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Nazarenes in a Post-American World

Nazarenes in a Post-American World

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I enjoy receiving and collecting newsletters sent out by missionaries. These letters, as well as missionary blog sites, lead me to pray for those who are serving Christ in exciting ways. I recently received a group E-mail from a missionary telling an incredible story about a young woman being sent from Latin America to Europe. That in itself is amazing and historical. The letter told how the young woman prepared to leave her home country, trained for her new cross-cultural experience, and raised support for two years of mission service in Europe.

Raising the money in her home country was difficult, and even though churches had been generous in their offerings, she still lacked funds. The missionary's letter went on to tell how a 15-year-old boy in her home country heard about this and made the decision to give a computer in order to support this young woman. Considering the money that the boy's father had saved for the computer, this was a great sacrifice. Yet the boy's parents were proud of his generosity.

The missionary told of his journey to pick up the computer, sell it, and give the funds to the young Latin missionary. As I read this story, I thought, this is a great example of how missionaries work together with local people to serve and carry out God's mission. The missionary realized that the people in the country where he was serving could be missionaries just as he was. He also realized that people could participate in sending missionaries.

What an incredible story of how the kingdom of God has no political or economic boundaries!

For those to whom a computer does not represent the equivalent of one year's income, stories like these are challenging. We ask ourselves, "How does my offering compare to this?" We may think that this family's willingness to give is great, but that it is too much and that we, the affluent, should be the ones to provide.

In our global society, there are many complex situations like this. North Americans cannot ignore the fact that our middle class is still in the top five percent of the world's most wealthyi. How should we respond?

Throughout history, affluent churches have struggled to develop healthy practices for using money in mission work. There was a time when Europeans and North Americans understood mission work to include spreading the gospel as well as spreading the culture and wealth of their nations to parts of the world that were thought to be impoverished economically, culturally, and religiously.

Several authorsii in the past 10 years have noted the incredible growthiii of Christianity in areas that historically have been recipients of missionaries from North America and Europe. Authors such as Lesslie Newbigin, on the other hand, have noted waning spiritual vitality, primarily in Europe. Undoubtedly, the spiritual "capitol" is not one specific nation that has the responsibility to tell its story to the other nations.

In the words of Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar, missions is not an endeavor of "the west to the rest."iv God's mission comes from any place where there are people whose lives have been transformed by the gospel. Therefore, it is only natural that brothers and sisters in parts of the world who began a journey of faith with Christ would desire to participate in God's mission to the nations. It is also natural that thousands of people in local churches have a desire to participate in hands-on missions through short-term mission activities.

Missions is not limited to "professionals," to those who live in wealthy countries, or by our resources. If we truly believe that it is God's mission that we are a part of, missions will not be just another mechanical and controlled church activity for those who can afford to purchase international airplane tickets. We will also believe that God will work through brothers and sisters who are of diverse cultural backgrounds and who participate in missions in ways that we never imagined.

The task of missions "is being carried out by the missionaries of poorer churches who demonstrate in their own lives the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for the poor, the destitute and the hopeless—and not just for the rich...these missionaries are on the cutting edge of the expansion of the kingdom today."v

In the face of these realities, some have asked, "Why then do we send missionaries from North America?" or "What is a healthy way to use resources in a world with enormous disparity between those who have resources and those who do not have resources?"

Fareed Zakaria's new book, The Post-American Worldvi, begins, "This is not a book about the decline of America, but rather about the rise of everyone else." Although this is primarily a book about global economies, the very same words could be said in relation to Christianity, the Church of the Nazarene in particular.

The church is not so much decliningvii in North America, but it is growing at an unprecedented rate everywhere else. What does it mean for Nazarenes to participate in missions in this "post-American" world—a world in which Westerners are still a vital part of the mission, but equally a part are brothers and sisters from every part of the globe?

Although we do not always get it right, I do believe that, fundamentally, Nazarenes have a deep desire to give sacrificially and to be actively involved in God's mission with the global community. Before his untimely home-going a couple of years ago, I often had the honor of interpreting for former South America Regional Director Bruno Radi during mission services and rallies in the U.S. With tears of gratitude, he would often make it a point to thank those in the U.S. for giving sacrificially to send missionaries to other countries.

His own family, in fact, had been eternally changed through such generosity. This very same spirit of giving can be seen in the new generation of Nazarenes in Central America, and in many other parts of the globe today where the gospel is spreading.

This spirit of generosity is not because people have an overabundance of money or are experts, but rather because of what God is doing through people in diverse parts of the world who are absolutely desperate for God. There is an Umbuto Zulu proverb that says, "A person is a person through other persons." A similar African proverb is: "Without you there is no me."

Throughout the church there are incredible spiritual, financial, and other resources available to edify one another and to participate in what God is doing to bring justice and reconciliation to the world. Christianity was meant to be lived as a communal, global endeavor.

Dependence or independence are not the options before us. Interdependence, however, is a real option with real possibilities for participating in God's global mission.

David Wesley is professor of missions at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. He spent 13 years as a missionary in Ecuador and Argentina.

iSee particularly the first chapter of David Livermore's book which gives a good snapshot of this reality: Serving with Eyes Wide Open: Doing Short-Term Missions with Cultural Intelligence: Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Books, 2006

iiSee Andrew Walls and Philip Jenkins (The Next Christendom) in particular.

iiiThis is primarily spiritual vitality and passion which has resulted in numeric growth.

ivSee Samuel Escobar's, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone.

vSee Jonathan Bonk's recently revised book, Missions and Money, Orbis, 2006

viZakaria, Fareed. The Post American World. New York, London W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.

viiI use the word "decline" not simply in relation to statistics and church growth, but rather in a holistic manner that refers to the Church as a whole.

Holiness Today, September/October 2008

Please note: This article was originally published in 2008. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.