East Germany. Then & Now

A friend of mine, Duke professor Chris Rice, wrote about some fascinating observations during a recent trip to Romania and Poland. He described the lingering effects of Communism in those post-Soviet countries. His Romanian host told him, “We all smell of communism in Romania. It’s not something you rub off from your coat. It’s on the radio, at your job, in your school.  It’s the air you breathe. To say you’re immune is silly.” That is a perfect description of the Global Current of Memory: events, circumstances,  and values of the past are still very “alive” today, and influence how people respond to the gospel.


Rice cited the example of the senior devil in C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, who instructed the junior devil on how to take away Christians’ joy. He suggested gradually removing all songs of triumph from Christians’ hymn books, leaving only songs of lament.  The Communists were just as ingenious and insidious, said Rice’s Polish host, “devilishly dividing people when they didn’t even realize what was being done to them.”  And that’s an especially evil characteristic of Memory: it is borne by everyday conditions, but is gradual and invisible.


Every culture and society has its own memory. In the U.S., our pervasive culture is materialism — “a more civilized god than Communism” according to a Romanian man.  But Rice cautions that “to say we are immune from materialism is to deny it has become the air we breathe. Others smell what we have become accustomed to.”  Rice concludes by suggesting that our willingness to practice a theology of ‘enough’ will be a critical test of American Christianity’s witness to the world today.


Many years ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized a popular network sitcom because of the values it portrayed. Quayle said that “Murphy Brown,” starring Candace Bergen, promoted moral laxity. His comments were met with a firestorm of ridicule: didn’t Quayle realize that the characters were fictitious, and that no one takes sitcoms seriously, anyway?

How things change.  A couple of decades later, social commentators are pointing to sitcoms as proof of America’s growing acceptance of the gay lifestyle. An upcoming NBC sitcom featuring a gay couple and their surrogate child is called — wait for it — “The New Normal.”  While conservative groups loudly protested the “Ellen” sitcom in which comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, gay characters now are common fare.  Vice President Biden recently chimed in, opining that “Will & Grace,” which ran from 1998 through 2006, “probably did more to educate the American public than anything anybody’s ever done so far” regarding sexual diversity.

Media is a powerful carrier of values, lifestyles, and mores.  Global media contributes to “Monoculture”, the Global Current which carries messages of all stripes, disseminating and entrenching ideas at speeds and distances previously unimaginable.  And, because “culture is upstream of politics,” laws are also changing. With President Obama’s recent announcement of support for gay marriage, he proved that a long-ago Republican Vice President was right.

Crossword Puzzle on Mobile

A recent Pew Research Center report showed that 27% of Americans get their news from mobile devices. Print news continues to slip: in just the year of 2010-2011, newspapers lost 4% of their monthly audiences.

This development, an example of the “Global Current” of Machines, has widespread implications. I am particularly concerned that communities and cities are losing their definitive, “go to” source of information and news.  While newspapers used to inform residents about local topics of shared concern, Americans increasingly obtain their news from non-local sources.  As a result, local awareness is declining, especially among younger adults.  People who used to skim city news in the one-size-fits-all local newspaper will not navigate to the City Council or School Board websites for that news.

The 7 Global Currents described in The Meeting of the Waters often operate in tandem, and here we see Machines and Mediation in action. Writers distill news into brief sound bytes suitable for handheld readers, simplifying complex issues. Nuance and deeper understanding are compromised, as issues are distilled to black and white, pro and con, good versus evil, right and left. This polarization is rampant today, as people around the world increasingly stake out strident positions on opposing sides of issues.

As Christians seek to be peacemakers and reconcilers in this increasingly polarized world, we must practice Mediation.  We must exercise new, more inclusive voices. While not watering down Truth, we must find loving ways to engage with people of opposing viewpoints.  And we must look beyond media’s simplistic portrayals of deep issues.

ImageIt is alarming to see how dramatically American society is fracturing and polarizing. I believe this is happening around the world, too, which is why I’ve named it one of “7 Global Currents” that are reshaping missions and churches, home and abroad.

This polarization is evident in all areas of culture — politics, religion, philosophy, and even sports.  I recently read an article which named Tim Tebow –he of the Heisman Trophy, NCAA championship, and game-winning drives — as one of America’s most divisive athletes.  Others on the list included Michael Vick, Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, and O.J. Simpson – all who have been accused or convicted of serious or even criminal misdeeds. And Tebow’s crime? It’s scribbling Bible verses on his eyeblack during college years and openly spouting Jesus’ name whenever he’s interviewed. Unfortunately, that is enough to polarize masses.   Whether in traditionally controversial areas like religion and politics, or formerly innocuous areas like food (slow or fast food?), stores (big box or local?), and clothing (sweatshops or fair wage?), it seems that all words are fighting words.

For Christians, it’s increasingly difficult to practice Mediation in a harsh, accusatory, villainizing world. Tebow himself seems to be maturing. During a recent interview after his trade to the New York Jets, he demurred when asked about his faith, pointing out that the event at hand was a football transaction. Tebow is maturing into what Gordon College President Michael Lindsay calls a “cosmopolitan Christian” — one who understands the importance of building bridges and speaks more about what he’s for than what he’s against. That’s a good thing for Tebow and for the Christian community.  In the coming years, Christians in America and around the world will need to find inclusive and gracious ways to give voice to what we believe. We hold to exclusive Truth claims, and we know that those Truths will always be offensive to some.  But we should work hard, as Jesus did, to pursue reconciled relationships and loving dialogue…and hope it never gets to ultimatums and accusations.

In The Meeting of the Waters, the first Global Current I discuss is Mercy — that is, various  forms of witness and testimony other than verbal proclamation. Today’s emerging generation of believers wants to serve the poor, care for AIDS patients, steward creation, rescue slaves, produce art and beauty, and create businesses of transparency — and thereby earn opportunities to talk about the Author of all that is good. I call these younger believers the Mercy Generation, because of their deep desire to be incarnational witnesses to Christ.

In the last half of the 20th century, evangelicals often expressed their faith in propositional statements,  leading with their personal testimony and supporting it with apologetics. I believe that the tendency of today’s emerging generation to express its Bible-based faith through acts of mercy and justice is generally a healthy and vibrant development. And if at times younger believers soft-peddle or undervalue evangelism, the good news is that they are generally eager and receptive to older Christian mentors.  That places a priority on older believers to keep younger ones balanced on both acts of mercy and also proclamation.

People often ask me which of the 7 Global Currents is most pressing for Christians to understand today.  If I had to pick one, it would be Mutuality.  We westerners need to recognize that the indigenous church in the developing (majority) world increasingly has ample education, resources, access, and numbers of leaders.  What the global Church needs from us in the west is not our leadership, but our partnership.  More and more, our role will be one of encouraging, augmenting, and building up the Body in the developing world.

Any parent knows that moving from calling the shots to being one voice among many is challenging and often sometimes frustrating.  That is undoubtedly the future role of American believers, though, as we seek to bolster the global Church.  It’s a role which excites me because it shows that, after a generation of American leadership in the mission enterprise, reinforcements have arrived.   All parties will grow, as western believers learn new levels of humility and cooperation, and majority believers develop new levels of confidence and wisdom.

Missions Mentoring

After a recent speaking engagement, an attendee inquired about the “generational changing of the guard,” which is the premise for the The Meeting of the Waters.  He wondered if I am enthusiastic about “Apple Guy” leading the global church into the future.  He questioned whether global missions leaders should simply go along with all new trends, or whether we should preserve some tried and true ways of doing missions, for at least a while longer.

I am quick to admit that I have concerns about this transition period. So many young people embarking on missions, today, have short-term orientations. They don’t foresee being “in the field” for more than a couple of years. They haven’t devoted extensive years to training for their missions life. They haven’t necessarily “signed up” for the difficult, uncomfortable, sacrificial lifestyles required in so many mission assignments.  And then, after gaining wisdom and expertise in their foreign setting, many of them return home after a short, two-three, year stint. By contrast, “Mission Marm’s” burning zeal for the lost, her willingness to do whatever it took and to serve the lost in other countries, and her commitment of her entire life to serving God in the missions context–those things will all be sorely missed.

But the future world will require missionaries to be more adaptable and connected than Mission Marm was.  And the change has already begun: studies show that American churches’ support of career missionaries is markedly decreasing.    The younger, shorter-term mission workers are the new normal.  The good news is that, I have found that the Apple Guy generation is open and eager for inter-generational relationships and guidance. More experienced Christians should take it as a personal challenge and commitment to mentor younger believers in missions and other spiritual matters.  This will help them gain knowledge and wisdom, and also serve as their entree into the workings and leadership of the global church.