Acts is one of my favorite books in the Bible. It is one of surprise, intrigue, almost dare-devil undertakings that result in the amazing growth of God’s kingdom. Here in today’s reading, the Spirit is bubbling over into Antioch, a place of a great number of Hellenists. This spillage of God’s Spirit is no accident, but a deliberate and evocative growth for the body of Christ.
This story today makes it clear that God’s word is being heard and understood by those rooted deeply in Greek culture. It is not just Jews who “get it” anymore. God’s word has spread.
Today mission work by Christians has transformed to look very different than in years past. The statistics of missionaries sent and received around the world tells the story. While the USA sends a lot of missionaries, along with Brazil, France, Spain, Italy, and South Korea, where these missionaries go may surprise you. It seemingly does not match our Acts story, where God’s word is spreading in new ground and a predominantly non-Christian context. Overwhelmingly today, Christian missionaries go to predominantly Christian countries, especially around Oceania and the Caribbean. Those destinations elsewhere, like Africa and North and South America, are also to predominantly Christian countries.
In fact, none of the 10 top countries for receiving missionaries is less than 90% Christian. Why is that? Are Americans timid about sharing the story as it is being shared in Acts? Well part of the answer has to do with some of the largely populated non-Christian countries that deny or restrict missionary activity.
And this is OK. God finds a way.
The face of mission long ago changed anyway. This is no longer about Western civilization exporting their way of life, along with a message of “hope” which sometimes sounded dangerously like idolatry or colonialism, with a God who always seemed to be cast in their own image. Instead, mission today is from the margins, with God most powerfully speaking to us FROM the global south TO the global north. It is also much more about partnerships, relationships, and gathering resources. It sounds healthier to me.
A good example is our team that recently went to Uganda. When this mission started many years ago, the feedback I was getting from many of you was that it was sounding a lot like the colonialist-model 19th Century form of proselytism of old. That perception certainly has changed, as people awakened to the reality that Uganda is an overwhelming Christian nation (upwards of 90% compared to 65% in the USA).
What we came to realize is that Ugandans knew a lot about how to be Christian, and it was our time to learn how to tell the story, how to receive and give hospitality, how to “do church” and how to be in partnership with another national Presbyterian Church. As it turned out, ironically, it was the Ugandan church that was providing life-sustaining hope in the gospel to us.
It is not all one-sided though. We Americans have gifts to share too. Much of that I see as Uganda struggles with human rights, gender equality, political corruption, and LGBT rights. We provide hope to the Ugandan Christians who seek to stand up to that kind of injustice, just as they provide us hope as we try to turn the tide of our broken religious system and the deterioration of Christianity in the US. This is the true meaning of partnership, where each provides new life, and a life-sustaining hope in Christ and the gospel.
So the face of mission has changed. From one predominant Christian nation to another, we seek solidarity and increasing hope. We all seek new life.
We must trust that God can take care of those areas where we fall short and that our message of new life will continue to spread, and that the story of Acts continues to morph and change as we respond to a changing landscape of God’s kingdom.
To get involved with Mission at FPCOKC, go to www.fpcokc.org/serve–volunteer
(Statistics come from the Center for Study of Global Christianity, 2013. http://wwwgordonconwell.com/netcommunity/CSGCResources/ChristianityinitsGlobalContext.pdf)