Rethinking Christ’s Mission to America
Several years ago, I attended a “Rethinking Forum” in Pune, India. It was about rethinking Christ’s mission to Hindus. Traditionally the Christian church did well among the Dalits, sometimes called the untouchables. These had little or no status in Hindu society and welcomed the Christian message. Connected with the Dalit congregations and coming from the West, that same message alienated many in the upper castes whose whole identity was formed and intertwined with Hindu culture.
Nonetheless, a growing number of people, even in the upper castes, had come to believe in Christ but worshipped him in their homes. They referred to themselves as devotees of Jesus or Yesu Bhaktas. While teaching in India, Herb Hoefer wrote a book on this phenomenon called, Churchless Christianity. Through careful analysis and research, he concludes that far more Indians are such Yesu Bhaktas in Chennai and its surroundings than was previously thought (Hoefer, 1991). With these insights and the participation of many of these Indian believers, the “Rethinking Forum” is now in the process of reevaluating the outreach to Hindus, both in India and in the diaspora in Europe and America.
In a badly divided America, is it time to do some major rethinking of the Christian mission here? Church membership in the U.S. is declining steadily, particularly among the young. Reasons given are that churches are too concerned with money and power and too involved in conservative politics. Coupled with general secularization and broad disengagement from communal activities, an increasing number of people are leaving the churches. This is particularly true of Democrats who outdo Republicans in claiming no religious affiliation. But not all the disaffiliated have left the faith. Most still believe in the existence of God and continue to pray (Pew Forum/2012). Some have even come to call themselves, followers/disciples of Jesus.
Rethinking the mission in India asks how to minister to those who are attracted to the person of Jesus and his message. Rethinking here might be to walk alongside the growing number of those who find in Jesus the path to salvation and a purpose-filled life. Many are concerned about the crises in the world and in their own lives. Does Christ and his Kingdom have answers to their concerns? Rethinking here will also mean letting some of these find a new Christian community in which they feel at home.
Here in the JOURNAL is some “rethinking” happening? An article dealt with the Evangelism of the Kingdom (Schmidt, 2019), another with the Kingdom Church in the book of Acts (Schmidt, 2021). Now in America, deeply divided by race, politics, inequity, and immigration, it might be time to look at the promises of the Kingdom made amid the divisions and devastation in Samaria and Jerusalem.
Refugees and migrants are at the borders in unprecedented numbers. Fleeing Africans are camped under French bridges. There is a Tamil-speaking radio station in Stockholm. The school district in Twin Falls, Idaho, needs translators for 72 languages. While climate change decimates farmland, and gang wars murder innocents, children walk to another land. Never has there been such an interpenetration of people and cultures as today, and it is happening everywhere.
But a militant resistance is emerging just as fast. Hungary builds a fence, America a wall. A confederate flag is waved as insurrectionists invade the capitol. Militant nationalism fuels Brexit, and many in America want to be great again. Gun sales are at an all-time high. Did the Chinese bring the virus? Blacks are shot in Bible class, and Jews in the synagogue. For many whose identity is rooted in race, religion, and nation, the end is fast approaching. Once again, the moving tectonic plates of world order are causing huge cracks in society.
When the World Changes
Bible readers know it has happened before. Isaiah saw it coming. The old city/state system of Damascus, Samaria, and Jerusalem was not going to be able to resist the onslaught of a new imperial system, represented first by Assyria, shortly followed by Babylon. Assyria had it all. It was the first major power to have iron weapons, which it employed with terrible ferocity. It also had the strategy of keeping rebellions down by moving conquered elites, even in some comfort, to another land. The identity of some nations, like Samaria/Israel, disappeared forever.
For the prophets, things do not just happen. Destruction comes to people who forget the God who made them; they make stupid gods out of shiny stuff. Those who join house to house and add field to field, will live alone on exhausted soil. Those who call evil good and good evil now praise the warriors, the tycoons, the politicians, and the entrepreneurs (Berrigan, 1996, p.23). Those who are wise in their own eyes and deprive the innocent of their rights will be found guilty.
As the world changes, divisions abound. Lies are broadcast as truth; reality is dismissed as falsehood. Black people are murdered, stores are pillaged. Religion feeds the terrorists, hatred guns down the harmless. Nations struggle to keep their own communities together so that they might have the unity to fight other nations. Now the handwriting is on the wall, “MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end” (Dan. 5:26). The whole nation-state system is under threat; the deepest roots of our identity and safety are being challenged. Belshazzar did not last the night. We might have a bit longer.
Though fragmented and weakened, states still strive to keep order within their borders. One of the ways they do so is to strengthen and transform their population into a “nation,” sharing a common identity. To create a sense of “nationalism” governments foster a state-school system, service in the military, and public ceremonies (Wallerstein, 2006, p. 54). But it is not enough. Protests, riots, and divisions plague nearly every country on earth. Those seeking to hold on to the nation as a source of identity are fighting a losing battle. The whole nation-state system is at a turning point.
For years, poor and vulnerable people had an evolutionary hope for the future. Everyone talked about “developing” nations. This “optimism of the oppressed” had become the stabilizer of the system (Wallerstein, 2006, pp. 84-85). Now as climate change destroys the habitat, wars displace millions, and blacks and browns are killed by the police, that optimism is gone and so is the stability it once supported. Hopelessness fuels black rage; despair pushes people across borders.
While the covid pandemic reaches across the world, vaccinations only abound for the rich. It is about the same for food, security, health care, drinkable water, jobs, and home ownership. The “system” has no solution for refugees or the world war now on the horizon. Though horrified by the arrogance of the haughty and the crimes against the poor, Isaiah foresees a new society. Even before the looming destruction come the promises of a fresh start, of a new life, of a kingdom for all nations. The difference between that vision and our reality is breathtaking. Yet for the future, it deserves our attention.
Like a beacon shining through a dark storm-tossed sea comes the promise, “Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall become as wool” (Isa. 1:18). What a place for the promise! In Isaiah it is at the very beginning of a cacophony of crime and punishment. Unbelievably here is forgiveness for police killings, pardon for the pain of the poor, and absolution for those smuggling migrants.
Not even the unraveling of the nation-state can erase God’s intention for a fresh start. “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isa. 65:17). The promised forgiveness would not be without cost. It comes at the expense of one who “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises, we are healed” (Isa 53:5).
Swords into Plowshares
It is at the same time impossible, but the words of Isaiah must come to pass. “He (God) shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples, they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isa. 2:4). Berrigan writes, “The words surpass the human even while they engage the human in its deepest longings. . . The words commit, invite, command, exact vows, demand conversion-of hearts as well as swords (Berrigan, 1996, p. 14).
But there is more, “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isa 11:6). The new world society will not come through the shedding of blood “but as a recovery of the lost bliss of Eden. . . peace among [humans], peace in nature, peace with God” (Bright, 1953, p. 92). Is this just poetry or is it the refugee’s almost insane hope that keeps her alive in the camp for years?
Plenty to Eat
When massive changes in the world system arrive through war, and now climate change, the prospect of massive hunger looms on the horizon. Poor children in rich nations only get a lunch; in parched lands there is almost nothing to eat. Before the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar “there was no food for the people of the land” (Jer. 52:6). In protest, the prophets proclaim a new hope. Isaiah writes, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-matured wines, of rich food filled with marrow” Isa. 25:6).
Beyond the captivity of Judah, Jeremiah promises, “They will be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine and the oil, and over the young of the flock and their life shall become like a watered garden” (Jer. 31:12). Total disbelief must have met these promises when they were first heard even as they might be in the famines of war, drought, and poverty. Yet, hope has been planted for peace, for migration, or for the next plane bringing relief.
Water in the Wilderness
For the lack of clean, drinkable water, children around the world get sick, gardens cannot be grown, animals must be sold or slaughtered before their time, and women must walk miles each day to wash or even get a pail of water. No one thing can improve the lives of millions of people around the world more than available good water, especially in dry and arid regions.
While captive in Babylon, the Jews were prevented by the great desert from escaping back to Palestine. Even though they were not bound, who could dream about crossing the desert without an easily discovered caravan that could take with it the necessary water? Needed to come home were ample supplies of water in the desert. Looking to the future, God said (through Isaiah), “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isa. 43:19). Earlier he said, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom” (Isa. 35:1). Then he adds, “The burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (Isa. 35:7).
The Sick are Healed
As mothers across the world know, one of the best blessings they can have is a healthy child. When blindness, deafness, or another debilitating illness cripples children, our hearts go out to them and their families. While we pray for healing in the hospitals of rich nations, in many nations the problem is far worse. Sometimes there are tens of thousands of patients for every doctor and very few hospitals for the whole population.
Among the ancient Jewish people, some of the worst illnesses were those which separated people from their communities. The prophets promised that in the coming kingdom the sick would be healed. In Isaiah, God said, “On that day the deaf shall hear the words of a scroll, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see” (Isa. 29:18). Isaiah writes again, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isa. 35: 5,6).
Home and Jobs
In a world of 80 million displaced persons (UNHCR, 2020), the promise of permanent homes and jobs is sweet indeed. Living on one’s own land is not only a pattern for security but it also supplies a deep-seated need within the human heart. Coupled with work necessary to support a family, it has become the common dream of all.
By the time of the Assyrian invasion, many common people of Israel and Judah had lost their land to avaricious princes. Then captivity in Babylon erased the hopes and dreams for secure property and the jobs that came from owning good farmland. But to the landless, then and now, comes the promise, “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken” (Mic. 4:4). God expressed the same thought in Zechariah, “On that day, says the LORD of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree” (Zech. 3:10).
In the United States two million people are in prison. They make up 22% of the entire global prison population. Sixty percent of those are people of color (Sattuck and Sikkink, 2021, p. 152). Families are devastated and a hope for a better future is destroyed. Around the world, the dream of liberty lives on for those who are held captive and tortured for their political beliefs and for those who are hostages, used as bargaining chips in global politics.
To be released from captivity was the dream of all the exiles from Judah who lived in Babylon. To them Isaiah wrote, “Your sons shall come from far away and your daughters shall be carried on nurse’s arms” (Isa. 50:4). Then, in jubilee joy, the prophet declares, “He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isa. 61:1).
From forgiveness to liberation, the promises of the prophets ignited a burning hope in the hearts of the Israelites for a new kingdom, but they were too often disappointed. Church-going Americans also heard the promises but often dismissed them as either pretty poetry or just pictures of heaven. As divisions deepen in the American society and psyche, fearful folk want to hold on to what they have. The demands of the alien, the homeless, the prisoner, the hungry, and the sinner are simply too much to deal with. We are busy at church this week.
But some are not busy at church this week. Watching the demonstrations, they feel the call to get involved, to do something. Are they Christians? Do they go to church? Is that the same thing? In the long history of the faith, Christians know burnout. That is when all your efforts seem to come to naught and darkness closes off your hopes. Who will remind these lovers of Jesus and his ways that there is still hope even during discouragement? Where will that supporting fellowship come from, in the broken bread and the covenant wine?
The “Rethinking Forum” in India seeks to minister to the Christ Bhaktas in that great civilization. In so doing, it does not dismiss the work of thousands of congregations in their work. Rather, it wishes to reach out to those friendly to the faith and bring them all the promises of Christ and his kingdom. Might rethinking of our mission in America to Churchfree Christians do something similar?
Berrigan, Daniel. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996.
Bright, John. The Kingdom of God. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1953.
Hoefer, Herbert. Churchless Christianity. Pasadena: William Carey Library, 1991.
UNHCR, Africa News.com/2020/12/08/ number-of-displaced-people-passes-80-million-in-2020- un/ (accessed 04/21/21).
Pew Forum. pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/ (accessed 5-3-21).
Pew Forum. pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-us-decline-of Christianity-continues-at-a-rapid-pace/ (accessed 5-3-21).
Schmidt, Robert. “Evangelism of the Kingdom.” DayStar JOURNAL. 2019. http://thedaystarjournal.com/evangelism-of-the-kingdom/
Schmidt, Robert. “The Kingdom Church.” DayStar JOURNAL. 2021. http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-kingdom-church/
Shattuck, John, and Kathryn Sikkink. “Practice What You Preach: Global Human Rights Leadership Begins at Home.” Foreign Affairs 100, No. 3 (May-June 2021).
Wallerstein, Immanuel. World Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2006.