Sunday November 18th I get to preach one more installment on “True Religion“. Last week was for looking at the beauty of the bride of Christ, a quick glimpse at the impact of the church over the centuries. There’s been good, there’s been ugly, but the more we return to the root of who we are meant to be in the person and teaching of Jesus, the more beautiful his bride is. So what is up next?
Now we are going to look at what challenges and opportunities are before the church. A big transition for me personally has been away from an unreached focus, of the gospel spreading to every corner of the globe, geographically and linguistically. Although I continue to contribute to that in some ways, I increasingly have an additional focus: How do we find a way forward for the community of faith in an unprecedented sociological shift toward globalized urban living?
When Jesus left his disciples he told them they were going to be his witnesses in an expanding movement outward to the whole world. It has happened. Yes, there still are needs to extend outward, but the ripples are echoing back as well. The most direct expression of this is the Chinese house church vision of “Back to Jerusalem”. As the gospel as worked its way, more or less from to West on to East, the church of the East is excited about completing the movement back to the source. Then what?
One hope was that there would be a numerical ‘click’ corresponding to the year 2000. But history is not done, and the mission continues. The more the church advances the more we learn of pockets of unevangelized language groups. There is plenty of outward movement still to be done. But that rebound effect is also happening and is a very rich concept worthy of attention.
In Philip Jenkins’ detailed work The Next Christendom; The Coming of Global Christianity the data shows that the Christian world is no longer centered in the West, but it is a Southern hemisphere church increasingly shaping the look of Christ’s bride. Latin America, Africa and Asia are swelling in church growth, concurrent with a retracting church in the West where the prefix “post” is used with increasing frequency.
What does this mean for churches around me, here in Houston Texas? It means we will find it increasingly obvious that we need to be more fraternal than paternal in our international work. The technological, economic and religious high ground is more and more obviously not ours to presume. We are not to be stepping out and down so much as we are to be opening up and giving and receiving. We have ways to give help, but there are increasing ways for us to receive help.
My one year in London was instrumental in advancing this awareness in my own life. I was delighted to be part of the very British Brentford Free Church during my brief residence in the United Kingdom. They have a wonderful story of how two congregations in danger of fading out of existence were brought together and strengthened. Their pastor, David Beazley, was quintessentially British. His self effacing humour (I just couldn’t use American spelling for him) was deft and delightful. His understanding of scripture was profound and artistic in proclamation. His devotion to traditional elements of English cultural was dignified and significant in the community. He impressed me as a living example of an older time that carried the best of the gospel-shaped aspects of a cherished Christian past into the present. But he is not the future of London.
What I also saw in London was the influence of Africans and Asians. Nigerians and Koreans, among others, infuse enthusiasm, faith, diligence and expectation into congregations throughout that great city. Even at the very British Brentford church it was evident, and thankfully, was welcomed and embraced. In my own reading, and with typically American bluntness, I will say that the church in the UK is afflicted with a limp. Although there were actual blessings from colonialist adventures: expanding gospel, science, economics, the rule of law, international interconnectedness… there is the appropriate and palpable regret of the curses of arrogance, racism, dominating and exploiting aspects of Western expansion. For the church in England I saw a disproportionate effort to correct the sins of the past with an emphasis on inclusion and an aversion to anything divisive, including evangelistic proclamation.
Ghanaians, Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese… these Christians don’t show the same restraint. For the most part the historical reasons are obvious. They can engage across racial and cultural boundaries in a city like London, accepting of cultural variations, without capitulating conceptual clarity; the is One God and One Savior and it is very good to know and share this news to all “ethne”.
This is the good hope of the future. The idea of the gospel moving in the classic preaching vision of “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread”. Or more descriptive of our demographic dynamic, “one gentile telling another gentile where to find Messiah”.
What does this do to our mission calling? It means we learn by listening, we invite teams from other countries to ours, not just from our country to theirs. In Houston there are over 200 languages spoken, many include groups classified as “unreached”. What if our best “mission trips” were hosting great disciple makers from Pakistan to come for a week to Houston and reach those among us we are feebly equipped to reach? This can and should happen, but part of the shift is in realizing the initial vocation from the resurrected Jesus and the current challenge of doing that well.
The vocation we have received, our calling, is to MAKE DISCIPLES. The grammar of the Great Commission has long been out of the the bag. There is actually no command to “Go!”. The only command is to MAKE DISCIPLES. As we are going, we will be immersing, teaching, and knowing that he is with us. Discipling is apprenticing. It is teaching people how to live immersed in the Triune God through the power and practices we learn from Jesus. To export that we need to do that.
The call to the church is to strengthen practical apprenticeship for living life, and particularly living life in a complex, globalized and urbanized world. That is a new challenge. We are used to agriculturally shaped Christian living; seasons and rhythms formed over centuries of rural communities. Now life works differently, and we need to be willing to reshape some forms which were great for a different time and place in order to be effective in our current time and place. We need to and we can, remembering that Jesus is with us in our apprenticing vocation, and he will be with us until the end. The end is still ahead of us, so let’s strip off everything that entangles us and enthusiastically race into a dynamic and challenging future of opportunities. I think I feel a sermon brewing…