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Personal Contact

DR. TODD M. JOHNSON

PROFESSOR OF GLOBAL CHRISTIANITY AND MISSION


In recent years the concept of translation has become one of the significant motifs in Christian mission, not only for Bible translation but for the serial expansion of Christianity around the world. The starting point of translation is personal contact, in which a Christian, from any other culture or tradition, learns the language and culture of the people he or she is trying to reach. In normal missionary practice, this means making friends. With this in mind, we have recently been asked “How many Muslims have a Christian friend? How many Hindus personally know a Christian? How many Buddhists have significant contact with Christians?” Considering these questions carefully we realized that the concept of personal contact was built into the measurements we had previously made related to evangelization of ethnolinguistic peoples.

For our study, we isolated 20 variables measuring evangelization among every ethnolinguistic people in the world. Two of these variables relate very closely with personal contact between Christians (of all kinds) and non-Christians. The first, ‘discipling/personal work’, is an indication of how much contact local church members have with non-Christians. The second, ‘outside Christians’, extends this concept further by looking at the presence of Christians from other peoples who live nearby. Under normal circumstances, the more Christians there are nearby, the more likely the contact between Christians and non-Christians. Thus, for every non-Christian population in the world there is an indication of Christian presence and contact. A formula was then developed to make an estimate of those personally evangelized (contacted) by Christians. The formula applied to each ethnolinguistic people is (Population 2020 * [Disciple Code (0-10) + Outside Christian Code (0-10)]) / ([100-Christian Percentage] * [Percentage Non-Christian]). Separate values for these two codes are reported for each ethnolinguistic people. These are added up for each country, region, and continent, producing a global total (World Christian Database).

The results of this method are summarized by continental area in the table below and produce some interesting findings.

  1. Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims have relatively little contact with Christians. In each case, over 86% of all these religionists do not personally know a Christian.
  2. Non-Christians in Asia are more isolated from Christians than in any other continent in the world. This is likely due to two factors: isolation of Christians under Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim rule; and relatively few missionaries sent to Asia from the rest of the world.
  3. Muslims in Africa are only marginally better in contact with Christians than the world average for Muslims. Christians in the Global South face a formidable challenge in their lack of contact with non-Christians, especially Muslims.
  4. The Muslim population of Europe is eight times that of Muslims in Northern America. Even so, there is a sizeable difference between those who know Christians in Europe and those who know Christians in Northern America. This may reflect the tendency of European Muslims to isolate themselves (or be isolated by others) in Muslim communities.
  5. Christians are more in contact with non-Christians in heavily-Christian contexts. The migration of non-Christians from Asia and Africa to Europe and Northern America represents an opportunity for Christians to offer hospitality and friendship.
  6. Globally, over 81% of all non-Christians do not personally know a Christian. This lack of contact is a fundamental shortfall in Christian missions and evangelism.

The fact that over 86% of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists (or 81% of all non-Christians) do not personally know a Christian raises four important questions. First, does this reflect the human tendency to isolate one’s self among his or her own social, ethnic, and/or cultural group? In the West, increasing diversity brings increasing cultural isolation. A typical Western metropolis has its Chinatown, Little Saigon, Muslim quarter, etc. Except for a non-personal, cross-town commute, people can live the majority of their lives without really venturing outside of the comfort of similarity. The same can be said in the non-Western world where people can be isolated by tribe, cultural group, religion, and/or language.

Cultural isolation raises a second question: are Christians simply unaware of the major world religions? This lack of awareness includes not only religious knowledge, but an unwillingness to learn the languages and cultures of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists as well. In the West, if Christians have little knowledge of non-Christians in their own communities, what can we say of their knowledge of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in their traditional homelands? Of course, this Western unawareness has its non-Western counterpart. This is true, for instance, in Nigeria, India, or Indonesia where peoples are split linguistically, religiously, and geographically. If non-Christian peoples are to hear of Christ, Christians must be willing to cross cultures, learn languages, and become religiously aware.

Third, does the unawareness described above extend to an unawareness of the world’s peoples farthest from Christianity? The majority of these peoples are Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists located in areas where access to the gospel, not to mention personal, Christian contact, is limited, if not totally inaccessible. Even if we are aware of these, the fact that nearly 90% of Christian resources for mission are directed at Christians tells us that we need to re-focus on those with the least access. Such a re-focus may allow for increased personal contact between Christians and Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists.

Fourth, do our ministries rely too heavily on non-personal methods of evangelism? The importance of incarnation in a biblical theology of evangelism suggests that the positive contributions of media and technology in evangelism cannot be utilized at the expense of personal contact.  Among Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, we must emphasize placing personal contact alongside our appropriate use of non-personal methods of evangelism.

For a more complete treatment on this subject see Todd M. Johnson and Charles L. Tieszen, ‘Personal Contact: The sine qua non of Twenty-first Century Christian Mission’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, October 2007, pages 494–502.