The term “unchurched” has become quite popular in missional efforts to re-evangelize and re-church North America. To be sure, there are a lot of unchurched people in the U.S. In fact, no county in the US has registered a greater percentage of church persons over the past decade. Church attendance has declined over the past few years by 10%, and the US is the only continent where Christianity is not growing! With these kinds of statistics, I wonder if “unchurched” language and perspectives are falling short of adequately describing the challenges facing the American church (more stats). Perhaps we should pick up the language of missiologists who have used the term “resistant.”
The resistant are those who have or are receiving an adequate opportunity to hear the gospel but over some time have not responded positively (Pocock, “Raising Questions about the Resistant”). The resistant are NOT unreached, though they are often unchurched. What constitutes “some time”? More importantly, should we shift our strategies and discourse to approach unchurched Americans as resistant peoples?
Not unlike the term unchurched, defining the resistant is has its problems; however, Timothy Tennent has helpfully pointed out that peoples can be resistant in at least four ways: culturally, theologically, ethnically or politically (Tennent, “Equipping Missionaries for the Resistant”). Depending on what area or peoples of the U.S we are considering, any one or combination of the four areas may apply.
In Austin, Texas many people are culturally, politically, and theologically resistant. The diverse cultural resistance to the gospel in Austin is unlike the cultural affinity in the rest of Texas. Harvard’s Pluralism Project reveals that Austin’s cultural diversity is due to a combination of factors–immigration, education, and the creative class ethos, and the so-called “attitude factor”. This pluralistic mix has fostered resistance and indifference to Christianity, allowing a wide variety of religions and spiritualities to flourish.
During 2004 presidential election, despite being home to President Bush, Austin was a blue dot in a red state. God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are neither Republican nor Democratic, but unfortunately, there are churches and christianities that are partisan. Austin pushes back against the Republican right, often associated with fundamentalist christianity. The generally Democratic values of the environment, the poor, and so on are big for Austinites. As a result, Austinites are politically resistant to the gospel.
As I see it, a major challenge to reaching the resistant is to approach our christianity with redemptive suspicion, questioning what may in reality be christianity, but in fact is not Christ-like. Perhaps a renewed call to wisely distinguish Christ from culture, while not quarantining the gospel from society. To exegete the cultural, ethnic, theological, and political spheres of resistance, while lovingly engaging the people who inhabit them and depending on the power and sufficiency of the gospel to redeem and affirm people and culture.
By rethinking missional approaches to churching America, we might actually change our methods. Evaulating the areas of resistance among Americans is one way forward in fulfilling the Great Commission. At the end of the day, everyone will bow in worship to King Jesus, some by faith and others by force. It is our job to communicate the heart-renovating, mind-renewing, culture-engaging, city-renewing, community-developing, God-glorifying gospel in a wise and winsome way.