilling their needs—it may only be scratching where they itch. When the itch surfaces somewhere else, they will look elsewhere. Several weeks ago I was gently encountered by a pretty devotee of the Hare Krishna cult as she and several others were “working” a section of Chicago O’Hare airport. She began the conversation with the words-’ ‘Excuse me sir, but all of the handsome gentlemen are wearing carnations today. May I give you one?” She got my attention. We briefly conversed, and I remember saying: “Look, I know you’re into this now—but it will leave you hollow and let down later. Whenever that happens, telephone me collect any time day or night.” I gave her my card. She looked aside to be sure her partners were busy elsewhere; her eyes teared, and her voice trembled as she almost whispered— “Thank you, Mr. Hunter, I just might do that.”
But what if the religion now growing among a population is another Christian church of your denomination, or another? The conventional wisdom of our generation, as influenced by ecumenism’s policy of comity would contend that “we should stay out of their territory.” Recently, this territorial understanding of one’s parish has been challenged. If that church is in the midst of a harvest, the ministry of evangelization will need more laborers than one church can provide. No one church can fully reap a great harvest. It will have the indigenous methods, ministries, and style for reaching only some of the receptive people. The growing church will need the help of your church—whether they perceive it or not! If you move in and engage people they cannot win, both churches will prosper. Any crisis in interchurch relations will be temporary. In any case, fidelity to the Great Commission is even more important than static-free ecumenism. Wherever you find receptive searching people, you have no moral right to withhold from them the option of Christian discipleship through your congregation.
5. People of the same homogeneous unit as your members will be more receptive to the outreach of your church. Donald McGavran is famous for the assertion that “people like to become Christians without crossing significant linguistic, ethnic, or cultural barriers.” People are more likely to respond to the appeal of a congregation whose members are perceived to be like them culturally, among whom they feel comfortable and accepted and with whom they can communicate easily.
Any community is composed of many H.U.s or groups of people who have some characteristic in common and who feel like they belong and can communicate because of that characteristic. The basis of this sense of homogeneous belonging may be common language or dialect, ethnicity, cultural background, socioeconomic class, vocational grouping, educational attainment—or some combination of these factors. The congregation must be sensitive to the social realities of its environment. Cultural anthropologists feel that “people consciousness” or “consciousness of kind” is very important to self-identity and social interaction in all societies.
It has been found that every church grows more effectively among some groups of people than others— because its ministries are more indigenous to the subculture and felt needs of the particular people. Part of your strategy should be to analyze the active members of your present congregation. Into what homogeneous groups do they roughly cluster? When you have identified the H.U.s in your congregation, interview people from each group to determine which ministries of the congregation originally attracted them, and which ministries are meaningful and helpful to them now. Then find all the people in your ministry area who are like them and offer these people those same ministries and resources of your congregation and its expression of the gospel.
6. People of the same homogeneous unit as visitors and new converts in your congregation will be very receptive to the outreach of your church. This is a version of the previous principle, but it especially provides an up-to-date indicator of the contagious strengths of your congregation as well as the homogenous populations that would be most receptive to your congregation’s appeal. This time, classify the dominant I.U.s of your visitors and new converts. Interview them, especially all of the new converts from over the past three years, to discover the ministries, the truths, and the ports of entry that are engaging them. Then discover and reach out to all such people in your entire ministry area and offer those ministries and faith-resources to them. As in all outreach, do not be content with the modest (at best) harvest you will reap from an initial contact. Even with receptive people, repeated contacts must be made. It is through the cumulative effect of repeated conversations that people work through the possibility and take steps of response toward discipleship.
7. Identify people with conscious needs that your ministries can help. The strategic church knows that an opening to most people is found in one of the dominant life motives that write the conscious agenda in their lifelong quest for wholeness and fulfillment. The reason for this strategy is that people are attracted to the Christian faith when they perceive that Christianity is a better way to fulfill their needs than what they are currently depending on.
In a pattern similar to the one above, find people in the congregation whose needs are met by the life and ministries of your church. Identify the particular ministries and the needs they meet. Then find all the people with the same needs and offer them these proven ministries.
Use the people who are helped by your congregation’s ministries in the program of outreach. For example, in one church, a group of divorced persons has found great help in the support strength of their small group—with lessons, sharing sessions, speakers, and prayers focused upon their felt needs. These group members make credible and contagious visits to other people who have experienced divorce, offering the group’s ministry to the persons who need it.
8. Identify target populations for whom you could begin new ministries. Lyle Schaller’s twenty years of research on growing congregations shows that most growing churches have a specialty in addition to their basic ministries. These special ministries are fashioned to engage unreached target populations in the community. People at Robert Schuller’s Garden Grove Community Church regularly canvass a neighborhood with a felt needs survey. When they find a cluster of people with a need that no one else is ministering to, Garden Grove begins a relevant new ministry for these people and then invites them to receive it. Schuller believes that “the secret of success is to find a need and fill it.”
A Friends’ church in Southern California identified in their ministry area a large number of undiscipled young couples with small children. They launched a periodic “potty training seminar,” a mother’s-day-out program, new young couples’ Sunday school classes, weekly home Bible studies for housewives, bowling teams, and opportunities for both wives and husbands to serve in the community—with a nursery always provided. This church reaped a harvest among young couples.
Another church discovered a large number of “mature adults,” those fifty-five and older. They lessened their conspicuous family emphasis and launched ministries to individuals as individuals—a counseling program, opportunities to use nonverbal creative gifts for the church’s work (such as making leper bandages for a colony in Liberia), amplified hospital and bereavement ministries and many daytime activities at the church.
Many churches are waking up to the fact that some 60 percent of the people in America have creative gifts that are other than cognitive or verbal in nature. Many people express their greatest gifts through their hands. One church in Saginaw, Michigan, has built an industrial arts complex on the second floor of the educational building called The Carpenter’s Shop. They actively recruit men with “shop” interests. Dozens of men have joined the faith and that church through the door of the carpenter’s shop. The pulpit, chancel rail, baptismal font, and other items of their creation preach as winsomely as could any pulpiteer.
A church in Knoxville, Tennessee, welcomed a retarded adult woman into membership. Another joined and the church started a Sunday school class. There proved to be a communication network of families having a retarded adult in their ranks. A harvest of retarded adults ensued, and many of their family members joined as well.
A church in Texas began a ministry to deaf people with a sign language translator in the worship service. It attracted deaf people and their families—plus other people who wanted to join “a church that cares this much.”
A church in Kenosha, Wisconsin, discovered more than a hundred first-generation Korean families living in Kenosha. They hired a Korean speaking lay pastor and started a growing Korean congregation within their church.
The possibilities of growth through relevant ministries for target populations are almost boundless for the congregation that can spot such populations and create special ministries for them. The price for such new ministries should be faced in advance, especially the additional staff time that such expanded outreach ministries will require.
9. Reach people within the social network of your active Christians and new converts. Donald McGavran’s earliest research established that when the church is growing in certain Third World cultures, the faith spreads more naturally within a class, tribe, or caste than from one major social group to another. Indeed, cross-cultural outreach is more difficult and requires gifted and trained communicators. McGavran began counseling churches to especially witness along the lines of their social unit’s social network. McGavran taught this as a paramount strategy for evangelism because the existing social network in a social unit will provide “The Bridges of God.” Non-Christians are much more receptive to credible Christian kinsmen or Mends than to strangers or even known members of other subcultures Church growth inevitably begins by reaching cross-culturally into a previously unreached social unit and laboring to gain the first converts. Then, church growth accelerates as the new Christians reach out to their peers and other intimates within the social unit—and so “disciple it to the fringes.”
For a while, we assumed that the “Bridges of God” strategy was more indigenous to Third World cultures than to countries like the U.S.A. But now research shows that the same principle takes its culturally appropriate forms in the West as well. For instance, Lyle Schaller has asked countless first generation members-_.”Why are you a member of this church?” Allowing some variation for region and culture, between two-thirds and three-fourths have given responses that can be classified as either friendship ties or kinship ties. Interestingly, members in stable or declining churches were most often won through kinship ties, while members of growing churches are most often won through friendship ties. So, a strategic American church would continually work to locate and reach out to kinsmen, and especially to the friends of its active Christians and new converts. The church would also encourage its people to make new friends in the community continually. People are more receptive when they are approached by authentic Christians from within their social network.
10. Reach out to persons in transition. There is growing evidence that people who are experiencing (or have recently experienced) some major change in their life or social role are much more likely to be receptive to the gospel than during the periods of relative stability in their lives. We lack comprehensive data, but there are a number of such transitions that may help induce a period of openness or responsiveness. Such transitions that most persons experience include: adolescence, going off to college or armed forces, first job, getting married, first child, last child leaving home (“empty nest syndrome”), menopause, male menopause, retirement, loss of a loved one, sickness. Additional receptivity-inducing transitions that many people experience include: moving to a new community, getting fired, job advancement, separation, divorce, second marriage. Notice, not all of these are experienced as crises. Nontraumatic transitions can still create receptivity. During and shortly after such transitions, people are likely to be very receptive to relevant ministries from a congregation. The congregation should be continually on the lookout for persons experiencing such transitions, in a diligent effort to perceive the good soil in which the Spirit is moving by his prevenient grace.
Of course, some of these transitions are likely to produce greater or longer receptivity than others. Ezra Earl Jones reminds us that the period of conception and birth of a first baby is a period that is also pregnant with religious possibilities. He instructs us that such receptive families now exist in unprecedented numbers!
For instance, the post-World War II baby boom lasted from 1945 until 1961. Those babies are now a special young adult generation—marrying later, starting families still later, having fewer children—but more families are having at least one child than ever before in American history. We are now in the early part of a fifteen to twenty year period during which there will be great numbers of young receptive families in the ministry areas of our churches. This should provide a great harvest of new disciples through the 1980s. Congregations which reach out to young families, with indigenous ministries to felt needs.—starting new classes and groups for them, elevating them to visible leadership and enabling them to have a sense of ownership in the congregation’s program and future—will grow!
A SUGGESTION FOR STRATEGY
What might all of this information look like as a congregation’s grand strategy? It is one thing to state the principle: “reach out to undiscipled people in proportion to their relative receptivity.” It is another thing to put that principle in action. One part of the strategy would be the congregation’s classification of undiscipled people in the community. I suggest five classes:
The church might then visit:
1. receptive people every two weeks
2. interested people every four weeks
3. indifferent people every six weeks
4. resistant people every couple of months
5. hostile people every season
As people are perceived to change in their relative receptivity, reclassify them and visit accordingly.
We do not know nearly as much about receptivity as we want to. Available indicators and guidelines are not as precise as will one day be possible. But we have more to work with now than any previous generation has ever had. God has not abandoned our need for an adequate (if not perfect) strategy in this age of great missionary opportunity in the Western world. The church which takes seriously what we do know can experience unprecedented growth with apostolic power.
We do know that right now many people are receptive and searching, and we know from experience that the present opportunity for missionary expansion may not last indefinitely—at least, there are no guarantees. For this reason, McGavran exhorts the church to embrace its mission now.
Opportunity blazes today, but it may be a brief blaze. Certainly conditions which create the opportunity—as far as human wisdom can discern—are transient conditions. We have today. Let us move forward.
“The Grand Strategy: Discover Receptive People” by George G. Hunter III was excerpted from The Contagious Congregation.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”