In most places where OMF works the Church is a marginalised minority, with restrictions aimed at curtailing its witness. But the Church can still have an effective voice if it pays attention to its identity, vision and character.
Recovering the forgotten heritage of ASIAN CHRISTIAN IDENTITY
It’s difficult to have an effective voice if you’re perceived to be speaking with a foreign accent.
Unfortunately, the idea that Christianity is a Western religion is so pervasive that many East Asian Christians seem to believe it, with most unaware of their Asian Christian heritage. The development of a Christian identity that celebrates the gospel’s deep roots in Asia’s rich soil is a discipleship imperative. Across East Asia, minority churches can strengthen their witness by recovering their forgotten heritage. The Princeton historian, Samuel Hugh Moffett, reminds us of Christianity’s Asian roots:
It is too often forgotten that the faith moved east across Asia as early as it moved west into Europe… Asia produced the first known church building, the first New Testament translation, perhaps the first Christian king, the first Christian poets, and even arguably the first Christian state.
— A History of Christianity in Asia, Maryknoll: Orbis
A stronger sense of Asian Christian identity can help shape and sustain churches, enabling them to withstand a government’s attempts to marginalise them because of their minority status. Such an identity will be self-consciously global in its scope but distinctively local in its expression. It will celebrate its connectedness to the people of God throughout history, but will be equally at home in the cultural and ethnic specifics of Asian culture.
Developing a comprehensive Christian VISION
Many of the churches in East Asia are surrounded by ideologies and faiths that present a comprehensive vision for their society or nation. For instance, where Islam professes to be a total way of life, Christians will want to work out a theology that has an equally comprehensive agenda: the proclamation of the Lordship of Christ over every area of life. A compartmentalised faith cripples the witness of a minority Church.
A Christian community that lives as a minority may be tempted to withdraw rather than to engage. But even as a minority, the Church is still called to be an agent of transformation. This isn’t about churches trying to take over society – such a vision is unrealistic and not what we are called to do. We exercise our influence as salt and light, through persuasion and with patience, waiting for the return of our King and the consummation of his Kingdom. In the meantime, we maximise our effectiveness through the depth and quality of our community life.
Attending to the character of Christian COMMUNITY
Christian communities in East Asian countries are usually small and with no real hope of obtaining substantial political power for a very long time, if ever. But if the Church embodies the life of a transformed community it can have an influence disproportionate to its size.
In places where the Church is marginalised, Christians can rejuvenate their witness through creating social space for the gospel. In his book Forbidden Revolutions (1996), David Martin examines Christian communities that created space on the margins of society and brought about radical change that went beyond the margins and into the mainstream. For instance, Latin American Pentecostals were able to create and sustain social spaces that allowed them to effect transformation. They lived lives of discipline and honesty, built strong families and created communities among the poor that offered dignity and hope. Martin describes the effects of this ‘free space of evangelical activity’:
‘Where the social world is heaving and cracking with seismic fissures the lava of faith travels in many directions, helping redistribute a new landscape and adapting to a multiplicity of niches…’
— David Martin, Forbidden Revolutions – Pentecostalism and Latin America and Catholicism in Eastern Europe, London: SPCK, 1996, 59.
East Asian churches are often under pressure, living as tolerated minorities, and restricted in their evangelism. But many have embarked on community projects, pioneered ministry among drug users, set up programmes to care for the disabled, run clubs for children with special needs, and become involved in creation care. Through these and many other ministries, they have created space for Christian love and compassion to be demonstrated and for gospel seeds to be sown, watered and to come to fruition.
Each of these building blocks of identity, vision and community requires a biblical foundation. The most critical factor in determining whether a minority church will have an effective, sustained voice is its engagement with and obedience to the word of God. That’s what forms identity, creates vision and shapes community.