In my own travels overseas, I have noticed a striking difference in the wording of prayers. When difficulties come, Christians in affluent countries tend to pray, "Lord, take this trial away from us!" I have heard persecuted Christians and some who live in very poor countries pray instead, "Lord, give us the strength to bear this trial."
Curious, I asked an old-time missionary, who has made a dozen trips to visit unregistered house churches in China, if Christians there prayed for a change in restrictive government policies. He replied that not once had he heard a Chinese Christian pray for relief. "They just assume they'll face opposition," he said. "They can't imagine anything else." He then gave some examples of the opposition.
One pastor had served a term of 27 years at hard labor for holding unauthorized church meetings. When he emerged from prison and returned to church, he announced that he had kept a daily count on his dangerous job, and had coupled together one million railroad cars without an injury. "God answered your prayers for my safety!" he rejoiced. Another imprisoned pastor heard that his wife was going blind. Desperate, he reported to the warden that he was renouncing his faith. He was released, but soon felt so guilty that he turned himself in again to the police. He spent the next 30 years in prison.
Last year I visited Brazil and the Philippines, two relatively poor countries where the church is experiencing explosive growth. Local groups invited me to bring encouragement to the church, but I ended up as the one encouraged. In both places, when people receive Christian literature on the street, they stop and read it; when invited to a Christian meeting, they actually go. Even the media lack a veneer of cynicism. Pop music stars get converted and talk openly about their faith; evangelicals write faith-building columns in the daily newspaper. One church I addressed in Manila holds five services on Sunday; the first—which meets at 5 a.m.—has 2,000 in attendance.
Such nations are in a "honeymoon" phase with Christianity. The gospel still sounds like good news. I met Brazilians who welcome homeless street urchins into their families, and who bring food to prisoners—voluntarily, not under anyone's organized program. Poor villages that have never heard terms like "social justice" or "liberation theology" find their economic status rising as the converted breadwinners stop drinking, show up for work on time, and start acting like responsible citizens.
Other nations have settled into a "divorced" phase. I also visited Denmark last year, a nation which vies with the Czech Republic as having the lowest rate of church attendance. Church steeples pierce the gray skies, but only tourists bother to go inside. No one could tell me a single place where I might find anything related to Denmark's most famous Christian, Søren Kierkegaard. In the national museum, a placard explained that the cross, formerly the religious symbol of Denmark, is now regarded as a cultural relic.
Some nations are in a "mature marriage" phase. In the United States, nearly half of us attend church on a given Sunday, and Christians have a visible presence on university campuses and in every major profession. Politicians running for office compete with each other in appealing to the religious constituency. Both church and parachurch, though, sometimes seem to operate more like an industry than a living organism. We hire others to take care of the orphans and visit the prisoners; we pay professionals to lead the worship. To return from a church in Brazil to one in the U.S. is like moving from a down-home county fair, where everyone gets to pet the cows and chase the pigs, to Disney World's Animal Kingdom, where you pay a fee mostly to watch beasts (some of which are mechanical) from behind a barrier.
At last year's Billy Graham conference in Amsterdam, a speaker announced that Christians in developed Western countries now represent only 37 percent of believers worldwide. As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God "moving" geographically from the Middle East to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he's wanted. That's a scary thought in a country like the United States, home to a robust economy and 500 satellite TV channels for diversion and entertainment, not to mention Disney World.
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Yancey's columns for Christianity Today include:
Humility's Many Faces (Dec. 4, 2000)
Getting a Life (Oct. 16, 2000)
To Rise, It Stoops (Aug. 29, 2000)
Chess Master (May 15, 2000)
Would Jesus Worship Here? (Feb.7, 2000)
Doctor's Orders (Dec. 2, 1999)
Getting to Know Me (Oct. 25,1999)
The Encyclopedia of Theological Ignorance (Sept. 6, 1999)
Writing the Trinity (July 12, 1999)
Can Good Come Out of This Evil? (June 14, 1999)
The Last Deist (Apr. 5, 1999)
Why I Can Feel Your Pain (Feb. 8, 1999)
What The Prince of Egypt Won't Tell You (Dec. 7, 1998)
What's a Heaven For? (Oct. 26,1998)
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