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Missionaries from Europe and America took Christianity to the ends of the earth and evangelized Africa and Asia. Now, as Christianity declines in the West, churches from the old mission field are the ones defending historic Christianity and are evangelizing Europe and America.

Now that the American Episcopal church is embracing homosexuality and rejecting historic Christianity, many conservative congregations from that body are breaking away  and affiliating instead with a North American mission from the Anglican churches of Nigeria and Rwanda.

When the liberal state church of Sweden refused to ordain pastors who would not accept the ordination of women, the Lutheran bishop of Kenya stepped in and ordained a cadre of new conservative pastors.

At the Methodists’ recent General Assembly, in which congregations from all around the world had equal representation, an American-led attempt to revise the denomination’s moral teachings against homosexuality was thwarted by Methodists from the Third World.

Meanwhile Korea, which may have more Calvinists than anywhere else in the world, has nearly caught up with the United States as the world’s leader in sending out foreign missionaries.

Whereas Europeans become ever more secular and Americans, while still religious, tend to be eager to water down Christianity, Christians in the so-called “Third World” affirm traditional morality and historic Christian doctrines. They are standing strong even as they face brutal persecution and martyrdom. The violence against Christians comes mostly at the hands of Muslims, particularly in Africa. Nevertheless, African Christians are winning the battle with Islam. They are doing so with the gospel, even though Muslims have historically been considered the most resistant of all peoples to Christian evangelism. 

As Christianity declines in the West and the North, it is accelerating in the East and the South. We should not be surprised.

Christianity is not a cultural religion. Other religions of the world are. To become a Muslim is to adopt a new culture. Under paganism, from animism with its tribal customs to the more sophisticated Hinduism with its caste system, religion serves to sanctify the culture and its practices.

Christianity, in contrast to nearly every other world religion, is a universal faith that proclaims a gospel for “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9)

The temptation has been to turn Christianity into just another cultural religion, one that gives supernatural sanction to the cultural status quo. That is what happened, arguably, with medieval Catholicism. It continued with state churches and American civil religion.

True Christianity, though, resists cultural captivity. It posits a transcendent moral law that is above and beyond human laws and customs, giving a framework by which cultures can be judged. In doing so, trans-cultural Christianity has managed to shape and transform human cultures. 

When Christianity comes to a culture, it changes that culture. It made the Greeks and Romans stop their custom of infanticide. It challenged the barbarian cult of the warrior, which it channeled into Christian chivalry. Christianity did have a profound influence in the rise of Western civilization and America in particular. It did so not by sanctifying a particular society but by criticizing its evils, inspiring its ideals, and providing a spiritual infrastructure for self-government, education, and civic virtues.

Today, Christianity must work against the Africans’ predilection for tribal revenge codes, Asian group conformity, and American consumerism.

Even though biblical Christianity must resist cultural conformity, many American churches have actually embraced cultural conformity as a strategy for church growth. They do not see that surrendering to the culture means instead the disappearance of the church. That the current American culture is swallowing up the church — effacing its doctrines, ignoring its morality, and erasing its history — is precisely why the churches of the Third World see us as in need of their help.

Christianity is a missionary religion. Europeans learned the gospel from missionaries just as the Africans did. Evangelized Europeans and their American forebears would then send missionaries themselves, and now we are coming around full circle.

But we would do well to think of ourselves in the same way we used to think about the lost people of the mission field. We have become the new heathen. We Americans are the ones now in thrall to primitive superstitions, such as believing in the power of positive thinking and having faith in ourselves. We are the ones held back by a materialistic worldview that has little conception of the supernatural. We are the ones with brutal customs, such as aborting our infants, neglecting our children, and abandoning and sometimes euthanizing our elders. We have simple, pounding music, and we are uneducated about the realities outside of our tribe. With our limited mind-set, we have trouble grasping the truths of Scripture.

But the grace of God brings the light of Jesus Christ into heathen darkness — even into our heathen darkness.

A Visible Word

The Church in Africa

Keep Reading The Church of Jesus Christ

From the November 2008 Issue
Nov 2008 Issue