I remember listening to missionaries tell stories and share slide shows – not Power Point projections, actual slides on carousels. They were from “the mission field” a place with terrible roads, lack of electricity and unsafe drinking water. They worked with people that looked, dressed and spoke differently than we did. What I knew about missions as a child is that they were far away, in difficult to reach places, and we needed to fund missionaries to print Bibles and build churches. I also hoped, at a young age mind you, that God didn’t call me to the mission field because I didn’t want to go.
My understanding of missions has of course matured over the years. Christians are called to be mission-minded across the street as well as around the world. I have been on short term mission trips and served full time on the stateside mission field. Generally speaking Americans are uninformed of how things are in the world around them and that has an affect on American Christians. I’m going to say most, but not all, of regular church goers imagine that the mission field is a difficult place to serve and, those not on church staff or in leadership positions, would assume that serving in the United States is much easier. While some of you know better, many Sunday church-goers imagine the pastor answers a few calls, responds to a few emails, and spends a few minutes each week putting bullets points on the sermon outline.
It’s an understatement to say that things are not always as they seem. There’s an irony of mission work that I’m just now realizing. You may have to take a long plane ride followed by a longer ride in a Jeep or Land Rover to reach unreached people groups but those people are hungry for the Gospel message. I don’t want to over-simplify because there are places in the world that the Gospel will get you killed. Anti-conversion laws in India, Muslim controlled states and North Korea’s resistance to everything make reaching the ends of the earth a daunting task. But people that have never heard the Gospel often respond to it in dramatic fashion. Government and religious leaders may oppose mission efforts but there are tiny villages all over the world that treat missionaries or even those just bringing Bibles better than any rock star ever has been. Hugs, tears and baptisms are the order of the day.
Meanwhile the climate has changed in the United States just in my lifetime. Even in the Bible belt the church culture has somewhat turned. It used to be that to get elected to a local office a person had to at least feign church attendance in order to be considered a community leader. Today church attendance could almost be a strike against. Our society has shifted from apathy toward Christians to resistance and in some places violence. When a university has “free speech zones” and what you can say even in those is limited, exercising one’s first amendment rights becomes an iffy prospect. When protests turn violent and a scheduled speaker is cancelled; when bakers and photographers face fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars that drive them out of business; when a city mayor demands to see pastors’ notes before the sermon is preached; when the anti-fascist protesters are the most fascist people in the street, reality sets in. We may have a high standard of living in terms of per capita income and internet access via wifi but Americans are no longer receptive of the Gospel message. Imitating Christ could get you labeled as a bigot and accused of hate crimes.
When the Apostle Paul reasoned with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17) they were at least willing to listen. They enjoyed hearing new things they could discuss and debate. I’m painting with a wide brush but Americans are arrogantly no longer open to new ideas. Many now oppose even a discussion taking place. Our freedom of religious expression is being interpreted more and more often in courts of law as freedom from religion. (There is an organization by that name that funds legal battles across the country.)
Life is pretty easy in the United States, including for Christians that are willing to read their Bibles quietly and keep their mouths shut. But if you want to share the Gospel, love your neighbor, build the Kingdom, take a stand for traditional marriage or oppose abortion… well don’t expect a pass from the world, they hated Jesus too you know. The Land of the Free is no exception.