The Church is on the Move

Christianity is and always will be a mobile faith.

The Church is on the Move

Often, we forget to consider the spread of Christianity across the globe from a geographical perspective. We read the New Testament with eyes and ears that are largely ignorant to the places Luke mentions in Acts or Paul writes about in the prison epistles.

Most Christians have heard of Jerusalem—the place where Jesus was crucified and risen. The geographical center of the Christian faith was clearly, early on, in and around Israel.

But while the Ancient Near East was the birthplace of our faith, it didn’t just stay there. By God’s grace, the gospel began to spread all around the world. We read about the Ethiopian eunuch who first heard the gospel message from Philip. Some disciples went to Asia Minor, Thomas goes as far as India, Paul tries to get to Spain, etc. Places like Cyprus, Caesarea, Damascus, Greece, Rome, and Carthage are mentioned throughout the book of Acts as Paul and his followers embark on four long missionary journeys.

All that to say, the gospel has been moving and spreading for centuries. The Holy Spirit has compelled believers everywhere to share the message of Christ crucified and risen in places both near and far. As demonstrated by Paul and Christ’s own disciples, this was to include continents and people groups far from the place where the Christian faith was first founded.

Despite this, Christianity has for centuries been associated with the West. Going back just a century ago, Pew Research found that “about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe.” This, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, is “where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium.”

But today, these numbers have changed considerably. In 2010, almost a decade ago now, Pew Research found that only a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (roughly 26 percent).

Thankfully, what we’re seeing is not that Christianity is disappearing—instead, it’s spreading and shifting its geographical center.

In 1910, Europe and North America (the West) contained 80 percent of the world’s self-identified Christians. Today, it’s 40 percent and declining. Meanwhile in the 21st century, almost 24 percent of the world’s Christians live in Sub-Saharan Africa compared to less than 2 percent a hundred years earlier.

These changes shouldn’t surprise or alarm us for many reasons. The first of which is this: Christianity is and always will be a message on the move.

This isn’t the first time in the history of the faith that its geographical center has shifted and it likely will not be the last. For centuries, Europe was the center, but after the reformation and the spread of European missionaries and immigrants to the Americas, many would say that the center of density moved to North America.

Now we’re seeing a reengagement of the Southern Hemisphere in the practicing of the Christian faith. At this point, there will likely be more evangelicals in Brazil by 2040 than there are in the United States. I’ve stood on the beach at João Pessoa with 10,000 Brazilians who put their hands out and prayed that they would be a part of a mission for the faith to reach the rest of the world—Africa, Asia, and beyond.

Of course, North America was uniquely impactful on the condition of global Christianity as it currently stands today—few would dispute that. But, the presence of believers and vitality of churches in North America and Europe nonetheless continue to decline in comparison to their respective growth in the Southern Hemisphere.

For those of us living in the West, we must remember never to despair. What we observe happening in our culture and to the life of the church isn’t a done deal—these things are always changing and shifting. The gospel is continuing to spread and people are accepting the message even if it’s becoming harder and harder to see God at work in our own communities.

For our brothers and sisters in the Global South, we pray for God’s continued blessing on the growth of the church. When appropriate, we might even find ways to use our time and resources to contribute to the work that God is already doing in these places.

Believers—wherever they live—should ultimately concern themselves not only with the health and well-being of their place of worship down the street, but with that of the global church all across the world.

Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, serves as Dean of the School of Mission, Ministry, and Leadership at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.


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VIDEO One Man Against a City, Astounding Conversion

May 15, 2019 by John MacArthur

In 1 Samuel 16:7, the Lord revealed the futility of human appraisal when compared to His divine insight. He exhorted His prophet Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

By God’s grace, He has granted His people a similar spiritual insight. While we cannot see into the hearts of men, we are able to look at the world through the lens of God’s Word, seeing past mere externals to the spiritual realities disguised beneath. Through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, we don’t need to be enticed by glitz, glamour, and outward appearance—we can see through those feeble façades. The apostle Paul’s time in Athens is a good example of how believers should not be swayed by those things the world finds important or impressive.

Paul (formerly Saul) was brought up under the strictest Pharisaical discipline. “A Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God” (Acts 22:3); “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee . . . as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Philippians 3:5–6). He was also a Roman citizen, with knowledge of military and political matters. Tarsus, where Paul grew up and was trained, was very cosmopolitan, so Paul’s rich education equipped and acclimated him for almost any culture in the Roman Empire. Even Athens, for several centuries the very heart of the intellectual and art world, was no exception. Paul was thoroughly familiar with Greek culture, manners, religion, art, and philosophy. He was a scholar, well-read and well-traveled. By God’s design Paul’s entire life had equipped him for situations like the one he encountered on Mars’ Hill (cf. Acts 17:16–34).

In the fourth and fifth centuries B.C. Athens was considered by many the greatest city in the world. Some aspects of Athenian culture have never been equaled. Athens reached the pinnacle in art, literature, architecture, and philosophy. Never in history has any one city achieved the height of glory in those fields that was seen in Athens during the golden age of the Greek Empire. Athens was in the province of Achaia, where Corinth, not far away, was the capital city. But Athens was still the center of the cultural and intellectual world, just as Rome was the political center. Athens was sometimes referred to as the university of the world—all the great minds of the world congregated there.

Athens also offered a home to the pantheon of gods in Greek mythology. Every civic building in Athens was a shrine to a god. The place where public records were kept, for example, was dedicated to the Mother of the Gods. The centerpiece of the city council building was an idol of Apollo. A popular saying was, “It is easier to find a god in Athens than a man.” The city was pagan to the core; although they had gods for everything, they did not know the one true God.

It is interesting to note how Athens affected Paul. You might think that with his cultural and educational background, Paul would have been fascinated to see Athens. The city was filled with magnificent temples, glorious artwork, majestic buildings, engaging orators, ingenious philosophers, and spectacular sights to interest a scholar like Paul. And in Paul’s day the marble and gold still glittered.

What was Paul’s response to Athens? “His spirit was being provoked within him as he was beholding the city full of idols” (Acts 17:16). Instead of being awed by all the marvelous sights, Paul saw foremost a city full of idols, and it grieved him greatly.

A nineteenth-century Bible dictionary says,

Paul had at his feet the Theseion [a spectacular marble temple near the marketplace], and on his right hand the Akropolis, with its splendid temples intact. Such surroundings would fill with enthusiasm every cultured Christian of to-day. Wherever St. Paul turned, his glance must have fallen on the severe and lovely works of art which still adorned the decadent city. Thus a table was spread before him of which nineteenth century humanists are laboriously but thankfully gathering up the scattered crumbs. To St. Paul’s Semitic imagination nothing of all this appealed. It was to him just gold or silver or stone, graven by art and man’s device, the work of a period of ignorance at which God had mercifully winked. [1]

One writer who lived in Paul’s time visited Athens and wrote six volumes describing the glories of the city. If Paul had been writing a travelogue, he would have said simply, “It’s full of idols.” Period. Obviously Paul was not obtuse or insensible. It wasn’t that he lacked the knowledge to appreciate Athenian culture; on the contrary, here was a man who was ideally suited for such a city. But he had a higher calling and more serious business than tourism, or curiosity, or even academic research. He saw deeper than the city’s glittering façade or the well-dressed, well-bred Athenian intellectuals. And what he saw were people on the precipice of hell.

Athens stirred Paul’s emotions. The phrase “his spirit was being provoked within him” employs a Greek word, paroxunō (“provoked”), which speaks of intense agitation. Our word paroxysm comes from this root. Paul was saddened, grieved, indignant, and outraged at the widespread idolatry he saw. He knew these people were giving stone idols glory, which rightfully belongs to God alone.

Paul could not maintain his silence in the face of such an affront to the one true God. Provoked to his godly core, he was about to unleash an amazing evangelistic sermon to his unbelieving audience.

(Adapted from Ashamed of the Gospel)


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The Astounding Conversion of Paul

Fundamentals for Pastoral Ministry

There needs to be a shift from pastor as resident-expert to pastor as player-coach.

by Matt Rogers

Fundamentals for Pastoral Ministry

Last week we discussed the necessity of certain missionary fundamentals for kingdom disciples. Much like the basic skills of any sport, those committed to living and loving like Jesus must return to the fundamentals of faith-fueled prayer, intentional relationships, and Jesus centrality. Repeated daily, these habits are the baseline for the work of church planters, missionaries, pastors, and everyday disciple-makers. Any hope of sustained movement in North America depends on the cultivation of these fundamentals among all of God’s people.

Much has been written about the role of pastors and church leaders in propelling the church outward into God’s great mission. Paul’s instructions to the Ephesian church help clarify a central leadership fundamental for pastors that must coincide with the missionary fundamentals of the church that we mentioned last week. Paul provides a job description of sorts when he says that these leaders exist “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ” (Eph 4:12).

This equipping function is disorienting for many leaders who’ve been trained, or simply assumed, that the role of pastor amounted to being the resident expert on all things spiritual. In many cases these leaders have spent years thinking about refined theological ideas and engaging in intramural banter around these themes. Also, assuming the best about these leaders, many of them were elevated to a position of leadership because of deep convictions about God and His Word and consistent character derived from a vibrant intimacy with the Father.

There are expectations to this type of leader, of course. Some are unqualified, unprepared, or ungodly. Let’s leave this group to the side for the time being. The remaining leaders are the kind of people we want leading the church. They are zealous for God. They’ve thought deeply about the things of God. And their lives demonstrate a love for God and His people. Praise God for such leaders.

But there’s often still a problem. Even good leaders struggle to integrate their passionate pursuit of God with their calling to equip God’s people for ministry and mission. The parallel to sports is once again helpful: It’s one thing to know how to play the game yourself, it’s a vastly different thing to effectively coach others to do what you naturally do.

The model of a player-coach is what we’re after. We don’t simply want a coach who’s yelling at the players from the sidelines to do things that the coach isn’t also doing. No one wants to be exhorted to share the gospel by someone who clearly isn’t pursuing such a lifestyle personally. We want coaches in the church who are in the game alongside of their team—teaching and modeling for others the type of life patterns essential for kingdom-living. The shift from pastor as resident-expert to pastor as player-coach will require a number of competencies from current or future leaders.

Strive to Articulate Unconscious Competencies

Effective leaders have developed missional habits that come natural to them. They know how to develop a relationship with a non-believer. They understand how to turn a conversation to spiritual matters. They’ve organized their home to promote strategic hospitality. These practices are unconscious because of consistent use but they are not equally habitual for the average person sitting in church buildings each Sunday.

No number of compelling sermons is going to help the average church member move from their current reality to God’s preferred future unless they have a loving coach come alongside of them and help them take the tedious steps necessary to move in the right direction. Leaders must learn to take unconscious habits of kingdom-living and coach others to follow their pattern.

Fight for Simplicity

There’s a certain kind of simplicity that’s actually indicative of laziness, but there’s another that’s actually the mark of great wisdom and maturity. The latter group are able to scale the mountain of complexity that is theology, missiology, and ecclesiology and come down on the other side and make those great truths understandable and approachable to the broader church.

This act need not mean watered-down theological drivel. Leaders can, and must, fight to equip the saints in the great truths of Scripture in a way that their unique church context can grasp what God is saying and what they are to do with that truth. Supposedly “deep” teaching that leaves the hearer more confused than equipped might do more harm than good because it further entrenches the clergy-laity divide that posits the pastor as the necessary mediator between God and man. Simplicity counters this trend and helps the church see the commonality we all share in the work of kingdom living.

Discover or Develop Fundamental Tools

Leaders have a basis understanding of the fundamentals of the Christian faith. We all need to know how to steward our relationship with God through prayer and Bible reading. We need help in pursuing unity with God’s people and working through conflict. We need tools to live on mission and share the gospel effectively. Yes, we can teach to these themes, but such work should be supplemented with the development of strategic tools that help God’s people establish the foundational marks of a disciple.

One such example in the Seven Arrows method for Bible reading that I’ve developed to equip the church. This approach provides the church with a simple, sticky, reproducible model for Bible reading and is a perfect supplement for a vibrant preaching ministry in the church. Leaders should either grab tools like this that already exist or work to develop their own simple and scalable methods of disciple-formation.

Teach in Action

Finally, pastors as player-coaches strive to teach in action whenever possible. They follow the pattern of Jesus who infused his daily missionary practices with sidebar conversations with his disciples. In these moments he was able to speak to critical theological matters and do so using real-life examples of success or failure. Pastors intent on equipping will strategically press themselves out of the study and take their teaching ministry on the road, inviting various members of the church into the rhythms of their missionary practices.

The return on investment of such teaching in action will likely far exceed that found in the average Sunday sermon. Even better, leaders can model the themes of their weekly teaching in the week’s that follow and practically say to the church, “Come with me and watch what it looks like to apply the ideas we considered on Sunday.” Not only would such practice hold the pastor accountable and combat hypocrisy, but it would also further instill truth in those leaders entrusted to equip.

The work of equipping is difficult, make no mistake. It’s far easier to lob truth from a distance rather than get embroiled in the messy lives of others. But such player-coaches are the types of leaders who will lead the future church in North America in whatever form that church might take.

Matt Rogers is a father of five living in Greenville, South Carolina. He pastors The Church at Cherrydale and serves as an assistant professor of Church Planting at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Matt writes and speaks throughout the United States on issues ranging from discipleship, church leadership, and missions.