By Jim Tune
In the fifth century, Romans reclined in their villas in the south of England, feeling secure that their world was intact and would remain that way for years to come. Life was good. Sure, the army was busy, always off to put down an uprising here or a barbarian raid there. But the roads still bustled with trade, the public baths were thriving, and the harvest was underway.
Meanwhile the Saxons were already crossing the English Channel with designs on the land that once seemed to be the permanent possession of the mighty Roman Empire. Soon they would invade, pillage, and plunder Roman Britain. In less than one generation, Roman Britain vanished. The villas were ransacked. Those who defended their homes were killed, driven out, or sold as slaves. The physical signs were still there, roads, villas, and buildings left mostly intact—but the society as it once stood was completely gone. The Roman world seemed stable, even unshakable. Rome had ruled for centuries. But times change, and sometimes it doesn’t take long.
This story may seem an unusual one for an article about the International Conference on Missions (ICOM). Yet it addresses both the age we live in and the theme of ICOM 2015 this October 29–November 1 in Richmond, Virginia.
Losing Home-Field Advantage
When I was asked to serve as ICOM President, a theme emerged rapidly. As a Canadian I’ve served all of my ministry life in the pluralistic, postmodern, post-Christian context. To use a sports metaphor, the church in Canada has never enjoyed “home-field advantage.” The church exists on the margins of Canadian society as a visiting team in the very country in which I was born. I have played my entire ministry as a member of “the away team.”
This year ICOM will focus on how to function effectively as the away team in rapidly changing America and around the world. In saying the church has lost home-field advantage, let me offer this analysis:
• In the 1950s people generally believed in a Creator God, the notion of sin, and the truth that Jesus is God’s Son. When people heard the gospel, many were ready to respond.
• By the 1970s the culture had become more liberal. Moral positions once held by society began to be challenged and then crumble.
• By the 1990s, people were hardening against Christianity. It was difficult to get them to come to a crusade or a special service or to hear a visiting evangelist. A number of objections could be met with satisfying responses. Society had developed at least four objections regarding church and Christianity—Christians were weird; Christianity was untrue; Christianity was irrelevant; and Christianity was intolerant. Sometimes, though, if a Christian could adequately respond to these objections and provide answers to their intellectual issues, people would then be willing to give the gospel a hearing.
• Today people are on a totally different path. Our culture is now defined by tolerance and permissiveness. People no longer engage with faith in order to accept or reject it. They simply reject it out of hand. The church is now the visiting team in our culture. The crowd is not cheering for us. A new game plan is needed.
Finding Ways to Engage
The story of Romans living in England has relevance for the church in the West today. The world as it existed for a long time has undergone a drastic change. Ways of life, ideals, and positions of power and influence that have long been established no longer exist the way they once did. There was a time when the church’s place in society was central to the culture, and it may have been hard to imagine any other way. However, those of us who have lived in North America or Western Europe in the past few decades have an understanding of how things can indeed change in a relatively short period of time.
Many of us long for the “old days” of Christian prestige and influence. As the majority, Christians were accustomed to shaping the culture and determining the overarching moral structures of society. The old days as we knew them in America may never come back. I understand the grief this brings to believers who grew up in “Christian America.” I hear Christians make comments about “taking America back.” I get it. But the changes taking place in our world also bring gospel opportunities.
The opportunities require us to embrace an orientation that understands that while once we were at “home,” this is no longer the case. As citizens of a different kingdom—God’s kingdom—nothing external has changed. Jesus rules and sits enthroned as Lord and Christ. We are not losing. We have not lost. But we may need to learn to engage our neighbors and our culture in new ways. I am learning to look at the decline of Christendom (the term given to the religious cultural and political influence that has dominated western society since the fourth century when Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the empire) as something that need not be detrimental to the church or its mission.
Christendom may be nothing more than a phase in the history of Christianity, one that represents only one of many possible relationships between the church and society. After all, the church grew and permeated Greco-Roman society for centuries in the face of official hostility and mob hatred. The end of Christendom is not the end of Christianity! Yes, the changes make us squirm. It’s disorienting to see moral laws and ethical changes happening all around us. Still, we must shake off our grief and nostalgia and figure out what to do about it.
Learning a New Playbook
This is why I’m so excited that The Away Team is our theme for ICOM 2015. As we examine the realities of our culture and the changing place of the church within it, we can begin to identify new ways for the church to find its way in a post-Christian era. The gospel never changes, but paradigms, approaches, and methods do. Governments and empires come and go, but our real kingdom is eternal and Christ is still in charge.
Formerly known as the National Missionary Convention, ICOM exists to encourage, equip, and recruit new workers for the harvest. I know of nothing that rivals it in our movement. As a platform for global missions, it celebrates the work of missionaries around the world, provides dozens of workshops on best practices, and helps to equip local churches to “do missions” with greater excellence. Most of the Bible colleges send their students en masse for both the experience and the education.
This is a conference for the whole family. SICOM (the student conference) operates alongside of our regular sessions. There are pre-conference intensives for missionary families and church planters, along with training for church mission committees and leaders designed to assist them in developing their mission programs in the local church. Our exhibit hall will be packed with mission organizations ready to share their stories. They might even try to recruit you!
Speakers include Ajai Lall, Abhijeet Lall, Jennifer Taylor-Johnson, Robert Crews, Dema Lazuta, Gary Johnson, and several other challenging voices. Daryl Reed will lead morning Bible studies that complement our theme. As your president for 2015, I have worked closely with ICOM Director David Empson and his capable team to create an encouraging experience with great teaching, music and worship, and exceptional fellowship.
In Richmond we will begin to look at a new playbook, one designed for the visiting team, one that reflects the changes in our world. Our main session speakers have been equipped through their experience as missionaries and preachers to expound on our theme in a way that is helpful and encouraging. Numerous workshops have been created to help us navigate how to be effective missionaries to our own neighbors. I invite you to come to Richmond for ICOM. It’s time to dig into this conversation. Welcome to the Away Team!
Jim Tune is the founding minister of Churchill Meadows Christian Church in Toronto, Canada, president of Impact Ministry Group (an international church planting ministry), and president of the 2015 ICOM in Richmond, Virginia.