Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
THE CHURCH OF WHAT’S HAPPENIN’ NOW
Why American Evangelicals Desperately Need The World Christian Movement
Back in the day, I used to take small town teenagers to Boston and Chicago on mission trips to work with inner city churches. One thing I could be sure of: the experience of going to the inner city would result in severe culture shock for many of those students. No matter how much of the wide world they’d seen on television, standing in a Boston Metro subway car packed in like cattle was a distressing experience. I had a few hyperventilate and more than a few beg to go home.
Working with the inner city congregations provided another disorienting experience. These “ethnic” churches were so different from the small town, southern, First Baptist Church we came from. From worship to hygiene to food to the sense of time, the differences amazed my students (and many of their parents.) They didn’t have all the programs and staff we had, or all the nice amenities in their building. One church was worshipping in what used to be a kennel, next door to a car stripping operation. Another church had drunks sitting on the steps and homeless people wandering around in the building. My students wondered, why wasn’t everyone like us, and like our church back home? They should want to be like us, because the way we did everything was so much betterâ€”right?
Such experiences take us out of our neighborhood, and through them we discover that our church and our community and our “ways” are not the whole Kingdom of God. There are other cultures, communities, churches and Christians that are very different from us. Though materially deprived, they are often spiritually rich, and from them we learn that Jesus is not a white, Southern suburbanite, but the savior of all people who is present everyone and with all who follow him.
I’m not on a multi-cultural diatribe here, but I am going to issue an invitation to every reader of this column. I’m going to invite you to become a “World Christian,” and experience the energizing, liberating, disturbing reality that the church in America is not the center of the Christian universe. Far from it. We’re out in left field, and in danger of leaving the ball park.
What do I mean by “World Christian?” It’s a term that’s used frequently these days among people who care about missions, and it doesn’t refer to any particular doctrinal or denominational group. A “World Christian” is someone who seeks to live with an awareness of what God is doing around the world, and with a vision that includes all the world, not just his or her own church, community, denomination, country and culture. A “World Christian” particularly takes the position that reaching the unreached world, “the 10/40 Window” nations, is a priority that ought to way heavily in our personal and corporate discipleship.
World Christianity is, of course, the Biblical vision. From the calling of Abraham to the Great Commission to the worship of the nations in the New Jerusalem, our God is a God of all nations and all peoples. We know this, and acknowledge it from time to time. But the real-world implications of this fact are rarely acknowledged. If God is bringing together a people from every tribe and nation, and if Jesus says the Gospel is to be preached in all nations by his followers, then the unreached world and the movements that can reach them should be a major, unifying interest of all evangelical Christians, no matter where they live. Our support, prayers and efforts should daily be directed towards the unreached world and those who are in the best position to reach them.
There is no argument against this, and I wouldn’t expect anyone could conceive of a reason we shouldn’t be “World Christians.” But there seems to be an almost insurmountable practical obstacle. Most American pastors won’t buy into this vision, because it seems at odds with their own visions and methods of reaching their communities and growing the churches they lead. Why spend time and money and resources on the 10/40 window when there are thousands of lost people in our own communities, and many unreached “people groups” within our own counties? Among America’s “Generation Y,” there is a less than 5% Christian profession. Does God love someone in India more than He loves the lost people within the influence of a local church? Should people leave Sunday worship thinking about Bangladesh or the guy they drink coffee with at work every day?
These are good questions, and it is entirely understandable that the mission field we are on seems much more of our responsibility than the mission field most of us will never visit. But it isn’t that simple. When World Christianity is replaced with neighborhood Christianity, it seems to me that two things happen, to varying extents. First, we begin to judge our obedience to Christ by the measurement of our neighborhood, and not the work of God throughout the world. Second, we lose the joy of using our resources for the evangelization of the nations, a cause where our resources and efforts make an enormous difference.
In the small, southern, First Baptist Church I referred to, there were enough Christian activities going on each week to kill a person who attempted to engage in all of them. While none of these activities were “evil” in and of themselves, they presented the idea that a disciple of Jesus is someone who attends three worship services, sings in the choir, works in the Sunday School, goes on church trips, attends church fellowships, tithes, tends to the immediate needs of those around them and has a daily quiet time. The measurement of discipleship was the program and expectations of the church, not the world wide vision of God. Even after including an annual mission trip or two, the picture was not significantly changed. It was consumer Christianity, culturally seasoned.
A World Christian perspective focuses the Christian life on the world-wide mission of Jesus. Whether in our community or elsewhere, the priority is reaching the unreached, and adopting a “wartime” lifestyle to evangelize, plant churches and support those who are doing these things. Rather than find new ways to entertain ourselves, more meetings to attend, more trips to take and more things to buy, a World Christian perspective simplifies and focuses the Christian life away from being a consumer in a Christian culture to being a participant in God’s global project. Whether through informed praying, sacrificial giving, personal evangelism, spreading the vision, church planting or involvement on the field in a supportive role, the World Christian’s neighborhood is not just the local church, but the Christian movement throughout the earth, and his or her life reflects a measurement by a radically different standard.
K.P. Yohannon has astutely pointed out that American Christianity is so entertainment and information centered that the entire Christian life has been transformed into an exercise in these two realms. Given that these are two of the primary idols in our culture, it is not surprising the church is now measuring its effectiveness and growth by the same measure purely worldly and secular entities do. Being entertained and improving your life have become the products the church is pushing. If Jesus doesn’t keep us interested and make us more successful, most have little interest in following him. World Christianity is a strong antidote to this disease.
The other great appeal of World Christianity is the joy of being involved in something temporally and eternally significant, and experiencing the joy that comes from seeing our efforts make a real difference in the salvation of people. A church I attended many years ago has been struggling lately, and in an effort to get back on its feet, is spending $750,000 on a gym. I am sure this will provide a way to unite the church around a project, “reach the neighborhood,” and draw in young people- all good things. The project will be an exercise in giving to something significant, but have we considered the comparative impact of that kind of investment in the work of God around the world?
$750,000 could also put more than 500 indigenous missionaries on the field for a year in a country like India or Nepal, countries where western missionaries cannot go and where millions have never heard the name of Jesus. Such an investment could build at least 200 churches in those countries. It could fund a Bible school for indigenous pastors for several years. It could print millions of pieces of Christian literature in countries that do not have a single Christian bookstore or radio station. It could print thousands of Bibles, or fund the translation of Bibles into several languages that do not have Bibles in their languages. It could send at least ten American missionaries and their families to the field for a year, with specialties that can not be found in country. In a country like India, where 500,000 villages have no Christian witness at all, that money could result in thousands of salvations and hundreds of churches, even a movement that could change a significant portion of the world. It could be diversified to send specialized missionaries to the unreached, inaccessible people groups, or it could buy bicycles and vans, allowing locals to go to unreached villages and regions.
Of course, these accomplishments wouldn’t benefit our neighborhood or our children. Investment in missions mean we have to take more personal responsibility for the evangelization of our own communities. This investment in missions would further the cause of Christ in places and among people we would probably never see. In order for Christians to give such sums to the cause of Christ around the world, they would have to do so purely for the overflowing joy of seeing the message of Jesus go to where it has never gone before, and for the sheer joy of changing the world for Christ. We would have to see reaching the world Jesus came to save as more important than basketball for our young people or the attention a new building gains for us. We would have to come to the place that the joy of the Father in seeing the work of his Son completed outweighed our joy in building something for ourselves and our families.
The world is 6 billion people. 2 billion are unevangelized. But the good news is not these numbers, but movements that are going on within “people groups”. When the unreached world is broken down into groups of people with geographic, linguistic and cultural similarity, an amazing thing is revealed. The Gospel has taken root somewhere in the majority of the world’s people groups. The completely unreached groups are becoming fewer. Professions of faith in Christ are occurring across the globe in groups of people that were previously unreachable or hostile, even among Muslims. In some places, these movements are changing the face of nations. Missionary pioneers and world Christian movements have penetrated the 10/40 window and can see- actual see- the day when there will be a foothold of some kind in almost every people group on planet earth.
This means the resources of American Christians are more strategic and important than we ever dreamed. Our money, knowledge, prayers and support can nurture these new movements of Christianity in Africa, Asia and South America. These movements do not need very many western missionaries, they need western Christians to expand and support the indigenous work and the networks that are already in place. A western missionary family on the field is a massive investment of time and money, almost $100,000 for the first year when language school, boarding school, transportation and housing are added into the expected expenses of ministry. Yet a native on the field speaks the language, is comfortable in the culture, and can often provide for his or her work and personal needs for less than two or three thousand dollars a year. Churches can be built that are appropriate for these cultures for just a few thousand dollars. Training is much less expensive if schools are built and staffed on the field. And, truth be told, indigenous Christians have proven to be far more ready to risk and suffer than westerners.
In other words, the difference we can make is massive if we change our priorities, lifestyles and focus away from our own neighborhood and to the work of God around the world. If these realities don’t excite you, you have another problem. There is a worldwide revival going on, and it will transform anyone who joins it. But for American Christians, we have to be humble enough to admit what is really going on.
The United States has over 90% of the world’s Christian workers, its largest churches, its best minds and its richest resources. In the last ten years, American Christians have contributed hundreds of billions of dollars to the worldly evangelical priorities of religious consumerism, church growth and entertainment. Yet, what will be the legacy of American Christianity after the evangelical empire has faded? We are already seeing churches where the youth groups of yesterday are becoming the church leaders of today, and they are going in a distressing direction. We are not far from the day when church malls, golf courses and amusement parks are promoted as the latest triumphs of the Kingdom of God. Christian marketers transfer billions from Christians into the coffers of secular corporations. American Christian entertainment and publishing keep American Christians safely self-centered and self-consumed. The model of church success today isn’t missions and evangelism- it’s success on the culture’s terms. A Christianity and a Jesus that are “cool” and pragmatically appealing. We march on Washington, buy books, go to concerts and turn our minds over to religious television and music, all while the mission of Jesus to the unreached billions is a footnote in our churches. The average Christian spends more on a single CD than he or she gives to missions in a year..
Is it any wonder that less than 4% of American pastors preach on hell at all?
What can you do? Start with your own denomination’s missions agencies. Most of them have caught on to what is going on, but if you don’t see information that puts indigenous missionaries and church planting movements in the forefront, then branch out. My recommendations? Go the U.S. Center for World Missions web site. They’ve got it all together and the “Perspectives” course is your best route to understanding the big picture. If you can’t get to the course, start one, or just read the book, or hit their bookstore and browse. I support Gospel for Asia, and the books of K.P. Yohannon (Revolution in World Missions, Road to Reality and Why The World Waits, are a big influence on me. Also visit Frontiers and New Tribes Missions. Order a copy of Operation World and subscribe to the Global Prayer Digest. Read, The Church is Bigger Than You Think, by Patrick Johnstone. Start giving to a world missions cause that directly supports work in the 10/40 window. Find ministries like Desiring God that operate with a passion for world missions done in the unreached world. Become a little fanatical. It’s more fun.
What about going overseas short term? I certainly believe there is value in going to the mission field. It can be the eye-opening experience many need to become a World Christian. There is good work that can be done by westerners and there are some people groups and situations that demand outsiders to plant the seeds. But the fact remains, the money used on even a short term mission trip can do far more good in the hands of nationals than in our own hands. I know many friends who have spent thousands to go to Russia to paint and hammer church buildings or to other parts of the world to assist American missionaries in their work. These are good experiences, but I do not believe it is necessary to use our resources this way to have a vital part in missions. For what it would cost to send me to India for two weeks, a church could be built or a native preacher sponsored for 2-3 years. The first step- actually the first many steps- for most of us should be learning all we can about what is really happening in world evangelism, and then deciding if going overseas is the best response to what we know.
The decline of American Christianity into a slough of idolatry and consumerism will not be reversed easily. Declaring revival so we can sell more “Revival’s Here!” t-shirts and CDs is not the way out. The way out is to allow God to judge us Biblically, and I believe a large part of that will be waking up to the real world of what God is doing globally. We aren’t the center of things any more. Christianity is becoming poorer, darker and more non-western across the world. If we see this, our million dollar buildings, our Jabez jewelry, our entertainment-centered worship and success-centered preaching will start to look different. Offensive. Empty. We may understand Jesus’ message to the church at Laodecia a little better. If we look long enough, we may begin to see hope for ourselves, our churches and the cause of Christ. Then true repentance, revival and reformation may not be far behind.