During his recent visit to Dublin, Chris Wright spoke at our annual student retreat. It was a brilliant weekend of great craic and great bible teaching from Chris. There has been lots of appreciation, discussion and talk among students ever since his visit. God used him to make a big impact. I also took the chance to interview Chris – so here is this fledgling blog’s first EXCLUSIVE 🙂 Chris is not afraid to challenge the (Western) status quo. What strikes you from this interview?
Chris, you’ve been here in Ireland speaking about The Mission of God and the work of the Langham Partnership. From your first-hand experience of global Christianity, what are some encouragements that you praise God for and what are some challenges that you observe?
I’m praising God for the phenomenal growth of the Christian community around the world in places like Africa. Latin America and Asia. The church in the West in now a minority of the world church (perhaps about 25%). The great majority of the world’s Christians now live in countries that we used to think of as the mission field but we need to stop thinking that way.
The challenges are that as church growth happens rapidly it can also be very shallow. Shallowness is not just a feature of the church in the majority world, it is universal. There are a lot of shallow Christians in the West as well. One of the results of shallowness, as Jesus pointed out, is that people become very vulnerable to false teaching and to the cares and temptations of the world. There are forms of alleged Christianity in parts of the world which are corrupted by syncretism with the cultures that surround them, whether that be a complete disconnect with biblical teaching about God’s presence in the world with his people in suffering or about a sort of ‘sanctified covetousness’ which regards success in the kingdom of God as identified with wealth, prosperity and health and so on.
Yet, some of that I think is a very debased form of Christianity flourishes alongside forms of Christian faith that believes in the miraculous power of the Spirit of God to change things, to liberate people and to bless people. So, it’s like Jesus said; when the kingdom of God is working, you get wheat and weeds in the same field. So, there is simultaneously that which is of the Spirit of God (and is positive and healthy and good) and that which is very definitely from a different spirit and not healthy.
Another challenge is that there is a need for the evangelical community around the world to ask itself what it means to be evangelical, not only in belief but also in behaviour in terms of commitment to the Bible, to the Lord Jesus Christ, to serving his kingdom and not just to a form of religion without the power of it.
What then are some of the challenges the growth of the church in the Global south poses to the church in the West? What are some of the idols that we face?
One is to for the church in the west to recognise its own relativity and to see that we are simply a part of the body of Christ. We are no longer the ‘home church’ or the ‘elder church’ and we need to have a greater degree of humility and spiritually in our attitude and in our practice towards our brothers and sisters in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere.
Another is to recognise that idolatry takes many forms. The Western church, I think, is very much polluted by its syncretism with idols of consumerism and a materialistic lifestyle. There is almost no difference between the way evangelical Christians live in America and Britain and the way everyone else lives. We worship the same gods as our culture. There is also syncretism with the idolatry of national pride and militarism – the putting of our hopes and security in the government and the army – which is syncretism of Christianity and patriotism. And that can be very powerful and becomes very destructive of relationships with other parts of the world that suffer some of the effects of west self-aggrandisement and empire building. These idols within western Christianity can also be the despair of our brothers and sisters in the majority world. They look at the western church with love and gratitude for its missionary outreach in past centuries, but also with a degree of bafflement that there is so much in western Christianity which is corrupted and detrimental to the best interests of the body of Christ. For example, we live with vast inequalities. A quarter of the world’s population live on less than a dollar a day, about 25% of those will be Christians – our sisters and brothers. Yet, we are not impacted by this because they live far away.
Your book The Mission of God has caused plenty of discussion academically, within the missionary world and the Christian ‘blogosphere’. In it you speak of the big narrative of Scripture and how vital it is for us to understand our mission within the overall mission of God. What are some practical implications for churches and individuals who really ‘get this’?
I’m encouraged that some people have told me that when they read the book it’s meant a whole paradigm shift for their Christian faith. I think it has something to do with recognising that if we are not living by the Bible’s story we are actually living by some other story which is actually a myth. Because we know that people in other religions, like Hindus and so on, have their gods and we know we don’t believe their story, the trouble is that we think that ‘I’ve become a Christian and I’ve got my swipe card for heaven and I’m out of here’. In the meantime I just live in this world the same way as anyone else in the culture does. What we don’t realise it that we are living by the myths of Enlightenment modernity, consumerism, individualism, and all the unseen idols which run quite contrary to the Bible story.
So we need to become more aware that our lives are to be lived within the framework of creation, the radical implication of the Fall and sin, but we still live in God’s earth and God’s mission and plan is to redeem it. The plan of God is revealed in Colossians and Ephesians, it is to bring all things in heaven and earth under the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a cosmic dimension to our faith as well as a personal dimension. I think that when people see that it gives them a greater sense of meaning and significance to their own lives as they actually live within a different story and with different values and priorities to the world around.
It means, I think, that one turns upside down the questions people ask when they become a Christian in the Western context and say ‘How can I fit God into my life?’ We need to ask instead, ‘How can I allow God to fit my life into his purpose?’ so that God becomes central, not my life. So we don’t ask ‘How can I apply the Bible to my life?’ we ask instead ‘Where does my life fit into God’s story in the Bible?’ I don’t think ‘How can I make the gospel relevant to the world?’ because God is actually going to change the world to be the shape of the gospel. So it turns upside down and inside out a lot of our thinking.
The final point in relation to the church is that it ought to mean that the church as a community of believers should recognise that they have been called into existence for the sake of God’s mission. Therefore, a church has to exist in mission. Not just by sending out missionaries to far off places around the world but by being salt and light in the community where they are. Mission is the very mode and existence of the church, it’s not just an extra thing we do, it is the very way we are.
In your recent book, The God I Don’t Understand, you tackle four ‘hard to understand’ questions of faith. It’s an autobiographical book in some ways, a personal book. In a world of such suffering, gross inequality and of natural disasters like Haiti and in light of violent judgement of God in the Old Testament – how can we believe in the goodness of God?
The title of the book is quite deliberate, The God I Don’t Understand. People ask me ‘How do you understand this and that?’ The whole point of the book is that there are certain things that I don’t understand! I’m quite serious about this. I want to say that it is okay to know and love God without knowing all of the answers. This is true of human relationships. Those of us who are married know that we can know and love and trust our wives or husbands without necessarily understanding everything that they say or do. This came to me again with Haiti. I feel angry, I ask God. ‘Why is that, yet again, it is where the poorest people live that these tectonic plates shifts and the earth groans and people get killed? Why do you allow that?’ That does not mean that I don’t believe in God’s existence. It means that I’m puzzled and angry about something that I don’t understand. But then I think about it in terms of human relationships. Would I rather, in human life, know someone I love in a marriage relationship – with whom sometimes I get angry and do not always understand – rather than have nobody at all? Would I rather have the non-existence of a relationship than a relationship which sometimes causes me pain? I think most people would say that they would rather have a relationship where there is pain, and puzzlement and anger that no relationship at all. Therefore I have to say I don’t find Haiti or the Tsunami a reason for doubting the existence of God, but rather a source of pain and puzzlement as to why God allows such things to happen.
On the issue of evil, the book does address suffering, the Canaanites, the cross of Christ, and the end of the world. In each case, I try to explain the things that I think the Bible does explain and leave as matters of mystery (sometimes as puzzling mystery and sometimes as glorious mystery in the case of the cross) and leave those as the Bible does – as things that God has chosen in his wisdom that it is better for us not to fathom.
Changing focus to the world of contemporary evangelicalism: you are chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group and are involved in the upcoming global congress in Capetown in October 2010. What are some of your hopes for that congress?
Lausanne, of course, is committed to world evangelisation, that is in its bloodstream. I would hope that Capetown will result in many positive partnerships among people who are committed to the gospel and living the gospel in the world. I hope that Capetown will continue to affirm the holistic and integral understanding of mission that is there in the Lausanne Covenant – that evangelisation is not just preaching, it is also living and demonstrating; it is words and works. I also hope that Capetown will have an energising effect on Christian community, that it will give people a fresh sense of the importance of sharing the gospel with the world and that there are huge needs in the world that we need to be exposed to. There are millions of people who have never even heard of Jesus; that there are millions of people who have no part of God’s Word in their own language. There are enormous realities of the needs of the lost world of those who do not yet know Jesus that I hope that Capetown will inspire the church take up.
My other hope for Capetown is that evangelicals will be willing to take a self-critical look at themselves and hear the prophetic word of Jesus to ‘Repent and come back to me’. For unless God’s people are living in God’s ways and look a little more Christ-like, then what is the world supposed to want become Christian for? We can’t be bad news and preach good news. We actually have to be the good news that we are preaching. If we are going to share Jesus with the world we have to be like Jesus and that includes loving our neighbours as ourselves, loving our enemies, non-retaliation, humility, seeking justice, compassion for the poor – all the things the Bible tells us we ought to be doing.
The Church has got to be the church?
Yes, that’s right. One of the phrases of Lausanne is ‘The Whole Church Taking the Whole Gospel, to the Whole World’ which is a wonderful slogan (which is not unique to Lausanne). The difficulty is that it can make the church just like the postman. If the postman who delivers the letter to your door was committing adultery the night before, to you that does not matter as long as you get the letter. However, the church is not just a delivery boy for the gospel, the church is supposed to be the embodiment of the gospel. We are to be a reconciled community of fallen sinners who have come to love one another through the Lord Jesus Christ. The quality of life of the church is to be a demonstration of the gospel alongside the delivery of the gospel.
A final question: You are back in Ireland. What are some of your impressions?
I’m encouraged by the growth of Irish Bible Institute. I’m also encouraged by the growth in evangelical witness both within Ireland and from immigration. It is tremendous that the third largest denomination in the country is the (Nigerian) Redeemed Christian Church of God. You almost see God smiling ‘If those Irish Christians can’t get it together I’ll send a few African Christians to cheer them up.’ God moves people around the world. From that comes fresh growth life from people who actually believe the gospel and want to live it and preach it. Consumerism seems to have replaced a very religious culture. If the empty idolatries of mammon have now disappointed, the challenge for Irish Christians is to continue to point people to the living God.
Interview with Patrick Mitchel, 30 January 2010.