When I examined the available historical data on Christian and Muslim populations all around the world over the last one hundred years or so, I find that there are equal challenges in two separate regions (Islamic nations and our Western world) wherein the Christian church faces daunting obstacles. These two regions, and the problems they each present, are distinctly different in geography, culture and in the origins and nature of the hurdles they present to the spread of the Gospel. To face all of these challenges effectively, I am convinced that we must recognize that the specific cultural and other factors of various regions require new and suitably distinct approaches and methodology. See www.ourchristianworld.org
Challenge one: The Post-modern Western World
The first great area of challenge lies within the two continents on which the percentages of Christians are steadily decreasing: Europe and North America. Yet it is in Western Europe that the greatest decline in the entire world has occurred over the previous century, with North America following the same trend. These developments should surely spur us to examine current practices and strategies for the proclamation of the Gospel by our churches. A first step must be a realization that it is primarily the responsibility of the existing local churches and Christian people to spread the Kingdom within our own communities, nations and regions. Is it not strange that so often the western church somehow seems convinced that the mission field always lies ‘overseas’ and that we demonstrate so little urgent interest in the spread of or the deterioration of the Church within our own communities and continents? And, similarly, does it not make sense for today’s strong and vibrant sub-Saharan church to assume primary responsibility for mission outreach in the Northern and Western African regions?
We Christians have the most important of all messages for the world’s people: God’s message of life instead of death, love instead of hate, hope instead of despair. In order for this message to find fertile soil in the Europe and North America of today, however, we must find a way to alter the image that is prevalent among their general populations regarding God, Christians and the Church.
Health care workers have in some ways a comparable task and, as seen from the viewpoint of their target populations, a negative message similar to that of Christians. Do not smoke, otherwise…, do exercise, otherwise…, eat healthy, otherwise… That message is not popular and is received with about the same lack of enthusiasm as is the voice of today’s western Christianity, despite the fact that both messages are designed for their own good. The medical people, however, have changed tactics of late and seem to have hit upon an interestingly simple yet effective approach. And it is one being found to produce measurable success in the prevention of smoking. The shift in the approach is from an emphasis on dire warnings to a concentration on changing the image of smoking and the smoker. Smoking is no longer portrayed as being ‘cool’ or popular, but rather uncouth, anti-social, and perhaps even offensively dirty. The image has thus been altered.
In examining the recent anti-smoking campaigns I find several intriguing lessons. Reliance on individual, scattered projects was not much working. Programs were therefore retooled and designed for the specific target populations. The new models were well organized, focused, and brought to bear together on various fronts simultaneously. And they produced desired results.
Just as the smoker once held the non-smoker in contempt (thought of us as dull, boring and uncool), I observe that the unbeliever in today’s post-modern Western culture holds similar negative views of Christians, the Church, and, consequently, of God. In their eyes Christians appear:
- Constantly preoccupied with ourselves
- Dogmatic and intrusive in the lives of others
- Without relevant answers to important social questions, and
- Incredibly divided
How different from the image of God projected by the early church: ‘They were regarded with favor by the people’! (Acts 2:47). Why? Why was this so? ‘…they were of one mind…’(Acts 2:46), and their lives were found to be attractive to others.
We Christians have somehow got to learn to demonstrate to the world that living according to Biblical standards is wholesome and positive in every way. Indeed we must demonstrate that it is the solution to the spiritual chaos that plagues mankind. For such a life displays the tangible result of God’s grace and His ability to change hearts and lives, even in this, our day. Clearly, words alone are not enough.
Challenge two: The 10/40 Window
One area wherein Christianity is experiencing only a tenuous toehold is throughout the much-discussed 10/40 window of the globe. It is that portion of the world lying in the rectangular area of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia between approximately 10 degrees and 40 degrees of north latitude. This is the region that includes the majority of the world’s Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists and which has over the last fifty years occupied an increasing level of attention in Christian foreign mission circles.
The resistance here to Christianity is formidable, and much grace, energy and ingenuity is going to be required in the building up of Christ’s Church there. As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the traditional methods and techniques for church planting and disciple making are not always everywhere suitable. Fruit is the fielding of pioneering, relationship-building humble-hearted Christian ambassadors of the Gospel, who are prepared for the lonely, frustrating and often long and apparently fruitless effort required in such an effort. Living essentially alone among the people of an often hostile and alien culture while laboring to build up a one-on-one reservoir of inter-personal trust based on demonstrated respect and love.
Unfortunately however, in our own experience in carrying out a survey among young people attending a recent European Mission-Net conference, it seems evident that the prospect of an isolated mission posting was not at all popular. Today’s youth prefers instead the fellowship and worship opportunities which are to be found in group efforts. There we find a profound difficulty.
Looking forward from today’s perspective, Christian work in that most difficult region is realistically going to be a slow process, with the possible exception of Iran. That country is currently experiencing a surprisingly strong Christian growth, and is a country in which Christian organizations are experiencing many successes.
In thinking about mission approaches, I am often uncomfortable in that, in our desire to be busy with ‘missions,’ we seem to be losing sight of its true goal: bringing the Gospel message to the lost. I therefore believe that there needs to be some reevaluation of our missions methodology from the perspective of its fundamental objective. I have observed much humanitarian social work being carried out under the banner of the Gospel and yet with no Gospel proclamation whatever as part of the work. In some cases, indeed, it is the studied, intentional policy of the sponsoring organizations to avoid any such proclamation in order not to ‘offend’ either the beneficiary nation or its people. However, true Christian social ministry is to be carried out in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Without that, it is simply secular social work—by no means to be despised, of course, but also by no means to be confused with Christian mission outreach. While social ministry can be a powerful and distinctly Biblical means of preparing the soil for the planting of the Word, without the actual planting of the seed of the Gospel it will surely never lead the lost to the Savior. As Paul puts it in Romans 10:17 ‘So faith comes from hearing, and hearing from the word of Christ.’ (integral mission) Social projects are not an end or goal but a means.
Likewise, in my personal experience over many years, I have observed both a good deal of detrimental organizational parochialism as well as highly beneficial inter-mission complementary effort. There needs to be less of the former and far more of the latter, especially in the hard places of today’s world. Such cooperation has led in the past to results that single organizations working alone could not have brought about. Isolated workers of various organizations laboring in difficult fields have received a variety of necessary materials they needed for distribution through the cooperation of other organizations. Intelligent coordination among mission groups has led to the development of tailored written and media materials and radio programs in various languages. Provision has been made of radio sets and other technological aids for distribution and use in diverse fields of labor. More of this coordinated and combined effort is surely a necessary ingredient for success in the hard places of the world, both for today and for the future.
So, in the final analysis, does it not it come down to a realization on the part of every Christian that he and she are called, individually and explicitly in God’s Word to ‘let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven’ (Matt. 5:16). While the growth of His church depends ultimately on God’s sovereign will and grace, each Christian, as a functioning member of His Body on earth, is called and given the responsibility to be His instrument, subject to His principles, in His body-building work. In Acts 1 just before Jesus’ ascension, He gave His disciples the command to serve as His witnesses (ambassadors) in Jerusalem (that place in which we live), in Judea (within our own land), Samaria (our neighboring lands), and finally throughout the earth.
Are you indeed ready to take that calling seriously and to shoulder its burden for the sake of Him who willingly gave His all that you—and your neighbor—might have life everlasting?
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