Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 1

A Field Selection Model for use at Academic Institutions

Richard Chowning
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas


If field selection were the topic for a presentation to missions committee I would give them some general guidelines, communicate to them the resources that are available, and listen to their own experience and dreams. If I were sitting down with a missionary candidate who was seeking advice concerning the selection of a field for a career in missions, I would show him the information I have on some prime target peoples groups and cities and advise him of other resource people. But when it comes to colleagues who are in academic institutions who are neither primarily interested in selecting a field in which to support a missionary nor to serve there themselves, there is a quite a bit broader agenda that needs to be covered. It is to that latter audience to who this paper is written. This is a proposed model, not a tried and tested paradigm. It is being followed as a whole, and parts of it have been tested over three or more years.

Research must be a major component of the mission enterprise at academic institutions. Guess work is not tolerated in any of the other disciplines at our institutions and such laziness demeans our role in the Kingdom. We need to train and mature students. We also need to be the research centers. It is not a matter of publish or perish, but being stewards of the resources and opportunities the Lord has given us in our academic settings.

The field selection model being proposed concerns itself with opening new areas. It is an assumption that new members will be added to existing teams and some teams will need replacing. There is, however, a great need for initiating of new church planting mission efforts among the ethnic groups and cities of the world.

Much time could be spent in attempting to discover how the Apostles went about selecting where they would work. It is obvious that the spirit led them directly into certain fields. Mission committees, mission canditates, and we should be constant in prayer concerning the Lord's priorities. We should be using our best research skills in targeting as well. Students depend on us to guide them into areas which have a potential for a growing work. Upon what do we give such recommendations? Upon what should we give such recommendations?

Defining the Area

The first step is to identify the target pool. Most of us are unable to comprehend, nor have enough time to plunge into the task of looking at the entire world as the pool or possible targets. Each has their own area of expertise and service. Together we can make a composite picture of the state of the church and the immediate and future needs. A continent is a good segment of the world to be tackled. What are the main divisions of people? In Africa we look at ethnic groups in the rural areas and urban centers. These are two distinct pools.

Macro Criteria

These groups need to be filtered through a list of macro criteria which would return a more select pool in each group. The macro considerations might involve some questions. What has been done in these groups? Where are the bases covered, and where is there great need? How large do cities need to be to be considered at this time? What are the most favorable religious situations? Which ethnic groups and cities are in such situations. This question will yield a large pool of target areas. In Africa, the initial criteria for ethnic groups were (1) having a population of 200,000 or more and (2) being less than twenty percent followers of the Christian religion. The initial criteria for cities were having a (1) population of 500,000 or (2) being a capital. This pared down the target pool to one hundred and sixty-five ethnic groups and just short of one hundred cities. This pool was manageable enough to research in-depth.

Micro Criteria

After the initial macro criteria are applied to the pool a more detailed list of micro criteria should be applied. The list of criteria should not be put together quickly nor without the input of many who have expertise in the particular part of the world understudy. The overall question is what factors are the most germane to bringing about a rapid and healthy church planting mission effort? These factors will come from a wide range of considerations from cultural, religious, and governmental realms. It is expected that the lists will not be identical from one segment of the world to another. Some factors will, in fact, be common to all parts of the world.

In the Spring semester of 1991 a group of four faculty members with African mission experience and three graduate students with the desire to serve in Africa began meeting as the African Mission Fellowship Strategy Group. The purpose of that group was to "be used by God to stimulate and creatively mobilize God's resources for entering and planting thousands of churches in the unchurched areas of Africa." This group labored for six weeks to develop a list of micro criteria for site selection in Africa. There are two distinct lists, one for each target pool.

Great thought and discussion goes into selecting the criteria and enormous research goes into gathering data for criteria on each of the cities and ethnic groups. Precise definitions for each criterion must be developed in order to make certain that needed data are collected to satisfy a particular criterion. Data concerning population and availability of scriptures is relatively easy to discover. Criteria such as a city's area of influence and the homogeneity of an ethnic group are much more difficult to uncover. Some of the data will have been compiled in large resources such as the Global Research Database and Ethnologue. Other more obscure sources will be uncovered in libraries and by querying on-line networks. Along the way we have found some resources which we did not know existed and also found out that there has been no complete, or in some cases even scanty, research done on a few of the certain criteria. A computer database is the best place to store the data once it is collected. Such storage allows for sorting and searching the data with some facility. It will take many months or possibly more than a year to come up with the first complete set of data for the criteria list. Guess work and estimations will only further skew data which will already have some questionable qualities such as currency and accuracy.

New questions and understandings will come to light during the collection stage. These will necessitate expanding the research. Some criteria will only be satisfied when an index of several groups of data are computed. Correlations and contrasts will beg attention. A research group will naturally follow some of these intriguing questions. For the most part, during the first time through the data collection the research should center only on satisfying the criteria lists. Giving advice along the way to missions committees and missions candidates should not be avoided. Mission students in particular will be interested in research, even if it is a "research so far" analysis. Even specific advice can be given, recognizing that the advice will be better than that which could have been given prior to entering into the in-depth study. However, do not be satisfied until all the data is collected.

Once the data collection is complete, the analysis begins. In the case of our African Mission Fellowship Strategy Group's criteria, it is rank listed from most important to least important. A weighting system may be developed. Calculations and sorts will be made in an attempt to narrow the pools of target areas down to a more manageable collection. Thinning the pools to twenty in each pool would ready the research group for the next stage.

On-Site Research

The smaller pool of target areas which has dropped through the grid of the macro criteria should become the subject of on-site research. A research team should be selected. For the past three summers I have selected students with academic preparation in missions and previous experience in Africa. Most of them have been graduate students. They are not viewed as surveyors, who are deciding whether the area under study is where they would like to settle. They are given orientation and motivation to be able to collect and discover specific information about the target areas. This is an excellent educational experience. The experience will stretch their reasoning powers and cause them to be more analytical. Only a few students have received academic credit for the experience. Such is not encouraged. It is best viewed as a highly motivated practice and amplification of what they have learned thus far in their missions preparation. It will also set new horizons for their further academic studies upon return to campus.

The research team begins in-depth research prior to leaving the campus. This study and orientation normally lasts the entire Spring semester. The research team should consult the Mission Handbook to ascertain which mission agencies or churches are working in the areas to be studied. Besides gathering broader statistical data and understanding the work these agencies are doing, they should be asked for the addresses of their workers who can be interviewed during the visit. If reports of their work are available they should be studied thoroughly. The government documents section of a library should be searched for information on the areas. Travel guides and publications by the target government should be obtained. These resources will assist in setting itineraries and logistics for the on-site research. We have a database of the addresses of the major universities in Africa as well as the African government agencies which collect census and other demographical statistics. The addresses of these offices will be taken on the research trip so they can be visited. Searches of libraries (your own and through Telnet) for books and periodicals will surface readings which will allow the research team to have a working knowledge of the target ethnic groups or cities prior to arrival on-site.

The on-site research team is given an orientation in the use of the instruments for collecting information in the field. They should understand the principles behind the instruments and the manner in which they are to be administered and, latter, evaluated. At present we are using five instruments for on-site research in Africa:

  1. A schedule for interviewing missionaries and national church leaders.
  2. A logistics form on which prices of food, rent, automobiles, etc. will be recorded along with particulars concerning entry into the country, shipping, living conditions, medical services, schooling (for children and language learning).
  3. A daily report form for researchers to record their own impressions of what they are hearing, feeling, and experiencing.
  4. A scale to judge the amount of change and potential for change based on communication models developed by Carley H. Dodd, PhD.
  5. A Worldview Dissonance Scale developed by Richard Chowning. This is also an aid in the prediction of receptivity to the gospel in an African context.

While these instruments are being administered, new questions will come to light which will need to be answered. Answers should be sought to all questions which seem to be germane to the criteria or logistic matters. Upon arrival at the target area every major mission agency or missionary should be interviewed. Government offices including those concerning statistics, religious affairs, and development should be visited. The American Embassy should also be visited for interviews with a councilor and a USAID official. The team should travel to many parts of the target area. Each evening they should discuss the day's findings and plan the next day's schedule.

Presentation and Selection

When the on-site research team returns to the States a detailed report should be written. The reports should include the documentary research conducted prior to leaving the campus as well as the information gleaned on-site. The on-site research team will no doubt leave without having answered all of their questions. Such unanswered questions should be noted in the written report. For ease of comparison and contrast all reports on a segment of the world (i.e. Africa) should follow a similar structure. Abstracts should be made of each report. The reports can then be scrutinized by the resident strategy group (i.e. African Mission Fellowship Strategy Group) in order to make judgements on which areas should be presented to students and congregations as priority areas. It is advised that a priority list not be ranked from one to five, but rather a small group of five or six areas should be presented as priorities.

The final ranking is best left to the missionary candidates and supporting congregations. The selection process will heighten their motivation and give them some greater confidence in their own abilities. It is assumed that each team and individual will view a list of secondary criteria differently. The secondary criteria include such factors as living conditions, security, medical facilities, school and the like. These and other criteria will determine which area will finally be selected for the planting of churches.


Site selection should be a continuous process for those in the academic arena--as teachers, mentors, and consultants. If we expect to be looked to, we need to be serious about how we give advice. What is it based on? All models seem sterile and unbending. This one is no exception. It is hoped, however, that this model does set some parameters for research as well as some fodder for further discussion and refinement.


  1. African Mission Fellowship Strategy Group, "Working Notebook" (unpublished).

  2. Definitions for each of the above criterion appear in Appendix A.

  3. Global Mapping Incorporated, Global Research Database, Pasadena: Global Mapping Inc., 1991.

  4. Grimes, Barbara F., Ethnologue. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc., 1988.

  5. Bitnet and Internet, Telnet.

  6. There is a sense in which the collection is never complete because of periodic refinement and updating.

  7. Roberts, Dayton W. and Siewert, John A., Mission Handbook. 14th edition. Grand Rapids: Zondervan and MARC.

  8. Such items as Post Notes and Area Handbooks are useful.

  9. Telnet is a function of Internet electronic communication which allows users to access the on-line card catalogues of most major universities in the United States and some in other countries.

  10. Dodd, Carley H. "The Receptivity Scale: A Pilot Study to Develop an Empirical Receptivity Index" Strategy. April-June 1985.

Selected Bibliography

1987 Methods of Social Research. New York: Free Press.

Casley, Dennis J. and Kumar, Krishna 1988 The Collection, Analysis, and Use of Monitoring and Evaluation Data. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Conn, Harvie M. 1984 Reaching the Unreached. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company.

Dayton, Edward R. 1983 That Everyone May Hear. Monrovia, California: MARC.

Dekker, John T. J. 1983 "Unreached Peoples Data: Out of the Computers and into the Fields,". Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 19:232-242.

Dodd, Carley H. 1985 "The Receptivity Scale: A Pilot Study to Develop an Empirical Receptivity Index" Strategy. April-June 1985.

Fenton, Thomas P. and Heffron, Mary J. 1987 Africa: A Directory of Resources. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Festinger, Leon 1957 A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Evanston, Ill.: Row, Peterson and Company.

Graves, Theodore D. and Graves, Nancy B. 1978 "Evolving Strategies in the Studies of Culture Change," The Making of Psychological Anthropology. G. Spindler, ed. Berkeley: University of California Press. 518-551.

Grimes, Barbara F. 1988 Ethnologue. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, Inc..

Gutting, Gary 1980 Paradigms and Revolutions. London: University of Notre Dame Press.

Guzzo, R.A. 1982 Improving Group Decision Making in Organizations. New York: Academic Press.

Harper, George W. 1982 "How Valid is Receptivity in Determining Mission Strategy?" Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 18:204-209.

Landford, H. W. 1972 Technological Forecasting Methodologies. New York: American Management Association.

McGavran, Donald 1955 The Bridges of God. London: World Dominion Press. 1970 Understanding Church Growth. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.

1983 "The Priority of Ethnicity," Evangelical Missions Quarterly. 19:14-23.

Montgomery, Robert L. 1986 "Receptivity to an Outside Religion: Light from Interaction Between Sociology and Missiology," Missiology. 14:288-299.

Robb, John D. 1989 Focus! The Power of People Group Thinking. Monrovia, California: MARC.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956 "Revitalization Movements," American Anthropologist. 58:264-281.

Field Selection Criteria Definations

  1. Unchurchedness: An area which contains a permanent Christian presence of 20% or less.

  2. Receptivity: The openness of an area or people to change, specifically change towards acceptance of the Christian gospel, either demonstrated through reports or reviews or diagnosed through receptivity instrument.

  3. Area of Influence: The sphere over which a city has the ability to affect change directly (through the presence of governmental or organizational headquarters) or indirectly (through education, trade and politics). The city functions as a communication center for the interaction of information; the ability of which is greatly enhanced by the greater number of transients.

  4. Total Population: The number of people resident in an area.

  5. Population Density: The proportion of people living in an area as compared with the size of the area, stated in population/sq. mile.

  6. Stemming the Muslim Tide: Muslim evangelism is steadily making inroads (south of the Sahara and along the East African coast), gaining more converts from African Traditional Religion. Planting churches along this non-homogeneous front will help to impede the approach of Islam.

  7. Denominational Protectionism: The aggressiveness displayed by previously existing religious groups (especially older mainline Protestant churches) and their missionary societies against newer missionaries (especially in upholding old territorial comity agreements).

  8. Homogeneity: An area composed of peoples with cultural and linguistic similarity.

    Dayton & Fraser define peoples: "A human population with a common language, shared ethnicity, and significant pattern of social interaction," (Planning Strategies for World Evangelization, 1990, p. 102). people groups: "a significantly large sociological grouping of individuals who perceive themselves to have a common affinity for one another. From the viewpoint of evangelization this is the largest group within which the gospel can spread without encountering barriers of understanding or acceptance," (Dayton & Fraser, p. 102).

  9. Mobility: The degree of permanence the people of an area displays with regards to their place of living.

  10. Availability of Scriptures: The Bible, the New Testament, or portions thereof are available in the vernacular, trade or national language. People are able to access copies through purchasing, libraries, and churches.


  11. Expectations of Government: The role in which the central government expects expatriate missionaries to function in outlays of money and personnel regarding social and cultural programs.

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