Geography, Ethnography and Missions: how to select and engage a place and its peoples
J. D. Payne has once again written an excellent post (see it here, at The Gospel Coalition) which examines why “missions” should not be thought of as a “here” vs. “there” sort of activity. All peoples, everywhere, should be engaged–without exception.
He reminds us: the split is not “here” vs. “there” but cultural distance (same culture, near culture, far/cross-culture). An American church reaching Westernized Americans is one kind of outreach; an American church reaching first-generation Saudis or Somalis is another. The structures and methods that do for the first will not do for the second. At a bare minimum, we should not be requiring seekers who attend our church to learn our language before we are a blessing to them.
Before we get too fired up about reaching people in our back yard, however, let me sound two cautions which I’m sure J.D. and others will agree with.
1. Make sure your “calling” isn’t simply laziness or fear. Some consider themselves “called” to their own people, or to people “in their backyard,” and it’s an authentic calling. But for some, it’s just a “default” position (never having thought through whether they should go abroad), or in truth driven by the fact that they don’t want to go anywhere else. Remember the greatest portion of the unreached task is not here but in other places, as this Top 40 Map illustrates. J.D. is not calling us to abandon these fields – this is not an either/or question, but a both/and. But in remembering the “other here” let us not forget the “other there.”
2. Make sure you act intentionally. J.D. points out that we need to adjust our structures so there is interaction between home and foreign. I think most churches, at the very first, need training and coaching for how to engage people “in their back yard” in a missionary way. This is not just about witnessing to a few isolated individuals. It’s about a strategy that purposefully engages in a way that all of the individuals will hear. This strategy must be comprehensive in scope, enduring in nature, and multiply to the next generation.
Recently here in my own city of Dallas several of us have begun working in a loose network on the issue of engaging diaspora. We are nowhere near a formal organization or group at this point – a lot of it is just catalysts working together. But these steps seem clear:
a) know what peoples are here in the city (Census data, school data, ethnographic surveys, etc)
b) know the city itself – get a big map and start seeing the segments, the communities, the neighborhoods
c) overlay the peoples on the map, start looking for “clumps” and “concentrations”
d) start looking for relational connections between believers, churches and ministries and these clumps, make a list
e) prayer walking the clumps – all of the clumps
f) ministries that reach “into” the clumps (not just extraction/attractional ministries) – make sure all the clumps are focused on
g) workers who “move into” these neighborhoods and form relationships – look for gaps
Churches can’t just “have a Spanish service.” We can’t just “welcome some internationals” into our Sunday mornings. We need to go further, intentionally getting into the lives of people who will never come to the church. This takes prayer, planning, and purposeful work.
My suggestion is to begin by mapping the city and its peoples around your church. I hope that eventually we will have a high resolution map of the world, at least down to the district (or county) level, with the peoples in each place. While American churches are by and large on the congregational model, I think there is still much value and wisdom in the older “parish” model, where a church views itself as responsible not just for its members but for all the people within a geographic region, whatever their language, religion, origin, economic strata and political affiliation.
Farmers don’t just know all about the seed they are using. They know their fields – every foot, every boundary, every furrow. Shouldn’t the church?