I grew up in a church that supported missionaries. We provided prayer and financial support to people who felt “called” to go to a foreign land and work with the indigenous population for the purpose of exposing them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Periodically our missionaries would return to the states for a furlough during which they would travel to the churches that supported them and report on conversions, programs and facilities.
And I’ve read some of the books that pushes back against missionary efforts describing them as paternalistic, imperialistic, and colonialism spreading our Western and American interpretation of Christianity. I guess that may have been a critic (valid or invalid is a matter of personal interpretation) however it isn’t as big an issue in the 21st century.
I shared with the worship community last Sunday that only 30% of missionaries sent worldwide originate from North America. Actually Africa, Latin America and Korea are now leading the way. Christianity is growing at a rate of 7-8% per year worldwide and it is predicted that in a few years half of the world’s population will proclaim Christianity as their religious preference. EXCEPT for here in North America.
On the North American continent Christianity is in decline and has been for nearly 50 years. 75% of people describe themselves as spiritual today (meaning that Christianity is just one of several spiritual traditions that makes up this demographic). In 1948 Gallup did a poll and asked people to self-identify their religious preference. 91% of those surveyed claimed Christianity. Going back to the sending forth of missionaries – those being sent from Africa, Latin America and Korea are coming to our shores to spread the Gospel – WE ARE THE NEW MISSION FIELD!
That led to this statement in my message – it is time for the local church of Jesus Christ to take the lead in being neighborhood missionaries.
Three things that Bill Easum raises in his book Preaching for Church Transformation that are informative as we strive to be neighborhood missionaries. We need to learn a new language, a new culture and a new technology.
A new language means that we need to learn how to communicate with people around us. When I was young we used to canvas the neighborhood knocking on doors and asking people “if you die tonight are you sure you would go to heaven?” Today people would ignore you and not answer the door – of course that is if they are even home. And enough people are skeptical about organized religion because of our various scandals that we need to find a different starting point to the conversation. Maybe a question like:
What do you think about the person they called Jesus?
Second is the need to adapt to a new culture. The image that I used on Sunday was the idealistic Ozzie and Harriet Nelson world that we isolate ourselves in. We bend and shape reality around us to a fantasized heterosexual couple with beautiful kids living in a comfortable home with one or two promising careers. And they are solid citizens who will do their time and take over responsibility for preserving the status quo in perpetuity. REALITY – we live in Ozzie and Sharon Osborne’s world. It is crazy, mixed up, fast paced and full of brokenness. More and more families are blended and many of them have significant financial concerns. They are doing the best to raise their children while also exposing them to endless opportunities. And balance between home and work-life are important but it is a constant battle to achieve. The church needs to learn flexibility in order to find its place in the lives of more neighbors.
Finally we need to learn a new technology. Sometimes we operate like the original Baltimore/Washington conference of the 1700’s. This is the way John Wesley and his companions put the Methodist movement together and thus it shall be till God’s kingdom comes. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. One of the earliest models was a brown wooden box with an ear piece and a mouth piece. Wind it up and wait for the operator so you could tell her who to connect you to. But technology in the phone industry has evolved significantly. Now you carry a smart phone with you that does more than Bell could have dreamed or imagined. The phone industry adapted to new and innovative thinking and technology. Learning a new technology is about the mindset needed to innovate, adapt and change. Churches need to adopt a new mindset, we need to learn a new technology.
If we are able to do this then we might be able to reclaim our identity as neighborhood missionaries. We might find ourselves relevant to our neighbors because we are impacting their lives with the love and grace of God. We will have meaningful conversations with them because we’ve learned to begin with where they are – not where we think they have to be. We will find ways to engage them in the time and spaces they have – not just at the times we choose to open our doors.
It’s going to be a tough adjustment that will require the moral courage to simply do it! There is no doubt and no rationalizing our way out of it – the reality is that our neighborhoods are less and less influenced by the Christian movement than at any other time in our history. I pray that God will help us to be bold and faithful witnesses – neighborhood missionaries! A couple of questions to ponder and answer for self-awareness and hopefully action:
Who was your neighborhood missionary that brought the gospel to the doorsteps of your heart?
Who was the last person that you were a neighborhood missionary to?
Blessings for the journey.