Brother Stan Rieb and I had the privilege of sharing lunch together recently, and in the course of conversation, the comment was made that a certain municipality in Colorado now denies all church applications for building and expansion. I was struck with the fact that as I work overseas in Egypt, Iraq and Turkey, the very places where the Church originated, we find a very similar resistance in these areas today. In understanding church history, this resistance is not new. In fact as I look over the past 2000 years of extended Church history, the plight of Christians through the centuries, and our modern day partnering to plant and build churches in the Middle East, this is the norm.
For those who have a sense that we are owed some kind of privileged position due to being American Christians, it may be that we need to rethink our position. Rather than being surprised, shocked, or frustrated over such attitudes, let us be encouraged to look at our churches in a different light.
We are as U.S. Christians, really owed nothing, rather, the world asks us to give a reason for our validity. We can no longer grow the Church from the inside out, but we must assist people as they grasp the realities of a personal relationship with the Lord. He told us to be “salt and light,” and we are to continue to be a mainstream influence in our society, all in a culture that is growing more and more hostile to the truths taught in the Word of God.
We are seeing a culture shifting away from long held common beliefs, and have turned from a post-Christian nation to a pre-Christian nation. In fact, churches must adopt a missional outlook and perspective if we are to influence our communities. Before one becomes discouraged and feels confronted yet again with another “program” to be implemented, or how some other church reached “mega” status, let’s look at a few things that might help in assessing current direction, vision and actions.
I love Church history; not the one we were taught in Bible college and seminary that was primarily Western in its focus, but the dynamic growth and later decline of the Church in the Middle East from the first to the seventeenth century. The Church in the Middle East holds lessons for the U.S. Church today. How do we continue to influence in the midst of growing opposition as a Church engaged within the purposes that Scripture mandates?
Imagine for a moment that your church was in a foreign country, somewhat tolerant of Christianity, but not enamored with it either. How would you maximize your buildings, your congregation, your volunteers and your financial resources to effectively impact your “foreign community?”
Take a moment and think through this. When a missionary goes overseas and when all the excitement of support raising has been accomplished, and all the adventure of travel and settling into a new country has begun to sink in, he or she eventually comes to the question which I remember asking of myself in India, “now what?” It is from that question that one derives all future passion, vision and activity. It is one of personal and ministry assessment, and it is also what the Lord asked Moses in Midian when he stood before the burning bush, “What is in your hand?”
Pastor, what is in your hand? How can this be invested in taking your church into your community and being an influence for good? I’ve seen two churches standing side by side, one holding activities such as hiking clubs, MOP’s, day care, senior citizen lunches, community and political meetings, men’s BBQ’s, softball and basketball league participation, little league, and community road and parks clean up. This church I’m describing is seen as an asset to the community, contrasted with the neighboring church that never sees a car enter the drive until Sunday AM. As we look at a less than welcoming community, 1 Peter 2:12 reminds us to, “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”
A Church looking exclusively at herself and her own ministries is in the beginning of a decline that, given enough time, leads to nonexistence. We’ve all been brought to tears when one of our own precious children trusts Christ as Savior; as wonderful as this is, let’s not be satisfied with this alone, but just as a missionary worth his or her tenure overseas diligently ministers in outreach, we too must actively seek ways to influence our community for Christ.
This influence requires vision and action. What is your vision for your community? Is it so big that God has to show up? Faith begets faith. The greatest affect for change is when people see genuine faith in action because of strong vision. Every man I know wishes for a moment when he can be a hero and make a strategic shift and positive change in someone’s life for good. Christ designed his bride to be his hands and his feet, in other words, you and I, the Church itself, are real life heroes reaching our neighbors with His love and forgiveness.
What is the Church to produce? Chevy makes cars, Cross makes pens, Harley-Davidson makes motorcycles (thank you, Lord). So the question then is, “what is the church to produce?” The Church produces new Christ-followers who become disciples. If we’re not accomplishing this, we’re not doing our job.
The beginning of the decline of the church in the Middle East was around the 13th century. Of course it was partly the result of a growing persecution of Christians by Islamic communities, and their rulers. Up to this time the Islamic communities had blended, accepted and in fact, interlaced Christians into their socio-political and economic societies. During the 13th century we begin to note a decline in influence and connection the Church held within the blended communities, a declination caused not as a result of outside pressure, but, rather, from inside the Church herself.
Pastors and bishops gradually exhibited a lack of academic engagement in Scriptures, passing this on to the Church. In other words, the Church began to “do ministry” because of traditions rather than reflect a vibrant interest in the Word of God, its vital truths and its impact on society and the human heart. Ultimately this attitude produced a lack of interest in reaching out to the unsaved. Believers became satisfied with passing on their faith primarily to their own children and family “dynasties.”
The decline of the Church from the 14th through the 17th century in the Middle East was first, persecution, of course, but a third underlying cause was also lack of vision for reaching out. Because of religious and political pressures, they choose compromise as an alternative and accepted marginalization within their communities rather than retain the role of vibrant changeagent. Families passed their faith on to their own family rather than reaching out.
In contrast, within the first century, despite growing persecution, the message of Jesus Christ exploded along the trade routes of both the Roman and Persian world, especially along the Silk Road to India and China. As an example, the Gospel, brought by merchants from Jerusalem, reached Mosul in Northern Iraq in 38 A.D. mixing the concepts of business and mission. In fact, one of the early hymns the Church in the East was “let us take the attire of merchants and bring the good news to the world.”
The decline of the modern Church is directly linked to the abdication of engagement in her communities through the daily influence in the lives of neighbors and co-workers, to accomplish what Christ commanded her to do, make disciples. When the Church is singularly focused on itself and fellowship, she loses her influence in society and the outcome is marginalization.
My dear friend, an Iraqi pastor, Douglas Bazi, has been shepherding a church of refugees from Mosul. Two years ago as Mosul fell, he was captured by ISIS, tortured and beaten many times. He was taken to be beheaded a number of times, but as he said, “the Lord has always been with me and watched over me.” After four months, miraculously, he was released and immediately resumed his role as pastor shepherding his flock who were now refugees in nearby Irbil, northern Iraq. Refusing to leave his flock, he has worked tirelessly to emigrate his congregation of over 200 families in the Czech Republic. His key leadership and life example have impacted thousands. Without pastoral leadership and a localized focus upon the people of our communities, the church will flounder.
So what are some action points to consider?
1. The Church needs a missional heart. Let’s not focus on what we want our community to do for us, but what we can and will do for our community.
2. The Church needs to be practical as Moses was when God asked him, “What is in your hand?” God knows our flaws and weaknesses and still chooses to work through us for His glory, and He will take the mundane and make it miraculous and pertinent.
3. The Church needs to be actively stepping into the mainstream of her community.
4. The Church needs to take courage and stand firm in her faith and confidence in the teaching of the Word. We’ve seen all that Satan can throw at us; this is nothing new. Yet the Church still stands because she is founded upon the immovable foundation of Christ and the eternal Word.
The Lord said, “I will be with you, to the very end of the age.” We may not all teach and preach well, but we can each make disciples, and as authentic, passionate Christ-followers we are linked to the ongoing pulse and unfolding history of the Church that is being made today.
By John W. Cook, CEO, Indigenous Ministries
Photo of John and his wife, Dee