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.
I want to share three things I learned while planting in Downtown Toronto. These lessons may not necessarily grow your church plants, but as organizational leaders that represent 75% of church planting in North America, I think if we think through these ideas together, we’ll multiply new kinds of churches that’ll bring a new aspect of the Kingdom to our cities.
LESSON #1: Our current North American church planting model works—for now.
While all that I said about changing demographics is true and how it requires change, I planted in Toronto using a slightly modified version of the typical launch model and it “worked.” We were able to launch a church, we saw people come to Christ (over 20 conversion baptisms in the first 3 years), and we became a sustainable downtown church of 130+ (mixed!) people. All in about four years. And it’s going well–even better without me!
Where we modified the launch model was that we didn’t do mailers or expensive marketing. No fog lights, no matching t-shirts. But we did do community well and we were constantly engaged with the city and our neighbourhood.
Where I think the launch model will expire and no longer meet our old expectations, is when the new mission field begins to tip the scales. What do I mean by that?
Our “hardest to reach” mission field has now gone beyond the unchurched, de-churched, and even the Religious Nones. Soon our missiology is going to ask, “How do we reach second-generation Muslims and Hindus running NGO’s and tech companies?” This isn’t just Toronto. It’s also Old Fourth Ward in Atlanta. I tried my very best to reach this segment in Toronto with the launch model–and while they would visit and come to events, we didn’t see massive success. This growing segment is similar to American Millennials and Generation Z and they’re all postmodern and Westernized and trendy…BUT they are non-Europeans who are pre-Christian and not post-Christian. And many, at least in Toronto, were transnationals, meaning they lived in different countries simultaneously.
And we weren’t able to crack the missional code for these new North Americans using the launch model.
LESSON #2: You can’t demonize a group then romanticize how difficult it is to reach them.
I think this was the part of European imperialism that seeped into Western missions. You can’t demonize “Natives”, refugees, Muslims, LGBTQ, Liberals/conservatives–or whatever group you can name–and then later complain (or brag) to supporters how difficult it is to reach them. It might make for great stories for church planting newsletters, but if you really think about it, it’s somewhat duplicitous and what my kids call “cringey.”
It’s religious work to think you’re trying to convert demons into angels. But it’s Kingdom work to think that God, in Christ, is adopting orphans into beloved children.
And when you see someone as an orphan and not a demon, it humanizes them and you’re filled with compassion–NOT romanticism.
Before planting in Toronto, I had some gay friends, but none that I would consider having done life together. After living in Toronto, I had very close friendships with people who were same-sex-attracted. Many had experienced personal hurt by Christians. After hearing their stories, I committed to never doing a bait and switch with anyone. So those who were same-sex attracted and joined our community–they did it knowing that we had an orthodox understanding of sexuality.
It’s good to do demographics and it’s good to do spiritual mapping and it’s crucial to use the social sciences to form our mission strategies, but at the end of the day, when we categorize people with labels, we dehumanize them. People…are not postmodern. People…are not post-Christian. People…are not Liberal or Conservative. I’ll tell you what is. Philosophical systems are. The ruler and the authority and the principality of the air is what is postmodern and post-Christian and Liberal and conservative. Not people. (Which by the way all these categories are derived from political philosophy, NOT the Bible.)
These labels are “spirits.” I didn’t say demons! I said spirits. It’s a spirit that’s postmodern. It’s a spirit that’s post-Christian. These are disembodied ideas that should never be confused with actual people with actual names and actual stories. When you remember this, you humanize people–which is probably essential to liking and loving people–which I would say is absolutely essential to properly evangelizing people.
LESSON #3: Immigrants and refugees are here so that you can reach them. But they’re also here so that they can reach you.
Now, this is getting at the concept of missional narrative as I was explaining before. It’s a different narrative than the declining North American Church. The story of North America is still being written. It’s going from the narrative that said, “we’re going to reach them when they get here” to another narrative that is just as powerful. Let me illustrate this from the movie, Arrival. (Spoil alert!)
Arrival is a movie about aliens from another universe that arrive to Earth in twelve different pods located in twelve different cities around the world. The aliens aren’t invasive or aggressive, but naturally, the humans are in a panic and are suspicious about their presence. (At this point, you probably can tell some of the political motivations behind the movie.)
The government calls on the help of linguistics expert, Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams. And through a scientific team, Louise is able to establish communication with the aliens based on a new language offered by the aliens. Their language comes in the form of complete thoughts and symbols rather than words and sounds like human language. And after months of learning how to communicate with the aliens via this language, they finally are able to ask the aliens why they came to earth. The aliens reveal to the humans that they came to offer a weapon. This obviously throws the humans into a panic because they think the aliens are trying to pin governments against each other to destroy the other with this weapon is. So they immediately stop all communication with the aliens. But Louise isn’t convinced that this weapon is destructive. She goes through the range of meanings for this idea of “weapon” and concludes that the aliens actually want to give human beings a “tool” of some sort, for good. I should say that all throughout the movie, Louise is having dreams in this new language. But not only that, she begins having visions of what appears to be images and scenes from the future. These scenes become so vivid to the point that she can even think in the future in order to correct the present. She eventually discovers that the “tool” (not a weapon) that the aliens came to give was this language. It was an evolution of higher intelligence. The aliens wanted to gift humans with this tool to allow them to make better decisions by knowing the outcome of the future.
There’s a scene near the end of the movie where Louise asks the aliens why they decided to give humans this tool. The aliens then reveal that in 3000 years from now, their species will be threatened and they will need the help of humans to survive this threat. With this new human evolution–this new way of thinking, this Gospel–the humans would later be able to help the very species that first helped them.
Here’s what I think is happening over the next 30 years in cities like Chicago, Toronto, New York City…Tulsa: You know how Western countries sent missionaries into other continents like Africa, Asia, South America to share the Gospel and to plant churches? They did that because God knew some years down the road these Western countries that were missionaries would eventually need to be evangelized themselves.
In the 1980’s Lesslie Newbigin gave a series of lectures at Princeton that centered on the question, “Can the West be converted?” And a lot of the energy devoted to this project since then has assumed that the West would be converted by the West. But what if God wants to use the world to reach the West?
What if the nations aren’t here in America just so Americans can reach the nations. What if through immigration–politics and border security aside–what if the nations are here in North America so that God can use them to reach North America?
I know Asian, Hispanic, and Indian church planters literally asking themselves, “How can I reach White Americans?” in the same way White Americans used to ask, “How can I reach Asians, Hispanics, and Indians?” Doesn’t that mess with your brain? But you see, that’s a different missional narrative than the declining church narrative.
And for a growing population in North America, it will make the Great Commission in our cities more relevant and possibly even more fun than ever before. Thank you.