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Mapping Cultural Distance

The PLI community cares about leaders and the future of the church and the sharing of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our pioneering spirit looks to journey toward new, better horizons.

Let me tell you a quick story from lunch at a restaurant the other day and then it’s translation!

“I overheard what your friends were talking about. They’re right. They’re exactly right.”

My hesitation invited him to continue.

“What they were saying about how younger adults have a negative view of the church and most of them won’t go to church anymore…they’re right. I would never go to a church around here. They don’t care about people in need and they’re judgmental.” (I had to avoid getting defensive because our church was implied in his broadside!)

This was more than I had planned as I waited to pay the lunch check. Before going to lunch we had reviewed the harsh sentiments that the younger adult generations hold toward the American Christian church…AND what PLI has always done and is doing new to best train pastors and spouses and key leaders to connect people to Jesus.

Before you go to lunch after church on Sunday, consider this:

Our waiter was eager to respond to a couple of my questions. Underemployed college graduate up from Atlanta. Self described as a Christian. Maybe someday–not likely–he’d go to church. None of the wait staff wanted to work the Sunday shift because of the people coming from church. They treat the wait staff like servants. They complain about the church service they just came from. They’re poor tippers.

So…let me offer the translation for all of us who care about the Mission entrusted to us!

There are a number of things that are getting in the way for us today.

  1. We still assume that our culture is knit together with a broad Judeo Christian fabric. It’s not. It’s fragmented, diverse, and increasingly negative toward the Christian church.
  2. There are cultural assumptions that we need to unlearn and then relearn–a missionary jump to take–that needs to happen to even be heard as the ones sent with the Gospel.

Ralph Winter is credited some years ago with training overseas missionaries in mapping “cultural distance” before the Gospel could actually be “heard” by a group of people.


M-0                       M-1                          M-2                          M-3                          M-4

M-0     No significant barriers.

Christians and the church can do “outreach” to people who think like them and talk like them, and they can naturally be invited into their ministry and programs. (Estimated at 40% and shrinking of the U.S. population. The 18% of Americans who attend a Christian church on an average Sunday are almost entirely from this 40% M-0 world.)

M-1     One significant barrier to hearing the Gospel. Perception, worldview, language, racial/cultural history

M-2      Two significant barriers

M-3      Three significant barriers

M-4      Like Saudi Arabia where the church has had very little impact

For the most part we’re operating with an M-0 assumption that’s “hard-wired” into how we see reality, but it doesn’t work for over 60% of the American population. If reaching mostly M-0 people is working in your ministry… celebrate it! Nothing wrong with it! It’s of great Kingdom importance!

But if an M-0 assumption is not working as well as it used to work, you might be like many churches. You’re:

  • Feeling increasing financial pressures to sustain current ministries.
  • The average age in the congregation is creeping upward. (It’s 67 in the LCMS!)
  • Scratching your head about how to better reach your community with the Gospel or you’re at risk of losing hope.

For our men and women serving as leaders, there’s a need to:

  • Get a fresh vision for a world that they once understood and discover a better way.
  • Understand and make sense of the cultural context.
  • Navigate with courage a congregational world that longs for “yesterday” and a community that assumes “yesterday” is all you have to offer.
  • Overcome significant pressures, unfair expectations, senses of failure, desires to escape, etc.

The PLI Learning Communities offer a better way in this new M-0…1…2…3…4 world!

Gail and I shared a teaching platform with several gifted PLI alumni and the well-known author/speaker Reggie McNeal: “You have a great opportunity to be the church like you’ve never been the church before. But the window of opportunity is closing quickly in America. The church has not yet imagined the level of disaffection our younger culture has toward it. The opportunity is before you…but it will take leaders with the courage to lead and dreamers who can see what hasn’t been seen yet.”

What Can You Do?

As a part of the PLI family and a leader/dreamer in your own right would you take some action today? Do one or two of the following:

  • Recommend a pastor/spouse for a new Learning Community.
  • Make a gift to help more and more leaders have the opportunity to press through this “narrow window.”
  • In your own congregation, ask questions differently and challenge your own assumptions.
  • Take a closer look at participating yourself in the right Learning Community and explore a better way.
  • Here’s a reality check. Watch it. Share it with your leaders.
  • And finally, pray. The beautiful thing about bearing witness to the Gospel in a world like ours? Almost gone are the days that we can pretend that we do this without the powerful, gracious, initiating work of our God!

Thanks for investing yourself and being a part of the PLI family! Let me know your thoughts.

Rev. Dr. Jock Ficken

2 Responses

  1. Brandon Steppe says:

    What an insiteful and disturbing article! Thank you for sharing and I will be praying for the ministry. What is the cost to support a leader couple?
    I also think it is important to note that congregations across America genuinely and unbiblically expect their leadership to build/grow the ministry which leads to the terrible witness described in the article. Sadly, our leaders are proudly taking on that responsibility instead of placing it back on the congregation and equipping them to do the work of the ministry. We as leaders often strive, doing our best to meet the congregations expectations of us and feel as though it is “what we get paid for”. We forget our role so clearly defined in Ephesians 4:11-12

    “11 And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 FOR THE EQUIPPING OF THE SAINTS FOR THE WORK of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ,” (please excuse my use of caps in place of bolded text)

    Thank you for equipping our leaders! I pray that when they leave the ministry they leave ready to encourage others to BE the church. I also pray that they understand that the financial honor they receive for thier commitment to teaching and preaching the word is not payment to do the work but rather to prepare us for the work we all need to do.

    • Jock Ficken says:

      Brandon great insights. Thanks for sharing. The future entails a shift from the pastor/leader being expected to do the mission and ministry alone to the people of God being equipped.. expected.. and given opportunity to be the missionary disciples where they live, work and play. Teri.Rice could explain the costs of the trading if you’re interested. Thanks. Jock

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