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Reaching the Followers of the Religion from the Middle East
Note: “D” in this article refers to the predominant religion in the Middle East, while “Ds” refer to the adherents of that religion
Christianity today is under attack on different fronts. In America and the West the mainstream media, academia, and the popular culture do not take Christianity seriously as presenting Truth, but only as one of various man-made religions. In countries where “D”, Hinduism, or Buddhism are the predominant religions, the adherents of Christianity are subject to intimidation, persecution, and in some places to violence and bloodshed. When the latter takes place, the whole Body grieves and suffers.
Can the blame for this be completely laid at the doorstep of the enemies of Christianity? Is it solely the result of the influence of atheism, secular humanism, the work of false religions? I believe the answer is no, not quite. It is possible that to some extent certain aspects of Christianity itself can be identified as contributing factors.
In America and the West, Christianity may have presented to the world an image which is more negative than positive. Scandal after scandal and moral failure after moral failure involving Christian ministers (and the resultant “spin”) reinforce the impression that Christianity is a religion rife with sanctimonious hypocrites. The world watches prosperity preachers on Christian TV selling the modern equivalent of snake oil and they smirk, shaking their heads knowingly. Unfortunately, many Christians lack discernment and are gullible enough to give their money to these false shepherds.
On the foreign mission field, the impression given by Christianity to the adherents of pagan religions has also been lacking. In some of these Third World countries Christianity is known as the competing religion of the imperialists from the West who subjugated them by force and whose colonial empires lasted well into the last century—within the memory of people still alive today. Christian foreign missionaries who simply by association were linked to these foreign occupiers came and planted churches under the flag of western Christianity. Sadly, while there are some outstanding exceptions the majority of these churches—especially in India—did not continue to impart life but became nominal in their faith. Many Christians today in these countries are carnal and powerless. In their personal lives they are poor witnesses of Jesus Christ to the pagans around them. In addition, the problems that infect Christianity in America have no doubt to some degree been imported to Christianity in the Third World as well. To make matters worse, America is seen by outsiders as a Christian country. The lifestyle of sin which is almost encouraged by popular American culture has thus become inextricably linked to Christianity.
This is the Christianity that is known to billions of “Ds”, Hindus, and Buddhists around the world. Those in their midst who convert to Christianity are seen by them as betraying their own ancestral beliefs and, equally importantly, their own culture and conservative traditions. We can see from this perspective why Christianity and Christians are encountering such opposition today. The problem is not simply that darkness cannot stand light. Added to that is the image and poor witness that Christianity and Christians have presented to the world, their good works notwithstanding.
To a disciple of Jesus Christ whose background is western, the terms Christianity and Christian are hallowed. But the world’s understanding of these terms, as we are beginning to see, can be shockingly different. How can we overcome this?
We can start with the observation that the term “Christianity” is not found at all in the New Testament. The term “Christian” is found only twice, and on neither occasion was it uttered by Christ Himself; it did not originate with Him. In Acts 26:28, years after Christ ascended to heaven, it was used by a pagan king named Agrippa as he spoke to the apostle Paul. In 1 Peter 4:16 it was mentioned by Peter to encourage believers in their sufferings for the gospel. But it is likely that the understanding of the word “Christian” to Peter two thousand years ago is far different from what the world thinks of the term today. We also observe that in Scripture Jesus never taught his disciples to identify themselves as “Christians.” This particular term was first used to refer to believers in Antioch after Paul and Barnabas brought the gospel there (Acts 11:26). Tradition says that it was a pejorative term coined by non-believers.
There is moreover confusion regarding the term “church.” In the New Testament it refers to the body of believers who profess Jesus Christ, whether in a local sense or universal sense. But today the world understands “church” as a physical structure where Christians go and assemble to practice their religion. Did Jesus Christ ever command his disciples to “go to church?” No, he did not. Rather he commands us to repent of our sins, to be baptized, and to follow and to obey Him. While it may be important for Christians in America and the West to “go to church” every Wednesday and Sunday, it is certainly not a scriptural requirement for entrance into the kingdom of God. One can worship the Lord, find fellowship and be discipled in any number of locations or contexts not known as “church.” This is especially important to understand in countries where the strongholds of “D”, Hinduism, and Buddhism prevail and bring about persecution to the adherents of Christianity.
In contrast to the negativity that “Christianity” and “Christian” can evoke around the world, the historical figure of Jesus Christ is generally held in high regard. “Ds”, as an example, regard him as a great prophet who will someday return. Generally, he is considered a great teacher, and his name is typically mentioned in the same breath as Confucius or Buddha. While adherents of pagan religions do not accept him as God Incarnate and the only way to the Father, they do notconsciously despise him as they might despise the religion of “Christianity” and those identified as “Christians.” We should learn to take advantage of this understanding for more effective evangelism.
Christ has commanded us to fulfill the Great Commission to the lost. In this we want to avoid setting up unnecessary obstacles to the gospel as well as to avoid unnecessary persecution from “Ds”, Hindus, and Buddhists. For this purpose we should distinguish sharply between Jesus Christ on the one hand and Christianity on the other. We should not mention conversion to Christianity, but simply preach Jesus Christ. In some contexts it may be wise even not to identify ourselves with what the world understands as “Christians.” Rather, we simply call ourselvesbelievers; we are disciples of Jesus Christ; we are followers of the Way. In doing this we are certainly not denying the person of Jesus Christ but rather distancing ourselves from the western religion the world calls Christianity. We no longer preach at the earthbound level of competing religions, instead we stay above the fray by preaching only the Lord Jesus Christ, the only Way to the Father. The unsurpassed miracles that accompany our preaching demonstrate to the lost that He is in fact the Life and the Truth.
After sinners in America repent and put their faith in Jesus Christ, they are typically told to go to church for worship, fellowship, and discipleship. But times are changing. America is no longer a “Christian” country. “Ds”, Hindus, and Buddhists have immigrated to America by the millions and built thousands of mosques and temples in our land. Swaths of America are now mission fields populated by foreign-born as well as American-born adherents of these pagan religions. Should we not in these pagan enclaves apply methods which are effective on the foreign mission field?
When such people in America come to Christ as Lord and Savior, we should consider bringing them together for worship, fellowship, and discipleship in physical locations which are not identified as “churches” or as “Christian.” Scripturally, these new believers need not even call themselves “Christians.” Rather they maintain their identity as members of their community and they keep their culture but now as those who follow Christ. In this way they can more readily remain in their community to witness for Jesus Christ. And it is vital that they be taught to live as personal witnesses of His holiness and to minister as witnesses of His supernatural power to heal and deliver.
When ministering to people from a pagan background in America, it is important to distinguish between western cultural Christianity on the one hand and the Way taught by Jesus Christ on the other. When we disciple them according to Scripture and not according to the traditions of western Christianity, they will not become “Christians” as understood by their community; they will not become adherents of the religion known to their community as “Christianity.” Since we are not presenting to them a religion that competes with the religion of their community, we will not insist at the outset that they renounce their religion and convert to Christianity. Converting to Christ is not the same as converting to religion of Christianity. Instead, we will sidestep the very sensitive issue of religion—and thus culture as well—and simply disciple them according to the Bible as followers of the Christ who has saved them. As they are taught the word of God, the Holy Spirit will convict them. They will on their own eventually give up beliefs and practices both spiritual and cultural which are contrary to Scripture. The kingdom of God will come from within, not imposed as a foreign religion from without.