Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 2, no. 2 (August 2011)

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Running to Catch Up with God

Dan Bouchelle

There is an old saying: “People do not plan to fail; they fail to plan.” However, there is planning and then there is planning. We can decide what we want to do and ask God to bless it, or we can seek to understand what God is doing and join him in it. It is probably wiser to follow what God is blessing than to ask God to bless what we are doing.

One of the benefits of the move to a post-modern mentality is that it is teaching me how arrogant it is to assume we know what we need to do or what the church should look like. I’m beginning to understand that all “strategic planning” must begin with spiritual discernment of what God is already doing where we are and wherever we go. I see a need to trace the trajectory of God’s movement through Scripture and then ask how this story is playing out in God’s current work in our world. So, for me the first question is, “What is God doing in the world?” My first turn is then to look at what Scripture says to help me interpret God’s work.

After introducing us to the world as God created and intended it and then telling us four stories of how humanity corrupted God’s creation through rebellion to his reign, the Bible begins the story of salvation with a call to Abram and a vision from God to bless all nations through one sent family. God stations this family at the crossroads of world civilization where all nations will be able to see what he does with them. Then he builds them into a nation in the womb of the world’s greatest empire: Egypt. He saves Israel from Egypt in a dramatic fashion so that the entire world might know of his power and then returns them to the crossroads of the world. Throughout the history of Israel, he continually calls them to have a vision for global the redemption and restoration of all the nations and all creation (cf. Isa 2:2; 49:6; Jer 3:17). This global movement then hits turbo drive with the coming of Jesus and announcement of the kingdom of God.

I don’t see how we can view this overarching global narrative and continue to see the gospel in an American-centric way. As I’ve begun to see the gospel through the lenses of God’s objective of global restoration and reunion, I’ve been challenged to see beyond my Western-oriented, individualistic understanding of salvation to see a communal, relational understanding of God’s salvation that speaks a word of hope for the whole world.

John 3:16 says God loves the world, not just me as an individual. He wants to save it all. He sent Jesus for it all. Our God is a go-and-rescue God with a global objective, not a come-and-get-it God speaking to individuals. He is a God whose love drives him to pursue entire people groups who don’t even know they need him. He is a God who sacrifices whatever it takes to be in a loving relationship with his whole creation. God doesn’t just love us as his individuals but has a love for “the world.” God doesn’t just love the church, but loves the whole world. If we were going to join what God is doing, we must join God in going to all peoples as the sent ones who follow the model of Jesus.

I’m longing for a time when the church recaptures the frantic pace of the book of Acts, where the people of God are panting with their tongues hanging out of their mouths and their sides hurting as they run to catch up with God’s expansion of his reign to all peoples. From the global impact of Pentecost; to the removal of barriers to reaching Samaritans; to a gender ambiguous Ethiopian proselyte; to the cataclysmic moment when Peter stepped across the gentile threshold of Cornelius, baptized his household, and ate with them as God’s holy people the church struggles to keep up with God’s relentless march from the hinterlands of Judea to the world capital in Rome. This is a gospel that is too big to be contained in one place or for one people group. It propels people out beyond their local and personal world into the world of others and draws all people together into one new forming reality called the kingdom of God.

In all his world travel, the Apostle Paul was driven by a global vision that finds expression in words like these:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Rom 8:19-21)

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:26-28)

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. (Eph 2:14-18 )

The Bible concludes with a vision of global restoration and unification:

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9)

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. (Rev 22:1-2)

From Abram’s call on, God has been on mission to undo the divisive effects of human rebellion against his rightful reign and bring all creation back into harmony with him and each other. God’s mission involves saving a remnant of every expression of humanity. He wants people from every people group to bring the best of their cultures into the restored heaven and earth. God’s mission involves bringing people together from every nation, race, and language to make us one again in his love, under his blessed reign.

With that biblical foundation as a filter to screen reality, I think it becomes easier to see God at work in global trends today. Let me share some facts with you.1 Only 13% of the world is white. 80% of the world lives outside of the west. Only 4.5% of the world lives in US (but we consume 25% of world resources). There are more Scandinavians in the US than in the 4 countries of Scandinavia. The US is the largest Irish nation in the world. There are more Jews in New York than all of Israel. There are more Jews in Miami than Tel Aviv. Arabs now outnumber Jews in US. The US is the forth largest black nation in the world (and there are 55 countries in Africa). 133 nations are represented in 1 zip code in Queens NY (out of about 200 nations). Chicago has 100,000 more Polish people than San Francisco has people. Warsaw only recently passed Chicago in its number of Poles. Chicago has more Bulgarians than Sophia. In one high school in Chicago, there are 63 nations and 11 languages represented. LA public schools have children speaking over 200 languages. In St. Paul, MN schools, 25% of students are Hmoung (a people who don’t even have country). The US is the third largest Spanish nation in the world out of 25 Spanish speaking countries. The US recently passed Colombia and Argentina. Only Mexico and Spain have more Spanish speaking people. Mexico is moving to the US by the thousands each year. By 2020 Hispanics will be the largest racial group in Texas. In Anchorage Alaska, the fastest growing group is Hispanics. They will outnumber Eskimos by 2020. The US has become a global country.

This is not just a trend in the US. The same is true of the UK. My wife and I were recently in London and we didn’t see an “Englishman” until the second day. It’s the same everywhere: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin. People from 97 nations live in one parish in Downtown Oslo, Norway. People from 100 nations are represented in one high school in Bangkok. São Paulo, Brazil has 1 million Japanese. Peru has a former President named Fujimori. There are more honors students in India than the US has students. There are 140 million Chinese outside of China. That alone would make the top 10 list of world’s largest countries. Every year a population greater than Canada’s relocates from rural to urban China (over 30 million a year). The government of China has to create 20 cities of 1 million each year just to handle the flow to the cities. My wife taught for 5 years in Amarillo public schools. In her classes in North Amarillo she had 11 languages spoken and world refugees from all over the planet. A white face was rare. Amarillo is a city of under 200,000 in a fairly isolated stretch of West Texas, but it is a global city.

I can’t help but believe that God not only knows about this but is involved in these global trends. God seems to be working in two ways to alter our world landscape: urbanizing and globalizing. These are the two greatest phenomena on the planet. In 1900 only 8% of the world lived in cities; today it is over 50% and growing. The nations that once colonized the rest of the world are now finding the people of those nations moving into their former overlord’s backyards and taking over. If not for immigration, the once great powers of Western Europe would be collapsing under the forces of negative population growth. The future of Europe does not have a white face. The same is true of the church. The future of Jesus’ movement is not with the nations and ethnicities that have been its traditional stronghold throughout Christendom. It is in those places considered the “mission field” in the past. Today the traditional “Christian” world is becoming increasingly post-Christian and the true mission field.

Despite our biases in the US, I’m also convinced that God loves cities. The Bible refers to cities 1,250 times. There are 142 different cities mentioned in the Bible. The first gentile church was an urban mission church and they began world missions with a distinctly urban approach. Paul’s strategy involved relocating to a large city and then sending out disciple makers from there. We cannot be a “New Testament church” and be unconcerned with urban missions. The New Testament is not a book of systematic theology; it is missionary literature from a first generation church crossing cultures with a goal to get to the world’s premier city: Rome. Paul only went to cities and he approached each one in unique ways. And consider John’s witness in the Book of Revelation: the Bible may begin in a garden, but it ends in a city—a global city—the New Jerusalem.

God is gathering diverse peoples in cities all over the world where they can more easily be engaged by the Gospel directly—through personal relationships with believers! Remember, for only 10 righteous people, even Sodom could have been saved.

The former western strongholds that may formerly be known as “Christendom” will not endow the world with the future of the church. I believe western Christians must reorient ourselves from what we think of as the mission field to serve the work God is initiating and leading. The vision for world missions will not arise from the United States alone. The models of church that we support need to make sense and be sustainable in non-Western nations. We need to stop imposing a Western Christendom model of church on the world and let churches be homegrown from original—not introduced—soil in which the gospel is planted; we should focus on making disciples who can reproduce themselves rather than copy us. The future of global missions is in mutual partnerships with global Christians who can educate American churches about how to reach their part of the world better than Western church leaders can educate them.

In light of all the information above, I have some serious concerns. The people of my heritage in Churches of Christ are mostly people of rural culture having recently moved to cities, and we have a bias against urban culture. We are mystified about how to interact with people of other cultures. Though we have come a long way by God’s grace, we are mostly white and segregated. We are excessively individualistic and mono-lingual. We are overly nationalistic and struggle to trust people of developing nations. Most of our churches are either consumed with internal issues (e.g., worship) or have sold out to a consumer driven gospel–“it’s all about blessing me.” As our world becomes increasingly urban and international, our churches are perpetuating “white flight.” None of our Colleges (except possibly Lipscomb) is in a truly urban area. I don’t think Malibu counts as urban, though it is in greater Los Angeles. Those who train our ministers are just recently getting into any kind of serious urban ministry training and we have very few professors who are multi-cultural—not that we are behind other Christian faith heritages. Most of our ministry training and experience has been about how to reach people like us. Most church growth focuses on reaching one niche market: mostly middle-class white professionals. Most of our mission works have been to rural parts of the world. Our churches are fleeing cities as the rest of world flocks to the cities.

As bad as all this sounds, it also represents a great opportunity and increasingly I see our churches willing to face the new realities and open for counsel about how to reach populations they previously had not been able to attract. My experience at Central in Amarillo convinced me that “country club” churches can make the missional turn and learn to minister to their urban context. It will take time and focus as well as new and diverse approaches. It will require a theological re-visioning. But, the American church is increasingly going to find its own future will depend on learning from the missionaries they have been sending overseas how to reach the people back home. Fortunately, Churches of Christ have tremendous flexibility with our local control in each congregation. Each congregation is free to embrace all kinds of new approaches and MRN exists to help them do just that. Obviously, if we are going to follow God and reach the masses of the diverse humanity he is gathering for us and for the sake of the Gospel in cities around the world, we are going to have to open our eyes and realize the world is changing and we are not ready yet. It’s time we ran hard to catch up with God.

Dan Bouchelle is the Executive Director of Missions Resource Network. He served for nine years as senior minister at the Central Church of Christ in Amarillo, Texas. Prior to his role at the Central Church, Dan served as pulpit minister for the Alameda Church of Christ, Norman, Oklahoma from 1994 to 2001 and ministered with the Northwest Church of Christ, Abilene, Texas, from 1988 to 1994. He earned Doctor of Ministry, Master of Divinity, and Master of Arts degrees from Abilene Christian University. Dan serves as a member of Christian Relief Fund’s Board of Trustees. He is author of When God Seems Absent: Studies in Ruth and Esther (Leafwood, 2001) and The Gospel Unleashed and The Gospel Unhindered (College Press, 2005). Dan and his wife, Amy, have three children.

1 From Raymond J. Bakke, keynote address given at the 2004 Urban Ministry Conference hosted by the Manhattan Church of Christ.