Strangers in a Strange Land
by Mike McDaniel
Nearly 20 years ago, my family moved to Zambia, in Southern Africa, to live for several years among the Tonga people as Christian missionaries. These experiences, I’m sure you’ll agree, change us from the inside out. For example, everything I know about the church back home, I learned from the church over there.
Allow me to explain.
These weren’t people who simply didn’t know Jesus; they had never heard the name before. When we showed the film called Jesus, translated into their native language, it created a sensation. How was this “White Man’s God” speaking in their native tongue? They watched as he fed the five thousand, and marveled as he gave sight to the blind. But for them, the greatest of his miracles was that he knew their words.
Returning to my homeland later, I began to understand that the Tonga people were onto something. When it comes to understanding Jesus, our nation is becoming more like the rest of the world with each passing day. So many who live or work beside us have no idea that wherever and whoever they are, Jesus speaks their language.
Culture-watchers refer to the new spiritual order as “Post-Christendom.” For many hundreds of years, we lived in a world in which the church had a firm, even dominant place among society’s thought leaders. For example, businesses were closed on Sundays because it was understood that a vast number of people took seriously the Bible’s commandment to “keep the Sabbath holy.” Candidates for public office, no matter the party, were expected to produce their churchgoing credentials. Prayers were offered at football games and other public events.
Such details are merely symptoms of what’s happening. The deeper-rooted condition is that Christianity no longer controls, or in some cases even participates in, the conversation about public life and how it is to be lived. Jesus isn’t expected to speak that language.
I spent many years researching the implications of these things in working on my book, The ResURGENT Church: 7 Ways to Thrive in the Post-Christendom World. I talked to pastors and scholars on the leading edge of response to the brave new world that is not post-Christian, but post-Christendom. (Christianity is alive and well; it’s the dominance of it in the larger cultural backdrop that is the issue.) The truths I discovered are striking and often frightening, but in the end they’re also hopeful and inspiring.
For example, we’re coming to understand that the church can no longer function as a set and predictable institution, holding fast to its old and reliable patterns. Newer generations will no longer respond to “the same old thing,” the institution as prepackaged as a fast food franchise. Instead, our churches must be rebuilt in context to the communities they inhabit. Jesus took the form of the people He sought to reach—down to precise cultural details—and the church can do no less.
We also have to rediscover, within the church, a sense of community that is powerful and unmatched anywhere else. This is exactly what we find in the earliest days of the Christian church, as recorded in the book of Acts. Why do people drift away from the local congregation? Quite often it’s because they find more meaningful relationships in some other organization. If the spirit of Christ is truly present among us, that shouldn’t happen.
I’m also convinced that the role of the pastor must change. The classic model has always been that of a shepherd—a role that must always be present. But to wisely guide a resurgent church, one that enters and wins over its community in a creative way, the leader must reinvent himself or herself as an entrepreneur, a pioneer, as a missionary on the edge. Preaching and tending to the sick will continue, but churches need strong, savvy pioneers who know their basic surroundings as well as their basic theology.
These are merely samples of prescriptions offered in the book, but perhaps the most concise summary of my findings would be this: Future church leaders must be trained the way we prepare international missionaries. As my family got ready for Zambia, we focused on learning the language and customs. If we’d gone there knowing nothing other than Bible stories, our effectiveness would have been zero.
Now I’d urge the same approach to a young leader wanting to build a church in New Jersey or Kansas or Washington state: Assume nothing. Prepare as if the people have no clue Jesus speaks their language, because it might be true. Know how your community works, thinks, plays. Spend many months simply engaging before you attempt to minister.
The future task of the church presents new challenges, and for that we should give thanks. If the battle is tougher, the victories will be sweeter. The breakthroughs will be more thrilling. We’re going to have to return to being powered by heaven rather than the dusty machinery of twentieth century church, and once we start doing it, all things are possible again. That’s the only path I know that connects urgent and resurgent.
Mike McDaniel is the founding pastor of Grace Point Church in Northwest Arkansas. Before starting the church in Arkansas, Mike and his family served as church developers with the International Mission Board (IMB) in the Republic of Zambia in southern Africa. He has a doctoral degree from Dallas Theological Seminary.
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