An Open Letter to the Church in America: The Tide Has Shifted

June 26, 2017 by Sarah Cunningham in Bible and Gospel Advancement

If you grew up in the church in the developed world, you may remember the subtle “us vs. them” language that often crept in when faith leaders talked about evangelism.

The premise of mission work that we inherited, in many cases, often described us—Christians in the Western world—as those who “have Christ” and “them” as the rest of the unbelieving world. This breakdown may have seemed logical on paper 100 years ago as, at the time, 80% of believers lived in North America and Europe.

Today, however, the majority of the world’s Christians no longer reside in the West. In fact, nearly 70% of Christians today live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

According to Pew Research, “About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24%), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13%).”

This change in the distribution of believers around the world requires us to thoughtfully reflect on old missions paradigms and language. It’s not only illogical but it can be offensive, for example, to continue to speak as if the church in the developed world functions primarily as the “giver” and residents of developing nations are mere “receivers” of the gospel. This sort of framing fails to acknowledge the enormous contributions and wisdom rising from the church around the world.

The good news is that when we realize some of our previous missions models no longer accurately reflect the makeup of the world, it allows us to adopt new points of view that hold even more promise and potential. Sure we have to let go of some ideas. We can no longer imagine that the primary way church “happens” involves pews in steepled buildings where English-speaking people sing hymns. But in letting go of this Western-centered picture as the dominant face of Christianity, it allows us to tap into the power of an ever-growing, ever-expanding church of partners positioned to seek God’s desires for communities around the globe.

Today, the church is comprised of more people, who reside in more places, and who speak more languages than ever before.

Acknowledging how the church’s geographic membership has shifted also may help us tune into needs and opportunities in different ways. We no longer have to study most villages from an outsider’s perspective, foraying into unknown territory as foreigners placed to bring the gospel. Instead, we have the benefit of being able to hear directly from insiders—Christian leaders within global communities—about the needs and opportunities in their regions. It gives us a chance to channel resources, support and prayer to brothers and sisters in the faith who often times live and minister in countries that are not friendly to Christianity. And it gives us a chance to learn from those whose faith has been forged under great persecution and often with far less advantages, resulting in unique perspective.

It allows us to grow both our generosity—in continuing to be givers—while also developing a stronger sense of humility, in meekly learning from some of the inspiring ways that Christianity thrives in other cultures and political conditions.

With the church rising from every corner of the map, we can now find deeper and broader expressions of unity. We can begin to think and act as one church, better prepared to address the many challenges of the world and better equipped to step into the struggles of global Christians who represent the church in areas that are hostile to Christians.

Christianity is stronger when we begin to pray and seek and move together.