Friday, March 23, 2012

Uncool? Deal with it

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I had to sympathize with rock singer Bono when he discovered he was uncool.

Uncool? The frontman for supergroup U2, one of the biggest bands in the world? The activist who travels the globe and meets with kings and presidents? The guy so hip he probably wears his trademark designer shades in the shower?

Yep. Uncool. He learned the hard truth a few years ago from his teenage daughters. First off, to teenage daughters a dad is uncool by definition, especially if he’s pushing 50 (Bono was 48 at the time). But they were particularly mortified when he droned on and on about global issues while some other celebs were visiting their home. He overheard one daughter telling the other, “He’s probably boring their [pants] off talking about Africa.” Actually, he admitted, “I probably was.”

The horror. I can relate.

In truth, I’ve been uncool so long that I no longer know (or care) what is cool. I haven’t even heard the bands that were topping the charts 10 year ago, much less the ones with the most iTunes downloads now. On the plus side, there’s liberation in being terminally uncool. You don’t have to watch trends anxiously and waste a lot of time and money trying to keep up with fads. That’s for teens. There’s something sad about a middle-aged man or woman trying to look and act like their kids — or grandkids.

Too often, however, churches try to do that.

Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., has a “You may be too fashionable if …” list for Christians.

You may be too fashionable, he warns, if:

-- You look around at church and notice that everybody is the same age and looks and dresses pretty much like you do.

-- You can’t stand singing a worship song that was “in” five years ago — much less singing a hymn from another century.

-- You believe social justice is more important than evangelism, or that evangelism is more important than social justice.

-- Your goal in spending time with non-Christians is to demonstrate that you’re really no different than they are. To prove this, you curse like a sailor, drink like a fish and smoke like a chimney.

-- You’ve concluded that everything new is better than anything old, or that everything old is better than anything new.

-- The church you’ve chosen is defined more by its reaction to “boring” churches than by its response to a needy world.

-- You’ve decided that everything done by the church you grew up in was way wrong and you’re now, thankfully, part of a missional “community” that does everything right.

-- The one verse you wish wasn’t in the Bible is John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” That’s way too narrow!

Way back when I was cool (like, 35 years ago), I played drums in a Christian rock band. We took old-time hymns and turned them into 15-minute jams. “Jesus freaks” with long hair and tie-dyed T-shirts were coming into traditional churches in those days, and it caused a commotion. I remember when we played at our church and cranked up the amps. Our pastor’s wife, who had really big hair and played solos on a grand piano like Liberace, stood up and walked out on us. We needed a spirit of unity. We — some of us, at least — found it in the words of one of our favorite songs, “Little Country Church” by Chuck Girard:

“They’re talkin’ ’bout revival and the need for love

That little church has come alive

Workin’ with each other for the common good

Puttin’ all the past aside

Long hair, short hair, some coats and ties

People finally comin’ around

Lookin’ past the hair and straight into the eyes

People finally comin’ around. …

God’s house can accommodate many styles. He doesn’t have security at the door deciding which sinners are trendy enough to enter.

There’s nothing wrong with seeking relevance and connections to the world beyond the church. Effective missionaries are passionate and respectful students of the cultures they’re trying to reach with the Gospel. They seek to learn which aspects of culture are bridges they can use to share Truth, which aspects oppose Truth and which are neutral. As the Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, said, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22b, NASB).

But Paul never hesitated to deliver Truth straight up, unvarnished and in your face when the situation called for it, regardless of the consequences.

“Christians make a difference in this world by being different from this world; they don’t make a difference by being the same,” Tchividjian writes. “To be truly relevant, you have to say things that are unfashionably eternal, not trendy. It’s the timeless things that are most relevant to most people. … When the relevance of God's Word reigns supreme among God’s set-apart people, we influence the wider culture by expressing His revealed truth with both our lives and our lips.”

A global faith

Patrick Johnstone discusses evangelical Christianity’s global “awakening” (VIDEO) --

Evangelical Christianity, once marginalized geographically and philosophically in the modern world, has become a truly global faith over the past half century — with two main competitors.

“The chief contenders for the hearts and souls of those living in the 21st century [will be] Muslims, evangelical Christians and secularists,” says renowned British mission leader Patrick Johnstone, former editor of Operation World, the bestselling guide that has helped millions of believers learn about and pray for the peoples of the world.

“Who is going to be the most successful? Islam is growing, largely by biological growth, not by conversion. Evangelicals are growing massively by conversion. Secularists are adding to their number every year, but are dying as a breed, because they are not having enough children to replace themselves — which is an interesting phenomenon.”

But you won’t hear much about that phenomenon from Western media, since they are largely controlled by secularists. Nor will you hear much from them about the staggering growth of the church in China, which is on track to have the largest evangelical Christian population in the world by 2050.

You will, however, find information about these trends — and much more — in Johnstone’s new book, The Future of the Global Church. It contains a trove of data and insights about the state of the church and the world today and in the years ahead — not to mention a fascinating summary of the past 20 centuries (find out more about the book and accompanying media resources at Johnstone, European regional director for the WEC International mission agency, recently visited the United States to speak about his new book and meet with various mission groups, including IMB mission strategists.

What caused evangelical faith, once based largely in the United States and Europe, to spread so far beyond its traditional strongholds in the second half of the 20th century? The post-World War II missionary movement had a lot to do with it, along with the major expansion of local church involvement in missions, the spread of education and communication and, paradoxically, the end of Western colonial power in many countries.

The year 1960 marked a turning point, from Johnstone’s perspective.

“One day in eternity, I think we will look back and see God’s hand in so many things,” he says. “1960 was the great year of independence in Africa and many people thought, with the missionaries and the colonial regimes gone, Christianity would be pushed out. It did the exact opposite. It became indigenous and exploded. In many countries that are now broken politically, the churches became the source of stability and hope for the future.”

Unknown to most Western Christians at the time, the same phenomenon — the growth of truly indigenous churches, often amid persecution — was quietly unfolding in many parts of the communist world.

Johnstone also credits the “extraordinary work” of Billy Graham in encouraging a globe-spanning movement.

“The influence of Billy Graham has been quite dramatic,” he says. “Of course, he’s known for his evangelism and giving back credibility to evangelicals who preach the Gospel. The respect that he’s had around the world is amazing. But in the light of eternity, what Billy Graham did in pulling Christians together to focus on world evangelization brought evangelicals together globally for the first time ever. I think it gave a cohesion and a focus that had never been there before.”

Johnstone calls the period since 1960 the “Sixth Awakening” in church history (read the book to learn about the first five). The new, indigenous Christian movements around the world and the new focus of missionaries on reaching unreached peoples culminated in the 1990s.

“That was the decade in which more people became evangelical Christians than in any decade of history,” he observes. “I don’t believe it will happen again unless there’s a mighty work of the Spirit of God in a country like India. … I believe there are going to be breakthroughs amongst Muslims, and we are seeing some, but because of history those are going to be harder to see happen because of the long interaction between Muslims and Christians that has been very bitter and painful on both sides. Nevertheless … let’s trust God for it.”

Now that their faith has become mainstream, Johnstone warns evangelicals to avoid pride and complacency.

“Are the very successes of evangelicalism sowing the seeds of its spiritual demise by grieving the Spirit of God through pride, division, disobedience, carnality, moral laxity, theological error or prayerlessness?” he asks. “Nominalism is not the preserve of more traditional churches — it is increasingly a problem for third- and fourth-generation evangelicals.”

He also urges U.S. and other Western churches and mission agencies to pursue “multi-polar global leadership” with their Asian, African and Latin American brothers and sisters. The United States still leads the world in the sending of missionaries; it supported 127,000 of the world’s estimated 400,000 Christian missionaries in 2010, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Are they willing to share leadership — and turn it over when the time comes?

“Wherever you look in the Christian world in the 21st century, [mission teams and strategies] that remain mono-ethnic are not going to survive,” Johnstone predicts. “I sometimes jokingly say that the perfect multicultural team would have a Brazilian evangelist, a Korean church planter, a Chinese to manage the accounts, an Australian to mend anything that’s broken and an American to handle planning and goals.”

Thursday, March 22, 2012

More little Easters

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Easter is coming. It’s the day we mark the biggest moment in history: the moment the resurrected Christ conquered sin and death.

A few years ago I shared some “little Easters,” the quiet epiphanies that continue to reveal His risen presence on the move around the world. Here are a few more.

STEPPING UP—“This is what we’ve been waiting for, praying for: Zambian people telling Zambian people about Jesus!” reports an IMB mission team in Africa. “Recently an 18-year-old, blossoming preacher-in-the-making traveled more than three hours by public transportation and his own two feet to encourage the new Litoma Baptist Church.”

The small congregation, only 6 months old, had barely begun when the missionary couple who helped them get started returned to the United States for a time. The fledgling church’s members needed support and reassurance. The young “Timothy” taught the older members, and during a revival weekend, 18 new people came Sunday morning.

“Thank you, Lord, for making this young man missions-minded for his own people!” the IMB team prays. “Thank you that he refused to let anyone look down on him because of his youth (see 1 Timothy 4:12). Continue to bless him and provide peace in his unstable home life. May Your wonderful words of life go down deep into the hearts and minds of the 18 men and women who expressed an interest in the church.”

RESISTING THE DARKNESS—“A man came last night to ask my husband to go and pray for his daughter who was sick,” another missionary in Africa writes. “When my husband arrived, there were several people waiting outside the hut — eerily silent. As he entered the hut, the girl was acting very strangely and it soon became apparent that this girl was more than likely demon-possessed. He began to pray for her, laying hands on her and calling out the demons in Jesus’ name. After some time, he walked around outside with the girl’s father, praying for protection on the whole family.”

After an hour, the girl began to act normally. She came outside to sit by the fire.

“Witchcraft is very real here,” says the missionary. “Many people can become demon-possessed. The girl’s father had asked for my husband to come and pray for his daughter [instead of seeking out a witchdoctor]. Praise the Lord for the belief of this man, a relatively new believer. Pray for renewed spiritual strength that will glorify the Lord in all things. Pray that this girl will be delivered from the powers of darkness and accept Jesus as her Savior.”

HOPING IN CHILDREN—“How do you know He likes flowers?” the child demanded, challenging the missionary who claimed God created flowers because He likes them.

“Because I know God. I talk with Him,” the missionary responded. The other little girls looked at her skeptically.

“You know God?”

“Yes. I meet with Him.”

The girls looked at each other, then began laughing and repeating, “She said she meets with God!” The missionary felt her face burn, but went on to explain how she meets with God every morning at home.

One girl rolled her eyes and said sarcastically, “Oh, you mean you pray.”

“More laughter and mockery. From 7- and 8-year-olds,” the missionary writes. “This is supposed to be the age of innocence. What happened to faith like a child? My heart aches. They’re already so hard, so cynical and skeptical, and it’s a painful reminder that things are not the way they should be. The world is bent. … When I look at the whole, I’m overwhelmed with despair. We’re hurtling further and further away from the Truth, toward the blackness of hatred, pain, evil — toward nothingness.

“But when I look at the moments, I see the hope. Sometimes only like a flash from a firefly in the dark of night, but still, it’s light. Like these small conversations. I pray they’re steps, inching these little ones closer to Love. One little flash at a time.”

WEEPING FOR JOY—A mission volunteer recently crossed a river with a ministry team, leaving behind a busy city for a rural area dotted with palm trees and bamboo houses on stilts. They walked through a village, crossed a rice field and found a one-room schoolhouse with a tin roof and chicken wire covering the windows. Inside were two rows of wooden pews on a dusty cement floor.

“From my seat at the front of the room, I looked out the windows to view lines of fat banana trees all around us,” the volunteer recalls.

“It felt almost like a dream, and I felt so thankful to be in this place with these people. The people of this village were filled with love and humor. I couldn’t get over the words from their leader declaring that they had nearly 75 believers … with many more waiting to be discipled and baptized.”

A man came forward with a guitar, strumming the tune to a song the volunteer team had never heard. But they knew what the song was about by the way the people closed their eyes and raised their hands toward heaven.

“They were singing with as much volume and passion as they could muster out of their thin bodies, and I began to cry,” the volunteer says. “I couldn’t stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks, dirty from the dust of traveling there. The sight of these like-minded believers giving their whole heart in praise of Him who had saved them was more beautiful than any landscape or artist’s rendering I had ever seen. … Like dry land thirsting for rain, the people were desperate for Good Book teachings, and you could see them being watered spirit and soul.

“These people risk everything to come to this gathering. They could lose their homes, be imprisoned, possibly even killed, for standing in their newfound faith. Yet, here they were with hands raised high and smiles on their faces. Despite circumstances and hardships, sacrifices and sufferings, triumphs and blessings, life with purpose is a life worth living, and He is worth it all. That day, for that moment, they got it. They lived it, and so did I.”

Easter is coming.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cross the street, reach the nations

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A missionary with years of experience in the Muslim world was visiting back home in the United States when he struck up a friendly conversation with an immigrant shop owner.

“I said, ‘Thanks for coming to America,’” the missionary recalls. The shop owner was moved almost to tears. “He put his arms around me and said, ‘You’re the first person who has ever welcomed me to this country.’”

During the same U.S. stay, the missionary spoke at a church in a Southern town. Before he arrived there, a member of the church surveyed the community’s 20 or so Muslim families. Some of them had lived in the area as long as 10 years. The church member asked them if anyone in town had ever visited to tell them about Christ. No, they answered. Had anyone ever mentioned the name of Jesus to them? No. What was their chief emotion about living in America?

“We’re so lonely,” they responded. “No one ever talks to us. No one wants to hear our story. No one wants to have a meal with us.”

The immigrants arriving in America these days include people who are very hard to reach with the Gospel in their home countries. Here, they can be reached by crossing the street.

But you have to cross the street.

“God is giving us a second chance. He is bringing the nations to us,” the missionary says. “But we’re running from the nations in our midst. Having Muslims in our homes is not brain surgery. But the thing that is driving the church is fear. Until we get over our fear, we will not welcome the lost in our midst. We’re afraid of Muslims and we’re afraid of foreigners. These people are so lonely and isolated. Get out of your church. Go to their homes. Invite them to your home. Shop where they shop.

“We’re in a free country, and yet we’re not exercising our freedom to witness to the nations in our midst.”

What are we afraid of? Lots of things. Fear or suspicion of the stranger, the foreigner, the “other” is part of human nature. The United States has alternately welcomed and shunned immigrants over the past century, opening and closing its borders depending upon events, political-economic forces and social attitudes. More recently, the flood of illegal immigration, the competition for jobs in a recession-ravaged economy and the ongoing reverberations of 9/11 have played into the mix. And racism, even in our supposedly enlightened era, still poisons minds and hearts.

Within the church, there’s another dynamic worse than fear or resentment: indifference. If we’re not sharing the Good News with neighbors we’ve known for years or a lifetime, we’re not going to share it with newcomers who don’t act and talk like we do.

We need God’s perspective. He told the children of Israel again and again to welcome the “stranger and the alien in your midst,” reminding them that they once were aliens and refugees in Egypt.

Throughout history, observed the late, great missiologist Ralph Winter, God has been “kicking people out of one culture into a new one” — from Abraham’s move to Canaan, to Christian slaves carried off by pagan conquerors, to the present day.

God often uses such migrations, forced or otherwise, to place believers in cultures that haven’t yet heard He is Lord. Alternately, He moves nonbelievers into cultures where they can hear the Good News, then sends them back to their own people groups to spread the Word.

The United States leads all nations of the world as a destination for migrants, according to new findings from the Pew Research Center. No surprise there. With 43 million foreign-born residents, our country counts more than three times as many migrants as Russia, the second-place destination. America is home to one of every five migrants worldwide.

“The United States has been the leading destination for many, though not all, religious groups,” Pew reports. “The U.S. also has been the top destination for Buddhist migrants … and for people with no particular religion (including many from China). The U.S. has been the world’s second-leading destination for Hindu migrants, after India, and for Jewish migrants, after Israel.” More than 2 million Muslim immigrants were living here in 2010.

According to mission research, nearly 600 unengaged, unreached people groups can be found in North America — many of them in urban areas. They haven’t heard the Gospel in ways they can understand it and respond to it, and no evangelical group currently has a viable plan to reach them. Up to eight of every 10 refugees resettled in the United States come from unreached areas of the world.

As participants in the recent “ethnéCITY: Reaching the Unreached in the Urban Center”* conferences have learned, many of those new arrivals are moving to medium-sized urban areas and suburbs, rather than the traditional ethnic enclaves of big cities. By 2010, slightly more than half of all immigrants could be found in suburbs.

According to The Brookings Institution, the number of foreign-born people in the United States topped 40 million in 2010, a 28 percent increase since 2000 and about 13 percent of the nation’s total population. More than a third of new immigrants during the decade came from Asia, while the fastest-growing group came from Africa.

The five cities with the largest foreign-born populations are New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago and Houston. But the fastest growth is happening in smaller and midsize cities. Brookings reports: “A swath of metro areas from Scranton (Pa.) stretching southwest to Indianapolis and Little Rock and sweeping east to encompass most of the Southeast and lower mid-Atlantic … saw growth rates on the order of three times that of the 100 largest metro areas’ rate. These include Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville and Indianapolis, all of which passed the 100,000 mark for total foreign-born population by 2010.” Similarly, the states with the fastest-growing foreign-born populations are North Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, Nevada and Tennessee.

That’s essentially the Bible Belt, folks. How will we respond?

As a mission worker in a Muslim country used to tell me: “These people haven’t rejected the Gospel. They haven’t heard the Gospel.”

*(Co-sponsored by IMB and the North American Mission Board, ethnéCITY is the first tangible expression of a new partnership between the two mission entities, reflecting the reality that national borders no longer define the task of missions in a globalized world. The next ethnéCITY conference is scheduled for May 3-5 in Vancouver, one of Canada’s major urban centers. To find out more or register, visit