Putting the American Church into Perspective

Our perspective should be colored by God’s global and eternal purposes, not by the smaller, immediate “world” that we know.

A recent article in Relevant Magazine online, Report: 8 in 10 Evangelicals Live in Asia, Africa and South America, was there to greet me this morning when I opened Facebook. The article title, and the concluding statement put things into perspective:

“[T]hese figures … underline an important point about the vast racial and ethnic diversity of the evangelical strain of Christianity — a diversity often neglected in American conversations about faith.”

Evangelicals make up a little over 25% of the Christians in the world, and only 14% of the Evangelicals in the world live in the United States. Let that sink in.

Let’s take another step back. Let’s gain a little perspective. Let’s look at American Evangelical Christianity for a moment from the larger perspective of the world.

More Evangelicals live in China and India, taken together, than in the United States (66 million and 28 million totaling 94 million). Almost one-third (32%) of all Evangelicals in the world live in Asia (213 million). Another 28% of Evangelicals live in Africa (185 million), doubling the number of Evangelicals in the United States! More Evangelicals live now in South America (123 million) than the United States.

These numbers show that American Evangelical Christianity is dwarfed by the number of Evangelicals worldwide, and the gap is widening.

A Christianity Today article in 2016 observed that Iran has the fastest growing evangelical church in the world. (Which country has the fastest-growing church in the world?) A 2019 article by a missions organization reports that Afghanistan had the second fastest growing church in the world. (You’ll Be Surprised Where Christianity Is Growing – And Where It Is Not) A 2018 article in the Houston Chronicle reporting on the results of a conference at Rice University indicates that Christians in China are estimated to exceed the number of Christians in the US by the year 2030. (China, officially atheist, could have more Christians than the U.S. by 2030)

The Relevant Magazine article offers the opinion that we tend “to get tunnel vision in the United States and start thinking that the Southern Baptist Convention represents the nexus of evangelicalism writ large”. That tunnel vision, which I see as well, concerns me increasingly as our country becomes more and more polarized on the political front. I fear we are being influenced so much by uniquely American culture and politics that we fail to have a more global and eternal perspective to our own detriment and peril.

Western civilization, out of which American Christianity grew, has no doubt had great influence in the world. Much of it was very good: the advancement of science, technology, representative government and the spread of the Gospel of Christ by missionary efforts into the rest of the world. But we shouldn’t be ignorant of our own failings as well: colonialization that devastated native populations, wars, slavery and many other evils are also the legacy the Christian west, including Americans.

We tend to view the United States of America as a shining city set on a hill, but it may be more of a gaudy spectacle than we care to consider, illuminated by manifest destiny, national pride and self-love wrapped in religious trappings. Our view is beguiling to us. We might even think of ourselves as “God’s people”, like a modern Israel, with God’s blessing to ride roughshod over the world with a religious fervor and confidence that is wholly misplaced.

We are not Israel. We aren’t Abraham’s spiritual descendants (any more than a brother from Mongolia is). We aren’t indispensable to God. God can use a donkey to accomplish His purpose.

If we learn anything from Jesus, we learn that the last will be first, and the first will be last. (Matt. 20:16) God uses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Cor. 1:27) If we are proud about our strength, that isn’t a good thing in God’s economy.

We need to raise our sights to see the bigger picture of God’s purpose. An American evangelical church that is influenced by nationalism is out of step in God’s global and eternal purpose.

God set the global stage of His purpose when He told Abraham He would bless all the nations through his descendants. (See Genesis 12:3; 22:18; and Gal. 3:7-8) Jesus established the global nature of his purpose for all who would follow him in the Great Commission. (Matt. 28:18-23) John saw the culmination of God’s purpose in Revelations when he looked and beheld:

“a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev. 7:9-10)

God is no respecter of persons (or nations or political parties, I might add). If we don’t view our place in the world in light of God’s purpose for all “tribes and peoples and languages”, we have lost our way. We are not following after Jesus; we are going our own way.

The global number of evangelical Christians helps us put American evangelicalism in perspective. We may flex a lot of muscle in the world, but God often works most through weak and broken vessels.

The church in Iran, for instance, which may be the fastest growing church in the world, is ranked ninth on the Open Doors watch-list of most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian. Christians there are threatened, arrested, imprisoned and tortured simply for being public with their faith.

“Historically, the church flourishes in times of persecution and danger….”, observed one man who was interviewed for the article linked above about Iran. That was true of the early church, and it’s true today.

While American Christians act as if Christianity is under siege in the United States, no one here is threatened with arrest, imprisonment, torture or death. Yes, we are losing our political and cultural influence, but isn’t that inevitable in a world in which most people will take the broad road?

Jesus doesn’t call us to maintain a nation with a Christian government; he calls us to reach the world with the Gospel. Jesus said we would not be friends with the world (the world will hate us (John 15:19)), and James warned that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4), so when we are fighting to maintain our favored status in the world something is wrong. We have gotten off track.

The number of evangelicals in the world compared to the evangelicals in the United States reminds us that American Christianity is only a small subset of Christianity in the world. The fact that Christianity is growing much faster in other parts of the world reminds us that God is working out His purposes in the world independent of us (with or without us).

Our perspective needs to be illuminated by God’s global and eternal purposes, but the natural, human tendency is to be absorbed and immersed in our own smaller and immediate “world”.

Lift your eyes O American church to the hills from whence the Lord, your salvation comes! See what God is doing in His global and eternal church today! God brings down the haughty, but He hears the cries and lifts the spirits of the humble.

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