In last night’s plenary, Oscar Muriu, an Anglican pastor from Nairobi, spoke about the shifts in the global church. As Philip Jenkins has documented in The Next Christendom, the majority of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Missions is no longer from “the West to the rest,” but from everywhere to everyone. (See Samuel Escobar’s The New Global Mission for more on this theme.)
Muriu gave an application of 1 Corinthians 12 – the North American church cannot say to the African church, “I don’t need you,” and vice versa. Many churches and missions in the majority world have been dependent on Western support and funding, but the move should not be toward independence, but to reciprocity and interdependence. America is the third largest mission field in the world after China and India. African churches are catching the vision of sending missionaries to their former colonial powers, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, etc., planting new churches in the world’s gateway cities like London, New York and Los Angeles.
One practical challenge that Muriu offered – when American churches send a missionary to the Two-Thirds World, they should also work to receive a missionary from the Two-Thirds World. When churches send a team on a short-term trip, they should likewise receive a team from their partnering church or mission. The North American church must realize how much it needs the life and perspectives of our brothers and sisters around the globe to help us live missionally in our own culture. After all, every part of a human body both gives and receives from others. We are impoverished if we think we have nothing to receive from the majority world church.
As an example, Muriu mentioned how one church asked a Western team to preach on the story of Joseph one Sunday and then an African team preached the same story the next week. The Americans exposited the text and lifted out the theme that no matter how difficult life gets, the important thing is to be faithful to God and God will always protect you and be with you. The next week, the Africans exposited the same text and lifted out the theme that no matter how high you rise in power or how your family might betray you, you must always care for and be in relationship with your family. Both are essential readings of the text, and they certainly go hand in hand. (We carry in the Urbana bookstore the first-of-its-kind Africa Bible Commentary, written by African scholars and church leaders. It’s an amazing volume. Check it out.)
Also that evening, Brenda Salter-McNeil talked about the juxtaposition of Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) and Genesis 12 (the call of Abram). God’s original call to humankind was to fill the earth and bless it. But at Babel, people resisted the call and instead built a monument to themselves. So God scattered humanity so that they would indeed disperse and go to the corners of the earth as he intended, that the whole earth would be filled with his glory. Terah, at the end of Genesis 11, is described as heading out to Canaan but settling in Haran, where he died. That’s the context for the call of Abram in Genesis 12. Terah settled and didn’t go where he was supposed to go. Abram heard the call and went. Babel and Terah said no. Abram said yes.
Brenda, in a great rhetorical move, asked, “Where have you settled? What have you settled for?” Abram was not limited by what his father did or did not do. He moved beyond the place where his father settled. (This particularly resonated with me, as my father was not a Christian, and following Jesus has taken me places my father never would have wanted me to go.) We are called to go where God calls, even if we don’t know where or can’t explain it to our parents.
For suburban Christians, I think we need to transform the concept of suburbia from a place of settling to a place of going. We must minister both to and from suburbia. It is both a place of sending as well as a strategic mission field (American suburbia by itself would be the seventh largest country in the world). If we settle in suburbia, we must also simultaneously minister and partner with the global church, always aware of larger urban and global realities. The world will continue to need American missionaries to go to the ends of the earth. And in our interconnected, globalized society, the American church desperately needs the perspectives of our African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters to minister to our own suburban contexts.