In preparation for seminary winter session class, I have been reading material specific to Christian missions. Not a subject I was naturally drawn to but it very well may be the most penetrating class of my long (7 year and counting) seminary career. Of particular interest was an article entitled, "Global Missiology for the 21st Century". Perhaps the title doesn't immediately grab your attention, but I assure you, the content would.
The author, Rosemary Dowsett, makes some very intriguing observations about the changing face of Christianity in the Western World. In one section, she comments:
"In some ways we are back where we started. Of course, that is not entirely true. There have been 20 centuries of Christian history, which have indelibly marked much of the world besides shaping the church. In that sense, we cannot go back to where we started. But in other ways, we are perhaps closer to the context of the pre-Constantinian church than we realise.
For the first time in 15 centuries, through most of Europe, the church has neither political nor economic nor educational power...We live in a cauldron of religious pluralism, with institutionalized (as well as popular) opposition to claims to the uniqueness of Christ as the only truth and the only Savior. We live in a culture where Christianity has been so marginalized that most people could not articulate clearly the core beliefs of the Christian faith...
Many Christians from the first three centuries of the church would identify with most if not all of these characteristics."
Now that may not be too startling to most of you, but here is her premise. Fundamentally, "the post-modern church of the West must come to terms with weakness rather than power as the base from which she operates". (Read that again...it is vitally important!)
Now, this would not be considered news to the early church. In fact, it was there daily experience. But for us in the 21st century church, we have come to see weakness as failure and power as achievement.
Just take a look! Churches (even in our own city) are considered "successful" because they are large or popular or wealthy. This is the language of power!
Instead, maybe we should be asking Rosemary's questions:
- Are we (as a church) being challenged to lay down our lives for Christ?
- Is this church a community which openly acknowledges its weakness, gives away its wealth, put faithfulness above popularity, demonstrates dynamic love and points to the grace and glory of God?
- Is this a body of people who live out their daily lives in such a way that everything about them declares the gospel of Christ crucified?
The early Christian church understood these values. Most congregations had a precarious, often hidden, existence. But their power was in their weakness. The church has always been most vibrant where it has not been compromised by official status and political power but instead, has had to concentrate on spiritual integrity alone.
I, for one, believe the Church in America will increasingly follow the trend of weakness in our post-modern world. The political, economic and educational power of the church will become increasingly irrelevant. And personally, I feel this is a good thing. For when we can focus not on how we use our power to change the world and can instead, in our weakness, sacrifice our lives for the sake of the gospel of Christ. Perhaps then we will witness the true power of God to redeem the world. To God be the glory!
As you begin the New Year, take a moment to consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians. Perhaps not all that different than the church in America today, the Corinthian church thought they had all they wanted (4:8). And yet they continued to seek more power and influence which inevitably created an attitude of pride and judgment of one another...including the apostles. Instead of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, they were seeking to quench their insatiable appetite for power and self indulgence. Listen to Paul's condemnation of worldly power (dripping with cynicism) and his call to all of us to live lives of humble weakness so that the power of Christ may be made strong.
"For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" (1 Corinthians 4:9-21, NIV)
The book of Revelation reminds us that Jesus, like Paul, will be coming to "find out how these arrogent people are talking about their power". In this coming year, may we relate more to the example of Paul and the apostles. May our weakness, not our power, becomes our base of operation.