Are we listening?

The global church can teach us much about faithful discipleship

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Photo: Getty Images

How would our collective discipleship deepen if in addition to pursuing “lifelong learning” we would also pursue “world-wide learning”?

We often do well to seek after church models of faithfulness for our context and our generation. Indeed, in his amazing grace and generosity, God points us to not one but at least three sources. One, biblical churches, as seen in Acts, the church-directed letters (Romans) and the seven churches of Revelation (my favorite models are Jerusalem, Thessalonica and Philadelphia).

Two, historic churches and movements as seen throughout 2000 years of insightful church history. As a 19th century renewal movement, Mennonite Brethren found helpful models in previous renewal movements, such as the 12th century Waldensians, 16th century Anabaptists and 18th century Moravians. We continue to learn from Western renewal movements, and this is good.

There is a third source of models for faithfulness and fruitfulness—global churches! In fact, this has always been the case, because the Church has been global throughout Christian history. However, our generation is different.

The global witness

In our age of information, travel, migration movements and Majority World church growth, this model is more visible than ever before. In 1900, Christianity was mostly Western: 80 percent were either European or Anglo American, and almost all missionaries were sent from the West to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today, some 70 percent of Christians are African, Asian and Latin American, and nearly half of cross-cultural missionaries are sent from the non-Western world.

This is even more pronounced in our global MB family, the International Community of Mennonite Brethren (ICOMB). Of over 500,000 global members, some 81,000, or 16 percent, are in North America and Europe!

To be sure, quantity is no indicator of faithfulness, and not all growth is healthy growth. Having visited and served most of our 22 global MB conferences and many emerging conferences, I have not a few stories of unhealthy church life. However, the stories of inspiring faithfulness and healthy fruitfulness are many more.

Paul commends the Thessalonian church for their faith, hope and love. He declares them to be a model for churches in other regions. They were making a joyful noise, and so he affirms, “The Lord’s message rang out from you …” (1:8). Today, the Lord’s message of faithful discipleship is ringing out from global churches. Are we listening?

Faithful in reverent worship and prayer. I recently returned from Thailand where I was so encouraged by how young leaders are stepping up to lead and stepping out to both expand and consolidate new churches. I was also challenged by their displays of reverent worship. Whether worshiping with middle class businesspeople or in a poor storefront church, everyone removes their shoes and sandals! Where God’s people gather to worship and pray is holy ground.

In Brazil, Renewed MB Church has rented a large space on the rural periphery of São Paulo, built lodging, a chapel and a food court. They call it “Prayer Mountain” (popularly called Monte Menonita), and hundreds come to pray every Friday night from all over the mega-city.

Faithful in balancing celebration and suffering. We’ve all heard of the tremendous growth of the church in China. The gospel has survived and in fact thrived in China. Chinese churches are sending missionaries all over the world—reason to celebrate! Yet the celebration is tempered with a theology of suffering. Western missiologist Paul Borthwick tells of asking four young believers about the quality of their pastor’s preaching. Their reply, “Oh yes! He is a very good preacher. He suffered in prison for many years for the gospel.” There was a clear link between the quality of his message and the credibility gained through suffering.

Faithful in joyful giving. When I’m with my African friends I humor them, “Better get ready, because I’m pretty sure you’ll be leading the offering time in heaven!” In places like DR Congo and Angola, the offering seems to be the highlight of the service. Ushers prompt all participants, row by row or section by section, to go forward and deposit their gifts. The music is loud and joyful; the givers are dancing and smiling. There are large buckets and instructions are given as to the designation of each bucket (general offering, construction, pastor’s salary, mission work, etc.) There is no hurry, and often the offering will take 20-30 minutes.

Faithful creativity in poverty. While most churches in the Majority World would be eager to have a dedicated church building, the reality is that most do not. Yet what they lack in political freedoms or material resources they make up with Spirit-inspired creativity for the sake of living as a faithful church. Global church facilities I’ve been in include a cave in Egypt, large shade tree in Malawi, tents on basketball courts in the Philippines, linen sheets on rooftops in India … storefronts, schools, and homes. The question put to Moses, “What is in your hand?” finds creative answers in global churches.

Faithful investment in the next generation. Some of our finest MB leaders have come out of Paraguay (including two of three ICOMB executive directors). One may not expect such high-profile leaders from a lower profile country. The difference? Paraguayan Mennonites in general, and Mennonite Brethren in particular, have invested heavily in Christian schools at all levels. This impacts not only Germanic Mennonite families but multiple people groups and social classes. They understand Christian education to be an expression of their missional calling and are faithfully growing where they have been planted.

Faithful in hungering after the Word. I was recently in the Philippines with my good friend Bob Davis, ICOMB U.S. advocate. He encouraged our Filipino partners with photos of church workers in a restricted SE Asia country who were crammed into a hotel room receiving instruction from veteran leader PK. Some were on the floor, at least seven were on the bed, and a few got chairs. Bob tells me this happens all the time. Such is their hunger for the Word and for solid instruction. For them, reading the Bible is not an academic exercise but a daily bread in similar contexts to which the Bible was originally written—uncertainty, violence, oppression, poverty, exile, etc.

Faithful in sacrificial mission. While serving with Multiply, I got to know many workers from sister conferences serving side-by-side with North Americans. We call them International Partner Missionaries. Some of them serve as tentmakers (bivocational) when their sending conference is unable to supply them with full support or when their field of service disallows religious worker visas. They are part of a global pattern, like the apostle Paul’s team in Corinth or the Moravians of old.

Many Africans, Filipinos, Koreans and Chinese are crossing the globe as tentmaker missionaries, working hard in their day jobs and laboring sacrificially in their spare time for the gospel. Others offer the ultimate sacrifice, like the saints of old, “the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:38).

“Never before has Christianity been geographically, culturally and linguistically so diverse. The Church has gone global,” says missionary and author Patrick Johnstone. This global Church points us to our shared future of a diverse yet united people gathered around the throne, looking to our one Savior and celebrating both our unity and our diversity. If we will spend eternity as friends and neighbors, appreciating each other and learning from one another, should we not start now?

Further reading: 

Paul Borthwick. Western Christians in Global Mission (IVP, 2012).

Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (3rd ed., Oxford, 2011).

Patrick Johnstone. The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends, and Possibilities (IVP, 2014).

D. Payne. Pressure Points: Twelve Global Issues Shaping the Face of the Church (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

Lionel Young III. World Christianity and the Unfinished Task: A Very Short Introduction (Cascade, 2021).

1 COMMENT

  1. A brilliant contribution by the ever-faithful Vic Wiens. His observations are balanced and instructive.

    It prompted me to consider how the global church is faithful in persecution as well. I’ve heard some Christians in North American allege that we are being persecuted. I feel this somehow cheapens and disrespects the actual persecution experienced by pastors and members of churches, where, for example, church buildings are burned (eg. Manipur and Odissa states in India), people are beaten severely, even to death. And so on. At the Mennonite World Conference event in 2012, Ethiopian Mennonites reported persecution, and were asked “How shall we pray for you?” The answer came, “Don’t ask God to remove the persecution; rather ask God to give us strength to be faithful to him.”

    Thank you, Vic for your faithful rendering of this picture of our global church, and inspiring us to consider how we might be faithful in like fashion.

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