Journal of Applied Missiology, Volume 3, Number 1

Field Selection: Setting Criteria in North America

P. Kent Smith
Abilene Christian University
Abilene, Texas


To clarify the importance of this subject, let me introduce my remarks with three brief examples. Several years ago, a young couple decided to move with a church-planting group to an urban setting in North America. Their intentions were good and their strategy was "to love God and love people." After the husband had paid a one day visit to the city with other team members, the group agreed to move to the area.

Following what the couple describes as "a personally devastating year-and-a-half ministry" they left the new work. "Contrary to our early hopes, the area people were not receptive to us, to our message, to our style of ministry, or to the place we chose to meet." At this point the couple has no plan for further church planting work.

A second example grows out of a recent conversation with a man who planted a church that has plateaued at about seventy members. "If only I had known ten years ago," he said, "where to focus our outreach efforts. A very receptive population group is all around us here. But I know from experience that our present congregation will not, or can not reach them. If they are to be reached, I'm afraid we face starting over."

By way of contrast, an inner city work began in another region of the United States a few years later. That ministry grew consistently and had reached over three hundred members, largely through conversions, within five years.

Such examples are difficult to analyze without more information. Many factors could be significant in explaining the different experiences of these church plantings. One observation can be made with confidence, however, effective church planting requires the right people working in the right context.

This point seems rather obvious. However, as Philip Slate has pointed out well in a recent article, people planting churches in close-culture situations have often missed the obvious. In foreign missions, we more intuitively understand that both field selection and cultural preparation for workers are important, and must be closely connected. The right people must find the right context for ministry.

In domestic missions, this principle has often been ignored. One assumption has been that the people with whom the workers will deal are essentially "like us." There is little to learn about them. Field selection, from this perspective, becomes basically irrelevant. If all of the people groups we may reach are essentially like us, then one place will seem about as good as the next. I believe this assumption helped create some of the problems encountered in the first two situations mentioned above.

In recent years the need for reconsidering this position has become clear. North America is not mono-cultural and preparation for new works requires an awareness of this fact. Many significant cultural barriers may need to be crossed for North American workers to effectively reach others on their home continent:

  1. The distinction between rural, suburban, and urban lifestyle and ministry.
  2. The distinctions between regions: i.e., New England, Deep South, Upper Midwest.
  3. The very significant ethnic diversity with attendant language and cultural differences.
  4. The widening distinction between those with a Christian or "churched" background and those without such a heritage.
Though time and space do not permit an extended argument, I would like to suggest that the following questions should shape our selection of ministry fields here in North America. First, with respect to the workers, these factors should be examined:
  1. Who are the people that will be the initial work force in the new congregation?
  • Concerning an individual--what are this person's gifts, interests, abilities?
  • Concerning a team--what are this group's strengths, weaknesses, and interests?
    1. What is the purpose to which that individual or group is called?
    2. What strategies does the individual or group expect to implement?

    This is only one side of the coin, however. Just as it is important to select the field in light of the church planters, it is also true that each of these factors needs to be shaped in dialogue with the targeted field. In this light, these additional questions also ought to help guide our planning:

    1. Potential impact--who could be reached by an effective church here?
    2. Receptivity--what evidence exists that these people would be receptive to the Gospel?
    3. Need--how will these people receive the message of Christ if we do not plant a church here?
  • These questions are familiar to the missiologist. As we have been attempting to address these issues in our domestic missions program, a challenge has been to discover, in practical terms, how we are to assess these factors in North American situations. In the interest of constructive dialogue, I want to present the model we are presently developing to address this question.

    We are discovering that we need to be able to approach these issues at two levels. First, in a preliminary way and from a distance we need to be able to screen the many potential mission sites. Secondly, having identified several promising areas we need to be able to help mission teams assess through on-site research the potential for a new church planting at a given locale.

    I will focus the remainder of my attention on the methods we are developing to do preliminary screening. It is important to note that these criteria have been established in light of a stated mission of the Abilene Christian University Domestic Missions Program: To gather, equip, and see at least ten church planting teams sent by local congregations before the year 2001. Though these guidelines are somewhat specialized, they will hopefully be suggestive for others doing research in this area.

    I should also point out that we have used the Places Rated Almanac as an easily accessible source of demographic material for many of our criteria measures. A list of more extensive demographic resources is included with the bibliography.

    The guidelines for field selection which follows assigns a possible point value of 25 to each of four major criteria: Regional Impact, Receptivity, Need, and Team Compatibility. A low score in any of these areas disqualifies an area for our purposes. Each criteria is in turn measured by specific factors which contribute points to its total. Under Regional Impact, for example, significant factors we have identified include Geographic Accessibility, Size and Potential Leadership Pool. Cities with high cumulative totals will be the subject of more thorough on-site research in the future.


    Greater care in field selection will certainly not guarantee effectiveness in the church planting efforts of the future. Many other factors of preparation, as well as spiritual, cultural, and relational matters will have profound influence on our efforts to establish new congregations. Even so, field selection is a vital part of the process. The Kingdom of God will be better served by people who are aware of its importance and plan with that insight.


    1. Slate, C. Philip, "The Deceiving Nature of Adaptation in E-1 Situations," Journal of Applied Missiology, unpublished manuscript.

    2. Factors that often reflect positive receptivity:

    1. Natural calamity
    2. Wars and reconstruction periods
    3. Migration and population shifts
    4. Decline of a culture, tradition, or religion
    5. Rapid technological and industrial change
    6. Shifts in social status
    7. Major changes in public leadership
    8. Movements of spiritual awakenings

    (Modified from Glover Shipp, Research as a Tool for Urban Evangelism in Developing Countries," Doctor of Missiology diss. Fuller Theological Seminar, 1986.)


    Audry, Marty and Doug Lucas. Resources for Missionary Recruits. College Press/Publishing, 1989.

    Boyer, Rick. Places Rated Almanac. Old Tappan, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.

    Carroll, Jackson W., Dudley, Carl S., and William McKinney, eds. "Demographic Data in Congregational Analysis." Handbook for Congregational Studies. pp. 55-80. Nashville: Abington Press, 1986.

    Chowning, Richard. "Choosing a Field," Missionary Anthropology. Vol. 1, No. 1. January, 1985.

    Dayton, Edward. That Everyone May Hear. Third edition. Monrovia, California: Marc, 1983.

    Dayton, Edward R. and Fraser, David A. Planning Strategies for World Evangelism. Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1990.

    Kelly, Dennis C. National Directory of the Churches of Christ. Searcy, Arkansas: Bible House, 1991.

    Lynn, Mac. Where the Saints Meet. Austin, Texas: Firm Foundation, 1982.

    Lynn, Mac. Churches of Christ in the United States. Nashville, Tennessee: Gospel Advocate Co., 1991.

    Shipp, Glover H. "Research as a Tool for Urban Evangelism in Developing Countries." Doctor of Missiology diss. Fuller Theological Seminary, 1986.

    Wagner, C. Peter. Church Planting for a Greater Harvest. Ventura, California: Regal Books, 1984.


    Sources for Demographic Research

    Barna Research Group 722 West Broadway Glendale, CA 91204 (818)241-9684

    CAPC - Census Access for Planning in the Church Concordia Teachers College River Forest IL 60305

    Church Information and Development Services 151 Kalmus suite A 104 Costa Mesa California 92626 (714)957-1282 CompuServe 1-800-848-8199

    Data User Services Division Customer Services (Maps) Bureau of the Census Washington D. C. 20233 (301)763-4100

    Donnely Marketing 1621 18th Street Denver, Colorado 80202

    Glenmary Research Center 750 Piedmont Ave. NE Atlanta, GA 30308 National Decision Systems 539 Encinitas Blvd Encinitas, CA 92024 (619) 942-7000 (800) 492-3636

    Population Reference Bureau 1337 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington D.C. 20036

    Publication Sales and Services Statistics Canada Ottawa, Ontario, K1A OV7

    Superintendent of Documents Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402

    Woods and Poole Economics 1794 Columbia Road, NW Washington, DC 20009 (202)332-7111

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