Modestly, this is the most important issue of this bulletin which you have ever held in your hands.
Why? It's not due to any special virtue of ours.
Then why? Because to an awesome, serious degree Christian mission thus far has dead-ended in these three major blocs: Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists--and, I don't think we are facing this fact very effectively.
Do you know what? There is no use talking about year-2000 goals unless we address this precise issue.
Thus, don't you see? Nothing can be more important than figuring out why more than half of the human race is still not Christian--and we are not even making progress!
This issue of Mission Frontiers deals with two things: CONTENT of message through page 18, and METHOD of approach beyond that. But, there is no use achieving an outstanding method if our content does not do the job. So let's be sure.
For example, our methods of jump-starting hoards of young people and thousands of churches will not of itself do the job if what they are going "overseas" to do won't work. Hitting a nail harder won't do if it has no point. What am I really saying? This is scary…
Step back a second--no, step back exactly 900 years. Take a "time machine" back to the summer of 1096. The Christian movement was really gaining steam in Europe, and Peter the Hermit was preaching his heart out far and wide, "Let's go after the Muslims and retake the Holy City." This movement was the forerunner of the "First Crusade." What happend when Peter the Hermit jump-started masses? Mobs foraging east ravaged both Christian and Jewish communities enroute but never even got to the Muslims! However, by September (of 1096) a well-organized crusade was under way. Of all later crusades it was the only one to "succeed" in wresting control away from Muslims. But what did it DO to the Muslims? Win them?
Looking back, Muslims have been the caretakers of Jerusalem for a total of 1,300 years, longer and more tolerantly than anyone else. By contrast, when this First Crusade finally took Jerusalem the "praying" Crusaders slaughtered Muslims by the thousands.
(By contrast, under the Muslims Jerusalem has given room to a Muslim "quarter," a Jewish quarter, a Christian quarter and an Armenian quarter, all of this inside a high wall built by the Muslim, Suleman the Magnificent, to protect all four quarters.)
That's right, there was no tolerance on the part of the "Christians." As a result, so far as we know, not a single soul was (willingly) converted to the Western type of Christianity represented by the Crusaders. (See Latourette's History of Christianity, p. 411).
It didn't work then. Will European Christianity work now? Has anything happened in the intervening 900 years to give us any hope of making masses of Muslims into Christians by any kind of external assault? Is there another way?
Well, consider this: By now a lot of evidence tells us that millions of devout Muslims are often eager to learn more about Jesus Christ, as eager or more eager than nominal Christians .
Are we, like the Crusaders, looking for an external submission to our own brand of culturally configured faith? Are we willing for our faith to appear in radically different clothing?
Well, yes and no. By Luther's time, about 500 years ago, there were more Muslims than Christians on this planet. THEN SOMETHING HAPPENED.
Christianity, unlike Islam, decided to translate the Bible (with which the Muslims had had little contact). By contrast, the Muslims refused to translate their Quran, which has had to remain in Arabic to this day--just as the Roman Mass had to remain in Latin, until recently.
But, all of a sudden, in the Reformation a new kind of Christianity emerged--one which could shift cultural gears, which could talk more than Latin. This new kind of multi-cultural faith during the Protestant period has in those 500 years exploded the Christian movement into twice the size of the world population of Muslims!
Note, however, some Roman Catholic leaders have insisted that Christianity in the Protestant sphere is totally "out of control." (But isn't it true that some people within every "brand" of Christianity think they are the only ones who have things straight.)
But, the possibility of being a multicultural faith gave Christianity wings. Luther rightly looked back to Paul as a parallel. Paul sought to break the faith loose from exclusively Jewish clothing. Luther sought to tear it free from the prestigious Latin culture.
The Protestant Christian missionary movement thus gained a secret weapon which no other major religion possesses.
Now we had a post-Reformation "evangelical" faith--one that could (theoretically) express itself in any language and culture!
Not that all Christians understood this. As I say, there are always those who will insist on a single, "safe" cultural configuration-- their own. Almost every movement has its "fundamentalists." There are fundamentalist Anglicans who are very particular about their liturgy. There are a few fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren, for whom a different kind of liturgy is equally crucial.
But somehow ever since the Reformation the cat has been out of the bag, so to speak. The "absolute chaos" of the Reformation has emerged into a global kaleidoscope of vital power. No other religious movement has ever existed on anything like that scale or vitality.
HOWEVER, like I say, we apparently have not yet completely laid aside our European swaddling clothes. But what about "our immense missionary gains overseas?"
Despite the incredible global scope of the Christian movement today, our particular Biblical interpretation of the faith, dressed in Western garments, has for the most part been acceptable only where a minority has been resisting a majority power. Or, where a people has needed outside help so badly that they were willing to embrace the Western wrappings in which we carry our faith.
- I think of the Koreans whose major move to Christianity came while they were attempting to overthrow the ruling Japanese.
- I think of the minority "mountain people" of Taiwan, who adopted Christianity in a vast sweeping movement right during the Second World War.
- Many other tribal peoples have been in the same situation. In Africa the departure of the colonial powers has allowed Christianity to become more acceptable, just as the demise of the Roman legions allowed the Frankish people to become Roman Catholic instead of Arian (which had been the preferred anti-Roman version of the faith). In the same way thousands of American blacks are switching from the white man's Christianity to the Black Muslim tradition which, note, is deliberately NOT the religion of the ruling culture.
Worse still, Soka Gakkai in Japan, admiring Christianty--at a distance--stole the cell-group idea from the Wesleyan Methodists and in only a few years zoomed to a membership of 10 million (but not remotely Christian).
But if we would stop and listen we would hear a thousand voices from around the world almost screaming at us, "Give us your faith without your Western clothing (and vices)."
Can we see anywhere in the mission lands new versions of Biblical faith without Western clothing?
- Yes, there are a lot of crazy half-Christian movements around the world that have been unintentionally instigated by Western mission effort--sometimes by nothing more than the Bible.
- Do these thousands of movements have something to teach us? Yes-- especially if we recall that our own Protestantism is distinctly one forged by protesting a foreign religion:
- Paul helped one million seeking Greeks and Romans protest the Jewishness of the Gospel, and that new movement has been branded as heretical by the Jewish religious tradition for centuries.
- Luther helped millions of Germans, English and Scandinavians protest the Latinized version of the faith--they were called "Protestants"-- in a major movement that swept Europe and America and has been branded as heretical for centuries by the Catholic religious tradition!
The Radical Thought Emerges
So, the radical thought emerges: are there "Protestant" movements today that are pulling away from our Western Christianity and which we have branded as heretical?
Yes, thousands of them. And many are heretical…even as many Reformation sects were heretical.
Right now, every Sunday, there are thousands of new semi-Christian movements surging in Africa, Asia, and Latin America which for the most part are branded as heretical by Westernized movements, whether Catholic or Protestant.
What will happen? Will any of these turn out all right?
Let's be honest: many of the ancient Christian movements were heretical. But eventually the Bible gained the necessary influence among them so that today we generally value the diverse "Christian" tradition and recognize that it is possible to be a truly evangelical believer in any of the three traditions, Greek, Latin, or Northern European--that is, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant. We even believe that there can be Jews for Jesus.