This article was originally released on July 4, 2016. However, in light of our perplexing political season, “American Nations” is still a timely text, second only to Russell Moore’s extremely important work, “Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel“.
In the spirit of Independence Day we decided to celebrate by recommending a great American read: Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Convenient, right? A book about America on America’s big day. But what does that have to do with missions and churches? For American Christians, pretty much everything. Here’s why.
Reaching Americans means seeing how Americans see. All the reasons I’ll give for reading this book would make perfect sense to an international missionary. They are trained to insert themselves into another land and immediately take on the posture of learners. Like tourists, they gladly snap a million pictures, fascinated with everything they see. Conversely, most American Christians have neither the training nor the instinct for missionally observing their hometowns. Roads are just roads. Neighborhoods are just neighborhoods. In the Upstream book Tradecraft, which was written for the very purpose of making missionary training accessible to everyone, this skill is called “mapping”. It’s the “first step in incarnation—putting yourself in the shoes of those to whom you want to minister” (51). The cool thing about Woodard’s American Nations is, on a national scale, some significant mapping has already been done for you. Rather than riding the bandwagon of America as “melting pot,” Woodard argues from history for eleven distinct regions in North America and even draws their geographic fault lines. Thanks for the head start, man!
Reaching Americans means thinking how Americans think. One of the most
commonly recognized tasks of international missionaries is learning languages. It’s
easy to miss, however, that sorting through foreign grammar and vocabulary is only half the battle. Having any hope of reaching people with the gospel demands understanding not only the language, but the culture. Culture is the expression of how people view the world, how they think. From the Tradecraft chapter on “exegeting culture,” Caleb Crider writes, “sound missiology requires [the study] of culture” (72). The trouble for anyone who hasn’t been immersed in another culture is that they’re easily blind to their own culture (think fishbowl). And cultural blindness leads to a missions-gutting assumption: ‘I already understand this culture, therefore I already know how people think.’ Churches must realize that Americans do not think according to our 21st century Christian sub-culture. They never have. American Nations spends 384 pages proving it, and that’s another great reason to read it.
Reaching Americans means gathering how Americans gather. Ok, tell me the truth, when you think of a “missionary” do you envision a Westerner standing timidly among tribesmen? Thanks to End of the Spear, The Mission, Bruchko, and Ee-Taow, I sure do. Here’s a better question. When you think of “tribesmen” what comes to mind? Scantily-clad, spear-throwing, bone-pierced, dark-skinned, man-eating jungle people, right? This is an unfortunate display of our culture blindness. According to Tradecraft‘s chapter on “engaging tribes,” perhaps the “single most significant observation in missions today is this—people everywhere are tribal” (125). We are naturally social beings who gather into groups, cliques, families, factions, affinities, etc. Whatever we prefer to call them, missiologists simply label them as tribes. Yet if you’re like me, you may need Colin Woodard’s help in being convinced of American tribalism. As I read his historical synopsis of my own region, Greater Appalachia, I realized not just how tribal Appalachians have been, but part of why they’re still so hard to reach. Like our tough Irish, English, and Scottish ancestors, we still hold as tightly to liberty as we do suspicion. So along with our tribal counterparts around the world, Appalachia needs Christians who live like missionaries among tribesmen.
Reaching Americans means speaking how Americans speak. All my reasoning thus far builds to this critical point. What is the good of American Nations helping us to see the importance of mapping, exegeting culture, and engaging tribes? For the sake of speaking the good news of Jesus in ways that people can clearly understand. International missionaries call this “contextualization”. And yes, once again there’s a chapter about it in Tradecraft under the same term. One of the underlying presumptions in American churches is that because we’re from the same country and because we speak the same language, our efforts to preach the gospel are thus fully contextualized. Whaaaat? No way! Contextualization is “the effort to understand and take seriously the specific context of each human group and person on its own terms and in all its dimensions—cultural, religious, social, political, economic—and to discern what the gospel says to people in that context” (148). If that’s true, then many American churches are not truly contextualizing—and they don’t even realize it. That’s why places like Appalachia and New England continue to grow in hostility toward the gospel, and yet they fail to land on our sacred “unreached” lists. We feel less urgency because churches are already there, regardless of whether they are effectively contextualizing the gospel or not. Thankfully, like an unexpected pop from a wet towel, Woodard shows us the modern results of historic American churches who failed to contextualize the gospel.
Reaching Americans means loving (some things) Americans love. Yes, reading American Nations may nudge your affection for America, but not just in the warm fuzzy sort of way. For American Christians, loving America is an ever-increasing challenge, one that will take intentionality. In some ways it can be easier to not love what Americans love, withdrawing and frowning on cultural norms like racism, sexism, ageism, and classism, not to mention abortion, homosexuality, gender neutrality, and pornography. If we’ve learned to see (map), think (exegete), gather (engage), and speak (contextualize) like Americans do, then we’ve reached a dilemma. Are we doing these thing robotically among them, or have we learned to love what is lovely among them? Tradecraft calls this “protecting indigeneity” (180). It’s not only discerning what the gospel should sound like, but what the church should look like. It’s fighting to keep the church making sense to the culture (without losing the gospel) rather than becoming an entirely separate culture. Surprisingly, as much as this missionary skill depends on us being students of modern culture, it also demands our understanding of the backstory. International missionaries realize that every village they encounter is built on the foundation of its spiritual history. As they learn it, they mourn the trail of blood from Adam, but love the people and the amazing ways God is immersed in their story. Your neighborhood is no different. I believe Colin Woodard’s fascinating book, when read intentionally, can help us begin to think, to love, that way.
This article is a republication from The Upstream Collective. Used with permission.