The Role of the American Church in World Missions

Posted by in Church & Missions

As a nation, we in the United States of America have undoubtedly been greatly blessed. Quite apart from the on-going discussion on the religious beliefs of the founding fathers, there is no denying the fact that, from an evangelical perspective, God has richly showered his grace and mercy upon us in many, many ways.

Down through our comparatively brief history, somewhat reminiscent of what the book of Acts tells us about the growth of the early church, “the word of the Lord [has] spread widely and [has grown] in power” (Acts 19:20). We have, on various occasions, seen outpourings of mighty spiritual revival. Towering spiritual giants, such as Jonathan Edwards, Dwight L. Moody, and Billy Graham (not to mention thousands of, no doubt, equally anointed men and women of God), have grown up on our shores, and faithfully ministered the gifts God has given them in our midst. Great movements, ministries, and local churches have been birthed, and come to be effectual channels of the manifold riches of God’s grace among us.

But “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). And, even though, as Oskar Schindler lamented at the end of the film Schindler’s List, there is always reason to consider what we have not accomplished, and what more could have been done had we only been more faithful, in a very real way, God has used the American church mightily to be a blessing to the nations. Following the lead of visionary men like Count Zinzendorf, William Carey, and Andrew Fuller in Europe, our evangelical forebears in America soon came to set the pace in terms of commitment in action towards the fulfillment of the Great Commission around the world.

More specifically as Southern Baptists, our heritage in world missions gives us ample motive for gratitude and healthy pride. Only eternity will tell how many lives have been touched and how much strategic ground gained for the advance of the kingdom of God as a result of the faithfulness of Southern Baptists to the task God has given us, both on the part of the missionaries overseas, as well as the churches and members who, through their prayers and sacrificial giving back home, have faithfully “held the ropes.”

In the 21st century, however, we have reached a stage in the development of the world Christian movement in which, by many measures, the focus has been taken off of the church in the West (and more specifically the United States), and placed upon the surging and vibrant churches of the “two-thirds world.” Penn State University history professor Philip Jenkins has strikingly chronicled this astonishing development in his monumental books The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity.

Along with these changes in the world religious landscape, I believe that the role God is giving us as his church in America is also changing. On the home front, we have due reason to be alarmed about the moral decay and spiritual lethargy that appear to be overtaking us on all sides. At the same time, however, I cannot conceive how it could possibly be God’s will for us to entrench within our “spiritual fortresses” and shift into “defense mode.” Jesus’ prophecy that, as the church, the gates of hell would not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18), has been adequately demonstrated by others to refer to a church on the offensive that is called to invade the realm of the enemy, rather than merely “hold the fort.”

At the same time, I believe an equally dangerous sidetrack that we, as the American church, must avoid, in regard to world missions, is that of triumphalism. As Americans, in general, we are used to being “number one.” Indeed, we have come to be, if not by the grace of God, at least by his permissive will, the most powerful and wealthy nation in the history of the earth.

As American Christians, it can be easy to fall into the temptation of regarding ourselves as God’s “best and brightest.” I am convinced, however, that a proper understanding of God’s Word will lead us to forcefully repudiate this idea with all of its implications (Luke 10:21; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28, 12:21-25). Rather, we must respond to these changes with an attitude of humility. In certain aspects, God may well have chosen us, as Americans, to fulfill a special role in the advance of his kingdom at particular moments of salvation history. In some regards, however, it is possible the role we think we have filled may not always be as comparatively special as we like to sometimes believe. There may well be some big surprises when we get to heaven and the rewards are handed out.

Especially, however, I believe that, in today’s world, we need to be emotionally and spiritually prepared to yield, as it were, the “center stage” of God’s work around the world to those from places that have traditionally been considered as less privileged than us, and, in certain aspects, less sophisticated. More than anything, I am referring here to questions of attitude that defy measurement on graphs and pie charts. We must come to consider our brothers and sisters around the world as better than ourselves (Philippians 2:1-11). We must be willing to learn from them, and to see them as equal partners in the task of fulfilling the Great Commission.

Already, all around the world, amazing things are happening that, not long ago, would have never been dreamed possible in world missions. From Latin America, largely under the covering of the COMIBAM movement, a vibrant contingent of cross-cultural workers are spreading out into the most challenging mission fields, and seeing God’s blessing upon their efforts. In Africa, Great Commission workers are being trained, mobilized, and sent out to places like India and the Middle East. House church believers in China are totally convinced that God has given them the vision to take the gospel message across the borders to the various unreached people groups of the 10-40 Window all the way Back to Jerusalem, where Jesus first issued the Great Commission. In recent days, the missionary zeal of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Korea has been in the news, as 2 choice servants of God were martyred for their faith and 21 others held captive for 6 weeks in Afghanistan. And these are only a few examples of the myriad of surprising things God is doing around the world.

Does this mean that we in the States should just sit back and relax and observe what God is doing? By no means! Each one of us will one day be called to give an account of the talents that God has entrusted into our hands, and our degree of faithfulness in putting them to the best use possible for the advance of his kingdom. But, it does mean, as I understand it, that we should approach our obedience to the Great Commission from a different perspective. More than ever before, we will be called upon to assume a role of servants.

In many places around the world, I am convinced that the best thing we can do is to assume a role of quiet, behind-the-scenes support of God’s new frontline workers. This includes, without a doubt, generous sharing of the financial resources with which God has so richly blessed us. We must be extra careful, at the same time, to do this in a way that does not facilitate unhealthy dependency and paternalism, and inhibit believers in other countries from being good stewards of the resources God has given them.

It also includes a continued sharing of other resources, such as technology, creative ideas, and missionary personnel. More and more, though, I believe this must be done not so much from a perspective of “what we have to offer you,” but rather of “what we all, as fellow team-members, bring to the table, as we work together to fulfill the task before us.”

Without a doubt, one of the most remarkable developments in world missions in recent years, especially from a North American perspective, has been the avalanche of short-term mission trips to the “four corners of the globe.” Most certainly, this has been a great blessing, as many more people than ever before have had direct exposure to the marvelous things God is doing around the world, and have been able to put their spiritual gifts to use. However, I think it is crucial, if God is to really use this as fully as possible for his glory, that these new endeavors be undertaken with a spirit of humility and servanthood.

Of course, we want to be faithful to boldly proclaim the gospel message, and not shrink back from declaring “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). However, it is important to remember, at the same time, that the Great Commission does not enjoin us to “make converts,” or to “register spiritual decisions,” but rather to “make disciples of all nations.” In the long run, what will count most for eternity will not be the number of people we report to our sending churches back home who lifted their hand in an evangelistic meeting, or who filled out a commitment card. It will be bona fide disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ who fully integrate into indigenous churches that live out the gospel, day in and day out, in a culturally appropriate and holistic manner amongst the people that surround them.

As American Christians, do we still have a role to play in all of this? Most certainly. But, more and more, our effectiveness in doing so will be commensurate with our ability to form authentic partnerships, and relate to our national brothers and sisters in Christ in the nations of the world from a perspective of humility and servanthood.