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American Christians must humbly look to global church for solutions to decline

The Christian church in North America is starting to erode. Thankfully, however, the center of the church is not in North America.

This image of North and South America at night is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite in April and October 2012. Image courtesy of NASA/Creative Commons

(RNS) — In one of the Gospels’ most evocative phrases, Jesus calls his followers “a city on a hill (that) cannot be hidden.”

As I read that verse recently, I was reminded of the comprehensive scope of that image. All of God’s people, together, are this hilltop city through which the light of God’s glory shines. Unfortunately, the attitudes and practices of the Western Church have too often shrunk the global scope of this city’s boundaries. The church in North America has historically acted as if we are the primary (or only) “hill” of God’s global work. However, church growth statistics and missions trends tell us otherwise.

This puts the recent decline of American Christianity in sharper relief. A Barna Group survey reported that only 30% of Americans have a positive perception of evangelical Christians. A recent Gallup poll showed, for the first time, the majority of Americans are not members of a house of worship. Thirty-five percent of Gen Z students are atheists, agnostic or have no religious belief. As the president of a campus ministry serving students and faculty, I regularly hear their reasons why.

The church in North America is starting to erode. Thankfully, however, the center of the church is not in North America. The vast majority of Christians on Earth live elsewhere, and their numbers are growing rapidly. The vibrancy of majority-world Christianity presents us with an opportunity — one that was always available to us, but which we have taken far too rarely. We must learn from our brothers and sisters in the global church — in every part of the world — seeing and learning from the other hills that comprise the complete “city on a hill” of God’s people of every culture and ethnicity.

What can we learn when we look to the global church?

First, we can learn how to hold a posture toward politics and culture that neither overly identifies with nor withdraws from those who think and believe differently than we do.

A significant reason we see college students walking away from Christianity is because they grew up in a church culture that conflated certain cultural and political stances with the gospel itself. They have seen how this posture has sown division and contributed to increased polarization, neutering the church’s prophetic voice. The unfortunate consequence is they now find Christianity easy to leave behind.

Second, we can learn how to have a witness that is full of power from the Spirit and free in its utter devotion to Jesus.

In many parts of the world, Christians have had to resist an entirely different kind of captivity — namely, the governmental erasure of their public witness. Because of this, many majority-world Christians have often been wary of thinking their hope could rest too strongly in political institutions or political leaders. At the same time, suffering and injustice are often so present and tangible that withdrawal from culture is equally impossible. The result is a public witness that relies on the Spirit and is free in its utter devotion to Jesus. This is a witness North Americans, so hungry for meaning and purpose, have found lacking in many expressions of evangelicalism found in our region of the world. The good news is we can reclaim this if we are willing to learn from churches in the majority world.

Third, we can learn how to reclaim a way of seeing the world that is rigorously supernatural in its expectation of God’s work and healing.

Often, Christians from the majority world have both a deep sense of God’s supernatural presence in the world and an active expectancy that God not only can heal and intervene in response to our needs and petitions, but that God will. An expectant, persistent posture of hope for God’s breakthrough has been the default mindset of the church since its beginning in the book of Acts. Although we in the West also believe in God’s supernatural activity, it is observably true that it has little impact on most of our daily lives.

We can learn from the church in places like Latin America and Africa, where miraculous breakthroughs are a pervasive feature of daily life with God. Even in the limited sample size of our campus work, I see how deeply many students long for this dimension of faith. More and more students are exploring liturgical traditions in search of the numinous. And in our campus chapters, we are regularly hearing reports of students being physically healed during times of prayer and worship. This is a hopeful sign we can learn what churches in many parts of the world know and experience about the immediacy of God’s power.

Finally, we can learn how to grow in practical dependence on the Lord.

Western evangelicalism’s skill in creating disciples has waned even as our ability to create flashy, well-scripted events has soared. Our production values are high, but the value of our productions is low.

In contrast, the church in the majority world is forming bold, faithful, Spirit-filled disciples of Jesus with a fraction of the material resources. Their primary resource, and the most important one, is their daily dependence on the Lord. 

I saw this when I visited our sister campus ministry movement in Ethiopia, EvaSUE, several years ago. This is a growing university student movement, a place where spiritual breakthrough is undeniably happening. At the same time, this group has very little of what we might recognize as infrastructure or operational support. What the group does have is a sacrificial, passionate prayer life — one that consecrates members to a depth many of us in the West would find unusual. Through it, God has grown them into a movement of more than 50,000 students with just 70 staff. This is happening all around the world and Christians in the West would be wise to learn from their example.

For several years now, InterVarsity has been longing and praying for a new work of revival to break out on college campuses and in churches in the U.S. In that time, I too have become convinced revival is a whole church experience. As we have repented of pride, invited more organizations, churches and volunteers into partnership and consecrated ourselves more deeply in prayer and Scripture study, we’ve seen first fruits of revival on campus even during a pandemic.

I have hope this same experience can happen in the church in North America. If we will repent of acting as if we are the only “hill” God has built a city upon, looking instead to the other hills in God’s global church and learning from them in humility, more new breakthroughs of God’s kingdom might burst forth. We will find new vibrancy, new unity, new healing and new transformation — in sum, a new radiance shining from this “city on a hill” that testifies to Jesus’ greatness and glory.

(Tom Lin is the president and CEO of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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