Sequencing the Seven Barriers
Missiology is not an exact science. For every rule, there are undoubtedly many exceptions. It would be a crass oversimplification to attempt to reduce the missionary task to a series of “easy steps to success.” However, this does not negate the fact there are certain logical sequential patterns in which efforts to overcome the barriers to the fulfillment of the Great Commission normally take place. At times, failing to take into account or intentionally going against these natural patterns may produce unfavorable consequences for the advance of missionary work in a particular setting.
One particular problem with many missionary strategies is a tendency to focus on overcoming one or some of these barriers to the exclusion or near exclusion of the rest. Mike Wakely writes about the danger of “golden key” approaches to missions: “The world of evangelists and missionaries is beset by golden keys of various shapes and sizes, and they all glint and gleam attractively. They offer short cuts to success for idealists who are frustrated and discouraged by the old methods and desperate for a breakthrough.” (34)
He gives the example of a certain approach to overcoming the cultural barrier in Bangladesh in the 1980s that undoubtedly contributed to a significant spiritual breakthrough in this traditionally difficult mission field:
In Bangladesh the results have been phenomenal, with no compromise of biblical principle. It was clearly God’s moment and method for the Bangladeshi people, and thousands have become followers of Christ as a result. There is much to learn from the model. But it is not necessarily a golden key that will produce the same results in any other situation. Similar methods are being tried among high-caste Hindus in India and in other groups around the world. The ambition to remove the artificial cultural barriers to gospel understanding have been beneficial. But the results have been far from spectacular, and disappointing to those who had hoped for a similar breakthrough as had been seen in Bangladesh. (35)
Pretty much the same thing could undoubtedly be said about many other “golden key” approaches to overcoming any one of the seven barriers in a variety of contexts around the world. Gailyn Van Rheenen observes: “Those who advocate standard-solution strategies assume that one approach can be used in every context of the world; it is the one-size-fits-all mentality. Evangelists develop methods that effectively work in particular contexts and then apply them to every situation . . . This approach also takes for granted that all people have the same problems and think in exactly the same ways.” (36)
Another error in relation to the sequencing of the missionary task is going about things haphazardly, or in a way that denies the value of human planning. Van Rheenen comments: “Being-in-the-way strategies emphasize the role of God in missions and evangelism and assume that human planning negates the divine role. Christians are not to worry about the future but simply allow themselves to be used by God. Long-range planning is not important; it is God’s business.” (37)
Related to the above approach are approaches that only focus on one initial facet of what ought to be a part of a broader, longer-range strategy plan. Van Rheenen observes:
Plan-so-far strategies focus on beginnings rather than outcomes. Those who use this approach believe that if they plan to begin a work, God will do the rest. Plans are made to ‘hold a campaign’ or have a ‘Bring Your Friend’ day. During the 1990s North American campaigners went into receptive areas of Eastern Europe. They attempted to plant a church through public lectures, distribution of tracts, teaching English as a second language, and personal Bible studies conducted through translators. Almost invariably the short-term workers left soon after the campaign, and little organized follow-up occurred. The focus was on converting the lost without a concurrent plan to nurture the lost to come under the kingship of God. The most significant long-term problem of missions is reversion, not conversion. Much more thought and effort must be put into nurturing new converts to fully come into the kingdom of God rather than merely converting people and leaving them. (38)
Commenting on the four stages of missionary work referenced earlier in this series of posts, Van Rheenen states:
Each stage of church planting and development is important to the eventual maturity of a missions movement, and the result is predictable when any stage is neglected. Bypassing the Learning Stage almost always results in anemic movements . . . The Growth Period is frequently short-circuited when training institutions are established early in the work before contextualized models of church growth and reproduction are developed … Negation of the Collaborative Stage is a common failing . . . Structures of continuity are needed to equip leaders and to serve as places for reflection and strategy development. Finally, without phaseout a movement tends to exist with missionaries at the pinnacle of power . . . I, therefore, suggest that to be effective all works initiated through cross-cultural missionary work must intentionally progress through stages emphasizing learning, growth, collaboration, and phaseout. Missionaries’ roles change as movements develop. (39)
Considered from the perspective of the seven barriers, several examples of reductive approaches to missionary work include: “good works” ministries that do not emphasize the need to verbally communicate the gospel; “evangelistic” ministries that do not emphasize the need to win the trust of the people by way of “good works”; and ministries that underestimate the importance of prayer and spiritual warfare. It doesn’t make much sense to pray without evangelizing; but neither does it make sense to evangelize without praying. In order to fulfill the Great Commission, each one of the seven barriers will need to be overcome.
Many times, positive progress toward the goal of making disciples among the nations can be significantly short-circuited when a particular barrier is not being adequately addressed. Relatively speaking, in such a circumstance, efforts spent on overcoming other barriers can be squandered, and resources poorly allocated. Returning to the “harvest cycle” motif, it makes no sense to try to reap a harvest when the ground has not been adequately prepared, the seed sown, and the crop cultivated beforehand.
An additional implication is that short-term missionary efforts that are not tied in to the ministry and global strategy of long-term workers and/or indigenous churches run the risk of being a poor stewardship of valuable resources. George Patterson and Galen Currah comment:
We encourage workers to make a task-oriented commitment to serve a neglected people. Many make a limited commitment, defined by a specific number of months or years. Short-term stints are helpful to test one’s gifts and discern God’s calling but seldom result in spontaneous, indigenous church multiplication. The only commitment God can really bless for church multiplication is to plan not for two years, five years or even for life, but to simply go and do what Jesus says to do. Disciple the people group. Stay until your task is done. Leave when healthy obedient churches are multiplying and local leaders are able to train their own new shepherds. (40)
Although efforts to overcome every one of the seven barriers are important and have their place, it can sometimes be a bad stewardship of resources, and even counterproductive, to work too much on certain barriers outside of their proper order. For example, it doesn’t make much sense to try to win someone’s friendship, if you don’t speak their language. Neither does it make much sense to try to communicate the gospel with someone who doesn’t trust you as a person.
Applying this basic principle, Tom Steffen gives some rather pointed advice:
Don’t show the ‘Jesus’ film until you have earned the right to be heard. Effective evangelism calls for much more than providing information (whatever the medium). It calls for building solid relationships and a life that demonstrates transformation. Many people around the world must see a model practically applying new information before they can comprehend or apply it for themselves. (41)
Another implication is that, in some places and contexts, overcoming some of these barriers will take on a higher priority at a given time than overcoming others. For example, in a postmodern context, overcoming the “social (or trust) barrier” will be very important. In a so-called “harvest field” context, however, giving immediate attention to the communication of the gospel will take higher priority.
George Harper makes some very astute observations on responsiveness that confirm the main thesis of the “Overcoming Barriers to the Fulfillment of the Great Commission” model:
Efforts spent on a field that is not yet ready are just as foolish as failure to harvest a crop that is ripe . . . Missionaries’ experiences bear this out. A people may reject the gospel for years and be judged unresponsive until the proper point of contact or redemptive analogy within its culture is finally found and exploited. It will then be labeled responsive, but surely no one would argue that this represents any “ripening” on its part: rather, we have finally done the work necessary to bridge the cultural gap dividing us so that we can state the gospel in a way to which they are able to make a reasoned response . . . The receptivity index thus becomes, not a means of deciding whether or not evangelism can bear fruit in a given group, but a way of gauging how much work awaits us (not necessarily another group) in preparing an enculturated form of the evangel to which they can be expected to make a reasoned response. (42)
Missionary settings in which resistance to the gospel is significant provide an ideal example of the value of viewing the missionary task as a series of sequenced efforts at overcoming specific barriers. Harper continues:
The work of Donald McCurry’s Samuel Zwemer Institute in Islamics is a good example of the sort of effort that ought to be directed at every group now considered to be closed to the gospel. After all, the driving principle of the church growth school has been that, while leaving to the Holy Spirit his own work in conversion, everything possible ought to be done to lower human barriers hindering response to the gospel. In the parable of the sower (Luke 8:14–15), all the seed except that which falls on the path actually germinates and produces some sort of plant. The soil is not in itself barren, rather, potentially fertile soil is encumbered with rocks and briers. Even the path might be successfully tilled if it were first broken up with a plow. It is our responsibility before God, not merely to sow seed in those isolated patches of his field that have been providentially left free of rocks and weeds, nor even to hope for the wind to carry away the briers and thorns so that we may expand his acreage, but to involve ourselves in burning stumps and removing boulders so that we may one day plant the entire field and present our thank offerings to the Lord of the harvest. (43)
Those who do not make the time and effort to consider the missionary task from a broad perspective often fall into the trap of prescribing solutions that are not appropriate for the particular context at hand. Ron Fisher gives the following example:
I began to observe the attitudes of American Christians visiting Europe. They were almost always struck by the lack of Bible schools and seminaries. They were appalled by the dearth of Christian literature. They saw the need for a positive evangelical apologetic to contest prevailing European atheism and traditional religiosity. They said missionaries needed to build attractive church buildings as concrete evidence of the evangelical presence in Europe. And I could add to this list. It occurred to me that these reactions poured forth because U.S. Christians are fully accustomed to a developed and institutional Christianity. They take for granted the superstructure of the auxiliary ministries, as if they were the essence of biblical Christianity. They seldom realize that these ministries are more the result of than the basis of evangelization and church growth. Christian training institutions flourish where numbers of young people seek a full-time ministry, and where multiplying churches seek more trained leadership. Christian literature flourishes where there is a big market of Christian readers. The problem in pioneer or resistant fields is that the evangelical community is small and weak. Bible schools with five to ten students are not uncommon. Christian books for saved and unsaved are few in number and costly. Funds and personnel do not go for church buildings or training apologists because they are needed just to maintain the life of the churches themselves. The basic need then is for more believers and more churches. The fastest growing religious groups in the areas I’m acquainted with are not noted for their training institutions, their rich literature, their apologists, or their buildings; they are characterized by zealous, every-member evangelism and a strong sense of identity. (44)
Examples similar to those given above can be multiplied in many missionary contexts around the world. If we desire to be good stewards of the valuable resources God entrusts us with, we would do well to pay attention.
The “Overcoming Barriers to the Fulfillment of the Great Commission” model is not the only way to look at the missionary task. There are certainly also other ways of classifying the barriers which must be overcome, and efforts to overcome them. Even upon agreeing on this model, and a basic list of barriers, the particular applications in sequencing the efforts at overcoming them will vary from context to context. It is hoped, however, that the basic concept of looking at the missionary task from this perspective may provide some useful tools in helping those involved in missionary ministry to evaluate the task ahead of them, and direct efforts and resources more effectively and efficiently. Viewed from this perspective, in one way or another, the job of the missionary strategist is to analyze the situation at hand in order to determine what are the main barriers standing in the way of the fulfillment of the Great Commission in a given context and time, and propose adequate strategies for overcoming those particular barriers.
(34) Mike Wakely, “The Search for the Golden Key,” EMQ (2004): 13–14.
(35) Ibid., 16.
(36) Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations & Contemporary Strategies (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 143.
(37) Ibid., 143–44.
(38) Ibid., 144.
(39) Van Rheenen, “Learning,” 46–47.
(40) George Patterson and Galen Currah, “Church Multiplication: Guidelines and Dangers,” EMQ (2003): 216.
(41) Tom Steffen, “Don’t Show the ‘Jesus’ Film . . .” EMQ (1993): 273.
(42) George W. Harper, “How Valid Is Receptivity in Determining Mission Strategy?” EMQ (1982): 205–07.
(43) Ibid., 208–09.
(44) Ron Fisher, “Why Don’t We Have More Church-Planting Missionaries?” EMQ (1978): 206