Over at Movements.net, Steve Addison has a cutting little post entitled Celebrating 100 years of missional fog. Apparently 18 major missional leaders in the USA were interviewed, and only half of them drew a strong connection between the mission of Christ and discipleship. What this reflects, according to Steve, is that the disciple-making way of life is not generally being evidenced in our communities — no matter how missional we are. Steve’s response:
Western Christians have been exploring mission for a 100 years and still aren’t going anywhere.
If that’s the general picture (of course there are local exceptions), it probably means the decline of Christianity in the West will continue despite our best efforts to avert it.
As Western Christians, we might acknowledge this with a sense of dread; after all the Western church has been the guardian of the faith for many centuries. Things look dire!
But if that’s where our thinking stops, we’ve been overtaken by our own self-importance. Here’s a thought from the most recent CMS conference in our hometown, according to the director of AsiaCMS, Kang-San Tan:
God seems to say, ‘I have given you this precious gospel. You are to be like Israel, their story of sin, judgement and salvation. But whenever you keep the gospel for yourself and do not share it to the nations, then God, this great God of the nations, has the prerogative to remove your golden lampstand and move that baton of Christian mission to other countries and other people groups.’ Download full audio…
The failure of discipleship in the Western church is not the end of the story because the Christian God has, apparently, not seen fit to allow permanent roots in any one place. Tan goes on to recount one of Andrew Walls’ findings, that the growth of Christianity tends to have been serial growth, hopping from culture to culture. (Walls contrasts this with the progressive/cumulative pattern of growth in Islam.) Advance is followed by recession, and
Christian communities often wither in their heartlands, their areas of seeming strength, and then flower anew at or beyond the periphery.
And that is the striking reality of the past century: Christianity has withered in its Western centres and simultaneously grown explosively across the majority world. As Walls says,
The demographic fact we now have to live with and work with and think around is that we begin the 21st Century [Walls is writing in 2002] with an increasingly post-Christian West and an increasingly post-Western Christianity.
You might say that this majority world boom was sparked by Western missionary movements, in which case Western Christianity hasn’t failed altogether in its disciple-making mission. But even if that’s the case — that the Western church was able to sow the seeds of a future beyond itself — that’s not the Western church’s own triumph. I guess that many of us ‘professional’ missionaries will refuse to take credit, and note instead that these recent Christianities are now proving themselves to have evolved and matured beyond Western models. When the message makes that cross-cultural leap of translation and takes root, we see the work of the Holy Spirit. The lampstand never belonged to us to begin with.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.