In the March 2012 issue of National Geographic , a picture of 19-year Anil Kuldeep fills one page. Anil is a young Christian who lives in southern India, where the church has existed for thousands of years. His right leg displays a nasty scar, evidence of the eight-hour beating he suffered at the hands of Hindu extremists who demanded he renounce his Christian faith—he refused. Now, the caption declared, Anil “wants to return to school but can’t afford the tuition.” I wonder how much his schooling would cost—as much as the cost for a couple of American teenagers to go on a short-term mission trip this summer?
Do the teenagers that your church is sending know that, including Anil, there are at least 24 million Christians in India? An estimated 80 to 130 million Christians in China? That 22.5 percent of all Christians in the world live in Africa? As they’re going through preparation for their overseas experience, are they learning that Christianity is not a Western religion and did not, in fact, originate among people of European descent? For many of us, our natural ego-centric, ethno-centric, and econo-centric view of the world has informed our view of the Christian faith. Christianity is not a Western religion—it is a religion for all people in all times and places, but one with origins in the Middle East and with its earliest growth in the region of the Mediterranean, southern Europe, northern Africa, western Asia, and yes, India.
And in these places that experienced early and explosive growth among believers, growth continues. The church is growing worldwide, not because of American teenagers’ short-term mission trips, but because the Holy Spirit is alive and active all over the world, uninhibited by the things that scare us.
Many Western Christians believe the church is dying. They wring their hands over the decline in church attendance and the deflation of cultural endorsement of Christianity in this part of the world. Their anxiety is misplaced—the church is growing in places where the casual Western observer won’t see it, places like Africa, Asia, and India. The world has a long history of church growth among powerless people, and once again the faith is exploding in places where the Christian church does not hold the kind of constitutionally protected power it holds in the U.S. and other places in the West. After all, Christianity is not a movement of government, culture, or compulsion. It’s a movement of God in the hearts of people, and that’s just the sort of thing a politically powerful church often squelches in the interest of preserving its own power and comfort.
It’s time for Western Christians to recognize the movement of God among people in other parts of the world—and to join that movement rather than continue to behave as if the gospel is ours to share or withhold. It’s time for us to listen to—and truly learn from—the stories of people who have had this gospel for much longer than we have. Our Western flavor should be in the mix with everyone else, but not overpowering the spices of others.
It’s also time for us to acknowledge that among all the people of the world, Western Christians—particularly Caucasian Americans—are the least likely to gain a receptive audience with our stories. We move under a cloud of stereotypes, some deserved and some not. We are perceived as powerful, wealthy, and arrogant. And we lack the credibility that comes from the kind of suffering that leaves physical scars. Who do we think is dying to hear our stories of how and why we chose faith in Christ in a cocoon of comfort, wealth, power, and a culture largely tolerant of our beliefs? How much more power is in the story of someone who converted to Christ in the face of tremendous persecution, cultural rejection, and possible death?
Even in this country, the stories of racial minorities carry much more credibility that those of Caucasians. Given the cultural climate, non-white Christians sometimes defy people’s expectations by embracing Christ—reinforcing the idea that there may be something more to this Jesus thing than simply a self-fulfilling cultural prophecy.
When I looked at that picture of Anil Kuldeep, whose clothes are ragged and worn and who can’t afford tuition to continue his schooling, I wondered, Does he know how powerful his story is? People like him have more credibility than people like me can ever muster.
It’s time to use our privilege to magnify the voices of people with fewer privileges. To invest in equipping them rather than shipping ourselves around the world under the mistaken assumption that people will be attracted to us and what we say. The world has enough Western cultural exports. The best way to spread the good news is to support the people most likely to gain an audience for it.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.