Thursday, May 28, 2015

World War II, 70 years after


The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe came and went in May with relatively little fanfare.

Perhaps the milestone passed quietly because fewer people personally remember the largest armed conflict in human history. The last U.S. president to serve in the military during World War II, George H.W. Bush, now 90, left office more than 20 years ago. Barack Obama wasn’t born until 16 years after the war ended. Of the 16 million veterans who helped win the war — and lift America out of the Great Depression and into global leadership — fewer than 1 million are still alive. They are dying at a rate of nearly 500 per day.

But we all live with the consequences of World War II, whether we realize it or not. It forged the modern world in fire and blood along with its horrific predecessor, World War I. The “Great War” of 1914-18 destroyed old orders and empires, set the stage for revolutions and economic upheaval and led to far greater devastation two decades later. Before World War II ended in 1945, more than 60 million people had died, an average of 27,000 per day. Many of them were civilians caught up in the fighting — or deliberately massacred.

“Within the vast compass of the struggle, some individuals scaled summits of courage and nobility, while others plumbed depths of evil, in a fashion that compels the awe of posterity,” writes World War II historian Max Hastings. “Among citizens of modern democracies to whom serious hardship and collective peril are unknown, the tribulations that hundreds of millions endured between 1939 and 1945 are almost beyond comprehension.”

For all its suffering, however, World War II unleashed economic energies that would lift entire nations from poverty to prosperity in the postwar era. It ushered in a new age of technological and scientific progress. It hastened the end of European colonialism. It sparked a Cold War with Soviet communism that the West ultimately would win, spreading political freedom far and wide.

And it opened vast areas of the globe — especially in Asia — to the Christian gospel. Western missionaries streamed into ravaged countries after the war, bringing help and hope. The disciples they made helped turn Christianity into a truly global movement. Its expansion has continued in the generations since, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to new areas of Africa and Asia, to the post-communist world, to previously unreached peoples.

Postwar chaos eventually gave way to order and development in many parts of the world. But it’s become increasingly clear that the era of relative global stability that followed the war — albeit guaranteed for long periods by the weapons of superpowers  — has come to an end.

“To put it simply, a vast swath of the Eurasian landmass (understood to be Europe and Asia together) is in political, military and economic disarray,” says George Friedman, chairman of the Stratfor global intelligence analysis agency. “Europe and China are struggling with the consequences of the 2008 [global economic] crisis, which left not only economic but institutional challenges. Russia is undergoing a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine and an economic problem at home. The Arab world, from the Levant to Iran, from the Turkish border through the Arabian Peninsula, is embroiled in politically destabilizing warfare. The Western Hemisphere is relatively stable, as is the Asian Archipelago. But Eurasia is destabilizing in multiple dimensions.”

In Friedman’s view, forces have re-emerged that the old postwar order cannot control.

“After every systemic war, there is an illusion that the victorious coalition will continue to be cohesive and govern as effectively as it fought,” he observes. “After World War I, the Allies (absent the United States) created the League of Nations. After World War II, it was the United Nations. After the Cold War ended, it was assumed that the United Nations, NATO, IMF, World Bank and other multinational institutions could manage the global system. In each case, the victorious powers sought to use wartime alliance structures to manage the postwar world. In each case, they failed, because the thing that bound them together — the enemy — no longer existed. Therefore, the institutions became powerless and the illusion of unity dissolved. This is what has happened here.”

The only thing that seems certain is uncertainty. Will Europe collapse as an economic and social entity? Will the Middle East descend into all-out regional war? Will a new Cold War break out between East and West?

History has shown that such times are risky for the church, but productive for God’s mission. Risky, because Christians will face increasing persecution as societies crumble, and increasing danger as they take the gospel worldwide. Productive, because people seek truth when everything else they have relied upon falls away.

The chaotic period during and after World War II, when the world Christian movement truly went global, is a case in point.

(Explore ways to lead your church into God’s global mission.)

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Kathmandu and the challenge of Asian cities


(Note: A powerful new earthquake shook Nepal May 12, killing at least 36 people and sending thousands rushing to the streets as more buildings collapsed. The 7.3-magnitude earthquake came 17 days after the 7.8-magnitude quake that struck April 25, killing more than 8,000 people and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes. The new quake will add to the dismal statistics as rescue workers, including Southern Baptist relief teams, once again begin digging out.)

Nepalis have begun the long struggle to dig out of the rubble left by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that killed more than 8,000 people and destroyed parts of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital city.

It’s becoming clear that the quake did even greater damage in rural areas, where Southern Baptist disaster relief workers and their Nepali Christian partners are focusing aid efforts.

But the death and destruction in Kathmandu highlight the enormous physical challenges confronting many Asian cities.

“With an annual population growth rate of 6.5 percent and one of the highest urban densities in the world, the 1.5 million people living in the Kathmandu Valley [another estimate puts the population at 2.5 million] were clearly facing a serious and growing earthquake risk,” said a report issued by a group of seismologists who visited Kathmandu a week before the April 25 temblor. “It was also clear that the next large earthquake to strike near the Valley would cause significantly greater loss of life, structural damage, and economic hardship than past earthquakes had inflicted.”

Why? Too many people crowded into too little space — in this case, a quake-prone urban area — living in old, crumbling buildings or in flimsy structures thrown together to house people arriving daily in search of jobs and a better life.

“Earthquakes don’t kill people; buildings kill people” is a common saying among seismologists. The more people living in inadequate housing, the more potential casualties. “You’re up against a Himalayan-scale problem with Third-World resources,” geologist Susan Hough told the Washington Post.

But the rapidly expanding megacities of South Asia face even greater challenges than earthquakes. The region already counts 12 of the world’s 50 largest urban centers. They need more food, water, jobs, housing and infrastructure for the millions streaming in from rural areas. Most of all, they need the hope found only in Jesus Christ.

“By 2020, India alone will have a shortage of 30 million housing units in big cities,” says Daren Cantwell,* IMB strategy leader for South Asian Peoples. “By 2030 they’re expecting 350 million more Indians to move to cities. By 2050, they expect 700 million to move to cities. The challenge for these cities to provide water, food and sanitation is huge. With this many people coming in, a city can’t assimilate fast enough. So you have these huge slums grow up — like in Mumbai, where you have 10 million people living in slums.”

Yet Mumbai, with a metro population of more than 20 million, also boasts legions of middle-class workers and the most billionaires in India. It’s the pulsating heart of India’s financial, cultural and entertainment worlds.   

“Our focus on cities will be at multiple levels of society, from the slum dwellers to the people living in high-rises to doctors, lawyers, Bollywood [India’s film industry], the whole gamut,” Cantwell says. “Finding the best places to work, the best ways to work and to multiply yourself through your national partners across a city are all things we’re dealing with as we seek strategies to reach these places.”

They’re looking for U.S. partners, too, as IMB focuses more intensively on extending the gospel in and through the world’s cities. On a global scale, urban dwellers will double to 6.4 billion by the middle of this century — 70 percent of the projected human population — according to a United Nations forecast.

“There are massive needs in cities around the world,” says IMB President David Platt. “How do we take this God-ordained movement of people toward cities, leverage what God is doing and intentionally go to cities, so we’ve got relationships when people get there? They’ve come in search of economic help or prosperity. We hope they’ll find what they need for daily life, but find in a greater way what they need for eternal life. We want to be there, ready with the gospel.”

*Name changed.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Irritating people


Some people really get on my nerves.

People who disagree with me, for instance, because I’m always right. People who agree with me all the time are even more aggravating. How boring is that? People who have no opinion one way or the other are the worst.

Yep, I like to argue, debate, raise objections. If you take a position I support, I might contradict you — just so you don’t go unchallenged. Psychologists say people like me have problems with authority. I prefer to think of it as offering alternatives.

God demonstrates His love and patience by tolerating people like me. And He regularly sends irritating people to challenge my insistence on seeing and doing things my way, which usually leads to disaster. Maybe He is sending some of them your way, too.

Here are a few examples of especially irritating folks. If they rub you the wrong way, too, maybe God is trying to tell you something:

n  People who are more interested in doing God’s will than arguing about it. They challenge those of us who waste time dissecting, analyzing and rationalizing what God has clearly told us to do.

n  People who love God so much that they glorify Him with their words and their lives. Young believers who do this with extra freshness and enthusiasm are doubly irritating. They take away our excuses for coasting and complacency in the spiritual life.

n  People who serve others with love. Not just because they’re supposed to. Not just so they can check “ministry” off their to-do list. They serve others from a sincere love of Christ that naturally overflows to all they meet. Does that mean we ought to do the same?

n  People who have a heart for the world. They make it their business to be aware of what’s happening beyond their little circle. They see the suffering and need in places of poverty and turmoil. More than that, they see the pain of billions who wander in darkness without Christ, like sheep without a shepherd. And as Christ wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41,42), they also weep. Then they do something about it. They remind us how much we need to get beyond our own safe, familiar zones and out into the world.  

n  People who listen first, with teachable hearts, and talk later — or maybe don’t talk at all. These folks drive me crazy, since words are my specialty. They painfully remind me that words aren’t enough. God speaks in the silence of our hearts as we listen to His Word and His Spirit. Usually, the only response required is obedience.

n  People who pray. They might be the most irritating people of all, because they convict the rest of us of our prayerlessness, indifference and lack of hunger for being with God, seeking His face and responding to His Spirit.

I could go on. There are lots of other exasperating people who believe the command to make disciples among all peoples still stands, who are willing to go anywhere God leads, who aren’t willing to settle for less than all that He desires.

Thank God for them. They show me — all of us — what is possible in a life truly given to Christ.

(Want to be “irritating” on a global scale? Here are some ways.)