Wednesday, November 26, 2014

4 Things American Evangelicals don’t Know about the spread of American Evangelicalism (Part 1)

     It had been an incredible adventure complete with all the ingredients of a good short-term mission trip; a good case of Montezuma’s, a unique view of the pointy end of an AK47 rifle as a nice policeman and his comrades tried to rob us, and to top it all off, a scuffle with a truck load of soldiers who had accosted one of the church kids intending to beat the coconut juice out of him.  It had been a memorable journey and gave me plenty of new reasons to pray for our missionary friends. 
     In the middle of that experience I found myself, one particular beautiful sunny day, in a car traveling across a large city with my hosts, a national pastor and his wife.  Away from the group we enjoyed a lively conversation as the salty Caribbean air wafted through the open windows.  I guess all the Mango and Papaya had gone to my head because for a moment I thought it would be interesting to inquire about the challenges of hosting groups of American teenagers.  It was all the permission my friends needed and the floodgates opened.
     I had escorted numerous groups on short-term trips over the years and quite a few to this very location.  Over time I had come to think of myself as a rather seasoned mission leader having experienced just about every challenge you could run across as a mission trip pilot.  Suddenly however, it felt as if I’d opened the door to a room I hadn’t seen before, like I was looking at my culture from the outside in rather than the inside out.  Much of what I heard was actually positive but some things were not so much.  I wanted to shut the door but my curiosity was nudging me forward.  I knew I needed to hear this - for my group, for myself.  That conversation was a turning point, an eye opener and I have paid closer attention to these issues since.
     This is not the only conversation like this I’ve been a part of having spent quite a bit of time in foreign places with our Christian brothers and sisters.  I’ve been welcomed into their homes and I’ve sat at their tables.  I’ve spoken in their churches and eaten their unfamiliar foods and I’ve tried to listen to their strange music.  In many cases they are very different than you and I and yet there’s one great thing they share in common with us.  When, because of their sin, they realized their need of a Savior it was that same pool of grace from which you and I dipped that they received what they needed; that grace that comes only from Jesus Christ.  Be sure that some day when you and I are on the other side and we are standing together singing praises to the Almighty God we will be standing right alongside these brothers and sisters in Christ.
     For many years Christianity has been shaped by western influence but this is changing.  By chance you already knew that Christianity and Evangelicalism in particular are shifting globally, moving south of the equator and to the east.  Current statistics show that Christians in America represent about one tenth of the world Christian population.  Maybe that doesn’t seem particularly odd to you but remember that at the turn of the previous century western Christianity represented nearly half of the Christian population worldwide.  Still much of the missionary resources both financial and personnel come from the west.  So for now, while we enjoy the flimsy sentiment that we define Christianity for the world know that the opinion makers, those that will shape Christianity in the future, are now living on distant shores.
     As with so many things in life the only way you get an understanding of something is to get a good look at it from the outside.  These are the things I’ve learned about American Evangelicalism from spending time with others across the way.  So here’s a surprising view of the way it looks from the outside in and what our friends think about us.
     First, American evangelicalism isn’t required for the evangelization of the world.  They actually don’t think you need to come and evangelize their people.  It’s not that they mind you doing it, in fact they probably assume you are already sharing your faith on your job and in your own neighborhood.  While they are aware of the fact that they probably owe their Christian heritage to some of your forefathers they don’t need you to evangelize their people because they are doing this themselves.
     In many places in the world such as India and China the movement of Christianity is spreading, not because of western missionaries or even because of the work of local pastors but because lay people are telling their friends about Jesus.  The pattern in India for example is often that churches are planted by lay people long before a pastor is even acquired. 
     Once I was asked to speak at a remote tribal church in the jungles of Asia.  I was told that no western missionary had ever come to their village.  Getting there involved a twenty four hour plane trip from the states, then an overnight train ride up to a town at the edge of the jungle, then a two hour car ride to a remote mission outpost followed by a motorcycle ride on a path through the bush.  After an hour and a half of being slapped in the face by the tangled underbrush we rounded a bend and a small group of thatch roof huts came into view.  It was obvious which hut was the church by the sound of the worship which was already in progress. 
     After my eyes adjusted to the dark interior I noticed there was a strange absence of men.  After the service had ended a leading woman of the church initiated a conversation with me through the help of a translator.  It was then I realized why the church was made up of mostly women; this woman had begun the church with the help of her peers who she had brought to Christ.  She shared how they had prayed for ten years for two things; for a pastor to lead their congregation and for a foreigner to come and preach the gospel in their church.  They introduced me to the young man who had recently been called as their pastor - a man they were sharing with two other congregations.  Then she turned to me and said that I was the other answer to their prayer.  All I could do was stand there, my hand covering my open mouth, sobbing, realizing that it was me. Once just an ordinary kid on the streets of a Chicago suburb.  How did I get here? How did I get selected for this, how can I be their answered prayer?  Oh, how I wanted to preach that message over - how I wanted someone else to be their answered prayer.
     So while they’re not depending on you to evangelize their people they would probably welcome conversations with you about how you share the gospel message in your own contexts and among your own people.  And there are numerous other needs they have that you could fill that would assist the movement of Christianity in their communities such as medical clinics and water purification systems and computer training.
     Second, you don’t actually need the donuts and coffee.  After seeing so many thriving churches abroad I realize that there are many things our churches could actually get along without.  You don’t really need paid staff and certainly not the costly programs.  Most of Christianity through the ages existed without these things and we too could actually have church without all of that; without a paid pastor without the fee for the soccer camp and yes Christianity can even exist without the donuts and coffee.  Our foreign friends are wondering - if coffee and donuts and HD production are required to attract people to church, then to what have we really attracted them?  Have we invited them to a relationship with Jesus, to a communion of saints, or just to the donuts?  Have we actually called them to the same Christianity that was there in the beginning, the one where relationships were everything and, by the way, the one that was thriving as its adherents were dying by the sword and over fires?
     Here’s a thought, how about a month without the doughnuts, a sort of fasting experience.  Consider using the money you would normally spend on donuts and coffee and send it off to someplace where our friends are without water and food, we’re all a little too portly anyway.  You’ve seen the news reports so I know you’re not that surprised, we Americans are overweight and if you traveled to many of the foreign places I’ve been it would not be that unusual to hear someone comment that you’re fat, even if you happen to think you’re not.  So let’s consider a doughnut fast and spend some time reflecting about others in need of the basics and perhaps we might even drop a few in the meantime.
     Third, God doesn’t need us.  It’s true that this great worldwide advance of Christianity which has taken place since World War II has been carried out primarily by western Evangelicals.  Yet it seems our culture is in decay and within the soup of this slump is a general moral decline.  As a result much of the focus of Christianity seems to be how to get America back on track.  Here’s the surprising news; Christians in other places aren’t waiting and hoping for America to once again become a Christian nation and save the world – assuming it ever was a Christian nation. 
     Christianity actually does rather well in places where democracy is unheard of.  And for my southern brothers in Christ this may surprise you but Guns and God are not both necessary for the spread of Christianity and neither is a Christian America necessary for the salvation of the world.  Surprisingly, the places around the world where Christianity seems to be growing are much more hostile to the gospel than even our own culture.  Scripture tells us that he owns the cattle on a thousand hills.  He made it all; he created the world, the universe and Jesus Himself said that he would build his church.  He can accomplish his will by whatever means he chooses. 
     Still, God needs us.  Not in the sense that he can’t do it without us but in the sense that he wants his followers, all of his followers, to participate in the work.  We are the church and that means we are to be his hands and feet, not after we get the country back in order but before (and while) and perhaps even if we never really do get it back.  Maybe the best way to think of ourselves is as Christians first and Americans second.
     So for what it’s worth consider these thoughts.  Take to heart that we are part of an amazing movement of God.  It’s his work and it’s incredible to think that he allows us to participate in what he’s doing.

Doug Brown is a pastor and writer and speaks on issues facing the church and her leaders.

Friday, November 21, 2014

A Call From the School

Ephesians 2:7(NIV)
In order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

I got a call yesterday from my daughter’s school.  It’s rarely a good thing when the school calls but on this day the school counselor was calling to inquire about our daughter’s class selection for the coming school year.  I was delighted that they were concerned and looking for ways to help her get into the most suited learning environment for her special needs.

I have to admit that when she called my first thought was what has happened now.  Behaviorally speaking, it wasn’t the best school year last year and we logged in our fair share of hours with the principal.  For many of us the very word principal brings up memories of adolescent misbehavior. 

So it was a good surprise when I learned the counselor was showing interest in helping our child get the best possible arrangement.  It made me wonder how often we look at God like we look at another call from the school.  Sometimes we think of God as the big principal in the sky waiting with one hand on the phone; ready for a slip-up so He can call us in.

God’s not like a principal in that way.  He really is a God ready with rich blessings that He wants to pour out on us.  As a matter of fact the Bible says that that is exactly His plan for eternity, He wants to spend the rest of forever sharing His goodness with us.  When you understand this it make it so much easier to approach Him with the expectation that He wants what’s best for us.

Psalm 31:19(NIV)
 How abundant are the good things
  that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all,
  on those who take refuge in you.

Friday, November 14, 2014

One-Two Punch

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. 1 John 4:4 (NIV)

Have you ever noticed that when you’re facing a trial, it seems the devil is right there waiting to pour salt in your wound? I call this the devil’s “one-two punch.”

For example, you find yourself out of work, and there’s the devil, beating you down and belittling you with lies. Or you’re suffering from illness, and Satan decides to throw depression and anxiety into the mix. Like they say in boxing, “If the left one doesn’t get you, the right one will.”

While we need to be careful not to see a “devil behind every bush,” let’s be real: The devil would love to see us go down in a ball of flames.

We need not be discouraged or fearful about his schemes, however. According to the Bible, although the devil is the current “ruler of this world,” he was created to serve God, and in the end he will be destroyed.

So if you’re facing a trial and you suspect that the Devil is at work, take heart. The Scriptures tell us that “greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Simply ask Jesus to help you in your battle.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 (NIV)

Friday, November 7, 2014

Love is a Decision

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. Galatians 5:13 (NIV)

Like most families with teenagers, some conversations with our kids are so repetitive. It seems like there are certain talks we have over and over again. One of those conversations at our house has to do with dating and the opposite sex. I want to prepare my kids to have a healthy marriage, and I want them to understand that the typical dating habits of most young people don’t prepare them for commitment-based love. The infatuation and warm feelings during a typical teenage romance are so unlike marriage – at least marriages that last.

I want my kids to know that some day when they’re married they will need more to go on than feelings of infatuation because marriage takes commitment, love, and hard work. The promise at the altar is to love in sickness and in health, in good times and in bad. My kids hate to hear me say it, but I want them to understand that sometimes in marriage you must choose to love because it’s right…not because you feel like it. Ultimately, I want them to know that love is a decision not a feeling. Feelings will change, but if they have predetermined to love their spouse through thick and thin, their marriage will have a much greater chance of lasting.

Really, love works this way in all relationships. If we only love others when we feel like it, this world would be a pretty sad place. And if we were naturally inclined to love others all the time, then why did God give us so many instructions in the Bible on the matter?

I find I need lots of encouragement and reminders to choose to love. After all love is so much more than a feeling. It’s a choice.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Sinful Woman

Luke 7:50 (NIV)

Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

She is held as an example of the kind of humility and service that God loves.  We’re never even given her name and she’s only known as the sinful woman; the assumption is that she has lived an immoral life.  We have few details of her existence before or after her meeting with Jesus but we know her life changed because she met Him.

As the scene opens we see her at the feet of Jesus.  She is weeping and her tears are falling on His feet and she’s wiping them with her hair.  She has brought with her expensive perfume and is pouring it out on Jesus feet as an act of blessing and honor.  She is broken and wounded. 

There is no place set for her at Simon’s table; she is an intrusion.  We have no idea what drew her to Jesus.  Had she met him earlier that day?  Did she know of His character and love?

Simon, the religious leader who was hosting the event, took offense to the presence of the woman and the spectacle she had created at his dinner.  Jesus, perceiving his grumbling, turned to him and pointed out his hypocrisy and actually contrasted him with the woman who he had judged. 

Jesus compliments her humble heart and acts of worship as the kind of service that pleases God.  She is the uninvited guest and Jesus treated her as the guest of honor. 

Jesus had only two things to say to the woman.  First He said, “Your sins are forgiven.”  He set her free!  Gone were the chains that had defined her life.  Then He said, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”

Perhaps, like this woman, you feel as though you don’t belong at Jesus’ table.  Yet humble worshiping sinners are Jesus’ honored guests.  He gives them new life and sends them with a reason to serve Him.     

Friday, October 24, 2014

Four Lanes

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble… Psalm 46:1 (NLT)

He occasionally appears at one of my regular lunch spots, first emerging as a speck in my rear view mirror. I make my way through the drive-thru, order up my Number One—no pickles and a half Coke/half Diet Coke—and then make my way over to an adjacent parking lot where I stare at the traffic, eat my lunch, and enjoy the quiet. I watch with amazement as he pumps his way by me in his wheelchair, wheels across the parking lot, and heads toward the busy road.

As my friend nears the traffic, an incredible transformation takes place. He looks out at the four lanes of cars racing by, and an expression of determination washes over his face. It’s not a gritting-of-the-teeth resolve but more of a joyful anticipation. I’ve seen him do this numerous times, and he always sports that same cheerful look.

Today I spotted him again, only this time he had additional spectators: two young women in a car not far from mine. With hands cupped over open mouths, they watched him negotiate each lane of traffic as cars rushed by. Will he make it? Can he do it?

When he reached the other side, as he always does, the ladies broke into tearful, joy-filled applause and pumped their firsts in the air in sincere admiration. As I observed them, my heart, too, was filled with joy for my friend’s accomplishment. 

I thought to myself how God must cheer for us as we put on our game face and greet the tasks that await us each day. I don’t know if this young man knows Jesus, but there’s certainly something within him that generates a spirit of enthusiastic determination. It reminds me that when I face a daunting challenge, I have Jesus’ help…and so I have reason to smile inside, too.

When troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. James 1:2 (NLT)