Recently, my wife and I were talking about the state of the churches that we’ve seen in our lifetime and it brought to mind two important passages. First, Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church (cf. Matthew 16:18). Second, we are commanded to make disciples of all nations (cf. Matthew 28:18-20).
To be honest, it’s easy to look at the state of the visible American church and to doubt Matthew 16:18. We see lots of nominalism and theological liberalism and we constantly hear reports of professing Christians leaving the Church. It’s easy to look at the evolution of our church’s morality and to believe that hell has prevailed against the church. However, a thought came to my mind when thinking about these issues: why do I believe that America must be the center of Christianity? Why do I believe that we have to be the beacon of light for all of Christianity? It’s an obvious question to ask, but it’s something that I don’t ask very often. I’m also under the belief that many other Christians do not ask the same question as well. There’s a belief among many that if Christianity in America fails, then Christianity is doomed.
However, these questions actually enable us to view the Church more properly. From Luke’s perspective, the geographic spread of the Great Commission starts from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and to the end of the earth (cf. Acts 1:4). Contrary to our popular opinion and privilege, we were never the center of Christianity. From a 1st century perspective, we are the result of the gospel’s penetration to the end of the earth. We were never the geographic root of the Church, but in a historical sense, we are a far (yet fruitful) branch from the tree. The Great Commission promises that the gospel will spread throughout the entire earth, but it never claims that every nation will receive the gospel equally throughout history. Rather, church history convincingly demonstrates that the light of the gospel will shine brightly in some areas, shine dimly in other areas, and may have eclipsed in some other areas of the world. Yet scripture tells us that through the gospel, God will redeem people from every nation on earth (cf. Revelation 7:9-10).
So let’s get back to the original question: Why do we believe that we have to the beacon of light for all of Christianity? The truth is that God is not obligated to give us such a privileged position. We have been blessed to live in a country with a rich Christian heritage such that the majority of Americans identify as Christians and many of nation’s laws, traditions, and customs conformed to Christian morality in times past. However, many indicators are showing us that this is no longer the case. Many have already commented and observed that our country is rejecting the law of God and see Christianity as unloving and immoral. So what do we do? Do we pine for “the good ole’ days” (as if those days truly existed)? Do we just accept the evolution of our society and adjust our Christian message and methods to it in hopes of keeping people in the visible church?
I believe that the core answer to these questions is to stop viewing America as a predominately Christian country, but to view America as our foreign mission field. We need to view America in the same way that Paul viewed Athens (cf. Acts 17:16-34). Just as Paul was provoked within his spirit concerning the idolatry of the Athenians, we should be provoked within ourselves concerning the idolatry in which Americans comfortably engage themselves. We need to see America no differently than how Paul viewed the city of Corinth – a city known for its artistry, wealth, and wanton sexuality. We need to see America no differently than how Paul viewed Ephesus – a city full of pagan idolaters. We like to think of America as a nation that is fundamentally different than the cities to which Paul originally evangelized. There are many sectors of our society that are post-Christian, but the reality is that there are many sectors of our society that also pre-Christian as well.
America was known (and in many ways, still is known) as a missionary nation that sent hundreds of missionaries to regions where the gospel has never been preached (such as sub-Saharan Africa, South America, southeast Asia, etc.) and by God’s grace, God has added to the Church in these regions as a result. Perhaps we should take a hard look at our nation and realize that we need missionaries as well, particularly within our cities. If we would talk to people in our own country, we would see that they are just as ignorant of the gospel as “uncivilized Africans” to which we send missionaries. Instead of moving to a jungle in Peru, perhaps we should move to a rough neighborhood in Detroit, in Chicago, or in Baltimore. Instead of moving to a small village in Sudan where there are many that are hostile to the gospel, perhaps we should move to cities in America that are becoming hostile towards the gospel. Instead of moving to the Philippines, perhaps we should move to a region near a Native American reservation. Do we honestly believe that international missions are more needed than missions work in our own country? In regards to the work of evangelism, Jesus states the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few (cf. Matthew 9:37-38). Do we believe that this applies only to international missions and not to our own country?
I’ve thought about this more since my family and I moved to North Charleston. Like many cities, North Charleston is both pre- and post-Christian. There are many who have grown up in North Charleston who have never heard the gospel at all or who have heard a caricature of it at some point in the past. There are others who have heard the gospel and live their life in rejection of the gospel and the law of God. This means that we moved into a region where the inhabitants are separated from the life of God and have no hope for God in this world. In regards to this, I’m reminded of the words given to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5
As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
I believe that this charge applies equally to our family as well. We are called to consider our calling with seriousness and to fulfill the Great Commission in areas in which we live. Our prayer is that we may fulfill our ministry and realize that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church that God builds.