A Work of the Holy Spirit

"Emmanuel" in Chinese, painted on the doors of a church in China.

"Emmanuel" in Chinese, painted on the doors of a church in China.

by Rob Weingartner

As I travel across the United States and share stories about the breathtaking growth of the church around the world, I am often asked the same question: “Why is the church growing in so many other places but not here?”

Several summers ago, I posed the first part of that question to a group of Presbyterian leaders in the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesu (mekane Yesu means “house of Jesus”). When the Presbyterians joined with other believers in the EECMY back in the 1970’s, the denomination had one million members. Today, the denomination has over 7 million and continues to grow by leaps and bounds.

The synod leaders pointed to ten reasons for their growth, explanations that can be useful for us as we think about being faithful in God’s mission:

1.    It is a work of the Holy Spirit!
2.    People say to us, “Because you are poor, you pray a lot.”
3.    There is strong involvement of youth in the life and mission of the church. When youth are equipped for ministry, they can easily reach their friends.
4.    Many church members participate in our ministries.
5.    We have suffered much persecution. Without it, we would have been more careless.
6.    We hold to our motto of holistic service: evangelism, education and health.
7.    People see the power of God, the power of healing, and changed lives.
8.    Our people like to worship. It is a part of our culture.
9.    Church is a freeing place where people can honestly express thoughts and feelings that they cannot express in another place.
10.    The church engages people in development activities that help them to make practical changes that improve their lives.

In my experience, the growing global church often demonstrates these characteristics, each an expression of the biblical truth that we are called to be Christ’s witnesses. Our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world believe that there is only one thing to do with good news and that is to share it! 

What one believes does matter, and our openness to change makes a difference. Luis Bush writes that as we look across the world today, the churches that are most rapidly declining, numerically, tend to be those who are flexible in their theological convictions but rigid in their methodologies and relatively closed to innovation with regard to ministry and mission structures, worship practices, etc.

What we rely upon also matters. Too often, we trust in ourselves, in our wealth and our technology. This is very different than the context in which new Christian communities are arising around the world. Paul Pierson describes them this way, “Often they are born in situations of poverty, persecution, and corruption in which the Gospel is heard as incredible Good News, a word of hope and meaning to people who have lacked both. And usually they grow in contexts where the world-view is much more similar to that of the Bible than that of the post-enlightenment West. That is, they take seriously the powerful work of God today and the victory of Jesus Christ over evil and death.”

These days there is much talk in Presbyterian churches about being “missional.” There is so much talk about it that I find myself remembering Stephen Neill’s caveat that if everything is mission, then nothing is mission.

But what I see in the growing global church, in places like Ethiopia, China and Cuba, is a church that is truly missional, communities of God’s people who define themselves and organize their lives around their real purpose of being agents of God’s mission in the world.  As Jesus said, they are his witnesses “in Jerusalem and all Judea, in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

May God grant to us eyes to see anew what he is doing in the world, lives that are open to the power of his Spirit, humble hearts to learn from our brothers and sisters in other cultures, hands and feet that are ready to join in Kingdom work and lips that speak good words for Jesus.

Rob Weingartner
Executive Director
The Outreach Foundation