Conversation: Tom Clegg
Tom Clegg served as a pastor in the United States and a missionary in Africa. He has consulted with many churches regarding church growth and evangelism and is in demand as a conference speaker. Lost in America, CleggÕs book with co-author Warren Bird, not only discusses challenges facing the church in America, but also presents methods local churches are using to reach their communities. Alton Garrison, executive director of U.S. Missions for the Assemblies of God, recently asked Clegg about AmericaÕs identity as a mission field.
Garrison: You are a missionary called to America from Africa. How do those assignments compare with each other?
CLEGG: To be a missionary in Africa was everything I dreamed of and more. I loved it. When it was clear I was returning to America, I came back with great reluctance. Compared to the African savanna, ministry in America is much harder. In Africa there might be germs in the water, bandits with guns or even animals that could harm you, but none of those dangers compare with the apathy and indifference you find in America.
Garrison: How can you say America is a Òmission fieldÓ?
CLEGG: Let me illustrate with a series of questions:
What country has the Christian church with the largest attendance in the world? South Korea.
Where is the worldÕs second-largest Christian church? In Lagos, Nigeria.
In what country do you think the worldÕs largest Buddhist temple is located? The United States in Boulder, Colo.
Where is the worldÕs largest Muslim training center? In New York City.
What country has the worldÕs largest Jewish population? The United States.
Where is the worldÕs largest training center for Transcendental Meditation? The United States in Fairfield, Iowa.
In the United States, what ethnic group is most responsive to the gospel? Asian-Americans.
What is the historic, dominant religion of the United States? Christianity.
Are you getting the picture?
If America were not a mission field, then you would expect it to have the largest Christian populations in the world. However, by some estimates, China has more Christians than America.
Garrison: IsnÕt America a Christian nation?
CLEGG: Despite its Christian heritage, the United States is a leading nation in the industrialized world in the percentage of single-parent families, abortion rate, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage birth-rate, use of illegal drugs by students and the size of the prison population.
Garrison: ArenÕt more people attending church today than ever before?
CLEGG: In reality, the percentage of adults in the United States who attend church is decreasing. U.S. churches are growing, but not enough to keep pace with the population. Only 40 percent of adults said they went to church last week. ThatÕs down from 42 percent in 1995 and 49 percent in 1991.
Roughly half of all churches in America did not add one new person through conversion growth last year. No matter how you do the math, current conversion rates still point to one horrible conclusion: Lost people lose.
In America, it takes the combined efforts of 85 Christians working over an entire year to produce one convert. At that rate, a huge percentage of people will never have the opportunity, even once, to hear the gospel.
According to some researchersÕ recent analysis almost three times as many churches in America are closing (3,750) as are opening (1,300) each year. Planting churches is still the most effective way to reach unbelievers.
Garrison: You claim America is not only an unchurched nation but also an unreached nation?
CLEGG: Conversions to other religions and dropouts from Christianity are escalating. Justin Long notes that in North America Òthe nonreligious have grown from 1 million in 1900 to 26 million today and the atheists have grown from 2,000 in 1900 to 1.4 million today.Ó
¥ Between 1989 and 1998, the Muslim population in the United States grew by 25 percent. No major American city is without an Islamic teaching center.
¥ Buddhism is growing nearly three times as fast as Christianity. Hindus form the second-fastest- growing religion in North America and [pseudo-Christian] cults are also growing significantly.
¥ Too many churched people believe and behave identically to their unchurched counterparts. What would you call a person who believes in astrology, reincarnation and the possibility of communicating with the dead? If your first thought is ÒNew Ager,Ó you missed an important group. According to a Gallup survey, these are just some of the beliefs held by people who call themselves Christians.
Garrison: What can individual Christians do about all this?
CLEGG: Viewing Òministry as mission fieldÓ begins with meeting people where they are. Start where you are, with family and with friends whom you already know. Be yourself with them. DonÕt think you have to be like anyone else to be effective in helping people to discover the love of Jesus.
Include them in your interests and hobbies, building and deepening your relationships in the process. You are more ÒaliveÓ when youÕre doing things you like to do. Do things together and cultivate intentional friendships with unbelievers.
Pray for those people regularly by name, and look for ways to meet needs in their lives. Find a way to genuinely serve them. Reach them through their hearts more than through their heads.
Be especially prayerful and available when they face tough times. Respond with ÒI careÓ statements and actions. Make sure your actions speak louder than your words.
Ask leading questions rather than telling them answers. Most people prefer to discover the truth themselves.
Invite them to make a step toward God. Ask them what God is teaching them. Ask them how they would like you to pray for them.
Garrison: How can churches make a difference?
CLEGG: Provide information about how to effectively reach out to others.
Prioritize outreach, evangelism, faith sharing, and faith nurturing as important reasons for your existence as a church.
Become more intentionally Òa house of prayer.Ó Seek GodÕs guidance and petition God for unbelieving family members and friends.
The way you love is the mark of your witness. Invite into your fellowship people who donÕt have a Christian family heritage or a church home. Make newcomers feel welcome and wanted.
For more information about the Lost in America book or seminar, e-mail Dr. Thomas T. Clegg at firstname.lastname@example.org.
E-mail your comments to email@example.com.