What Do You Bring Back With You From the Global Church?
By Paul Windsor
From The Art of Unpacking
“What do you bring back with you from the global church?”
This was a question asked of me six months ago. I’ve been thinking about the answers ever since. What follows is a personal and general response. I am not trying to defend a thesis, nor am I trying to gather all the exceptions. This is simply how it has been for me, nothing more. This is what the global church has taught me, one paragraph at a time. I’ve been so grateful for this decade of change in my life.
[NB: By ‘over there’, I am referring, primarily, to rural, grassroots communities and students across South Asia among whom Barby (my wife) and I have lived and worked (although the rest of Asia and Africa and Latin America have been great teachers as well). By ‘over here’, I am referring, primarily, to Christian communities in my homeland of Aotearoa-New Zealand (although Christians in countries like Australia, the UK, the USA are also in my thoughts)].
1. Spirituality: let God be God
Over there, people are slower to blame God when things go bad in their lives. There seems to be a stronger sense of God’s sovereignty and control. The stories can be horrible — and yet they turn towards God in the middle of it, not away from him. Over there, people are quicker to bless God when things go well in their lives. There seems to be a stronger sense of God’s grace and goodness. Ask them a question about their daily life. If the response involves good news, if will be prefaced by ‘By God’s grace’.
2. Religion: stop the foolishness
Over here, we consider that the rising percentage of ‘No Religion’ responses in our Census is a sign of progress. ‘Ahh, a religion-free world. This is the solution.’ Not only are people over there bewildered by this attitude (because religion is integral to their identity), mingling with them has helped me see the foolishness of it all. It is not progressive at all. It is out-of-step with the trajectory of the world. It is foolish because (a) ‘No Religion’ bears all the hallmarks of a religion anyway; and (b) the world’s problems will only ever be resolved by engaging religion, not by ignoring it.
3. God: run the race
Imagine the various aspects of the character of God lining up for a 100 meter race. Can you do that with me? It is hard to limit it to eight, but let’s try. Holiness in Lane 1. Love in Lane 2. Faithfulness, then Justice, then Wisdom. With Goodness in Lane 6, Sovereignty in Lane 7, Judgement in Lane 8. Imagine all of us up in the stands cheering away, singing and worshipping. Over here, we are willing on Love and Justice and Faithfulness to take the medals. Over there, they are more willing to cheer for the dead-heat that the race actually is. Yes, God’s holiness is as important as God’s love, for example. The mission of God over here is being hampered because this is not what people believe.
4. Relevance: raise the questions
Over here, the way churches pursue relevance can reach obsessive proportions. It is seen as the secret of success. ‘Become relevant, or die’. Really? Who says? We get barely a squeak out of Jesus and the New Testament writers on the subject. Such a pursuit tends to create Christians and communities with lives that have no discernible difference from the surrounding world. They’ve leaned over so far, they’ve fallen in. Over there, the word ‘relevance’ is hardly heard, if ever. They are too preoccupied with being shining lights, often barely flickering, in the midst of a cultural resistance. There is a discernible difference about them that can intrigue those in the surrounding culture. Many continue to oppose them, but Jesus is drawing others to himself in great numbers. Goodness me, maybe we’ve been leaning the missional ladder against the wrong wall for a generation, or three? Maybe, just maybe, ‘become relevant and die’ is closer to the reality?
5. Suffering: turn towards it
This one is similar to the previous one. Suffering for Jesus’ sake is the expectation of the New Testament. Over there, suffering is the expectation of the believer — and it is often their experience. It doesn’t take much research to see a correlation, over there, between the presence of suffering for Jesus’ sake and the effectiveness of mission in Jesus’ name. Over here, however, so much is geared towards avoiding suffering. If it exists, it more commonly involves dealing with cranky, change-resistant power-brokers in the church. No. No. Over there and over here, biblically-faithful, Christ-glorifying, contextually-anchored church life will lead to persecution. Preaching through 1 Peter — a letter to scattered, small, suffering communities — is a first love of mine. Over there, people are on the edge of their seats as the words walk off the page into their lives. I hardly have to say much at all. Over here, people tend to become distracted and fidgety. I rest my case.
6. Borders: transgress them
Facilitate discussion about India over here and the word ‘caste’ won’t be too far away. This system still exists in the society and in the church. It is a border that is not easily transgressed and nor is it easily defensible, from a gospel perspective. It is not good. However seeing that border over there has helped me see other borders over here. Every culture is a border-factory. The British class system? The American celebrity system? They create insiders and outsiders, an upper and a lower, a center and a margin. It is not good. What becomes of the sociological impossibility which is the church? Even over here in egalitarian New Zealand, where the literal borders are closed, there are so many other borders that remain open. Many of them are embedded in the questions on the census form (age, address, gender, ethnicity, income etc). For God’s sake, transgress them. That is what the cross of Christ is designed to accomplish. There is nothing miraculous about like-minded people hanging out together.
7. The Bible: re-read it
For me, the most exciting development in the mission of God in recent decades is the recognition of scholars over there, together with their perspectives and their publications. Over here, we need to listen to them, to learn from them. At the head of the queue in assisting us over there are the series of one volume Bible commentaries (with the Africa and South Asia ones both available in English). They comment on the biblical text and on the cultural context — and as we read over here it becomes like wearing another lens, seeing both the new insights and exposing the old blindspots.
8. Gospel: be confident in it
There are so many causes over here today. I’ve felt overwhelmed on return. Equal genders, fair trade, freed children, a ‘re-wilded’ earth (Attenborough), black lives matter, decolonization, climate change emergency etc. Every single one of them is an essential cause. I delight to see our children, even a young grandchild, jumping aboard one cause or another. But here is the irony. Again and again, in the very places over there where the impact of these issues is felt the most, something else is happening. We attended a pentecostal church on the edge of a sprawling Indian urban slum, with a pastor-teacher-evangelist constantly reminding us that the root problem is a sin problem and that the epicenter of evil is the human heart and that it, above all else, needs the transformative touch of the gospel. He is right. What a confidence in the gospel!
Furthermore, channeling Chris Wright in affirming these various causes to be legitimate ways ‘to enter the circle of mission’, we also recognize that unless gospel-evangelism is the ultimate goal, hearts will not be transformed, mission will be ‘defective’ (Wright) — and there will be a ceiling to the change that a cause can instigate.
9. Jesus: see him as ‘my Lord and my God’
I grew up with ‘if Jesus is not Lord of all, he is not Lord at all.’ I haven’t heard it stated in this way over here in a long, long time. We’ve moved on to greener pastures. Jesus is a savior. Jesus is a friend. Jesus is an exemplar. Jesus is a therapist. But is Jesus also someone who can tell me where to go and what to do? Is he Lord of my life? Is he my project manager, or am I his project manager, sub-contracting him to do this and that for me — and nothing more? This one is similar to the ‘by God’s grace’ one in #1, except this time it is a phrase that starts a prayer, not so much a phrase that starts some good news. Over there, again and again, their prayers commence with ‘Oh Jesus, my Master’. Would I ever hear it over here?
10. Leadership: return to character
With this one, there are challenges over there and over here. They may be packaged differently, but often they are similar and usually they have something to do with power. No one is exempt. Undermining solo leadership by building and working through teams? Helping the founder/planter move on by investing in the next generation? Since coming home, we’ve travelled 10,000 kms, visiting small groups of friends and supporters. If I’m listening accurately, the core criteria for effective leadership over here seems to be about vision and change. I’ve even heard it said that a pastor was failing because he was not visionary. Yikes?! The sheer variety of challenges over here and over there helps me see clearly the challenges in front of me, right here, right now. Regardless of what it might be, I am reminded that leadership is more about posture than position; it is first about character before it is about skill; and it is everyone’s business because ‘everyone is called to be a follower of Jesus and a leader of others’.
11. The World: recognize the supernatural
Over here, the world is a place where God is at work. That is what I hear. It is as frequent as a mantra. ‘Find where God is at work and join him in his work’. I like it. It is so true. But there is another way to describe the world. Over there, they lean towards a contrasting truth. The world is also a place where the devil is at work, a truth supported extensively by the New Testament where the world is described as dark, empty, blind, enslaved, groaning, asleep, corrupt, entangled, discordant, stumbling, hard, dead etc. There are two forces in the supernatural reality. And, as Michael Green used to say, ‘either we take the devil too seriously, or we do not take him seriously enough’.
12. Partnership: receive and give
Over here, the passion for mission still tends to be expressed in generous serving and resourcing, usually related to funding. Over there, there is another longing. They are ready for partnership, eager to affirm that everyone has something to give and everyone has something to receive. It helps this conversation if money is taken ‘off the table’. What might things look like? Without referencing finance, what is it that I can give and what is it that I will receive? [NB: My First Eleven are described above :)]. What we find is that there is a friendship before resourcing, just as there is a partnership beyond resourcing. For an exquisite metaphor of this partnership we need look no further than the musical genre indigenous to South Asia known as jugalbandi (literally, being ‘tied together’).
Paul Windsor. “Twelve Paragraphs to Bring Home.” The Art of Unpacking, December 2, 2020, https://paulwindsor.blogspot.com/2020/12/twelve-paragraphs-to-bring-home.html.
This article first appeared on Paul’s blog, The Art of Unpacking. It is used with permission.
Paul Windsor is the Program Director for Langham Preaching. He and his wife, Barby, were both raised in missionary families in India. Until Covid-19, they were based at SAIACS in Bangalore, but now they have returned home to New Zealand. Prior to being with Langham, Paul was principal of Carey Baptist College in Auckland for twelve years.