In 2010, the United States had 10 percent of the world’s Christians. My first reaction to that is a bit of reflexive American pride. All of a sudden I have that feeling like I’m watching the Olympics, chanting “USA! USA! USA!” at my television.
But when I hit the pause button on my nationalism, I realize something chilling: if I focus only on the work God is doing in the United States, I’m missing out on 90 percent of what he’s doing in the world today. Assuming I fully grasp all that he’s doing in my nation (a very shaky assumption), I’m still missing nearly all of what he’s doing in the world.
Looking further at the data, I’m likely missing some of the most exciting movements of God: Sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region have as many Christians as the Americas, as of 2010, and both regions have experienced amazing growth in the past 100 years—a 60-fold and 10-fold increase respectively. If my only vantage point is the pace of Christian growth in America over that same time period, I’m missing the heart of God’s redemptive, global work today.
Data has its limits, and putting God’s work into numeric form isn’t always accurate or complete. But when I look at this information, I come to one unshakeable conclusion: to truly behold God, I need to have a perspective beyond my own nation. If my salvation stops with me, or even my nation, I’m missing the fullness, the main point, of God’s redemptive story: that all people come to know the God who loves them.
The Reflexive Response
This is when my good old American sense of responsibility kicks in. I’m immediately convinced that the next step will involve either getting out my checkbook or packing a duffle bag and taking a round of anti-malaria medications. I think there are two reasons for this response.
First, giving money or going on a short-term trip are ways I can feel part of God’s work in the world without actually changing my day-to-day life. Sure, I get updates from the missions I support and I have memories and stories from my trip, but over time my daily routine and the way I approach God are unchanged. Plus, I like to be perceived as good and charitable and nothing affirms that more than a stack of charitable receipts every tax season or a scrapbook full of photos of me in a far-off land.
Second, and more critically, these responses, which center on my actions, point to my underlying belief that missions is something people do—a nice idea we had to help God complete his work in the world.
From the beginning God has used his people as vessels to carry his word to others. God told Abraham in Genesis 12, “I will bless you . . . all peoples on the earth will be blessed through you” (v.v. 2, 3). This is an idea that God initiated, and if you trace the story of Israel, it’s an idea God sustained every step of the way—often despite the actions of Israel, not because of them.
These two reasons don’t even touch on the fact that many of us are a little leery of becoming one of those weird people who move overseas, hoping that if we manage to please God with our check-writing ability he won’t send us to Africa, which, for some reason, is the worst-case scenario. It sounds like a thought process one might have shortly before ending up in the belly of a fish.
A Different Response
When I lay this all down—my egotism, my imperialism, my clinging to a comfortable status quo—I’m left with the question, God, what do you want from me? (And often I need to filter out my exasperation and ask again more open-handedly.)
God’s reply is the same as it’s been in every human-divine interaction since creation: “I want to know you, and I want you to know me.” The example of how to do this is, of course, Christ. Jesus’ actions were not an end in themselves, they were an expression of who he was—God’s son—and a reflection of who we could become in a relationship with God.
The issue isn’t that financially supporting missions or going on short-term trips are bad; they can in fact be very good. I have had some wonderful encounters with God on short-term trips, and much of my income is support-raised or from fundraising writing.
But being a world Christian is first and foremost about who I am, not what I do. Certainly, action will come, but if it doesn’t come as a response to my relationship with God, I’m missing the point. When I see God working, whether near or far, I have the chance to respond with wonder and draw closer to God. I have the opportunity to experience God and know him better and to be enriched by what he is doing.
Becoming Like Christ
So how can I grow as a world Christian?
My stumbling point is much closer than the ends of the earth; it’s often the edge of my backyard. My day-to-day life is crafted with boundaries that keep me comfortable. When was the last time I went somewhere in my city where I felt I didn’t belong and invited God to show himself to me through the experience? How can I expect to grow through understanding what God is doing around the world when I only interact and worship with people who look and think like me? Every month I attend a book club with people of a wide variety of ages, from countries around the world, and their insights enrich my reading of books; but how often have I studied the Bible with someone who wasn’t middle class and white, and female, like me?
Becoming a world Christian begins with who I am in my own world. It begins by being curious about what God is doing around me, taking a posture of learning. To do this I must stop seeing differences as a threat, stop getting lost in comparison, stop the urge to immediately construct value statements. Instead, trusting Christ, I can welcome others, listen to people who are different from me, and ask questions of God, others, and myself. To be as Christ in the world, I have to ask God every day to change me, and I have to commit to letting my experiences lead to me to God.
Practically speaking, this could look like any number of things, depending on each person’s situation and interests. It could mean visiting nearby churches of a different ethnic group to experience worship in a new way. It could include reading novels or watching movies by people from other cultures, so that through their art form, you develop an understanding and appreciation for different ways of life. It could be getting coffee with an international student and asking what their childhood was like. All the while, setting aside my preconceptions and inviting God to show me who he is and what he sees.
Then as I grow closer to God through my encounters, and develop a perspective beyond my own experiences, it influences what actions I take and how. If I decide to financially support a mission, I’ll have a deeper investment by understanding how God is using it to impact others. If I go on a short-term mission trip, I’ll seek the expertise of local people to better understand what God is doing in their area and how I can be a partner. When I pray about a place or a problem, I’ll ask God to teach me about himself first, not give him a to-do list or ask him to implement my solution. When I read about an unreached people group, I’ll listen for God’s design in their culture and respond with compassion rather than pity, imploring God urgently on their behalf.
Being a world Christian—seeing the world as Christ does—is a gift, not just for the world, but for you. As you shed bits of yourself, experiencing God in a broader way, you can live in greater freedom and hope in Christ.
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Shawn, live and minister in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. Find her work online at melissaannewuske.com.