My church has a lot of seminary students, and I hear a certain refrain every two or three weeks in the small groups I oversee. The conversation turns toward evangelism and missions and some well-meaning seminary student will express frustration that they are “stuck in the bubble.” By that, they mean that their world revolves around the seminary, its network and culture. Of course, this keeps them from developing meaningful connections with unbelievers, and that is obviously a problem when the Christian life is to be centered around gospel proclamation and witness.
They are right. They need to get out of the bubble, but there is a good chance you do too.
Several decades ago, a missiologist named Ralph Winter developed a really helpful scale concerning evangelism and how it works. The scale, known as the E-Scale, breaks evangelism down based on the cultural distance of the people you are trying to reach.
Here’s is Winter’s description of the scale (you can find the original article here):
“The E-Scale helps compare the cultural distances that Christians need to move in order to communicate the gospel with others. E0 refers to evangelism of church-going Christians. E1 extends to the very same culture through one barrier, that of “church culture.” E2 evangelism presses into a close, but still different, culture. E3 evangelism pushes to very different cultures.”
In other words, evangelism works different depending on who you are trying to reach. Think about it, when you are sharing the gospel, you must do so in a way that makes sense to the hearer. In order to do that, it is very important to understand enough about the hearer that you can communicate in a way that is helpful. Furthermore, understanding these differences reveals some eye-opening realities about the current cultural situation for most local churches in North America. After all, the North American context is increasingly diverse. Gone are the days where we can expect our neighbor to have some kind of Christian background. Peoples from all over the world are landing in a cul-de-sac in your neighborhood, and our own Western culture is more secular than ever.
In order to demonstrate this, I created a diagram applying the E-Scale to discovering and engaging people groups in your community.E0 evangelism is the one with the smallest amount of cultural difference between the sharer and the receiver. Think of this as sharing with people who have stopped going to church, or your friends and family that grew up in church but buzzed out when they went to college. I am inclined to believe most local church evangelism happens in this circle. These are the people in the bubble.
E1 goes a step further, sharing the gospel with people who are Westerners. I labeled it traditional “American” culture for lack of a better term. Honestly, that is not a fair use of the term American, though. American comes in all different colors and traditions now! Nevertheless, this refers to engaging what we traditionally think of as Western, English-speaking, my-grandparents-were-from-America, culture. The difference, however, is an important one. While these people share the same overall culture with us, they do not share a Christian background. This a real big group, today. Talk of the “nones,” or people with no religious preference is on the upswing and so is the group. I fear most church members have few tools to talk to other Westerners with no “Christianese” in their background.
E2 starts to cross cultural barriers, and the difference between it and E3 is why the E-Scale is so very helpful concerning foreign born peoples in our own community. E3 evangelism crosses the most cultural barriers. This is a far culture that has completely different customs and languages. Many of the new foreign born residents in your community will fall into this category. While E2 is cross-cultural, these groups are closer to our own culture and have less barriers. This is an excellent way to think about second and third generation immigrants. While foreign born residents still maintain much of their culture from home, their children will often be raised in an American school, know English as well as you and I, and be very familiar with Western culture. That said, they will also maintain cultural distinctions, perhaps speaking their heart language at home with family, celebrating their own cultural holidays, and eating stuff you think is gross.
We need to get out of the bubble.
Take a look at the diagram. If you are like most Christians, the primary form of evangelism you do is E0. Now, I am not claiming that inviting former church folk back to church is bad or a waste of time. I am saying that it is certainly insufficient today. That piece of the pie is getting smaller and smaller, and we live in a world of radical diversity. The nations, are in many ways, at your church’s doorstep. Local churches have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to be engaging all the way up the scale.
We have to reach out past the “Christianese” and start sharing the gospel with people who have no claim to Christianity. We need to see the fantastic opportunity presented by engaging second and third generation immigrants from Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist backgrounds who share some cultural overlap with us. Finally, we can partner with these people and do the hard work of learning the other cultures around us in order to share the gospel with foreign born peoples.
What a fantastic goal for your church, to start churches in your community from all kinds of different backgrounds. But you cannot do it unless you get out of that bubble.