I recently read an article written by Bob Roberts Jr. named Global Church Trends which means to offer a pulse on the movement of the church worldwide. My (former) pastor initially passed along the article, so I read it. As I went, I found myself agreeing and disagreeing, but figured… who am I to disagree with Bob Roberts, international man of missionary ministry!
I’ve began, very recently, to really contemplate the future of the American church. America, as a country, grows more ethnically (and thus religiously) diverse by the day and so I can see the value of researching the trends of the Christians around us in other countries. But we must also remember that America presents a few extra challenges that the typical unreached, even persecuted, people in other countries don’t face.
Simplifying is Not the Answer
In his blog, Bob observes four trends happening on the worldwide scale. Decomplication, Decentralization, Detribalization, and Dewesternization. Of these, Decomplication presents the biggest problem for me.
Bob and I agree that the state of the American Church is generally unhealthy. Frustratingly so. However, he purports that “Our best hope, is to connect with what the global church is doing. What are the trends for the global church and what can we learn from them? How do we get over our current destabilization?” I feel less convinced this is the case. As mentioned, the world “markets” (if you will) which generally use the tactics and trends which he points out, are largely unreached, unchurched markets. They say very little about how to handle the de-churched, which is by far the largest growing segment of the American mission field. The world church movement has not performed particularly well in Post-Christian societies. And that is precisely what America is fast becoming.
It is the difference between what you teach a child in Sunday School, and how you arm a recent graduate on his way to college. The world missions are responding well to the simplified, Sunday School approach because their audiences do not carry the same sort of sensibilities and bias for explanation as Americans tend to carry. And that’s not a compliment to Americans. Logic and explanations are often driven by ego, and I’ll be the first to admit that “I” is becoming more and more a deity in the land of the free and home of the brave. But we, as a church, must recognize the differences in the challenges our audiences face when presented with the Gospel.
So, when Bob talks about Decomplication I can’t help but squirm in my seat a bit. “Simplifying” is one of the many reasons atheism, secularism, and relativism have gained so much ground among the next generation of Americans. Because, when someone starts asking the hard, complicated questions… Christians have not been armed to answer them. More than armed, they have not learned to examine the harder sides of following Jesus, and thus are vulnerable when challenged by those seeking to discredit their beliefs. We no longer live in a country which loosely promotes Christian morals. The church no longer enjoys the respect of “because I said so” in this country. The Bible does not have the authority it once had, and religion in general is increasing being cast as not only shallow, but even detrimental to society.
In today’s America, when Christians say something, we have to be ready to say what, why, and how. The world church trend of simplifying may not be able to help us do this.
Look, simplifying is great. But in the scriptures, I see Jesus speaking both simply and with complication. On one hand he’s giving parables, on the other, he’s telling Nicodemus about being “born again.” On one hand, he is talking about “abundant life,” on the other, he’s talking about “taking up our cross.” It is no wonder the disciples, who lived with Jesus for three years, did not fully grasp what was happening right in front of their faces. Christianity certainly has it’s complicated matters. Until recently, those matters did not affect our mission field very much. But today, America is becoming a dechurched society, and people are asking tough questions and looking for solid answers. They don’t often find them. Instead, they are met with trite, canned, slick, propaganda-sounding answers that reflect little in the way of understanding. As a result, the church grows increasingly irrelevant every time it opens is simplistic mouth. Simplifying is not an aim if the American church is meant to thrive in this country.
(Not So) Simply Jesus.
Understanding this is very important. While it sounds great to read Bob write “Jesus is the focus along with his very presence within and near them. Jesus really is the answer – to everything…” we must recognize that Jesus is not new to Americans, and that there are so many ideas of what Jesus truly represents that simply saying “follow him” would send people down several separate paths that lead to nowhere. It’s not simple. The quicker we realize this, the better we posit ourselves to respond effectively.
Once we do this, our efforts to Decentralize (empower leaders in smaller cells) and Detribalize (release individual giftedness), and even to Dewesternize (increase awareness of the sliding scale of ”normal” for those around us) will have all the more power. There are many lessons we can learn from the world church movement around us. But let us please resist the urge to assume one-size-fits-all, or to, as they say, “throw the baby out with the bath water.” I’ve learned that, when the trend seems to flow in one direction, I might need to stop and check my own bearings — and even go the opposite direction.
But hey, what do I know. I’m just a young writer, trying to break into a ministry that will properly empower the next generation of young adults. I could totally be off-base here.
What are you thoughts on simplification of the Gospel, and how effective it will serve the American mission field?