A couple months back, my family and I were traveling across the Southwest U.S. to several college campuses, helping to launch the Wilder Project with friends from 24-7 Prayer and WYWAM. I was able to spend a day in a prayer room in the center of a nondescript complex – the international headquarters of an organization that sends Jesus-followers into some of the most difficult places in the Middle East and North Africa to start Jesus Communities.
Everything in the prayer room was set in Middle Eastern decor. From the moment I walked into the prayer room, I began weeping. I began reading prayer requests from field workers, written in a notebook in the corner of the room. I began praying for a family who was asking for prayer: “Last week, a bomb exploded a few blocks away from us. Militants are looking for Christians in the area. Pray that we will not be afraid and that our children will not be aware of the danger around them.”
While I was reading this account from a missionary family, I realized that hundreds of thousands of international students, including Muslims, walk on our university campuses, where their biggest regret upon leaving America is often that they didn’t get to build a close friendship with an American.
I’m not ashamed of the gospel. But I am saddened by how little it seems to be going forth among the unchurched in the West.
Here’s a point I’d like to get across that I’m learning — preaching the gospel in Christian ministry meetings and church gatherings is not the same as communicating the gospel to non-Christians in our culture. No matter how hard we preach, if we surround ourselves with cultural barriers and extrabiblical requirements, we limit the effectiveness of the gospel simply by preventing people from hearing it.
Do most people have to come to a formal meeting prior in order to hear the gospel? When John Wesley went to the fields and coal mines, one of the criticisms against him was that that he wasn’t preaching in a pulpit. Today, when most of our energy revolves around making arrangements for programs and weekly gatherings, I believe we’re neglecting to communicate the gospel to people who need to hear it most. Jesus said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do. I came to call sinners.” Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the good news.” We’re sometimes content to sit in ministry meetings that 95% of the lost will never come to — when the Lord has told us to go. I’m not saying having places to gather and worship aren’t important. But I think we’re dangerously out of balance in terms of where we prioritize our time and efforts. We have more full-time campus ministers on our college campuses in America than anywhere in the world. Yet, after a traveling tour of almost 6,000 miles the last couple months, I’m shocked at how many students we met on college campuses who said they’d never heard the story of why Jesus came to earth.
The “Go and tell” good news
The term “apostle” has been largely misused in the West. People are afraid to use the term. “Apostle” signifies one who is “sent out.” I believe the apostolic aspect of Christianity in the West has been almost completely forgotten, or at least buried beneath a cultural traditions that – though not wrong in and of themselves — are extra-Biblical. We rarely release control enough to send out small teams to travel, preach the gospel, and start new communities of faith that result from the evangelism. It’s too risky. Heresy might occur. It doesn’t generate income to sustain local churches as we know them. It doesn’t fit our understanding for how churches are supposed to grow.
One of the most successful and expansive missionary movements in history – the Jesuits – was pioneered by St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was an oddball in his day. St. Ignatius was weird. He once walked barefoot from Spain to Jerusalem, thinking this was a way to encounter God. He got deported quickly. But he was still hungry to see God do something significant through his life. The monastic orders of his day were largely secluded and had very little view of the primacy of Christian missions. In this environment, St. Ignatius believed that you must “pray as you go”. Across the Himalayas, on three year ocean voyages, across the Western Frontier of the Americas, through the Amazonian river basin — Jesuit missionaries inspired by Loyola and his team married prayer, missions, and an adventurous spirit together in a way not seen since, perhaps, St. Patrick traveled throughout Ireland bringing the gospel to the Celts in the 5th Century. Jesuits went into China a hundred years before Hudson Taylor. Matteo Ricci died in China after leading 2,000 Chinese to Christ – in a land known for extreme xenophobia. Jesuit missionaries actually wrote home that the Chinese wouldn’t adapt well to worshiping in traditional cathedrals. They believed they would want to worship in houses. Ricci paved the way for others.
I believe we must start thinking apostolically in the West again and especially on college campuses. The Muslims on your campus can’t join your campus ministry. I am informed by cultural experts that word would spread around the Muslim community and, in many cases, word would get back home and they would be shamed and forced back home. Not only that, but we worship the way Westerners like to. We do church in a Western style. Is there a way to reach people with the gospel and start new churches completely and culturally distinct from the local churches we have now? There must be, or there is little hope for spiritual awakening in our culture. If there is not a new church planting movement in North America, we may quickly follow in the steps of post-Christendom Europe.
I realize passion must be expressed in love. We all need community. We all need a place to call home and people around us that we feel comfortable with who we can worship with. It’s normal to build churches that reflect our culture. But the last two years I cannot escape this question that constantly lays on me like a coat:
“Who will do church for the pagans” (non-Christians)?”
Looking at the Church or The City?
In the West, we’ve become experts at worship services. We’ve become experts in producing conferences. Many of our churches grow because we’ve learned to implement better marketing practices than smaller churches. God uses all these things. The gospel still goes forth though and people do come to faith in Christ. But we have a ridiculous standard of success for church growth in the West — we look at the church rather than the city. We look at the growth of our individual church community, rather than the corporate expression of the “Church” in our city. The percentage of Christians in our city can decline year after year, but if our individual church is growing, we figure we must be doing it right. Then, to further validate one particular model for church growth, people write books on how to mimic the strategies implemented by the growing church.
Marketing and advertising and learning from the business world isn’t bad. I think we should maintain a posture of learning from everything. I love Jim Collins (Good To Great, etc). I use marketing and advertising for Christian events we produce. I love big celebrations and large gatherings to worship as much as the next person. However, if you spend most of your time around Christians and ministry events, your view of the world often will be formed in ignorance to the cultures and people around you.
Here’s a harsh word for some of us: Some of us need to go out from our prayer meetings and go obey what God has already told us to do. Some of us need to leave our worship gatherings and go bring worship where there is no worship. Some of us need to leave “the ministry” and start following Jesus to become fishers of men.
Go meet international students on your campus. Walk up and introduce yourself and welcome them to your city. Tell them you’re glad they are here. Go befriend the ethnic minority family on your street who everybody smiles at politely but stops short of inviting to dinner. Go make a Muslim friend. Share a meal with them. Gather with Muslims for a meal and to discuss a story about Jesus together. Did you know the Koran instructs Muslims to read the stories of Jesus? Ask for their help translating a simple worship song into Arabic, or Farsi, or whatever language they speak.
Demographers predict that, given current trends, white people will become a minority in America in the next fifty years. (See Jenkins, The Next Christendom). Yet, most church growth strategies I see are geared for Westerners who are at least open to attending a congregational church. We still do church with the subtle ethnocentric views that made our efforts to bring the gospel to Native Americans such an abysmal failure: We communicate (unintentionally perhaps), “You can come follow Jesus, as long as you do church like us, worship like us, and look like us.” We’ve stopped giving the gospel away as a gift by requiring adaptation of a Western model of church to be a requirement for Christians to endorse you as a follower of Jesus.
Near many of us, there are pockets of culturally distinct people who need culturally distinct expressions of worship and culturally unique ways for leading churches. This is one reason I love the idea of planting organic churches — they are a way to start culturally flexible forms of indigenous-led churches. They can grow into larger churches, buy a building, and pay their leaders down the road if they wish. But let’s believe for the start of thousands and thousands of new “baby” churches in the culturally unique pockets of people around North America.
If there were a couple truths I could live and die for, here would be two of them:
1) The gospel is powerful, not our Christian culture. It’s human nature to “do” church only in the cultural forms with which we’re most familiar. It takes humility and spirit-given wisdom to give the gospel away and nurture new cultural forms of worship and ways of leading church communities. See Acts 15 for a great debate on whether the early church would allow different cultural expressions of church in other cities. We would do well to heed their example today.
If you talk about Jesus, things happen. We’ve got to rediscover the ancient apostolic roots of our Christian movement by relearning how to start churches in the West that are faithful to the gospel, but culturally distinct.
2) Universities are a mission field. They are the most strategic mission field in the world. In one square mile, you can reach the future leaders of America and almost every country on earth (though certainly not every ethnic group). Universities require prayer, creativity, self-sacrifice, and apostolic/missionary strategy as much as strategizing to go to an unreached people group on the other side of the planet. They also require a willingness to hold loosely our cultural forms of doing church and adopt an apostolic mindset, constantly asking questions like, “What would it look like for an indigenous, lay-led expression of the church look like here?” “What would it take for the gospel to rapidly spread and bring transformation on campus?” Because universities are a constantly-changing, transitional, temporary community, it also requires asking these questions year after year.
I, and a growing network of friends, believe it’s strategic to bring new strategies alongside local church and parachurch models to call for temporary, simple expressions of church that can be planted on campus and led by students. It’s not hard to find criticism of the student church movement, or the idea of planting student-led organic churches on college campuses. In most cases, they don’t last, at least in terms of an ongoing established congregation that identifies with a name or denomination or geographic location. What’s hard for our brothers and sisters in Christ of a different paradigm to understand is, “They’re not supposed to.”
Student churches are a way to “seed” the gospel into a campus year after year in a continual cycle of death and rebirth. When the church “dies” it grows into new ones. One spreads overseas. Two new ones start in two new dorm floors on campus. New disciples are made. Expressions of church are brought into the areas students do life. Why do we call them “churches” as opposed to Bible studies? Because we want students all over the nation to go all over the world with the following precepts:
“Anyone can start a church” and “You can start churches anywhere.”
These two principles have become tenents of our movement. Universities are a key vehicle in God’s plan to fill every corner of the earth with worshipers in every ethnic group. We hope for a reformation in our thinking so that churches and campus ministries everywhere will embrace their potential to start new simple church communities year to year on campuses, that can still connect relationally and be served by their local church or ministry.
My heart breaks when I read the literature about the attrition rate of teen students who attend Christian youth groups, then fall away from the faith in college. Is this the kind of leadership we’re raising in the next generation? I have a book on my college written to Christian teens: “How to Survive Spiritually in College.” I’m all for teaching kids how to protect their faith and be on guard against backsliding but I think, as the people of God in the world, we have a lot more potential than we’re living up to.
Surviving or Sent?
I started asking a different question: “What if we started EQUIPPING and SENDING students to secular colleges, rather than just trying to get them to SURVIVE? Christian students can literally become student missionaries to their campus if they adopt this apostolic mindset. I started giving this challenge to young people with a heart for the nations:
Do you want to see God transform the nations? I challenge you to start by giving 4 years of your life to missions – by going as a student church planter to a secular college campus. You can reach the nations as a cross-cultural student missionary on your campus.
I believe a new student missions movement has begun. But this movement is not going to look like what we might think. It may start on universities but it will not end there. It’s gonna be people traveling to pioneer micro-enterprise projects in Central Africa, starting simple churches along the way, while teaching men and women to live out kingdom values in business. It will be people planting simple churches in economic sectors, teaching businesspeople in the high rises of Hong Kong, Taipai, and Tokyo that they can encounter Jesus’ presence in a temporary prayer room set up in an office and an informal meeting with a handful of others to encourage one another to follow Jesus’ teachings. It will be college students and professors planting simple churches on college campuses around the world. Yes, it will be full-time vocational missionaries and ministers, too. But this will not be the principle way of funding the church plants around the world. Like in Acts 11:20, they will be Antioch churches started by people who we don’t even know by name. “But some of the believers…”
Speaking of the Antioch Church in Acts, did you ever realize that this missions-sending epicenter of the Mediterranean world was started by people whose names we don’t even know – “some of the believers?” Paul and Barnabus later came to strengthen it and build it up. But it was started by people who we don’t even know by name. I am believing to see an apostolic move of God where churches start this way all over the place. There’s a place for professional ministers (I am one), but I’ve come to fully believe that our role is actually to equip others to start and lead churches (do the work of ministry).
“Anyone can start a church. You can start churches anywhere.”
“Lord, I pray for the gospel to go forth in power on college campuses. From there, may your church grow on every campus and every nation on earth.”