Saturday, October 17, 2009

Global Challenges for North American Christians

Many global challenges face North American Christians and churches today, and a plethora of helpful books is available on the subject (Guthrie 2000; Pocock et al. 2005; and “works cited” and “other recommended resources” below). The list of issues is extensive and their relationships are multifaceted and complex, causing one to wonder if there is any way to make sense of the big picture. For these reasons, analyzing several key issues could be very helpful, both for believers and churches in North America as well as for Global Christians. A clearer understanding of the following challenges for North American Christians in particular will provide readers with some key perspectives for understanding the contemporary situation and our role as North American Christians in the world today.

Missional Churches in a Global Context

While the term Missional church is a hot buzzword and perhaps represents a passing fad, the call in North America for local churches to be Missional suggests the possibility of a positive and welcomed shift of emphasis. On one hand, in theory this new focus could motivate and enable local churches to reach outward and engage in transformational ministries in their communities and beyond. Many local churches in North America historically have been myopic in their vision and preoccupied with their own affairs. Meanwhile in recent years, denominational and parachurch mission agencies have experienced growing crises on various fronts, causing some to wonder if missions will become outdated (Engel 1996 and 2000; McClaren 2006, 126 ff.). Given these realities, the call for local churches to become Missional could prompt one to hope for the coming of an exciting new missionary movement, bringing a breath of fresh air to North American missions, both domestically and globally.

On the other hand, the proposal to “subsume missions in mission” may not be as helpful as one would envision (McClaren 2006, 138 ff.). The basic idea is that each local church can be Missional in a balanced and effective way, presumably flowing in large measure out of its own local initiatives. However, there are several important reasons to wonder if this picture can actually become a reality as a number of theoreticians currently portray it. The slowness of Western Christianity throughout history to go into all the world for Christ and the difficulties that many contemporary “Missional” churches have in reaching the world for Christ underscore the inadvisability of discarding the historic emphasis on world missions without a comprehensive assessment of the implications of such a transition.

The History of Western Christianity and Global Outreach

Reflecting on the history of Christian missions in Western culture can be very instructive. The explosive expansion of early Christianity after our Lord’s death and resurrection lasted for barely three centuries. It was accelerated by persecution and the Diaspora, and nurtured and guided by missionaries that traveled throughout the Roman Empire, of which Paul was the apostolic model. Nevertheless, once Christianity became the preferred faith of the Western church and Christendom set in, churches and religious leaders became preoccupied with their own internal affairs. As a result, for over a thousand years afterward the Missional outreach of Western Christianity for the most part was limited to the peoples and lands of present day Europe. Neither local churches nor their higher ecclesiastical leaders provided visionary leadership for Missional outreach beyond their own shores.

Roman Catholic missionaries were the first from the West to go to faraway lands around the world. Meanwhile, Protestant missionary outreach to other peoples and lands did not happen in a significant way until the nineteenth century and then only as a trickle for several decades. One would have hoped that the growing religious freedoms afforded by the Reformation would have been accompanied from the beginning by a passionate missionary movement. Instead, Protestant missions abroad during those early years were virtually non-existent. Sadly, nearly four hundred years passed after Martin Luther posted his ninety-five point theses on the door in Wittenberg, Germany, before a broad Missional movement of obedience to the Great Commission took place. Not until the last century did North American believers and churches finally catch a vision and passion for world evangelism, resulting in the Modern Missionary Movement.

In recent years some are suggesting that this great missionary movement should be declared obsolete along with the patterns and structures that it produced and that the new answer is for local churches to become Missional. From a pragmatic perspective, this may seem to be a reasonable suggestion. Admittedly, the current problems that missions agencies are facing seem monumental. However, to presume that local churches on their own will respond today in a very different way, in contrast with twenty centuries of local church patterns to the contrary, is quite a stretch of the imagination. In this fallen world, the past is one of the best predictors of the future. This also applies in a significant way to the dispositions, habits, and practices of local churches. It is true that Christ is very much at work in and through His Body, The Church. Nevertheless, She still has her spots and wrinkles.

Reaching the World at our Doorstep and Beyond

A closer examination of the realities and tendencies of contemporary local churches can also provide some helpful insights. Missional churches are encouraged to see the world around them as a mission field, often with the presumption that they will transition naturally and seamlessly from Missional outreach in their own communities to global ministries. Seeing the world around their local church as a mission field is both biblical and appropriate. Nevertheless, it is presumptuous to think that a transition to broader ministries will be natural and seamless. One only needs to look around at people while worshipping in many churches on Sunday to realize that reaching other cultures and ethnicities generally does not happen without extraordinary planning and initiatives. Far too often local churches and believers allow their values and patterns to be shaped more by the world than by the Scriptures and Kingdom principles.

Many reasons can be cited for these disconnects between popular Missional theory and practice. Taken together they underscore the unlikelihood that a local “Missional” church can minister effectively at home and abroad through her own initiatives and resources alone. The genuine desire to be Missional can easily mutate from a priority focus on the local community to an exclusive one. Often one hears the following myopic and parochial question in many churches that are the most vocal about becoming Missional: “Why send our resources elsewhere and go abroad when there are so many needs in our own local mission field?” These disconnects and tendencies underscore the fallacy that subsuming missions in mission can enable a local church to fulfill her own unique mission and thus obey our Lord’s command to take the Good News to the ends of the earth. Foremost among these reasons are six global challenges for North American Christians, each that merits further exploration:
• Nationalism and Latent Ethnocentrism and Racism
• Intercultural Competencies and Cultural Relevance
• North American Believers as Partners in Ministry
• Balancing Proclamation Evangelism and Holistic Ministries
• Finances and Patron-Client Relationships
• Effective and Appropriate Uses of Technology in Diverse Contexts

Taken together a strong case can be made for the ongoing need of missions as a unique and special focus for all local churches. The reasons for this need and possible options for the future will become clearer in the following discussions.

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