The World Upside Down
This past Sunday, the congregation where I worship, Calvary Church in Charlotte, NC, started their week-long annual missions conference. For me, this is the highlight of the year in terms of Sunday-morning worship. The music emphasizes world missions, and the 25 or so missionary families that the congregation brings to Charlotte for the week parade into the sanctuary holding the flags of the nations in which they live and work. We hear testimonies from several, and our pastor, John Munro (a native of Scotland who speaks with a delightful Scottish accent) issues a challenge for all of us to consider our role in the Great Commission.
The worship service is the first of an entire week of missions activities. The congregation contributes to the support over over 80 missionary families, and brings a third of those to Charlotte every year for the conference. It’s an opportunity for us to interact with those whom we support, and an opportunity for the missionary families to get a needed break from their busy lives and allow our congregation to express our appreciation for their work. Several of those who come back for the conference each year are believers who responded to a call to world missions they received 20, 30, even 40 years ago while at a missions conference.
All of this takes me back to my childhood at the little Advent Christian congregation (Parkside Community Church) on the corner of 24th Ave. and Ulloa St. just up the street from my house in San Francisco. Like Calvary Church today, that little congregation emphasized world missions too through missions Sundays, through visits from missionaries like Austin and Dorothy Warriner, Marion Damon, and Howard and Anna Mae Towne who would tell us about their work in far away (to this young person) places like Japan, India, and the Philippines. We supported Advent Christian missionaries, missionaries from evangelical agencies, and local mission efforts like the rescue mission and Young Life. Pretty impressive for a congregation that averaged 55 in attendance on a good Sunday.
While I didn’t become an overseas missionary, it is safe to say that those missions events in my little church not only gave me a passion for the Great Commission that Jesus describes in the last chapter of Matthew’s gospel, but pointed me toward investing my adult life in vocational Christian service. I don’t think I would have spent the last 22 years of my life involved in theological education without those early world missions influences. And, that work has provided opportunities to meet Christians from around the world and hear what God is doing as center stage for world Christianity has shifted to the global south. Imagine with me the drama of that shift. In 1910, 80 percent of Christians on earth lived in Europe and North America. Now, in 2019, 80 percent of all followers of Jesus live in the global south–Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Moreover, half of the Christians who have ever lived have lived in the last 100 years.
I thought about those realities as I listened to missionary families describe their work this morning. That work is often difficult. Serving as a missionary requires long hours, a tolerance for ambiguity, and a willingness to struggle with our own imperfections as well as the vast economic and cultural differences that confront those who live and work outside of North America. I have also heard many missionaries describe how their call was not well received by their own parents and others whom they love. In addition, in our own society, following God’s call to missionary service is controversial. What gives you the right to tell others to change their religion? Aren’t you just contributing to the destruction of indigenous culture and replacing it with American culture (and, yes, American culture has huge faults and problems). I remember reading a Charlotte Observer editorial written sometime during the early 1990s where the writer was complaining about the lack of good salaries for teachers. “After all,” he wrote, “this isn’t missionary work,” implying that missionary work wasn’t worth much.
Those struggles raise theological questions as well. For example, what are we to do when we see injustice embedded in political and cultural practice? How do we live in societies where poverty is endemic? (This morning, a medical missionary described how Burundi, the African country where she serves children with little access to medical care, is viewed as “the hungriest place on the continent.”) What does it mean to call people to follow Christ when their families threaten to disown them because another religion (Islam, Hinduism, or a form of tribal religion) is considered integral to tribal and national identity? Is what I am teaching the gospel meant for all or some Westernized form of Christianity that shrouds the Christian message in cultural imperialism?
The list could go on, and missionary theologians like Lesslie Newbigin, John Stott, Lamin Sanneh, and Miroslav Volf have wrestled long and hard with them. I think that we can learn from their work and from the work of veteran missionaries who have lived with these questions over a lifetime of missionary service. Let me add a couple of notes to that, notes that are not original with me by any stretch of the imagination. First, our call is to make disciples for Jesus Christ wherever God places us. We are to speak the gospel and call men and women, boys and girls from throughout the world to follow Jesus.
Second, integral to gospel proclamation is the Kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us that in Mark 1:14-15. Central to the gospel is that the “kingdom of God” is literally “at hand.” The biblical scholar George Ladd described it as “the presence of the future.” Making disciples means helping others learn to live as citizens of a new kingdom, a new order that through Jesus Christ is breaking into our world as we speak. Of course, that new order will not be fully realized until our Lord returns. But the Kingdom of God is entering our world now in a way that the future is just as real as the present.
Third, a biblical understanding of the Kingdom of God expands our understanding of what God is doing in our world even now. As I read the Old Testament and New Testament narratives, I see God concerned about the flourishing of his creation and about our flourishing as human beings. We live in a world overwhelmed by drugs, poverty, violence, racism and prejudice, hatreds of all kinds, and a general sense of despair. Human relationships are broken and fractured. Government corruption is rampant and even in the United States, millions experience alienation from the very institutions that are supposed to strengthen us. Technology has contributed to that alienation to the point where we cannot even carry on civil conversations with those with whom we disagree. Human depravity is not a pretty picture.
Andy Crouch suggests that what Christians are involved in is what he terms culture-making. Culture-making involves establishing outposts for the Kingdom of God in a world where hope is nearly non-existent and simple justice is illusory. Culture-making does not involve partisan politics nor creating elaborate institutions, both of which lead to more disillusionment. Instead we build families, congregations, and communities (locally and globally) that begin to reflect the presence of the future.
In other words, the Spirit uses us to turn the world upside down. That in my view is what the Christian life is about and what world missions is about. We speak the hope-saturated message of the Christian faith centered on the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior. We establish outposts of the coming Kingdom of God, the “already but not yet,” where we learn to live a new way of life in relationship with the Triune God. We seek justice for the poor as the prophet Amos calls us to do, knowing that our efforts will be imperfect but knowing that a time is coming when our Lord will establish a world of perfect justice.
Come to think of it, how about we add missions conferences back into our congregational life. What better way for North American Christians to be counter-cultural in a society mired in hopelessness, despair, and injustice?