In response to a previous blog entry by Jean-Luc Krieg, a question was posted: “What are your impressions regarding the state of the church in the U.S.? What more can we learn from the 2/3 world experiences, strengths and weaknesses, threats?” Jean-Luc’s response makes up the rest of this blog entry:
In the past I would have had a much easier time answering this question. It was not difficult to contrast the oftentimes comfortable, materially affluent, spiritually low-risk faith of Western Christianity with the faith-saturated, God-dependence I observed in many non-Western churches. Nor was it difficult to decry the self-absorbed church polity of many churches in the U.S. and Western Europe that were concerned with offering feel-good religious fare in a discipleship-light fashion, but showed little concern for the poor and sins of systemic injustice. One to two decades later, having once again been immersed in the 2/3 world for some time, I am not sure it is so easy to uplift the church in the developing world as THE example the Western church should follow.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s much the Western church can learn from the 2/3 world, and the poignant contrasts I would have offered ten years ago still stand: If you ever read anything from Voice of the Martyrs, you’ll discover a faith present in the persecuted church that is deeply convicting: a faith willing to sacrifice to the death. You’ll also discover a vibrancy of belief among many of the poor where God’s power is taken seriously, where God’s presence is experienced in the here and now, and where God’s miraculous intervention is taken for granted. You may furthermore discover an evangelistic fervor and desire to see people experience life in Jesus that would put most of us to shame.
In that sense, if I look at the state of the American church from this contrasting angle, I am reminded of a narrative that I often observe at work in Western church-circles. I’d like to call it the “Queen Mary narrative.” Neil Cole hinted at that narrative in his book Organic Church. Maybe you’ve heard of the Queen Mary, the majestic ship docked and encased in a rock jetty in Long Beach, Los Angeles County. Now a 4-star hotel, she is only a faint shadow of the world-renowned ship that she once was when she took voyages all over the world. The Queen was meant to be on high sea, but now she is merely an encased tourist attraction.
Maybe because of past disappointments, maybe because of lack of faith, maybe because of a narrow view of God’s purposes, and maybe because of a limited understanding of the Church’s role, many Western churches encourage their members to be like Queen Mary: safe, secure, comfortably sitting in the harbor, and not what we were meant to be. “Play it safe! Don’t rock the boat!” – is this narrative’s maxim. And so we bury our talents in the ground and settle for low-risk faith and certainly for stories not worth telling, for stories that have no transformative power, for stories that have made many American evangelicals morally and ethically indistinguishable from the rest of society. Of course this is not true for all churches and all American Christians… but it rings true for many.
Jean-Luc’s blog entry will continue tomorrow with reflections on significant challenges he sees facing the church in America