Can the West really be converted?: A Non-Western Reflection on the Newbigin Question (Part 2 of 2)

Can the West then be converted?

So, back to Newbigin’s question, “Can the West be converted?” My answer is that it is possible that we will see the West embrace Christianity again—though it maybe later rather than sooner, and if it happens, it will not be a straight forward endeavour. The confidence that many have that because Europe was Christian before, it will be evangelised with less difficulty is grossly misplaced. Yes, Europe was the Christian-dom (or Christendom), but that does not promise anything about the future possibilities of successful evangelism in any of the European countries. We know from history that parts of North Africa, the Middle East and Asia Minor were once Christian heartlands. In most of those areas, Christianity today exists only in archaeology and history books. There is nothing that suggests that once-evangelised lands are easier to evangelise. If anything, Newbigin was right when he said the mission field of Europe is harder than India. I would add that Europe is a much harder mission field than probably anywhere else in the world.

As an African Christian, I am confident that revivals do happen, and they can happen in the West at any time. However, I am also certain that revivals do not just happen. The outpouring of the spirit that makes revivals happen always responds to spiritual hunger and prayers (usually of the few on behalf of the many). Prayer forcefully clears the spiritual atmosphere to make way and “open the gates for the king to come in” (in the language of the Psalmist). These are not the prayers we say before a meal. While such prayers are important and have their place, it takes fervent and long-sustained prayer to make revival happen; the very kind of prayer that many Westerners dismiss, saying it is extreme and unnecessary, and “African.” People ask me often, “Do we really have to pray with that intensity for God to answer our prayers?” My answer is always “No, God knows your desires before you pray—and sometimes answers your prayers before you say them. However, sometimes you have to pray that long and that intensely for you to receive the answers”. It is this type of prayer and revival that have made the conversion of millions of people in Africa possible.

For those who believe that the church needs to do social better, it is always helpful to remember that you cannot socialise or philosophise a person into the fellowship of the Spirit in which, of course, spirituality is the currency. The scriptures are clear on their invitation for the followers of Jesus to walk in the Spirit, hear what the Spirit says, chase the fruit of the Spirit and live in accordance with the Spirit’s testimony that we are children of God. Indeed, to walk in the Spirit is to stay in tune with the Spirit of God at all times; an undertaking that is impossible to those buffered selves who live in a world without spirits. And, of course, all these exhortations are given to all followers of Christ and not only Pentecostals. It is right that mission has to be relational, but that alone will not convert people. Conversion invites people to a new reality and worldview where God, through the Spirit lives in, among, and around us, interacting with us on a regular basis, and teaching us to live according to God’s Spirit  in God’s power. Relational mission is a good starting point as it creates space to explain this new way of living, but one has to be born of the Spirit to belong to the fellowship of the Spirit. Evangelism programs that we use in the West are great, but they often depend too much on logic alone and have very little to say and show about the spiritual foundations of the Christian walk. They are mostly shaped in modernity’s dualism and, therefore, fail to challenge it. We are wrong to assume that people resist Christianity simply because they have insufficient information about its rightness and goodness. Yes, we need Christian apologists, but they alone will not do the evangelisation that is needed now. Instead, I suspect that many Westerners respond negatively to Christianity partly because it lacks the sense of the transcendent. If so, Western Christianity’s relationship with modernity has also become an existential trap.

What shall we do?

I wish to consider here some of the factors that I believe will help us begin to look forward to re-evangelising Britain.

1. Acknowledge that Britain is a mission field (needing foreign missionaries to help evangelise it again)

The landscape of mission in the world has changed drastically in the twentieth century. Countries that sent missionaries now need missionaries sent to them. Britain is one of them. Yet, if you listened to the conversations in churches on Sunday and if you attended board meetings of mission agencies, you will be surprised that many are still living and talking as if Britain is Christian and mission and evangelism are done elsewhere. Mission agencies still recruit missionaries to be sent to Africa and other places. If they recruit for Britain, as someone told me, they are unable to fundraise for them because congregations do not understand why someone would be a missionary in Britain. Another fundraiser for a different mission agency recently told me that he had congregations on his list that could not support a black missionary no matter where he/she served—he said such congregations do not understand how a black person can be a missionary (in 2017!). Unfortunately, non-white missionaries will be increasing in number as we go deeper into this twenty-first century.

Mission training colleges are still preparing missionaries for service among some “animistic” cultures in Africa or Asia, for instance. Westerners train fellow Westerners how to be effective missionaries overseas, not paying attention to their godless secular neighbours who need to hear the gospel too. Most of these mission agencies and training colleges operate as if we are still in 1910—insisting on carrying out their mission and evangelism somewhere out there, and not in Britain, at a time when she is in need of a fresh missional engagement. Not many realise that things have changed—and that this means they have to change their behaviour as far as mission is concerned. Who is training missionaries for Britain (and not just for the Muslims living in Britain)? Where are the resources for this? Especially resources that help us negotiate the multicultural reality that shapes our Britain today? How will the non-Western Christians living in Britain be empowered to become missionaries among British people?

2. Learn how to engage in mission without the help of the empire

Since the 1800s, mission has been largely from the West to the rest of the world and has, for the most part, ran on the back of the mighty empires of Europe and North America. In many parts of the world, this false gospel of Western cultural superiority served as a vehicle for the preaching of the gospel of Christ. The fruit of such mission remains questionable, but it is quite evident (at least to me) that most of the prevailing models of mission in the world today still depend on some ‘imperial’ powers to civilise and convert people. Without the economic powers of the Western church, its mission to the rest of the world seems almost impossible. Many only know how to engage in mission from a position of power—”we will go to Africa to build schools, and hospitals, to teach them English, or Science, or Midwifery”; they do not know any other way to do mission but to do something to or for the less privileged. They cannot just be with the people; there is no model for that. Many do not even know how to receive hospitality from those they are reaching out to. This kind of engagement will not work in the West where the Christianity is often marginalised and its efforts at evangelism are often dismissed as misguided and anachronistic. So, to be effective in mission among Westerners, we need to let go of the imperial clutches and engage in mission in bold humility (as lambs among wolves). The liminal situation of the church today in Western cultures calls for Western Christians to be missionaries in their neighbourhoods and this calls for a new understanding of mission—one that depends more on the power of the Spirit (Acts 1:6-8) than on the Mighty Pound.

3. Embrace the call to be with the marginalised

This discourse about evangelising Britain afresh must consider the need to find intentional ways to engage the less privileged in society. These include not just the less affluent lower middle-class workers but also the needy who survive on benefits.
They also include all those who are, for one reason or another, living at the margins of society; communities of immigrants and other ethnic minorities, people of other faiths or sexual orientations, and the outright poor, homeless, elderly and those struggling with addictions. Europe will not be evangelised if Christianity continues to be the religion of the white middle class. The Christianity of the suburbs has to find ways to engage those living in the estates again—not for the sake of charity (to do things for the needy) but of being and identifying with them; to learn their languages and cultures so as to effectively share the story of God’s love. To most of us non-Westerners who came to the faith in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, the suburban middle-class capitalism-shaped Christianity that is often clueless on how to relate with the marginalised is puzzling. The church in Europe should not be silent in the face of rampant capitalism that takes advantage of the poor, or the new slave trade of human trafficking, or the political demonization of migrants, and racially motivated police brutality against minorities.

The poor need to hear the gospel just as much as the rich do but they need to hear it without being expected to move socially upwards to the middle class and then leave the estates. Poor people can be Christians too and they can have low-budget or no-budget churches that worship just as effectively as the high-budget churches in the suburbs. Planting a church in the US a few years ago, I was given the advice that the quality of coffee provided by the church on Sundays would determine our success. “Great churches spend a lot on coffee,” they said. We do well to always remember that Christ lived at the margins as a carpenter from Nazareth who spent his ministry around fishermen.

4. Relearn evangelism

I heard an African evangelist joke that as far as evangelism in Britain is concerned, the only verse that British Christians know is Mark 1:14, “See that you say nothing to anyone.” He had observed that most British Christians find it difficult to talk about their faith to others. Of course, on the one hand, an overwhelming majority of British Christians still think mission and evangelism only happen in other parts of the world. On the other, as Westerners, they hold their faith in the private spheres of their lives and, therefore, hardly talk about their faith in the public arena. Centuries of Christendom have them believing that there is no need to evangelise the West as it was believed to be evangelised already. Modernity has made it difficult to talk about faith in public. As a result, British Christians today need to learn how to evangelise their own friends and neighbours who are mostly buffered individualistic selves who care less about religion. The giving of tracts on the high street—as I see the Africans do—is remotely relevant. Evangelistic ‘crusades’ often yield no results. The usual evangelical ways of reaching out like door-knocking and tract-distributing often seem intrusive and disrespectful. While relational evangelism makes a difference, some worry that it is too slow and demanding, especially if they want their churches to grow quickly.

5. Rediscover discipleship

Any form of Christianity that does not take discipleship seriously has no future. Yet, the concept of discipleship itself is distant in Europe. Many who talk about discipleship think about it only as the passing on of important knowledge about the Bible and doctrine from older Christians to new Christians, and in a context where the numbers of people converting to Christianity is small, you do not find people to disciple. While it is true that discipleship involves imparting of knowledge, to make disciples effectively involves much more. Discipleship is, at least, both the sharing of a master’s teaching and a real-life modelling of the demands of those teachings on followers.

We are basically disciples of Christ called to make other disciples for him by teaching everything Jesus taught us and demonstrating how to live according to his teachings. Often though, we make church members, and this focus on increasing our members usually leads us to prioritise and measure wrong variables like how many people came to church on a Sunday and not whether their lives are being transformed according to the teachings of Christ. When discipleship becomes central to a congregation’s life, every member becomes empowered and equipped to engage in his mission in the world. This is where missional should begin. Discipleship releases God’s people in mission in their neighbourhoods. Disciple-making churches remove the gap between the laity and the clergy and democratises the ministry, reducing the number of spectators in their services. This is what makes the evangelisthood of all believers—a great need in Europe today—possible. Church leaders ought to become convinced that their congregations are the place for ministry training.

6. Allow space for foreign Christians to lead

The segregated churches that we see every Sunday morning are the greatest folly of our Western ecclesial times. Do not believe the excuses that try to justify this church segregation; right from Antioch, Christianity communities have the ability to be multicultural. It actually seems they work better when they incorporate people of different cultures who regard each other as equals. The Christian segregation we see today is more about race than it is about theology, culture, class or anything else. Some people feel uncomfortable worshiping with people from other races. This has been the case for decades. Back in the 50s, many Windrush Generation migrants from the West Indies were rejected from British churches. Many African migrants continue to face this rejection today. Unfortunately, many leaders of British churches have ignored both foreign Christians even when they are members of their congregations and the need for a conversation that detribalise the church. The number of black leaders in British churches and denominations is negligible. You hardly find black faculty in Christian colleges and Bible schools across the nation. All this is happening at a time when cultural diversity is increasing in Britain.

In this multicultural Britain, evangelistic partnerships between British and foreign Christians will prove helpful. African Christians, for instance, come with the evangelistic zeal that is generally lacking in Britain; and they come with the prayers to engage in spiritual warfare too. British Christians know their culture well and can tell when something works or not. Complementary partnerships will be of great value. In the end, Africans learn the cultural sensitivities of how British people respond to the gospel and British Christians learn a bit about how to do evangelism.

7. Subvert the dualisms

To evangelise in the West today is to actually invite people to adopt a new worldview—a pre-modern one that has the Spirit of God and many other spirits active in it. Nothing else will do. And yet, this is not a simple thing to do. We need to find new ways of talking about the gospel in ways that do not just clarify the issues people have with Christianity but also invite them to this enchanted reality that shapes our word. Let us be bold and open about this—it could be a strength in this context of late modernity or postmodernity. We have to let go of the dualisms that colour everything about how we live out the faith; our theology, missiology, ecclesiology, evangelism, discipleship, etc. Once we break free of these dualisms, prayer, fasting, spiritual gifts and spiritual warfare become alive again. When people begin to expect the Spirit to ’show up’, it does not disappoint. But to get to this place, a paradigm shift needs to take place. It will be self-defeating to convert people to Christianity and leave them with the dualistic modernity worldview.

Conclusion

The West can be converted, that question is settled. However, the question worth considering today is will this actually happen? Will the West be re-evangelised? I believe it will take Westerners eventually finding ways to evangelise their fellow Westerners. Non-Western Christians living in the West will also have to learn to evangelise Westerners. Are they willing to do this? Only God can tell. That said, we continue to watch and pray. We stay missional as we work with the Spirit to glorify the Son. “When I am lifted up,” he said, “I will draw all people unto myself” (John 12:32).

 

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