Bryan Laughlin on What Missionaries Can Teach Us in Post-Christian America

A former Anglican bishop tells the story of when he served as the chaplain of Worcester College, Oxford. It was his duty and privilege to greet every incoming freshman, welcoming them to the university and offering them his guidance. He recalls that the vast majority of students replied in basically the same way: “You won’t be seeing much of me,” they’d say. “I don’t believe in god.”

At this I suspect many Christians would want to launch into a full-scale apologetic, defending the rationality of theism and imploring the student to believe the gospel. Instead, the wise bishop would say, “Oh, that’s interesting. Which god is it that you don’t believe in?”

After recovering from his surprising response, most students would go on to describe some kind of angry sky fairy who occasionally intervened in human affairs but whose main activity involves little more than sending bad people to hell and allowing good people into heaven. To the amazement of nearly every student, the bishop would then reply, “Well, I don’t believe in that god either.”

Welcome to Post-Christian America

There was a time in the Western world when the word “God” had a significant level of intelligibility. Virtually everyone recognized God as a reference to the supernatural being who revealed himself in the life of Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14–18). Even atheists used the word God in this way, for to be an atheist in the West was to disbelieve in this specific deity.

Today, however, the West is a secularizingpost-Christian culture. And though all of America isn’t post-Christian yet, even the Bible Belt isn’t far behind. We have arrived at the point where the common conceptions of many vital words—like “God,” “Christian,” “church,” “gospel,” “sin,” and “salvation”—are distantly removed from what the Bible means by them.

This profound level of confusion reflects a massive loss of shared worldview. Simply put, if America ever were a Christian nation, it isn’t one any longer.

The Need for a Missionary Encounter in the West

We can’t turn back the hands of time or put the toothpaste back in the tube. And even if we could resurrect Billy Graham, we can’t restore the cultural moment when big revivals seemed to have some level of effectiveness. Instead, America desperately needs what Lesslie Newbigin called “a missionary encounter” between the gospel and the secular West.

Newbigin meant that Westerners, including Americans, must start living like missionaries to their own culture. This exhortation is not mainly concerned with whether we call every Christian a missionary. (In fact, merely changing labels would change nothing much at all.) No, this is about the vital need for the American church to recover a missionary mentality. It’s about the call for us to live like foreign missionaries in our own cities and neighborhoods, which are quickly becoming places increasingly foreign to the gospel.

In order to do this the American church must learn from international missionaries living among those who don’t believe the gospel. In other words, there are three things that those who stay on mission in America must learn from those who go on mission to the world.

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Source: Christianity Today