American Christianity truly presents what will likely be one of the most amazing ironies of the 21st Century. On the one hand, the church in North America boasts more material wealth than all the churches in all the other nations of the world combined. Yet at the same time, missiologists tell us that North America is the only inhabited continent on the globe where the church is in retreat. Conversely, it now appears that the segment of Christ's body that currently poses the greatest threat to the Kingdom of darkness is located in the poorest regions of our world.
Over a quarter century ago, Anglican Priest David Watson noted that "it is widely held that the battle of the century will be between Marxism, Islam, and Third World Christianity." Those wondering why Watson would credit this particular corner of the church with maximum effectiveness, as opposed to more affluent segments of the body, were met with a sombering observation: "Western Christianity is considered too weak and ineffective to contribute anything significant to this universal struggle." This is a serious indictment on the church in the west, particularly in light of Luke 12:48. God has blessed the western church, more specifically the church in the United States, with unparallelled affluence and influence, and the church has as a whole responded to that blessing with lethargy and complacency.
These observations beg the question of how the American church can begin to move toward being good stewards with the enormous supply God has given. And the answers to this question come primarily from examining the efficacy of the church as it exists in other parts of the globe, and most notably in the poorest countries in the world. What I want to suggest here are three primary barriers the American church has yet to overcome, along with ways in which we can overcome them. Ironically enough, many of these lessons come from our third world brothers and sisters that we so often marginalize:
BARRIER #1: MATERIALISM. Admittedly, this barrier is not exclusive to the US. In fact, I have missionary friends in some pretty poor countries that tell me this is a problem everywhere. One colleague tells me that in certain parts of poor, sub-Sahara Africa, "If a man has a straw hut, he wants a mud hut. If he has a mud hut, he wants a brick hut." In other words, materialism has less to do with one's pocketbook and more to do with one's attitude. Wealth is not sin, but a desire for wealth that is greater than the desire for God is sin, and this is where many in the American church have been held back from much greater influence in the Kingdom of God. In many parts of the western church, the "American Dream" has supplanted the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the message of focus. The message of repentance from sin and faith in Christ's substitutionary death and bodily resurrection for salvation has been replaced in many "seeker-friendly" pulpits with the message of health, wealth, and prosperity. The challenge to follow Jesus has been largely usurped with messages of how to gain "success," as the prevailing western culture defines that term. The result of this substitution is a perverted view of what constitutes faithfully following Jesus. Let's face it: American Christians don't want to hear the suggestion that they or their children might be called by God to go to the hard places of the world; even to lay down their lives in martyrdom for the sake of God's Kingdom. When it comes to the Biblical principle of "suffering," there is a suspicious kind of cessationism going on. We in the US don't believe those texts apply to us.
The way of overcoming this barrier is that of returning the western church to an eternal perspective, and those in the less affluent regions of the globe can teach us much about how to make this turn. One of the greatest examples of this eternal perspective is seen in a massive church planting movement currently underway in the nation of Honduras, led by Pastor Humberto del Arca. Pastor del Arca heads a multiplication movement of new churches that tenders an average of one new congregation per week. Having none of the technology or resources we possess, del Arca's movement is witnessing results that truly make our best church planting efforts in North America look anemic. They share the Gospel , baptize converts, and then focus on laying up "heavenly" treasures. Post conversion conversation centers around Romans 6, and the first follow-up question is: "What sinful habits do you have that need to be changed by the power of the risen Christ?" No frills, no messages on how to increase your income or raise "successful" children. Just a simple, Gospel-centered approach to discipleship that is radically focused on the eternal perspective. This is an effective cure for the heart that is sick with the desire for material things.
BARRIER #2: NATIONALISM/ZEALOTISM: Now before I go any further, let me clear something up: I believe Christians should think Biblically in every aspect of life, including the political. Applying a Christian worldview in the voting booth is something more followers of Christ should be doing. Issues like the murder of the unborn, the blessing of sexual perversion, and government disdain for religious expression in the public square are issues on which the church dare not be silent. Give me the issues and I'll vote accordingly. Show me the petition and I'll sign it. The problem however, is when followers of Jesus confuse political action with the accomplishment of the Great Commission. When we confuse the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of America, the resulting Nationalism becomes an attempt to accomplish God's goals with man's Kingdom resources.
Exhibit A of this tendency is seen when looking at the declining rate of abortions that took place during the Clinton administration . . . . yes, that's right, during the administration of a "pro-choice" President, the rate of abortions decreased significantly. Statistics reveal that the rate has actually ticked up a bit since George W. Bush took the oath of office for the first time in 2001. Does this mean that abortions go down because of a "pro-choice" approach to abortion? Of course not! Those who would permit the murder of an unborn child are not even fit to hold public office! But that 's not the point. The point is that during Clinton's presidency, American evangelicals knew they would get no help from Washington in defending innocent human life, so they rolled up their sleeves and went to work! The lesson learned from this slice of history is simple: Just because "our guy" is in the White House, Governor's Mansion, or seat in congress does not mean that we can stop being the missional people of God!
Conversely, the church is spreading like wildfire in nations where religious persecution of Christians is strongest. A dear friend of mine who is very familiar with the church in other nations tells me that if certain oppressive governments fall in some of the eastern coutries, the world will be aghast at how large the evangelical church is in those nations. Similar stories could be told in Ambon, Indonesia and other nations of the world. Our brothers and sisters who live under the constant threat of persecution understand what Jesus meant when he told Pilate "My Kingdom is not of this world." If we hope to have a fraction of the impact they are having, we too must learn that God's Kingdom is not advanced through culture war, but rather through joyful suffering. It is strange but true. Throughout its history, the church has always been the most effective when her enemies were in power. Perhaps this is because when found in this situation, the church patterns her behavior after her Savior, who Himself claimed to build His Kingdom through suffering. (See Isaiah 52 and 53 for the connection between the "suffering servant" and how the coming Kingdom of God will be inaugurated.)
BARRIER #3: PLURALISM: Make no mistake. When we speak of pluralism, we are speaking of what will undoubtedly be the greatest threat to the integrity of the preached Gospel in the west. It is already demonstrating itself to be the next great heresy with which Gospel-loving believers will have to contend, as well as one of the most dangerous of false teachings. Yet the American church is to a large extent delusional with pluralistic deception. Research conducted by Doctor of Ministry students at one Southern Baptist seminary revealed that 40% of Southern Baptists believe "good people go to heaven, whether or not they have a personal relationship to Jesus Christ." The solution to this is simple: We must return to John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and other texts which clearly state that outside of Jesus Christ, there is no way to fellowship with God and a secure eternity.
Think for a moment about our brothers and sisters undergoing persecution in the Sudan. If pluralism has merit, wouldn't you think they would simply convert to Islam to avoid being martyred? After all, if heaven belongs to all the "good people" regardless of whether they know Jesus, what is the use of remaining in Christ to only be killed in the end? Let this much be clear: The Apostles freely allowed themselves to be persecuted because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. The reformers risked excommunication and even death because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. Many of the earliest settlers in this nation came because they believed the Gospel was exclusive. There is most assuredly a line between who is "in" and who is "out," and our fellow believers in other parts of the world can teach us about the preciousness of guarding that truth, even if it costs us our lives.
There can be little doubt that the American church is to a large extent in a state of continuous lethargy. Our consumerist approach to the Christian faith has left us largely impotent to effectively transform ouur culture for the sake of the Gospel. In his recent book on church membership, Chuck Lawless laments that church in the west "is more about receiving than giving, more about coming than going, more about being served than serving." Yet in the midst of this morbid complacency, the Savior commands us to return to our first love. But He also gives us a pattern for effectiveness, and just like Jesus, notorious for using the prostitute, the child, the poor, and the disenfranshised as examples of the "greatest" in His Kingdom, He now calls our attention to the "least of these" in the third world. Have we considered these servants of God? The world is not worthy of them! May God grant us the grace and the guts to follow their example.