June 1, 2011
The Post-American Church (Part Dos)
Despite our problems the church in the U.S. still has enormous influence.
OBSERVATION TWO: The American Church still has a vital role to play as the global church rises.
In 2008, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote the best-selling book The Post-American World from which I borrowed the title for this blog post. In his book Zakaria refuses to join the “America is in decline” bandwagon. Instead he uses the term “Post-American” to describe the emergence of new economic super-powers into the zone previously occupied by America alone. China and India are the two most obvious nations in this category with Brazil increasingly being added to the conversation. To paraphrase Zakaria’s argument, it’s not about the decline of the West, but rather the rise of the rest.
Like the doomsday prophets that have nothing positive to say about the American economy, there seem to be no shortage of doomsday prophets surrounding the American church. (Remember the “Letter from 2012 in Obama’s America” released by James Dobson’s political group in 2008?) Reading too many of these dire predictions about the American church would lead one to believe that everyone under 30 has abandoned the faith, every pastor is a closeted bi-sexual, and Muslims are salivating at the chance to convert abandoned mega-churches into mosques.
Well, I hate to disappoint the “prophets” profiting from this fear-mongering, but the evidence suggests the American church is far from dead. Sure, we have problems and many of them are significant, but the Christian religion in America is actually more robust today than it was two centuries ago. (Only between 10 and 20 percent of Americans belonged to a church in 1776. See more here.) And the idea that the U.S. is just one generation behind the secular and Islamic forces influencing Europe is like comparing Lady Bird with Lady Gaga.
My time with the missionary team in Spain in May, as well as my time at the Third Lausanne Congress on Global Evangelization in Cape Town last October, revealed that the American church still has a very important and influential role throughout the world. Consider just three areas: money, resources, and ideas.
Money is a no-brainer. The majority of the funds needed to assemble 4,000 global church leaders in Cape Town, South Africa, last year came from North America. And the United States remains the largest funder of international missions. While giving among Christians has been declining in the U.S., it would be tragic if we abandoned this very significant area of missional responsibility. Of course there is a danger with being the wallet of the Body of Christ. At times we can be tempted to use that role to micro-manage or control. These colonial instincts are hard to reprogram.
The second area is resources. My presence in Spain last month was to teach and encourage the international missionary team there. I was sent, with funds from the U.S by the way, as a resource to the growing Spanish church. The American church’s large infrastructure of ministries, schools, and publishers means a great many of the resources utilized by the global church have their origins here. (Check out this video just posted by Dave Ferguson showing church planters in Siberia using his book, Exponential. Siberia!) I’m proud that Christianity Today and Leadership Journal are part of the American church’s attempts to resource our sisters and brothers around the world.
With these resources and money, of course, come influence. Many of the ideas that begin in the American church find their way around the world. One missionary in Spain was explaining how his home church in another country had been heavily influenced by American values--both practically and theologically. And, according to his view, that was not always a positive thing. On the flip side, my week with the missionaries included a lot of Q&A time about trends I’m observing in the U.S. church. They were very eager to know what the American church is learning, trying, and utilizing. They very much believed that what is happening here matters over there. And they’re right.
My time overseas, which has not been nearly as extensive as some of my colleagues, has shown me that the global church is shifting. New values and leadership qualities are likely to emerge as a result. We may find that some of the highly celebrated values within the American church begin to lose favor as new values ascend. But we shouldn’t assume that America’s influence in missions is over. Far from it. We may be entering an age when the role of the American church is more critical than ever. But it means learning to cooperate with, and not just control, the rising global church.