I recently enjoyed the book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and learned something new about world and Christian history. I didn’t know that the Christian church in Japan dates back at least to 1549 and some believe it may go back much farther, to 400 AD. In the 1600s, a period of intense persecution drove Christians underground or to their deaths and helped fuel the severe isolationist policy of Japan that lasted until the late 1800s. But the church, although a tiny 1 percent of the population, has survived.
I decided to do more reading, and I discovered several reports that claim what this Christianity Today article describes: In the wake of the devastating March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Northern Japan, Japanese Christians have an audience–unprecedented in our times–for the gospel among their fellow citizens. This is in a country long known as the least receptive to Christianity.
Add that to ongoing news about the growth of Christianity in China, where one credible estimate says there are now 67 million Christians and some estimate more than 100 million. And consider the startling growth of the church in India, where one estimate says there are now more than 58 million Christians.
Then there’s this report from a few months ago, illustrating the number and distribution of Christians throughout the world. While Western Christians have bemoaned the decline of the church in our own part of the world, the faith has spread dramatically around the globe. “Christianity today–unlike a century ago–is truly a global faith,” the report claims. It has spread so pervasively, “no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.” In fact, 36.7 percent of the world’s Christians now live in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region. I’m not sure many Western Christians are paying attention to this movement.
My current interest in these spiritual movements around the world is set against a backdrop of warnings and dire predictions about the declining influence of the church in the United States–and the consequences for the world. I’m regularly assaulted by propaganda-laced forwarded emails and social networking posts, mostly fueled by the upcoming presidential election. If they are to be believed, God’s kingdom is at serious risk if either of our major candidates is elected. The assumption is that God?s work in the world lives or dies with the status of American cultural Christianity.
Don’t get me wrong. I know there is much to grieve in our world. I know life is not what it should be. We can be reasonably certain we are not truly safe, we won’t all get along, and we will not make it to the end of our lives with everyone we love by our side. Our world and our culture are deeply troubled. And we can and should stand up against darkness and grieve whatever grieves God.
I also know it’s only human to grieve a loss of influence, and much of our alarm is motivated by a sense of frustration and powerlessness to make the world the way we believe it should be. But it is not ours to mold. If we believe God is sovereign, we must join his work and quell our craving for power. We must let go of our own sense of self-importance. We do not live at the center of the universe. God does not depend on the American (or any other) church to keep himself on his throne.
In the mix of human affairs, we are powerful people. And our choices are important. But our concern over our culture’s momentum is disproportionate to the momentum of God’s work in the world. Do we really believe his plans hinge on the outcome of our presidential election? That he’s waiting to see what happens with the economy before he creates his budget for next year? That God’s kingdom depends, even a tiny bit, on ours?
We need a bigger perspective.
When Jesus was on earth, many people thought he was building a kingdom in this world, planning a revolution to defeat the powers of their time and make the world more like they thought it should be (Luke 19:11). This is how he responded: “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom . . . my Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). His work went far beyond what they could see, ask for, or imagine. And it went far beyond them, spanning the space and time of everyone in history.
God is always doing something much bigger than what people want him to do. His work is not done. And it is about us–but not in the way we like to think. Our vision is more global than ever. But we’re still so Western-centric that we mostly view other people and places only as in need of our help–not as objects of God’s work independent of his relationship with us.
If someone would have told our forebears that at this point in history, Nigeria would have more than twice as many Protestants as Germany, where the Protestant Reformation started, they would have been astonished. If they had known that the world’s largest church would be firmly planted in South Korea and the Chinese church would be growing faster than the church in any Western country, they would have known that something marvelous was happening. Many of us who are witnessing this work of God are instead bemoaning the loss of something we want and we think God needs.
Heads-up! Be encouraged! God is not limited as we are. He is not confounded by politics, apathy, economic woes, or weakness. His ways are higher than ours; he does not see the world from our perspective. And his work certainly is not limited to what we can see.
Next time you feel anxious after watching a cable news broadcast, remember we worship the same God Daniel did: “Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. He reveals deep and mysterious things and knows what lies hidden in darkness, though he is surrounded by light” (Daniel 2:20-22).
© 2012 Amy Simpson.