Thoughts of a Country Preacher

The Monday morning ruminations of a pastor.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Principle of Receptivity

Last week, we discussed the Homogeneous Principle. This week I would like to discuss another principle found at the heart of the Church Growth Movement is the Principle of Receptivity. The Principle of Receptivity is derived from the observation that churches grow at a very uneven pace. Some populations become receptive to the gospel message while others do not. Equally, some segments of a given population may become more receptive to the gospel while other segments are not. The Principle of Receptivity argues that the bulk of the evangelistic enterprise should be focused upon populations who are demonstrating a higher receptivity to the gospel. In relation to this, C. Peter Wagner notes that there are several factors that one may examine in order to determine whether or not a given population shows a high degree of receptivity. First, is the establishment of new settlements, or an influx of people into an area. Second, is the return of travelers such as migrant workers or soldiers. Third is the conquest by a foreign power. Fourth is a rise in nationalism and the strong identity of a given population. Fifth is a shifting religious paradigm, such as the rise of postmodernism or the death of Confucianism. Finally, establishing freedom from control. This may be seen in the case of a group recently freed from prison to a nation which overthrows its dictator.

Theologically, Wagner defends this principle through what he calls a "harvest principle." The fundamental principle of farming is that of the harvest. The farmer's goal is to gather in a crop of whatever he planted. Wagner cites Jesus' parable of the sower whose seeds fell into four places. Only one of the four places was a fruitful location for the seed. The seed that fell on good ground produced fruit in great quantities. The "soil," according to this interpretation, is "people who have been so prepared that they hear the word and understand it." From this, Wagner concludes that effective strategies of evangelism attempt to identify the most receptive people. Practically speaking, Wagner supports this principle by pointing to various areas of the world that are clearly more receptive to the gospel than others, such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Ralph Elliot is perhaps the most vocal critic of the Principle of Receptivity. He essentially finds two broad problems with the principle. First, because church growth strategists use sociological and anthropological tools to determine receptivity, Elliot finds little emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the role of the Holy Spirit. However, such critics misunderstand church growth when they fail to see the movement's dependence on the power of God in church growth strategy. Sociology and anthropology should not be set in opposition to the work and power of the Holy Spirit. Human effort does not exclude the work of God. Second, Elliot argues that the application of the principle would lead to the neglect of the most needy, simply because they are not receptive. He is particularly concerned about the neglect of the city and the church growth preference of the suburbs.

However, abandonment is not called for, as the fields must be sown. Stony fields must be plowed before they are sown. No one should conclude that if receptivity is low, the church should withdraw evangelistic efforts. Wagner notes that correct policy is to occupy fields of low receptivity lightly. The harvest will ripen someday. Their populations are made up of men and women for whom Christ died. While they continue in their rebellious and resistant state, they should be given the opportunity to hear the gospel in as courteous a way as possible. But they should not be heavily occupied lest, fearing that they will be swamped by Christians, they become even more resistant.


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