Are there advantages to living in a post-Christian nation?

Derelict church
Photo credit: phill.d (Creative Commons)

The way this country is trending, unless the Lord intervenes, it may not be long before the USA is a post-Christian nation. Only 4% of adults currently have a Biblical worldview as the basis of their decision-making. We are potentially only a generation away from being like many countries in Europe where the church is effectively irrelevant.

I've lived in a country that is post Christian. When we lived in the UK,  active Christians made up about 2% of the population. In the very poor area of London where we lived, less than 0.5% were in church on any given Sunday.

Recently, I've met with one of our medical school friends who has become a Christian (he describes himself as "the happy-clappy variety") since leaving medical school. One of his first comments to me was,  "Do you remember how all the rest of us used to ridicule and persecute the Christians?"

Persecution of Christians wasn't physical, but it was social/emotional. In the media, Christians are portrayed as weak-minded wimps. They are laughed at in institutes of higher learning. There is a definite cost to discipleship.

But this has some positive effects:

  • People take a discipleship lifestyle much more seriously. Admitting to being a Christian is not a step to be taken lightly. 
  • Light shines brighter in the darkness. The contrast between believers and non-believers is greater.
  • There's a sense of deeper community. You have less in common with the world and stronger relationships with those of God's family.
  • It's exciting to meet someone else who's a believer–something to discuss over the dinner table.
  • Christians and churches tend to work together more cooperatively. There's much less separation along denominational or theological lines.

 

7 shifts towards organic

Many churches are looking to become increasingly relevant to the society around them by shifting to a more organic form of church.

DandelionPhoto credit: Michael | Ruiz (Creative Commons)

Here are some of the shifts toward organic:

  1. We're moving from being building and event focused to lifestyle and family focused. Church is no longer an event to go to or a building to assemble in. We may meet together, but church is more like a family. You don't go to family; you are family. It's based on relationship and lifestyle. 
  2. Church is missional rather than attractional. We're looking to make disciples rather than converts.
  3. We no longer need specially trained people to do all the work of ministry. Ordinary people are fully equipped to minister. The clergy/laity distinction is becoming less and less relevant. 
  4. Churches are expected to multiply out–to reproduce–rather than getting larger.
  5. Jesus is head of his church and ordinary people can be trusted to hear the Holy Spirit. 
  6. Our times together are becoming simpler and therefore reproducible. Everyone participates in what goes on.
  7. Leadership is servanthood.

What others can you think of?

The future of the church in the West

The church landscape in this country is changing.

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Ecclesiology lies along a continuum. At one end churches are  traditional, structured and liturgical; at the other end they are simple, organic, and missional. Most lie somewhere in between. But a shift is occurring. Many churches are taking steps towards the organic, missional end of the spectrum. The Lord may not lead them to move completely to that end of the continuum, but the changes they are making appear more organic than traditional. 

What is most important is that wherever we are along the continuum, our focus in on the King and his Kingdom.

What are the reasons for the shift?

  1. As the nation slides towards a post-Christian status, church is no longer at the center of social life. People no longer think about going to church on a Sunday. Across the board, denominations, missions groups and churches recognize that an attractional form of church is no longer effective for the future.  Many are exploring the concept of missional communities or simple/organic churches.
  2. The current economic crisis is affecting many churches. Just in the last month or so, we have been working with a church locally that can no longer afford to keep their building. They are therefore looking at a more organic network of smaller churches.
  3. A subtle, but increasing hostility towards Christianity is affecting some churches. For example, in New York, recent legislation means that more than 60 churches are no longer allowed to use schools or similar buildings to meet in.
  4. As churches follow the Holy Spirit, some of them are hearing the Lord leading them this way.

The definition of insanity is to keep doing what we've always done and assume we'll get different results. If the church continues the way she has been for the last several decades, we'll find ourselves in  a post-Christian society.  

Is God using this shift along the continuum to prepare us for what lies ahead?

 

 

What is an insider movement?

In some countries, changing religion to Christianity is tantamount to a death sentence. In many other countries, new disciples face huge social consequences; they may lose their jobs or their housing. In villages in India, for example, believers may not be allowed to use the village well or buy rice at the local store. There's an intimidating social cost to pay as they are rejected by their community .

A new phenomenon is occurring in some of these countries: the insider movement. Whereas in old style missions, the missionary insisted that people change to effectively appear Western, within insider movements, new believers are free to remain within their culture. 

There are movements to Jesus within major religions today. Insider movements occur when groups of people come to faith in Jesus while remaining within their own social context and to some extent within their religious contexts too. So, for example, we have Messianic synagogs and Messianic mosques where people worship Jesus. When the local religious leader comes to Christ, he may bring his whole assembly to Jesus.

These people follow Jesus as Savior and Lord with no syncretism (blending the beliefs of their old religion with their new walk with the Lord). As they allow the Bible to reform their behavior and beliefs,  they find various aspects of their old life that they must reject. Equally, other things can be re-interpreted in the light of the Scriptures. Cultural traditions with no religious significance, for example, the red dot that denotes the married status of a Hindu woman, are allowed to remain. 

Because these new believers remain within their own culture, not only is there little to no persecution, they have far more opportunity to spread the Gospel. Since they come to faith as a group, there is no disruption of their community.

What do you think? 

Are there aspects of Western society that could use insider movements too?

 

 

 

If I were a missionary…

Globe
Photo Credit: rogiro (Creative Commons)

Some people might say that Tony and I are already missionaries.  Firstly, we have crossed cultures from the UK to the USA. (I sometimes wonder why here to the affluent West which is already so heavily Christianized when we would have willingly gone to any country in the world.)  And secondly, we are missionaries in the sense that all of us are. John 20:21 says, "As the Father sent me so am I sending you." The word missionary simply means "one who is sent."

We have the privilege and opportunity of traveling to many countries around the world. Wherever we go, we train local people how to reach out to their own spheres of influence, making disciples and starting churches. We don't mind how small the group is; all we are looking for is the one or two who are "John Knoxers" for their area. (John Knox is famous for praying, "Give me Scotland or I die!") These people take what we say and translate it into their own context, sometimes with results that far surpass anything we could have imagined.

But supposing we were called to leave the West to live and work in another culture?

Here's what I would do–hopefully being led by the Lord. In this scenario, language study is happening, finances are taken care of, either by support from home or through a business venture in the new country.

  • Pray! I remember a story Dr. Yonggi Cho told of starting a church in Japan. He sent what he described as "a mediocre Korean woman." She spent 40 days in prayer and fasting, and followed this by riding the elevator up and down in an apartment building, talking to the residents and helping them where she could. Within a short time, she had started a church with, if I remember the facts right, two hundred people–very successful for that nation.
  • Work with local people. It doesn't matter how well we speak the language and understand the customs, we'll always be outsiders. We may become trusted and accepted in time, but it takes insiders reaching out to their friends to see a viral spread of the Gospel. We'd train local people in Luke 10 principles, giving them the skills needed to make disciples and start churches in ways that can be multiplied. A good example is Guy Muse who works in Ecuador.
  • Help the poor and disadvantaged. This one would be very much as led by the Lord–I don't see it as essential, merely helpful in many contexts, especially in the Third World. I think of a couple of examples: Michele Perry, a good friend of ours, works with orphans in Southern Sudan. She takes them off the streets, giving them a home. Some of them go with her when she takes the Gospel to other villages. She has amazing stories of what God is doing. Another friend is working in a war-torn area of Russia with people who have been severely traumatized by the fighting. She brings them to her center, sees them healed, trains them and sends them out to plant churches.

What else would you do?

Stories: an effective way of communicating?

Flooded house
Photo credit: yewenyi (Creative Commons)

In many Third World countries, there is a high level of illiteracy. For example, according to Human Development Report for 2009, the literacy rate in Bangladesh is 56%, Sudan 27% etc. This does not mean that people are not intelligent. They are often highly intelligent. It just means that they have never been taught to read and therefore do not take in information or learn through the written word.

This has profound implications for missions. In countries with a high oral learning rate, the  good news of Jesus Christ cannot be communicated through written materials. Often storying is used instead.

People love stories. Often the only part  of a talk  I remember is the stories used to illustrate the message.

Jesus usually taught the people with stories (parables).  Stories communicate truth very well.  (70% of the Bible can be effectively communicated and memorized through the use of storying)  People who don’t read learn stories very quickly.  One of the main skills to learn is asking questions about the story that help people understand and remember the story. 

Here's one pattern for storying with a group of people:

  • Explain briefly the main truth you are going to convey through the story.
  • Either read the story to them or tell the story in your own words. Remember, you want to model something they can do too. If you are working with those who cannot read, then tell the story.  Put the story in context. Make it simple, with an emphasis on the truth you want to convey.
  • Ask questions that go over what the story says.  Have different ones in the group answer the questions.
  • Give everyone the opportunity to repeat the story to make sure they have the main facts.  If the group is large, divide into smaller groups for this activity.  But it is important that everyone get their first chance to practice telling the story now, so they will remember it better and even tell it better the second time.  Immediate repetition creates more stickiness.)
  • Ask questions that bring out what the story means.
  • Have one or two others retell the story
  • Ask questions that bring out how they can apply the story in their own life.
  • Again have one or two retell the story
  • Ask who they know who would also benefit from hearing the story.
  • Get them to tell the story to someone else during the week.

We have friends in India who work primarily with oral learners. They tell us that those who learn in this fashion effectively become oral Bibles. They understand Biblical principles and can apply them into different situations. They say that an illiterate woman who has been well-trained in Bible storying can confound a seminary student.

According to studies, up to 20% of people in the US lack functional literary skills–ie they are unable to read well enough to understand written instructions or to fill in simple forms.

The National Center for Educational Statistics in the United States says:

  • Over 60% of adults in the US prison system read at or below the fourth grade level
  • 85% of US juvenile inmates are functionally illiterate

Many more people in this country, especially in the younger age group, are able to read but choose not to. They learn through other means–usually visual. They are very open to storying as a means of learning in a group context.

I once practised storying on the friend of one of our kids. A week or so later, I discovered the story I told being written about on someone's blog having gone through two or three other people. 

Storying is effective in many different contexts. Why not try it? Use a passage like Luke 6:46-49. Ask questions such as:

  • What does the house represent?
  • What does the flood represent?
  • What does it mean to build a house on the rock, or on the sand.

You'll be amazed at what comes out.

Do you have any experience with storying? I'd love to hear about it.

 

Suspended in a hammock: contextualizing the good news

Hammock
Photo credit: SadieMaeGlutz (Creative Commons)

We have friends in India who are seeing large numbers of both high-caste Hindus and people from other religions become followers of Jesus. They use the sacred books of those religions to point to Christ. When they have clearly demonstrated Christ within those books, they can then point them to the Jesus of the Bible. They are contextualizing the Gospel in a way that makes it understandable to those they are trying to reach.

There are pointers to Jesus in every culture.

The book, Bruchko, describes the extraordinary story of 19 year-old Bruce Olson, who sought to bring the Gospel to a murderous tribe in the South American jungle. These people had no words in their language that could express some of the concepts of a belief in Jesus. Bruce used some remarkably creative ways to bring across these ideas.

For example, there was no word to express "faith" in the Motilone language. The Indians used to sleep on hammocks suspended from the rafters of their communal homes. The best word for faith that Bruce found was the word that meant to "tie in one's hammock." It beautifully expresses faith as suspending one's life from Christ and the people instinctively understood its meaning.

Some years ago we started a church in the low income housing projects. One day, a good friend from England, Norman Barnes, visited. He clearly demonstrated the efficacy of the blood of Christ in forgiving sins to our friends there. He had them each write down the things they had done that were bad, that they were ashamed of, or issues they dealt with like anger, onto a sheet of paper. When each one had completed their list, they put their papers into a pan. He covered it with a red cloth symbolizing the blood of Jesus. He took the pan outside, removed the cloth and set fire to the paper. Then he asked them to pull their sins out of the pan. Of course, they were just ash.

The kids talked about how the blood of Jesus dealt with their sins for weeks after that. Every time a person wore something red they would remind each other: "She's wearing red: do you remember how the blood of Jesus covers the things we've done wrong."

How can we contextualize the good news for the people we come across day by day? How can this be used to reach out to other cultures too?

6 bloopers I’ve made in cross-cultural contexts

Bible chair

There are many pitfalls for the unwary in a cross-cultural context. Here are some bloopers I, or those with me, have made:

India: placing my Bible on the floor.

Mozambique: beckoning someone to come with my palm facing up, rather than down.

Muslim nation: offering (as a woman) to shake hands with a man when introduced.

India: a young woman making eye contact with a man.

Russia: wearing outdoor shoes inside the house.

Mongolia: not eating everything my plate (or offering it to someone else to finish).

These may just be superficial things, and thankfully I have always been in a context where, as far as I know, the local people have excused my blunders, but they speak volumes. It is so easy to unwittingly offend. Things that we take for granted in a Western context may be a sign of disrespect that is totally unacceptable in another country.

That's a small part of the reason that missionaries need cross-cultural training.

Viral Jesus

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I've been looking forward to the release of Viral Jesus by Ross Rohde for some time. A few months ago I was given the privilege of reading the manuscript and writing an endorsement, and immediately I was struck with the relevance of Ross's message to not just the simple/organic church movement of which both he and we are a part, but far beyond that, to any Christian who desires to make an impact for the Kingdom of God.

We have known Ross for several years, and every time we meet him he has a new story of how he has met with a "person of peace" (see Luke 10), led him to become a disciple of Jesus and started a community of Jesus followers. The book is full of stories of supernatural encounters, God working miracles in people's lives.

The early church spread like wildfire, spreading throughout the then known world in a comparatively short time. Since then, it has become something different–a lethargic parody of the vibrant life it was supposed to be.

Could we see a viral Jesus movement again here in the West? Christianity is meant to be an adventure, we as his ambassadors on mission with God. Do you want to see your church revitalized? In this outstanding book, Ross examines the principles of what it would take to recapture the excitement and viral nature of evangelism and making disciples. 

Don't start reading this book late at night–you'll not be able to put it down. I highly recommend it.

 

Potential missionaries, beware!

Japan
Photo credit: EugeniusD80 (Creative Commons)

We were sitting in our hot tub with some dear friends who are long-term missionaries in Japan. Jim's wife is Japanese, so they have a unique understanging of that nation. They and their family are planting simple/organic churches there. As usual, our conversation ranged widely as we put the world to rights.

"A problem we see is people coming on the mission field with romantic ideas of saving the world, knowing God has called them into missions, full of enthusiasm, but totally unprepared for what they will face." said Jim. "A year later, they leave, disillusioned, having failed. They have never worked through the culture shock they experience. They miss the familiar, their families and friends. They go back home, tail between their legs and end up being good pillars of their local church. The problem has been in their preparation."

"What would you do that's different?" I asked.

"If I knew someone who was considering working for the Kingdom in Japan, I would have them come and live with our family for a month, first of all," replied Jim. "A month is long enough that it wouldn't be a vacation. We would give them insights into the culture; they would gain an understanding of some of the spiritual realities of a nation like ours. They would live with our family, eating our food, working at the things we work at on a daily basis. They would reach out to local people who are English speakers. They could get a taste of what life on this mission field is like to see if this is really the nation where they want to spend the next years of their life. Then if they still know God has called them here, maybe they would come for a year, learn some of the language, get more understanding of the culture before committing to full time missions."

I think that is a wise way to prepare someone for the mission field. Are there other families like Jim's who would be prepared to open up their lives to potential missionaries?

In my last post, I looked at some of the ways that preparation for simple/organic missions might be different.

I came across another idea I like a few weeks ago. A missions organization sent out a team to live in Europe with a dual purpose. The first was to reach out to the local people, to make disciples and start churches. The second was to provide a missions experience and training for others who were thinking of working in Europe. Although it hadn't been without challenges, a couple we met who had been through that year had been sufficiently inspired to make the decision to go back to Europe long term, but this time without their rose-tinted spectacles. They had been through God's school of hard knocks and practical experience and now felt prepared with an understanding of what they would face.

What we, as simple/organic churches do to prepare people for missions needs to fit within our simple/organic  paradigm.

What ideas do you have? How can we best prepare people in a practical way?