Something truly amazing is happening in the world today that barely gets even a mention in the newspapers. In recent years, and for the first time in history, it can be said that the world movement to Christ has become truly global. In spite of much persecution disciples of the Lord Jesus are found on every continent and perhaps in every country. The centre of gravity of the Christian world has shifted to the Global South.
The non-Western missionary movement is surging: recently published research suggests that there are now more cross-cultural missionaries from the non-Western world than from the West. We have much to thank God for and some new realities that we need to be aware of as we pray and as we encourage one another to continue the great work of mission. There are three key features of the global church in the twenty-first century that we need to be aware of if our praying, giving and going are to be effective.
An overwhelmingly poor church
I first met Gopal (although this is not his real name) when he was a teenager and had just moved to Kathmandu, where I lived. After a few years the civil war had wrecked the economy so he hired himself out to an unscrupulous employment agency that charged him a fortune to get his papers in order. He showed me his ‘contract’ before he left – a single photocopied sheet of paper on which he was to sign that he had waived all his rights as a worker in return for a place in the work camp. He earns £500 a year working in the blistering desert sunshine building hotels for the elites.
Migrants from poor countries move in search of economic survival. But in such situations there is a ray of hope – among the migrants are followers of Christ. In the dark injustice of Qatari society God is at work; through Gopal and others like him a number of churches have been planted among the migrant workers in that land. Mission isn’t always planned and carried out by well-trained professional missionaries. Sometimes God brings it about using the weak and despised of this world.
The massive migration from countryside to megacity all over the globe is the background for the transformation of large numbers of people who are becoming disciples of Christ. The vast majority of these are evangelicals. Such grassroots Christianity has done much social good as well as spiritual good. Men turn to Christ and learn to buy food and books for their children instead of gambling their wages away or blowing it on booze.
How does the church in the wealthy West respond to the massive economic inequality in the worldwide church? Partnership has become a buzzword of missions in recent years. But the resulting massive transfer of cash to projects in such countries as Brazil, India and Kenya has often created an unhealthy dependence on outside funding. I lost track of the number of times I was asked ‘How many dollars will I get if I join foreign religion?’. So partnership has to be entered into with a lot more wisdom and care.
A culturally diverse church
The global church is also characterised by great cultural diversity. Musical styles, forms of prayer and preaching are just the most obvious differences we see if we visit a church in Africa or Asia, or even an ethnic church in London. Globalisation pushes a one-size-fits-all approach to life. But many self-respecting people in the planet’s diverse cultural landscape oppose this trampling on local tradition. Rather they want to emphasise the significance of local culture, especially in the local church.
But the mere adoption of local cultural forms is not enough to root a church in its local situation. There is a need to think theologically within the context too. That is, local Christians need to respond to the issues that their own culture brings up. Translation of English books into the vernacular is not good enough. What is the point of translating an English book on dating into Urdu when the speakers of that language practise arranged marriage?
We can learn from the efforts of followers of Christ in the Global South. As the West becomes increasingly pagan the church here needs to adopt an increasingly missional posture – to look on our own society with missionary eyes.
Accepting that different societies worship and live out their lives as Christ’s disciples in different ways does not compromise the authority of the Bible. The word of God still gives all local believers the basis for their salvation and Christian living. The ideologies of Islam or globalisation insist on conformity to a particular cultural tradition. But the Bible doesn’t. And that is a tremendous witness to a watching world.
A geographically patchy church
We should be optimistic for the future of the global movement to Christ because the Lord of the church has determined to save a ‘great multitude that no-one could count’ (Rev. 7:9). He has given the church tremendous resources in manpower around the globe and a gospel that can be translated into any language and take root in any culture.
But in the twenty-first century huge swathes of humanity remain virtually untouched by the gospel, particularly in darkest Europe (the only continent in which the number of people who claim an allegiance to Christ is declining) and among Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist areas. There are twenty times as many people in the world today who make no claim to being Christian as there were on the day of Pentecost. Not only so but recent research suggests that among the billions who live in North Africa, the Middle East, South, Southeast, and East Asia only one in seven even knows anyone who claims to follow Christ. So, well over half the world’s population has no Christian acquaintance to which they can go with the big questions.
Furthermore, for many people, even if they do know Christians they would never normally have any social interaction with them because they belong to another ethnic or social group and may even speak a different language. That might not seem like a big obstacle to us. But just imagine if the only Christian you knew was a Somali immigrant who works at the local supermarket and doesn’t speak much English. For many peoples the most important thing about them is their ethnic or caste identity so this is a massive issue.
The world’s 1.4 billion Muslims live largely in the great arc of territory stretching from West Africa through the Middle East and Central Asia and on through South Asia into Indonesia. Many of these countries have very few believers and large numbers have very little opportunity to hear the gospel. What is more those who do turn to Christ in many of these countries are persecuted and even murdered for their faith.
The vast majority of Hindus lives in South Asia. In fact this region to the south of the Himalayas and dominated by India has the largest concentration of peoples with no vigorous church in the world. The gospel has spread through many of the marginal communities – Dalits (those formerly called ‘untouchables’) and Tribal peoples – but had little impact on Hindus from the dominant castes. The church is simply seen as a foreign institution.
In the Buddhist world, although there has been a significant breakthrough in China where Mao Zedong tried to destroy the church fifty years ago, there are still many countries and peoples with virtually no representatives of Christ’s body.
Taking these areas together, in the case of many of these peoples there is a strong antipathy to Christian faith because of an assumption that Christians, in particular missionaries, are seeking to convert people in order to undermine their nations and make them subservient to the ‘Christian’ West. The rhetoric of some church and mission leaders suggests that such an assumption is entirely understandable.
The work of rooting the church in local soil, then, is vital to our efforts to witness for Christ in the plurality of human societies. That means we need to work hard to gain a respectful acquaintance with the religion and culture of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others. So too we need a readiness to suffer. Many who have sought to bring the gospel to those who have never heard have suffered for the gospel and have counted it a privilege and joy. It does not look set to get any easier.
So though we have a translatable gospel and a growing, global church there is still a huge task to plant and nurture vital churches among these vast areas of peoples and this task is not high on the agenda of most of the church. Pity – it is high on God’s agenda.
Mark Pickett lived in South Asia for twenty years where he was involved in evangelism and Bible teaching. He is now a full-time lecturer at WEST.