The following is a transcript from a talk Daniel Yang gave at the Church Planting Leadership Fellowship (CPLF) in New York City on November 17, 2017. CPLF is a community of church planting denominational and network leaders from across North America who gather twice a year for collaborative learning.
Good afternoon. I’m really honored to be with CPLF today. I direct the Send Institute–which is a newly launched “think tank” for church planting in North America.
Why a think-tank specifically on North American church planting?
Well, I’m sure you’re aware of this, but North American cities are changing rapidly in every way. Because of fast-changing demographics, the story of US and Canada is literally being re-written in our midst. And that’s not conjecture–it’s what the US Census is actually saying.
So at the Send Institute, we want to gather church planting leaders and organizations to discover best practices in church planting and evangelism and we want to disseminate these findings. We’ll do that through sociological research synthesized with theological reflection, so that the story of the spiritual lostness of North America can be better understood and better told–so that churches and church planting leaders like yourself can better strategize–so that more of your church planters can be better equipped to plant churches that reach hard to reach communities.
A little background on me. Ethnically, I’m Hmong and my parents were refugees from Laos who immigrated to the US in 1979. This may be too much information, but I was conceived in a Thailand refugee camp and then born in the cornfields of Illinois, two hours outside of Chicago. And not too long after I was born, my parents moved to inner-city Detroit where I spent my childhood and teenage years. We were a part of a small Asian community in a city that was 90% African-American. If you’ve seen the movie Gran Torino, you essentially know my upbringing. Except the movie was a bit more glamorous than my actual neighborhood…because I grew up in the “toe” of the ghet-toe!
For about nine years I was an engineer by day and did missional leadership development by night. It was through some of that stuff that I met a church planting leader named Bob Roberts and he invited me to join his staff at Northwood Church. I got to see the ins and outs of how Bob and Glocal.Net planted churches and how they engaged the world. So after a few years with Bob, he sent me out to plant a church in downtown Toronto. For those of you who are familiar–Toronto is “the New York City” of Canada.
Now, neither Chicago (where I live today) nor Toronto (where I was planting) nor New York City (where we are today)–none of these cities has a single majority race. Meaning Whites are now less than half the population in each of these cities. What used to be called “minority” groups are now on the rise and aren’t so minority anymore. These are not the American cities of the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or even 90’s. In fact, they’re not even the cities of the 2000’s. That’s how fast North America is changing!
And while our church planting systems and processes are getting better and more efficient, much of what we’re implementing and tweaking today in these systems and processes are based on missional paradigms that are quickly expiring. What do I mean by that?
Well, last week I was talking to a missiologist and church planting strategist in San Francisco. And we were talking about different models to understand the global context that North America is in today. Now we know it in our head that this reality is here, but we don’t quite yet know it in our hearts. And that’s why much of it hasn’t trickled down to our strategies yet.
I pointed out to her that for most of my ministry career, my seminary professors and mentors have been telling me a story or what I call a missional narrative about this new lostness in North America. What’s a missional narrative? A missional narrative is a lens or a worldview or a motivational story that we tell ourselves in order to get excited about God’s mission. It’s self-talk. It’s mobilization rhetoric. And for as long as I can remember, the missional narrative in North America has sounded something similar to this:
It said that: People in North America are becoming less and less Christian and we need to reverse this trend. Not all people say it the same way. Some say it with more sophistication like, “We are post-Christian” or “we have entered post-Christendom.” And then the real hippy academic types are saying we are “decolonizing our theology.” But underneath this narrative is the idea that people of North America used to have a more Christian heritage and that it’s changing. So, “we” have to do what it takes to “win it back.” In my denomination, we say that we’re “pushing back the darkness in North America.” And a lot of this language is infused in the way we talk about cultural engagement and faith in the public square.
And all of this is right and all of it makes sense…for a certain segment of North America.
So, I’m having this conversation with this missiologists and I have to admit something to her. I said, “Linda, do you know that as an American (and I AM AMERICAN), as many times as I hear the decline narrative of the church, it has never really registered for me.” I mean, I’ve studied it and I understand it and I’ve learned to empathize with it. And I’ve even learned how to operate inside of it. But it’s just NOT my story. Because you see, up until my father became a Christian in 1980, there has never been another Christian in my family ancestry.
I don’t have a post-modern, post-Christendom, decline narrative motivation for missions. Why? Because my Hmong people are only 67 years into Christianity and we only became “modern” a few decades ago!
So, if the predominant missional narrative in North America is the decline narrative of Western Christendom and if we mobilize our organizations primarily with this narrative, then it will always compete with the experience of most non-European immigrants. And if the decline narrative (which is predominantly European) clashes with the immigrant’s narrative (which is predominantly non-European) then the North American Church is no better than the politics we see on TV. (And God help us if that’s the case.)
The missional narrative is being re-written in our midst and the people of New York, Chicago, Toronto, and others are re-writing it.