New Delhi - In terms of the percentage it comprises of the world's population, Christianity has declined in the last century. This decline is set to continue unless Christians revisit their approach to missions, evangelical leaders from across Asia heard at a gathering last week.
Dr. Bambang Budijanto presented these statistics during the Asia Evangelical Alliance (AEA) General Assembly and Mission Conference held April 16 to 18 at the Bible Bhavan here. The Oxford-educated missiologist is Director of the Mission Commission of the AEA. His presentation was titled The New Kingdom Landscape.
In 2000, Christianity accounted for 2.1 billion people worldwide. This comprises 33 per cent of the global population.
With these absolute figures, and the growth of the faith in continents like Africa and countries like China, it is easy to miss the fact that at the beginning of the 20th century, Christianity represented 34.5 per cent of the world's population.
"What we need to think is if we continue to do what we are doing today, at the end of the 21st century we will repeat the same mistake: the population growth might also be faster than church growth," said Dr. Budijanto.
"So the question is what can we do, how should we engineer our missions approach in such a way that this will not happen 88 years from now if the Lord has not come."
In a presentation which he first delivered at a missions conference held 2010 in Edinburgh, Dr. Budijanto tried to show a connection between the decline in church attendance in the United Kingdom and the changing nature and purpose of Sunday School.
Budijanto related the way in which the 18th century English philanthropist Robert Raikes attempted to transform British society by reaching out to the overworked children who vandalised the streets.
Raikes started the Sunday School movement, teaching children hygiene, reading, writing, ethics, citizenship, character building, all with the Bible as his text. He had unemployed women teach the children and paid them one pound every Sunday.
In the 1780s, churches adopted his model. Eighty-six per cent of children in the U.K. attended Sunday School within 26 years of the inception of the movement.
This was to change in 1830 when Christians delegated to the British Government responsibility for the needs of poor children, focusing only on their spiritual needs. In 1850, Sunday School changed from a holistic form of outreach to the community to a mere evangelistic instrument. With this, Sunday School attendance decreased from 86 to 50 per cent of children in the U.K. by 1900.
Another redefinition of Sunday School took place in 1950, when its ministry was confined to spiritual or Christian instruction within the church. If the decline in Sunday School attendance continues, it is estimated that only 1 per cent of children in the U.K. will attend church by 2016.
To rectify the problem, Dr. Budijanto feels that it is necessary for missions to be done at the level of the local church, to focus on making disciples of the next generation, and to engage the wider community. After all, the Great Commission, he explained during a question-and-answer session after his presentation, emphasises the making of disciples. Among the four verbs in the Matthew 28 passage, only that in 'make disciples' is imperative; 'go', 'baptising', and 'teaching' are participles.
Dr. Budijanto defined making disciples as bringing those "far from Christ, close to Christ, (to become) like Christ." In engaging that task, Christians become more like Christ.
"If you want to become more like Christ, you have to help others to become more like Christ," he said "As you help others to become more like Christ, you grow into Christ-likeness."
So, he said, if churches do not give their members of all ages to help others become more like Christ, they deny them the opportunity to grow into the likeness of Christ. Children are often denied such an opportunity, even in churches supposedly focused on the making of disciples.
However, research has shown that up to 85 per cent of Christian converts embrace their faith before they turn 18. A survey of thousands of U.K. Christians found that 70 per cent in deciding to receive Christ were most influenced by their peers.
This led Dr. Budijanto to describe children and teenagers as "the most powerful mission agencies, mission tools or missionaries."
The same survey showed that the most productive time for Christians in making disicples is the first three years of their Christian life. This is because after three years they enter into a Christian subculture.
"If you don't discipline yourself to disciple people from the beginning of your Christian journey, then after three years you would have lost touch with the world," said Dr. Budijanto. "Your language becomes different from the language of the world." An example of Christian lingo is 'praise God', which nonbelievers do not understand very well.
The Great Commission, he added, is not a burden. It is "actually a means for the Church's survival, because if we don't disciple we stop growing; when we stop growing, we fall." He was using an analogy in which he compared the Christian faith to riding a bicycle.
"You cannot stop; you stop you fall," he said. "You have to continue to move."
For this reason the Great Commission was not given merely to please Christ. "It is actually a gift from God for every Christian, for us to survive, because we can only survive when we grow and we can only grow when we help others to grow," said the missiologist.
The good news is that evangelicals are starting to see the importance of involving children in missions. A '4/14' movement, which seeks to empower children to become participants in missions, reaching and equipping them, is gaining steam in the Christian world.
Three global summits have been organised to date and is planning three more. The first two summits were held in New York in 2009 and 2010 and drew 367 from 60 countries and up to 700 participants respectively. A third was held in Singapore last year, and was attended by 1,000 participants from 93 countries.
This year, twelve regions will be holding summits. A South Asian summit will be held in Nepal in August. In Southeast Asia, an event will be held in Jakarta in October. Christians in North and Central Asia will conduct a summit in June in South Korea. A summit will also be held in the Middle East in October.
Individual countries have also planned 4/14 events. This includes Thailand, which will have an event in July, Bangladesh, and Mongolia, which will hold it in August.
There are plans to hold a fourth global summit in 2013 in South Korea. A fifth is being planned for Thailand. The sixth and final event is being scheduled to be held in Macau.
Beyond all this, a 4/14 missiological conference is being planned for February 26 to 28, 2013 at Hallelujah Community Church in South Korea. The aim is to gather 120 missiologists and mission practitioners from around the world to engage the prevailing missions approach in light of the new understanding of youth and children as players of mission.
Dr. Budijanto explained: "Basically the assumption is if the players change, should the game also change? If children and youth are part of the mission force, should we redefine mission and missionaries?"
Another movement which has gained momentum among evangelicals is the Asia Emerging Leaders Summit (AELS). During the summit, senior leaders take a week off their busy schedules to sit with younger leaders aged 40 and under, and talk and listen to, and pray with them. The aim is to build a community of courageous, emerging servant leaders.
When it started in 2007 in Bali, AELS gathered 36 young leaders from 19 countries in Asia. Today, 100 leaders from 23 Asian countries are involved in the movement.
A second summit was held in 2008 in Singapore with 60 participants from 18 countries. Prior to the event, participants in the first AELS were expected to mentor two other younger leaders in their own countries and bring their mentees to the second event.
That year marked the start of the event being held at a national level. The first such event was held in 2008 in Jakarta. Another was held in 2009 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
A third global summit was held in March 2009 in Chiang Mai with 81 young leaders from various Asian countries. Since then, the event multiplied in numerous countries in Asia. This includes Sri Lanka, Thailand, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Cambodia, Pakistan, India.
The fourth global summit was conducted in April 2011 in Genting, Malaysia with 69 emerging leaders from Asia, and ten from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.
Elder Dr. Lawrence Chia, Chairman of the Evangelical Fellowship of Singapore (EFOS), and Dr. Peter Chao, Founder-President of Eagles Communications, were among the 23 mentors and facilitators of the AELS. The global event was sponsored by the AEA, Compassion, Church Growth Mission Society, Fuller Theological Seminary, Eagles Communications, Transform World, INFEMIT and Integrenomics.
EFOS is an Executive Member of the AEA. Three representatives from the church association, two participants and one observer, were present at the AEA General Assembly and Mission Conference. A fourth Singaporean, Mr. Lawrence Ko, attended the meeting in his capacity as the Chairman of the Mission Commission of the AEA.
AELS events continue to multiply. Cambodia and India held their second events, Bangladesh its fourth, Pakistan its third. India will be holding three more events on a regional level.
Dr. Alexander Philip, the South Asian coordinator for the 4/14 movement who delivered a presentation on AELS, thanked the senior leaders for the vision that led to the event. According to him, through AELS "hundreds of younger leaders are feeling warmth and direction from our senior leaders."
There are plans to hold a fifth global summit "to call leaders from various nations who have done these events for a time of prayer and sharing of best practices and lessons so that we can look at what is the future of the AELS in Asia and also other nations in Asia and beyond."
The event is scheduled to be held January 21 to 25, 2013 in either Bangkok or Jakarta for a small group of 50 participants.
Evangelical leaders at the AEA General Assembly and Mission Conference also noted the rise of Christianity in Asia.
"It is my prediction that the 21st century is the century for Asia" in regard to the growth of Christianity, Dr. Budijanto expressed at the beginning of his presentation on the need for local churches to disciple the young and the wider community.
Earlier, the Reverend Dr. Sang-Bok David Kim, the Chairman of the AEA and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), highlighted that the majority of Asian churches are growing. Countries that have seen the rise of Christianity include China, which probably has the largest Christian population in Asia, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, and even Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Bhutan. Christianity is also growing in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Mongolia.
Twenty years ago, there were hardly any Christians in Mongolia, the Rev. Dr. Kim pointed out. At present, there are some 500 churches in the country. The AEA Chairman also compared the nascent Christianity in Nepal to the glorious earlier days of the Korean churches.
Along with numerical growth, Asian Christianity is seeing the rise of capable younger and women theologians. This was the observation of the Rev. Dr. Kim, who was previously Chairman of the Asia Theological Association. He gave the example of South Korea.
"We had less than ten PhDs in Korea when I started as a theological student... today Korea alone has more than 3,000 PhDs in Theology," said the 73-year-old Korean theologian.
Christianity's rise in Asia is also evident in its theological publications. One of them is Emerging Missions Movements: Voices of Asia, produced in 2010 by the AEA Mission Commission. Another is Living Faith produced in 2011 by the Evangelical Fellowship of India and representing the most recent missiological thinking in India.
The AEA General Assembly and Mission Conference also saw emphasis being placed on Christian unity for missions and the common good.
In opening the gathering, the Rev. Dr. Kim highlighted the reality of the spiritual unity of the Christian world. This is a gift of God the Holy Spirit and not an organisational achievement.
"Without us doing anything, when we came to the Lord Jesus Christ, we were baptised into the body of Christ and we became one whether we knew it or not," he said. Even before any attempt at organisational unity, there is a spiritual unity among Christians.
To him, Christian unity is "just a matter of recognition and admission that once we are in Christ, inseparably, eternally we are already one, and this recognition is much more important than trying to physically or organisationally unite churches and organisations into one, which is much more difficult than spiritual unity."
Just as the 'minimum requirement' for belonging in a family is receiving life from one's parents, the 'minimum requirement' for membership in the Kingdom of God is "receiving eternal life through the Lord Jesus Christ and being born again," he expressed.
Membership in God's Kingdom is not dependent on the size of the church or theological school or agency, stressed the Rev. Dr. Kim. As such evangelicals should be ready to give the 'benefit of doubt' to those serving in Christian ministry.
"Be more lenient, more perceptive, more accepting and appreciative of one another even though we may not be directly connected or we may not like some of the organisations," he said.
Such acceptance is also rooted in a theology of God's providence. Churches, agencies and ministries in all their diversity are part of the divine drama, in which each has a role to play and is a 'segment of the whole picture'.
"In spite of the fact that we don't all understand and see the whole picture, all those small pieces of puzzle are fitting together in the sight of the Lord," he said. "To God all the pieces which we don't even understand, they are part of the same puzzle."
Difficulties Christians face in their relationships with one another and idiosyncrasies may bring worry and frustration. "But we can still trust the Lord that He knows where He's going," said the Rev. Dr. Kim. "Each one of us play our game, our role; though it may not be directly related to one another, sometimes we seem to be in conflict with others, but in the sight of God... we are all part of His drama, and if we hold that perspective, we can be more tolerant toward each other, more cooperative toward one another, more trying to understand each other."
In his closing message, AEA General Secretary, the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell reminded participants that like the Holy Trinity, where the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit each have their particularity and yet indwell one another, each Christian has particularity, of culture and ethnicity and citizenship, and yet belong to one another in the body of Christ.
Christians, he said, ought to view others as being in relationship with rather than in competition to themselves. Like the Trinity, Christians should practice mutual glorification. The Rev. Dr. Howell warned against individualism and a humanistic view of Christian ministry and urged participants to remember that they had been called by God to serve Him in the context of a community.
Courtsey : Edmond Chua
For more information on the Asia Evangelical Alliance, go to: www.asiaevangelicals.org