|Part of "The Missing Generation"|
In 1995 I read Foolishness to the Greeks by Leslie Newbegin during my first semester at The Divinity School of Duke University. A driving thesis of this small but powerful text is that “the West” is a missionary situation and not a Christian culture. Newbigin, a long time missionary to India returned to his native England and realized that from the time he had left until the time he returned, the world had changed. He rang the warning bell that people of faith needed to begin acting like missionaries instead of rulers, and his warnings fell largely on deaf ears. Now England has only about 4% of its population as faithfully practicing Christians.
When I read this Protestants were still the majority across the United States. The mega-church movement with its seeker-sensitive approaches and amazing levels of theatrical production were growing, every year more churches than ever passed the 1,000 in worship mark and it looked like revival was coming, Christianity would prevail, and the Kingdom would come. But I had a feeling, an intuition, an hunch that we were where England was when Newbigin wrote the book. That the world was changing, even in the Bible-Belt of the United States, and that we needed to live like missionaries rather than rulers of culture. Now, almost twenty-years later we have come to realize that most of that mega-church growth was a result of urbanization and the attraction of already practicing Christians away from smaller, mainline churches to the bigger, better, programming model of mega-churches. The socio-graphic needle reflecting the number and frequency of church attendance really didn’t move and has, in fact, began to flicker backward. Last year protestants, the backbone of American Christianity, fell below the majority and the only segment to grow were the “Nones.” All of our assumptions about how we “do church” have fallen on culturally deaf ears and we must rethink the entire focus of our endeavors. Welcome to the mission field.
Here are some recent NPR reports from a current series entitled Losing Our Religion that may help in our understanding of what it means to live the missionary life.