Missionaries to America

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, March 12, 2012

Missionaries to America

The United States sends more Christian missionaries abroad than any other country. According to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, in 2010 the United States sent out 127,000 of the world’s estimated 400,000 missionaries. To put this in perspective, second-place Brazil sent 34,000.

The irony is that now, America needs them sent here.

The widely discussed American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), released in 2009, marked an alarming increase in “nones” – nearly doubling from 8 percent to 15 percent. This made those who claim no religion at all the third largest defined constituency in the United States, eclipsed only by Catholics and Baptists. Further, “nones” were the only religious bloc to rise in percentage in every single state, thus constituting the only true national trend.

It is difficult to think of America as a mission field, having been the exporter of faith for so many generations, but that is precisely what it has become.

So what kind of missionaries does America need? The same kind we’ve been sending out for 200 years.  And they need to do precisely what any good missionary would do.

Here are the big three:

1.         Learn the language.

The first task for any missionary is to learn the language of the people you are trying to reach, and then use it. A language barrier is the most elemental and primary obstacle to overcome. To learn the language means to educate yourself on how to talk in a way that people can understand and relate to, and in the end, respond to. America has a very unique and specific language, and it isn’t simply “English.” It is the communication of thoughts and feelings through an understood set of words, sounds and symbols. It is highly “tribal,” and in constant flux.

Which brings us to the second missionary task.

2.         Become sensitized to the culture.

The second investment of a missionary is to become a student of the culture, and then become so sensitized to that culture that you can operate effectively within it. Culture is the world in which we live, and the world which lives in us; which means we are talking about everything. Culture is the comprehensive, penetrating context that encompasses our life and thought, art and speech, entertainment and sensibility, values and faith. It serves as the context through which, and in which, we reach out. While never capitulated to, it must be accommodated.

Which brings us to the third missionary task.

3.         Translate the gospel.

The third task of the missionary is to translate the gospel so that it can be heard, understood and appropriated. Notice I didn’t simply say “translate the Scriptures,” though that is a given. Theologian Millard Erickson, building on the insights of William E. Hordern, offers a helpful distinction in the use of the terms translation versus transformation. The presentation of the gospel itself must be translated – but never transformed. Every generation must translate the gospel into its unique cultural context. This is very different from transforming the message of the gospel into something that was never intended by the biblical witness. Transformation of the message must be avoided at all costs; translation, however, is essential for a winsome and compelling presentation of the gospel of Christ. 

Imagine 127,000 missionaries engaged in these three simple tasks for the sake of reaching the United States. Or maybe it would be quicker if 127,000 existing American church leaders realized that they were already these very missionaries, and needed to own the task at hand.

James Emery White


“In 200-year tradition, most Christian missionaries are American” by Daniel Lovering, Reuters, Monday, February 20, 2012. Read online.

View the précis on the ARIS study, along with links to the full survey.

Millard Erickson, Christian Theology.


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president.  His latest book is What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary (Baker).  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Missionaries to America