At a global ministry conference in Beirut, Lebanon, I was asked to share my reflections on the state of the American church and the implications of my observations for global ministry. Here is a survey of what I shared:
- First, evangelicalism, which is a rich theological construct, has been co-opted by American politics and is now perceived as a political movement rather than a theological movement. This is eroding the calling and credibility of the church of Jesus Christ, and has real implications for how we envision, resource, and pursue gospel-mission at home and abroad. We need to reclaim the theological ground by affirming the power of the gospel to change lives, affirming Heavenly citizenship as greater than any other allegiance, and embracing a willingness to suffer for the cause of Christ. Herein is the necessity of recalibration.
- Secondly, too often the approach of the western/American church toward global ministry hurts rather than helps frontline work. We have tended to throw money, throw people, and throw power at a need, replicating colonial dynamics that suggest we know better how to get things done and make things happen. This is in contrast to seeking to understand unique cultural nuances, particularly around the constructs of power and fear, honor and shame, cleanliness and filth, and so forth. We must work on coming alongside indigenous leaders, learning from them, empowering them to be fruitful, and then surrendering any of our own power and platform so they can lead. Herein is the necessity of humility.
- Thirdly, many worthy opportunities exist that should challenge disciples everywhere, such as the plight of human trafficking, the issue of unclean water, lack of access to affordable health care, poverty, and so much more. Yet each one of these challenges must be addressed first and foremost by a profoundly clear understanding of the redemptive work of Christ on behalf of sinful image-bearers. The gospel must always be front and center. This is especially so in the face of so-called progressive Christianity, prosperity gospel advocates, and cults. Herein is the necessity of clarity.
- Fourthly, we in the American church need to do a much better job caring for our global partners—seeing them as souls to love and honor and not tools to use. It is hard to be effective when one is pained, and too many of our global ministry partners are wounded by conflict with colleagues, lack of resources, the unique pressures of living within the cultures of the “other,” and so forth. Herein is the necessity of compassion.
- Fifthly, lead pastors, such as myself, are dealing today with complexities that are far greater than even a decade ago, demanding we be more discerning about gospel-mission and clarity. This is particularly so in the face of American cultural and societal challenges relating to matters ranging from sexuality to prosperity to justice to politics, and so forth. Add to this the unfortunate pastor-as-CEO dynamic that has taken over the American church, and it is a genuine challenge to remain focused. Herein is the necessity of discernment.
- Lastly, there is a (welcome) shift in Christian statesmanship and power from the white world to the brown and black world. I began to envision this shift nearly 3o years ago, and am now seeing it becoming a reality, as is seen in the explosion of gospel-centered churches throughout China, Africa, and part of the Middle East. These, notably, stand in contrast to the theological fuzziness that is unfolding in the West, where western comforts and privileges afford us space to toy with long-standing biblical convictions regarding things like marriage and sexuality and individualism. Standing before a roomful of Arabic church planters, many of whom are in very difficult circumstances, and whose churches are thriving in the face of real suffering, only underscored this premise. Herein is the necessity of surrender.
Obviously, so much more could be said for each one of these considerations. The goal was to present a survey, some simple reflections—things to stimulate a robust question and answer period. When asked about my sense of things within the American church, these are some of the things that come readily to mind.