I’m in the home stretch of my nearly month-long trip to the Middle East, and my heart is heavy and my mind contemplative. To say that this research expedition has been life-changing would be an understatement, and it still isn’t over.
One of the greatest privileges I have had here is to meet with local Christians. The Middle Eastern church has its own issues, just like we in America do, but actually meeting and fellowshiping with them has been extremely enlightening.
The greatest question that comes to mind (at least at the moment) after these meetings is “what kind of ‘church’ is America exporting?” The church in the Middle East (speaking specifically of Jordan) is heavily influenced by the Western church, particularly the American church, far more than I realized. For instance, ministries receive millions of dollars despite the relative lack of growth. According to some local Christians we met with, those ministries spend millions, send back reports, use anything they can to show how “effective” they are, and use local Christians as, in their word, “trophies” to testify to their supposed effectiveness, and thus justifying why they should continue to receive millions more. According to them, ministries such as these, despite the best of intentions, have transformed the Church into a corporation, an organization, rather than the Body of Christ made up of the people of God bound together by familial ties.
Additionally, these same Christians are very concerned that these ministries bring a particularly American brand of Christianity. What does that mean? In addition to a more corporatized vision of what “church” is, they bring with them several other things (according to them): theological superficiality, an inability to speak honestly about sin (better not to bring it up) and naiveté about both the region and the culture. One of them called this the “mega church culture.”
Does any of this sound familiar?
They should, for these are, unfortunately, many of the defining characteristics of a large and growing portion of the “church” in America: a corporation based on an organizational structure that does not survive without lots of money, and at the same oftentimes lack precisely what Christians should excel at – being the FAMILY of God!
Many of these Jordanian Christians had visited the United States and preached there. They have a deep love for the United States and the American people. According to them, “Americans are the nicest people in the world.” But that does not allay their grave concerns both for the American church, as well as the vision of “church” it exports around the world.
According to one pastor who was incredibly gracious and hospitable in welcoming us into his home, a man of great wisdom and love, “In American you can’t talk about sin! What is the gospel even for if there is no sin?” This came from a man in a Muslim country, in which Christians and Muslims live relatively peacefully, but on the condition that Christians don’t share the Gospel. The question struck deep. He then followed it up with his own opinion of what the corporatized, organization-centric vision of “church” in America has done to us. The words that followed eerily reverberated with a palpable sense of undeniable truth: “In the United States, the church is very busy doing activities. LOTS of activities, people going here and there and everywhere. But where is the presence of God?”
I could not answer him, and I literally had tears well up in my eyes, because I knew what he was saying was true. Was he saying every American church? No. Was he saying every self-described American Christian? Of course not. He even emphasized that the Jordanian church had its own problems, and they were by no means perfect. But his words were true, and they reminded me of a story a mentor once told me. He used to work at a huge ministry most would instantly recognize. When he visited the corporate offices of this ministry, he saw something in the lobby that shocked him: They had come up with a formula by which they determined that by donating a certain amount of money, someone could literally “save” a particular number of people. And I think that is precisely what our Jordanian brothers and sisters were trying to warn us about – we have made ministry, “church” and evangelization into a formula – something ultimately independent of God and whose success is based entirely on whether we execute the right methods, the right tools of manipulation and marketing, rather than whether God is with us or not. In the meantime, we lose perhaps the most precious aspect of daily Christian life: the sense of family with other Christians. We replace family with organizational membership. And to this, the Jordanian pastor asked us perhaps the most ominous question of all: “And what will happen when persecution comes? What will happen when your organizations come crashing down under the brunt of persecution? Will you have true Christian family to turn to?”
This sense of family has not been forgotten by our Jordanian brethren. In praying for us as we left an amazing night of fellowship, they prayed: “Dear dad, we love you so much. And we thank you for this precious gift of new family from the other side of the world now brought near to us.” Organizations change, corporations come and go, but family is forever. No wonder Jesus and all the Apostles referred to the people of God in familial terms.
Meeting with our Jordanian brethren also brought home both how many myths there are about this part of the world, but also how truly dangerous it is at the same time. There are lots of concerning things taking place, but there are also many good, loving and generous people as well. God has planted his seeds even in the darkest of places, and for this reason we still can and must hope. One young man I met, a brilliant apologist with a premier apologetics ministry, left me with this exhortation for American Christians, particularly the young: “Research. Don’t fall for the headlines. Ponder, meditate and think. It is your Christian duty to be knowledgeable and wise about the world around you. Don’t forget that.”
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