Posted by: John Adams | September 12, 2009

9/11 and the Spread of the Gospel

For millions of people, September 11, 2001 is a date that represents a watershed moment in American history, as well as the history of the world. For Americans, the effect of the attacks, designed as they were to strike at symbols of American financial dominance and military prowess, has been to elevate to the national consciousness an awareness of an international, militant, and rival ideology of a kind that the nation had not known since the fall of the Berlin Wall. There had been tremors during the relatively blithe Clinton era of the 1990’s (the bombings, for instance, of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998), but 9/11 was the earthquake which definitively brought the volcano of militant Islamic fundamentalism into view. It was the first al-Qaeda attack to command the full attention of the American people, occurring as it did upon American soil.

The resulting era has been one of costly (in terms of both money and human life, both American and foreign) and controversial military campaigns. Dictatorships have been dismantled in Iraq and Afghanistan and free elections held in both of those nations for the first time in years, though it is unclear at this point whether their democratically elected replacements will be able to survive the tensions of militarism, ethnic conflict, and new social issues such as the emancipation of women and the attempted evangelization of local populations by Christian missionaries. Even if they do, the problem stretches beyond the borders of these two nations into other rogue states more difficult to dismantle, such as Iran and Pakistan, a nation in which huge swaths of its own territory have been effectively deemed ungovernable by its own government.

America also faces problems at home, however, as the era of economic decline that began with the bursting of the dot-com bubble in 2000 and continued quietly through the Bush years suddenly became a major issue during last year’s election campaign in September. The nation now faces record federal deficits (projected to exceed $9 trillion–or 3/4 of the U.S. economy–in 10 years) in an era of world history in which Chinese military and financial strength is ascendant. (Incidentally, the Chinese own nearly a quarter of the U.S. national debt.) More worrying than these statistics, however, is a political climate in which the nation’s leaders increasingly govern with no sense of accountability to their Creator, the Constitution, or their constituents, no compunction to restrain the wasteful spending in which the government indulges (money which the national debt would indicate the nation does not actually have), and no personal integrity, a truth witnessed to by the fact that congressional sex scandals have nearly become a regular staple of the evening news.

My point in writing this is not to indulge in pessimism regarding the state of the United States (though I believe pessimism regarding the future of anything not connected to the Kingdom of God is always warranted), but rather to reflect on what the coming decades might mean for the proclamation of the Christian Gospel. A future in which the United States is no longer the dominant player on the world stage would have radical implications for the way the American church sees itself with relation to the developing world.

The truth of the matter is that, as Asbury Seminary president Tim Tennent said in a sermon on Thursday, the average face of Christianity is no longer a British man in his 40’s (as it would have been 100 years ago) but a 24-year-old Nigerian woman. The church of the Global South (Africa, Southern Asia and China, and Latin America) has become, in sheer numbers if not yet in influence and resources, the bulk of the Body of Christ worldwide. Consider this statistic: there are more Anglican Christians in Nigeria alone than in the United States, Canada, and the nations of Western Europe combined. (The fact that African Anglicans are now sending missionaries to the U.S. indicates that they now see the West as the real mission field, an irony not missed by Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom.)

The implications for the way in the American church conceives of mission are enormous. American culture is one in which people increasingly consider the most basic concepts of the Christian gospel to be alien. Clearly the church must re-imagine its work as cross-cultural, missionary activity. It is no longer sufficient to revamp tried and true evangelistic methods such as “The Four Spiritual Laws” and “Evangelism Explosion” for new audiences. Nor is it sufficient merely to create “seeker sensitive” programs that minimize discipleship in an effort to lure non-religious people to Christian services. The American church must commit itself to the task of cross-cultural bridge-building, translating the truth of the Gospel in a way that connects with a culture that does not understand its most fundamental presuppositions.

The global shift occurring in Christianity necessitates another paradigm shift, however. The bulk of the world’s Christians currently live in developing countries. The bulk of the world’s seminary education, however, occurs in the U.S., a fact attested to at Asbury by the large number of Global Southerners in attendance. I believe that this can (and must) change in the coming years. The future must be one of increased planting of solid churches that can support training institutions in the Global South. No longer can the Third World be conceived of solely as a mission field. Instead, it must be seen as the new seat of missionary influence and Christian activity in the world.

Nations like Nigeria, India, and China are the future of global Christianity, but already the growing Christian movement in those nations is being compromised by the Prosperity Gospel and heretical influences that may cut short the growth of the church before its time. This may have an effect on how strong the nascent church becomes in these nations and the influence it attains in them. A strong church in the developing world, however, would be of benefit not only to those nations, however, but potentially to the West, as missionaries from those nations have already begun reinvigorating the churches of old Christendom and plowing new missionary fields in post-Christian societies. A strong Global South church might also be of great benefit in evangelizing the part of the world where militant Islamic fundamentalism holds sway, as believers from those countries can gain access more easily to the Muslim world and frequently have more experience in interacting with majority-Muslim cultures.

American believers eager to participate in the work that God is doing in a post-9/11 world should seriously consider investing their lives (if they sense the calling of the Lord to do so) into partnership with Global South churches in developing theological depth, planting new churches, and training missionaries to send from those nations. The success of the church in the coming years–in the West, the Global South, and the Islamic world–may well depend upon it.

Listen to Tim Tennent’s convocation sermon, “The Translatability of the Gospel.”

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Responses

  1. Very good essay!


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