For many decades Christian missionaries have faced the charge that Christianity is only a white American’s religion. But all the demographics have changed that idea for good. It was Americans who helped plant the gospel in Africa and build many churches there. Those churches have grown phenomenally. The Anglican church alone has produced over 5 million Anglicans in 21,000 churches—just in Uganda—while in America their counterpart (Episcopal churches) have dwindled to about 2 million members in 7,000 churches.
This story is an illustration of some dramatic changes in Christianity. As recently as 1960 most Christians lived in Western Europe and North America. By the year 2000, 70% of all Christians were living in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Island nations. It is not that Christianity is dying in the Western world. It isn’t. But there has been a virtual explosion of Evangelical Christian growth in third world countries (South Korea, for instance, which is home to 10 of the 20 largest congregations in the world, including the single largest congregation, Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul—somewhere around one
The American Church seems oblivious to this. When I once said that two thirds of all Christians have to live with serious persecution as a daily companion, most of our people looked at one another in disbelief. That is because we do not yet have a global concept of the Church. Our Christian family is very large and very diverse and American Christians are only a small part of that mix. That is why it is time to become more global in our thinking. At this very moment somewhere in China, or Pakistan, or Indonesia brothers and sisters are in jail for no other reason than their faith in Jesus Christ. Others are having their homes destroyed or their possessions stolen. Still others are being sold into slavery and some are being beaten or murdered through mob violence. So whenever it is that you pour out your heart to God in prayer, please remember those you will never meet in this life. They are part of your family too. Say a prayer for them.
Remember some years ago when the space shuttle Discovery was grounded, not by technical difficulties or lack of government funding, but by woodpeckers? Yellow-shafted flicker woodpeckers found the insulating foam on the shuttle’s external fuel tank irresistible material for pecking. The foam is critical to the shuttle’s performance. Without it, ice forms on the tank when it’s filled with the super-cold fuel, ice that can break free during liftoff and damage the giant spacecraft. The shuttle was grounded until the damage was repaired. Of all the things that could have gone wrong to destroy the mission, I’ll bet they never thought of
Marriages are frequently damaged not by big things—infidelity or abuse or abandonment—but by the little things. What do I consider the little things? Those things that happen between us (or fail to happen) that we don’t even notice: words we used to say that always conveyed our love for one another, a silent smile of reassurance, a squeeze or hug that said “I care.” It’s amazing how those little things disappear the longer we live together. It’s also amazing the distance they begin to put between us, if not geographically, at least emotionally. The engineers might have taken the attitude “Well, so what if there are a few holes in the spacecraft. It’ll still fly!” But they have also learned that such thinking could well produce a massive fatal mistake. Attention to the little things is what keeps the program going. It is also like that in our marriage. I don’t doubt that those couples who find their marriages less than satisfying still love each other. But they have forgotten the need to express it in ways that their mates can understand.
When the Apostle Paul was describing Christian marriage in Ephesians 5, he used two words to describe the responsibility of marital love: “nurture” and “cherish.” Both of these words require attention to detail. They require that each partner become a “student” of his mate, that he learn what that other person requires to grow, to blossom, to be fulfilled and that he or she then must set about to supply those requirements. Unfortunately, few of us want to put that much energy into building a marriage. But like the space missions we must be aware that there is just too much at stake to ignore the woodpeckers. Unless we want to see everything crash and burn, we’d better pay attention to the details.
I can remember it like it happened yesterday, and most of you know what I mean. I was officiating at my daughter’s wedding and asked myself, ‘How can this be?” Only yesterday, it seems, she was just a little girl? Most of us don’t take kindly to change, especially the change that moves loved ones out of a comfortable position in our lives. If you are like I am, you love your well-worn ruts and you want them to stay that way. Relationships make for the deepest and most comfortable ruts of all. There is a hurt that accompanies such a change, even though God planned for the changes that I experienced to kick in sooner or later. But some of those changes are not planned, like the loss of a loved one through death or divorce, or the change in a relationship through serious health problems.
It is at these points in our lives when we really begin to understand our vulnerability and our need for a tight grasp on the Divine hand. Our non-Christian friends sometimes remind us that faith in God is for weak people. I used to be offended at that. Not anymore. I think they are right. It is for weak people. Their serious error, however, is in assuming they are not weak. Weakness is a part of the human condition. Pity the person who has yet to discover that fact. It may come as a terrible blow, especially if he has never learned to lean upon the One who remains solidly intact while the ground breaks up under everything else.
The Apostle Paul experienced the terrible vulnerability of weakness. That great man of God who appeared to be the model of spiritual strength was visited by a “thorn in the flesh” so painful and debilitating that he cried out three times to God for its removal. It never happened. But lest you get the idea that God wasn’t paying attention, something even greater happened. He learned what it is like to truly be enveloped by the grace of God. He learned what God meant when He said, “My power is made perfect in weakness.” The result of this experience can be gleaned through Paul’s own words: “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10).
Change comes. Loved ones in our lives leave, run away or are forcefully removed. But God never leaves us. This universal promise and its experience is the glory of life and a major reason why every one of us needs a relationship with the “God of all comfort.”
What did Jesus mean when He said, “I am come that they might have life and that they might have it in abundance”? We who call ourselves Christians have insisted for 2,000 years that true life is bound up in a relationship with Jesus Christ, that only He can change our status from merely existing to truly living. We sing about it, we preach and teach about it, but what does “abundant living” really look like? Like most of the things our Lord taught us about kingdom living it has to do with a succession of small events that, when put together, make a very large life. Abundant living doesn’t show itself just in magnificent conversion experiences, or awesome miracles, or martyr-type deaths. Instead, it is seen in the giving of food to the hungry or water to those who are thirsty, or being hospitable to a stranger, or clothing the naked, or ministering to the sick and hurting. So subtle are these things in themselves that those who practice them regularly will say, when commended for them at the Judgment, “When did we do these things?” And the king will say….to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine….you did it to me….and these will go away into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:40). Why? Because that is the abundant reward that seems to accompany that kind of abundant living. And that kind of life is urged upon us all.
Today is a good time to be practicing this kind of “abundant living.” There are so many opportunities to be “others focused.” So many people are out of work, discouraged by the economy, lacking the things so many of us take for granted. Reach out to these people. Even if you can’t give them the physical resources they seek, give them a smile, a word of encouragement, a prayer of support. Show your concern for them by a visit to their home, or at the hospital, or, as Jesus suggested, a visit to the jail. These are the kinds of things His disciples have always done, not because it is their duty to do them but because this is part of that which makes life so “large,” or as Jesus would put it, “abundant.”
We have a very mixed up culture that is doing two things at the same time. We are becoming shallower, coarser, more interested in acquiring things and more ethically and morally confused as we distance ourselves from our past traditions. But at the same time, we are crying out for meaning. We want to be touched at the deepest point in our lives but nothing in our secular culture is capable of doing that. Karl Barth, considered by many to be the greatest theologian of the 20th Century, was once asked, “Why do people go to church?” He answered, “People go to church asking the question: ‘Is it true? I have heard that there is a loving God who presides over this universe and who knows when even the tiniest sparrow falls from the sky. I have heard that He so loved the world that He sent his own Son to become its Savior and to give us eternal life. Can I really trust my life to His care? Is it true? Can I count on it?”
I consider these times to be among the most challenging times in all of history to be alive. It is true that many of us within the church are fearful and cynical of these times, pointing in horror to abominable philosophies and practices that recall some of the worst days of Old Testament paganism. It reminds me of the old story of two shoe salesmen who went to East Africa to explore business opportunities. The one contacted his company immediately saying, “Forget it! No one here wears shoes!” But the other excitedly phoned his company and exclaimed, “Send me as many shoes in all sizes possible. Opportunities are unlimited!”
We may be living a wonderful moment in history, as those old frauds the World, the Flesh and the Devil are discredited by the very culture they have nearly destroyed. As the dust settles and the air clears, we may see a widespread readiness to respond to something deeper. People have had it with the way their lives are going and some of them have the good sense to realize that improved goods and services are not going to help. That brings us back to Karl Barth’s question “Is it true?” And right here lies our greatest opportunity. We have said Christ can change even the worst of sinners. He can bring direction where there was previously only confusion. If that is so, then let us prove it. If we can’t show the world people with changed hearts, radically altered values and genuine love and forgiveness then we have no right to be in business and will only be part of the problem instead of the solution. Christian, get your house together. The direction your pagan neighbor turns next may well depend on what he sees in you.
Senior Pastor of Cactus Christian Fellowship