The Globalization of the American Church

Last week I had the privilege of joining with 125 pastors from some of the nation’s most influential churches to discuss the future role and opportunities for American congregations in global missions.  This gathering was called by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (I serve on the Executive Committee and as Treasurer of Lausanne).  Below is the press release summarizing the discussion.

PASTORS GATHER IN DALLAS TO HEAR WORLD’S PERCEPTION OF AMERICAN MISSIONS:
Conference Held in Preparation for Cape Town 2010

DALLAS, Oct. 1, 2008 – Christian leaders from around the country heard a wake-up call this week on how they are perceived by believers in the Global South. Speakers came from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America – the parts of the world experiencing the most growth in Christianity.

One hundred twenty-five pastors from a broad spectrum of American churches gathered for the North American Pastors’ Consultation on “The Changing Role of the American Church in World Evangelization,” held at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, Sept. 22-23.  Similar meetings will be held around the world, leading up to The Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization, to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, Oct. 16-25, 2010.

“The purpose of this consultation was to discuss the changing role of the American Church in world evangelization,” said the Rev. Doug Birdsall, executive chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.  “In recent years, many international church leaders have been asking, ‘Is the American Church still with us?  Does the American Church have the humility to learn from us, to work together in authentic partnership?’ We answered several of those questions during the week.”

While American missions have done a lot of good in spreading the Gospel throughout the globe in the last 100 years, several speakers said that the time has come for a change. Theological educator and evangelist Dr. Peter Kuzmic of Croatia said that U.S. Christians must stop acting as if “salvation is in the hands of Americans.”  He said that Western Christians have, along with the good, also done damage to the image of Christ around the world.  He recalled the era following the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Eastern Europe was first open to Christianity.  So many different branches of Christianity came in to share the Gospel, Dr. Kuzmic said, that people were confused.  “How many Jesuses are there in the West?” they asked, after being introduced to the Baptist Jesus, the Presbyterian Jesus, the Pentecostal Jesus, etc.

Africa was represented by the Rev. Reuben Ezemadu of Nigeria, continental director of the Movement of African National Initiatives. He said African Christians have appreciated the historic leadership of the United States in mission efforts, but in the last 15-20 years, it has seemed as if U.S. Christians were imposing their structures on the Global South, and they just did not work in that context.  American participation in support roles is still needed, but Africans themselves can more appropriately take leadership roles.  They ask that Americans recognize the maturity and intelligence of other cultures.

David Ruiz of Guatemala, associate director of the World Evangelical Alliance Mission Commission, presented the Hispanic perspective. He said Latin American Christians have felt ignored or overlooked, and want to see more humility from Western Christians about Latin America’s potential for reshaping Christianity worldwide. “Will North American Christians listen to their brothers and sisters from the South?” he asked.

Dr. Patrick Fung, a physician and theologian from China and general director of OMF International (formerly the Overseas Missionary Fellowship), addressed Asian perceptions of American missions.  He recalled the story of missions in China in the years following 1949, when all missionaries had to withdraw. Despite no missionary presence, the church grew and thrived. Now the Chinese Church globally is the largest church in the world.

Dr. Fung said that America is still perceived as a Christian nation, so when America acts “un-Christianly,” it reflects poorly on the Gospel, as has happened on the homosexual agenda. Asian Christians want to work shoulder to shoulder with U.S. Christians and to feel that they have been given an equal listening ear.  A highly significant role Western believers can play is in reaching out to millions of Asian students studying in American and European universities, he said.

Following each presentation, the pastors discussed in roundtables what their “take away” should be. The group consensus was that the role of Western Christians in the increasingly ‘glocal’ (simultaneously global and local) world is changing dramatically. Partnership will be key to establishing stronger, mutually supportive links.

A high point for many of the attendees was Tim Keller’s discussion on Christianity in America today, and the tension between evangelism and social justice issues. He suggested that Christians can neither try to change culture through social activism, withdraw from the culture, nor try to accommodate themselves to culture as cultural relevants to the extent that their own values are compromised.  He said evangelism must remain the priority, and that only hearts that are truly changed will lead to cultural transformation.  The solution, he said, is “gracious, truthful presence in culture.”

One purpose of the conference was to encourage pastors to think about the role they and their church will play in the upcoming Cape Town 2010 congress.  It will include 4,000 participants from around the world, of which 400 of these will be from the United States. Churches will be invited to participate via the Internet and to host local gatherings, making it a truly global event and the first of its kind. Program Chairman Ramez Atallah reminded those present that the whole world participated in the Olympics, from their own living rooms. He has the same hope for Cape Town 2010.

The original Lausanne Congress was held in 1974, bringing Christians from around the globe to focus on world evangelization. A second congress followed in 1989. The fast pace of change in every sphere – from technology to communication and transportation – calls for a new Lausanne Congress to equip the Church for the next decade. It is sponsored by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization in collaboration with the World Evangelical Alliance.

The Lausanne Movement seeks to serve leaders worldwide by providing a place for theological discussion and the development of practical strategies for world evangelization. Lausanne seeks to encourage and stimulate the involvement of churches, denominations, ministries, networks and individuals.

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