THE OTHER MISSIONS WINDOW
by Dr. Vernal Wilkinson
We stood leaning over the bed of his pick up in my driveway. When I asked he said that he had been raised in church and that he had raised his children the same way but hadn’t gone much himself. However, he was a very active chaplain for a well known fraternal order. He enjoyed going to the hospitals and providing cheer and comfort to children in some of the most severe treatment wards. When I asked what he did, he said that mostly he brought clowns with him and that seemed to cheer the boys and girls. When I asked what he did in his spiritual responsibility at the meetings of his order, he indicated that he simply read the required prayers. Though he declared himself a Christian, he thought all religions were good. He understood little of the person and work of Jesus. This man is not atypical of many in North America today. On published polls or surveys he would be listed as a Christian. Wade Clark Roof a researcher from the University of California at Santa Barbara says that 77 million baby boomers in the United States are like him. They declare themselves to be “born again” but only about half of them associate in any way with conservative churches.
North America and Worldwide Trends
Despite appearances North America is a mission field still today. Over the last few years missions have focused on a window of unreached peoples from ten degrees south of the equator to forty degrees north of the equator, otherwise known as the 10/40 window. As a result a great deal of personnel and money has been poured into presenting the gospel to these people. Creative, holistic efforts have made good strides in many areas within this window but the missionary sending nations of North America have undergone a great cultural shift as have all the northern latitudes of the world. This shift has made a new window of never before known opportunity to present the gospel.
This new window is part of a worldwide shift. In contrast to the very religious populations in the 10/40 window the current northern latitudes of the world represent a population of irreligious people. We have a new population like the man above comprised of people with individualistic religious sentiment without theological content or religious affiliation. In contrast the populations of the 10/40 window are highly religious and connected Hindus, Buddhists, Confucianists, or Animists. These godless populations in the northern latitudes are the most urgent missions window before us today. On a global scale the enforced atheism of Communist governments and the humanistic materialism of the west have driven men from traditional religious affiliation and set them on an individual search to define their own theology. In Northern and coastal China where communist influence is strong traditional religions have declined radically. Russia has 2% who attend any religious observance. Sweden has 4%. Great Britain has 27% who attend some religious observances, while only 16% say that religion is of any importance. France likewise has 21% who attend any religious observance, while only 13% say that religion has any importance to them. Included in these statistics are groups of Muslim or Hindu immigrants. According to Luis Palau wherever the tide of modern western philosophy has come religion has ultimately declined and atheism has increased. He documents that atheists were only 0.2% of the world’s population in 1900 but 18.3% in 1990 or 988 million people.
North America has experienced this change as well. There are so many unchurched and irreligious people in North America that it is now the third largest mission field behind India and China. In the United States Chip Arn says that 29% of the population could be described as active and participating (82 million). Another 30% are nominal (86 million) that is giving no consistent evidence of their faith. The remainder (117 million) have no religious affiliation. George Gallup has found that 80% of the people in the United States believe that an individual should arrive at a personal religious belief apart from any form of organized religion. For most people there is no such thing as a saving faith whose orthodox beliefs must be accepted before an individual can be born again. In Canada the picture is the same. Surveys of Canadian citizens show that most identify themselves as Christians but have no required content to that faith.
This is reflected in the exodus from the Church. By 1996 United States church attendance had fallen to 37% which climaxed a 25% decline in 5 years. In 1999 the average number of people per church at the worship hour declined from 102 to 90. This means that while we do see a shift of church population from many smaller churches to a few mega churches many are not going to church at all. This fact makes the drop in per capita churches from 27 per 10000 people in the United States in 1950 to 11 per 10000 in 1999 a sobering statistic, when one considers that though there are very large churches of regional influence there are increasingly larger portions of the populace for whom there is no church, hence no gospel message in their community.
Furthermore a state-by-state analysis of the United States’ and a province-by-province analysis of Canada’s church attendance patterns reveals an interesting geographical swing in the unbelieving population. In the United States the highest per capita church attendance is in the Southeast. Attendance at any regular religious observance declines as one moves north and west across the nation with the lowest attendance in the west. The state lowest in per capita attendance is Washington at 29%. Canada looks much the same. Attendance in the most religious province, Quebec dropped from 9 out of 10 in 1957 to 3 out of 10 in 1999. Evangelicals are only 20% of the Atlantic Provinces, 11% of Quebec, 13% of Ontario, 18% of Manitoba/Saskatchewan, 16% of Alberta and 13% of British Columbia. The attendance picture substantiates the picture of unbelief described above. People in both of these North American nations have left the Church and the Christian faith in search of an individually defined and practiced faith. As one follows this geographic shift, the least evangelized and churched populations are in the most rural and least populated regions of the country. This is an area where the small church typifies the outreach for Christ.
A new window of evangelistic need opens through these statistics. If one takes the forty fifth parallel around the globe, and examines the beliefs of the nations contiguous to the parallel and within five or ten degrees of it one sees a lost population of huge proportions. For the first time in human history there exists a population of people with no belief in God. They are either atheists or those who make up a religion of personal choice. In North America there is a large populace in the Provinces of Canada and northern tier of states in the United States who need to hear the truth about Jesus Christ, the way the truth and the life. This is the populace that Village Missions seeks to reach.
Spiritual Quest Culture and the Small Church
These people have certain characteristics. They don’t like organized religion. They are spiritual agnostics. They believe in many things supernatural but reject a caricature of Christianity. They will often use self-descriptive terms like Christian but don’t even know what they mean. William Murray says, “We have a great wave of spiritualism going through America right now, especially among younger people. They identify with angels, say they believe in a superior being, but will not attach themselves to a specific denomination or creed.” Connie Cavanaugh puts it more succinctly, “A vast mission field exists among those who hate the Church as they have experienced it.” Wade Clark Roof describes the population by five categories, secularists, metaphysical seekers, mainstream born again believers and dogmatists and then the largest single group, “the spiritual quest culture”. These are younger people, westerners, well educated and politically liberal. These people develop an “ism” as the result of their own personal spiritual quest. William Dryness, a cultural anthropologist describes a member of this “spiritual quest culture”, a hypothetical career mother, 35 year old Mary. As she has moved through life she has become anxious about several issues relating to the future. As a result she has decided to develop her “spiritual side”. She has a notion of God as a father figure who would be proud of her but still urge her to do better. She is on a quest for spiritual reality, desires to see goodness done and has a growing fear about the future. But she is not looking to the Church or orthodox Christian faith for these things.
This is certainly the picture of the Northwest District of Village Missions where we serve. People here epitomize this very independent group who are pursuing the development of a personal faith in the beauty of nature in this region. John Boonstra of Washington Associated churches says, “As regions go we have an extremely high percentage of non-churched people who’d call themselves ‘spiritual.’ People who act out of their own spirituality of faith commitment, but they’re not necessarily going to church.”
This population has a unique expression in rural North America. Rural communities across America are growing. Rural areas experienced a 75% growth. Small rural towns have experienced growth at over twice the rate of cities. But the population is changing. The numbers of farmers, fishermen, loggers and miners has decreased radically. Farmers only comprise 1.9% of the United States population. However, those that remain are a younger and well educated in agri-business. A new population of service professionals in these communities supports them. Furthermore, the trend of businesses and public services to locate in lower density areas where land and labor are cheaper has brought a new population to traditional rural areas. In addition telecommuting has created the opportunity for urban professionals and business persons to live in rural areas. Many of these newcomers to rural America are from this “spiritual quest culture”. They provide a tremendous opportunity to present the gospel afresh in this darkened continent.
Small churches provide a unique context from which to carry out the great commission to this spiritual-quest culture. Glenn Daman in Shepherding the Small Church has listed fifteen characteristics that identify this unique context. The small church is by nature highly relational and highly participatory. The small church is inclusive. Rather than operating through a flow chart of loosely connected sub-groups, the small church operates as a whole from which no part or person can be left behind. The small church values the sense of family and gives each person a place in that family. The small church openly communicates with all its family members. While this may appear as gossip, in the small church it becomes a way that values, concerns and ideals are tested, affirmed and passed on through the church-family.
The unique small-church context opens the door for the gospel to the individualistic spiritual-quest culture. In the current spirituality spiritual-quest values and convictions cannot be confronted and affirmed or denied by an apologetic approach. The response to an apologetic for biblical Christianity from an individual on a spiritual quest would be, “That may be true for you but it is not true for me.” However, in the small-church context values and beliefs are shared with the sentiment of concern for real life needs without the expectation of assent or denial. For example, when a prayer request is shared through the small church, assumed beliefs about God, prayer and our relationship with God are communicated. A member of the spiritual-quest culture is challenged to relate to these beliefs subjectively without necessarily affirming or denying them. Furthermore, spiritual-quest culture creates loneliness as each individual asserts a relationship to god in reality that they must contrive and maintain. The inclusive small church can provide a personal, nurturing, conforming community for the pilgrim on their individualistic quest. Finally, the small church puts greater value on relationships than authority structures. This resonates with the anti-authoritarian values of spiritual-quest culture.