In this episode of the Radically Christian Bible Study Podcast, Wes McAdams interviews Dan Bouchelle, president of Mission Resource Network, about gaining a global perspective on Christianity. Dan draws on his decades of experience preaching and working with churches worldwide to discuss problems facing the American church such as declining attendance, fear-based politics, and ethnocentrism.

Dan and Wes explore how Christians should think about what God is doing globally rather than just focusing on an American-centric view. They discuss biblical concepts related to God’s plan to bring together people from every nation into one multiethnic family in Christ. Looking at passages in Revelation and the teachings of Jesus and Paul, Wes and Dan highlight principles around ethnic inclusivity, contextualization of the gospel across cultures, and having the right restoration vision for the church.

With Dan’s extensive global ministry background, he provides a unique perspective on moving past an inward-focused vision to one that grasps the worldwide mission of God.

Links and Resources

Transcript (Credit: Beth Tabor)

WES: Welcome to the Radically Christian Bible Study podcast. I’m your host, Wes McAdams. Here we have one goal: Learn to love like Jesus. I want to start today by reading from Revelation 7:9‑10: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'”

Today I’m going to visit with Dan Bouchelle about the global church and having a global perspective of Christianity. Dan is the president of Mission Resource Network. He’s been the president there for 13 years. He was a preacher for 22 years. He’s preached and worked with churches on six continents and dozens of countries. I know I enjoyed this conversation. I know you will enjoy this conversation, and, as always, I hope that this helps all of us to love like Jesus. 

Dan Bouchelle, welcome to the podcast, Brother.

Dan: Oh, thanks. It’s an honor to be here. 

WES: So excited to have this conversation with you.

DAN: Great to be talking to you. Yeah, I’m quite honored that I’m included in your panoply of guests.

WES: Well, we’ve had some great conversations over the last few weeks, and I’m really excited to record it and let other people listen to your wisdom and your perspective, but before we get into a lot of the questions, let me just have you tell us about Mission Resource Network and your familiarity with the global church and some of your experience.

DAN: Yeah. Well, MRN, we’re in our 25th year, so this is an important Silver Anniversary year for us. We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we came into being, and we were created by a group of people who began to see that the lack of organization within Churches of Christ creates all kinds of problems and that there has to be some way that we can respect local church autonomy and still work together to do big, important things, and so we were created to help Churches of Christ do missions better around the world.

And so, you know, we talk about ourselves being ‑‑ our name almost is the backwards description of what we do. We are a network that resources the mission of God, and so our mission is to multiply healthy leaders to disciple unreached and underserved people groups around the world, and we do that by mobilizing a network of churches and workers to advance God’s mission in the areas of the world where he’s opening up today, training, coaching, networking leaders to be effective servants, whether they’re Americans who are expats who are moving to other parts of the world, or whether they’re indigenous leaders in their own country or region. We do transformational church‑leadership development, and then we do a lot of cross‑cultural missionary care, worker care. Sometimes that’s ‑‑ mostly, that’s for Americans who are overseas, but sometimes it’s also for indigenous workers. And so, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. We do a lot of work with churches, American churches, kind of help them understand what time it is, what God’s doing in the world, help them to find their calling, and then connect them to workers and ministries to advance the gospel in the open parts of the world. It’s a lot of fun.

WES: Yeah, well, that’s awesome. I so appreciate the work that you do and sharing your perspective with us. You mentioned the phrase “what God is doing in the world.” I was thinking that one of the phrases that I like to talk about a lot is that it was always God’s plan to bring together a multi‑ethnic, multilingual, multinational family and bring us all together in Jesus to reconcile the world in Christ, but for so many of us in the United States, that idea is theoretical, it’s theological.  It’s something, hopefully, we at least acknowledge, but you get to see it firsthand, and you get to see the multinational, multi‑ethnic family of God and see the ways that God is working in the world. And sometimes I think we get frustrated and discouraged and even very pessimistic about the future because we’re only focused on what’s happening in the American church.

You get to see some of the exciting stuff that’s happening around the world, so I’d love to start by just you sharing with us some of the exciting, encouraging things that are happening in the global church.

DAN: Yeah, it’s actually an incredibly great time to be alive and love Jesus. The church is doing better today than almost any time in history. It’s just that white, American, middle‑class people are looking at the plateauing and decline of their own congregations and acting like we’re the only thing that exists in the world. But there’s never been a time when the kingdom of God is growing faster than it is right now, except maybe the first three centuries, and even that is questionable. But over the last hundred years, the advance of the gospel around the world has just been phenomenal. I mean, you know, to today, 70% of the world’s Christians live outside of the old Christendom countries of the West, what we call the majority world church. 70% of the world’s Christians live there. And so we’ve talked about the opening up of the Global South, so if you think about south of the equator ‑‑ so everything that is below the Mediterranean, everything that is south of the United States. And then if you draw a line, you know, below Russia and with Asia down below, the growth of the church in the Global South is just phenomenal. And we could spend a lot of time talking about how, you know, in the last hundred years, Africa’s gone from less than 10% Christian to half Christian in terms of commitment to Jesus, or the growth of the church in China, from 1950 to 3 million, to, today, upwards of 120 to 180 million. So there are more people following Jesus, worshiping Jesus as the Son of God today in China than there is in all of Europe, very likely than are meeting in churches in the United States. So 10% of China is now following Jesus in some form, and so there’s never been a time in the history of the world where Christianity has grown with the rapidity that it has.

And just in the last 20 years, the opening up of the Muslim world for the first time in 1,400 years ‑‑ I mean, there’s virtually no movement to Christ among the Muslim world from 610 until about 20 years ago, and then we just had this rapid explosion. So more Muslims have come to Christ in the last 15 to 20 years than 1,400 years previously, combined. And we’re seeing openings to Jesus in Southern Asia, the Hindu and Buddhist world, like we haven’t seen before, too. Not quite to the level that we’re seeing with the Muslim world, but ‑‑ no, it’s an absolutely great time to be alive and love Jesus, and if we would get our eyes up ‑‑ even in the United States, among immigrant peoples and among people of color, the church is actually doing quite well. It’s only in kind of the post‑Christian, nihilistic, indulged, privileged, white Western cultures that the gospel is really kind of struggling, and so…

Now, the global church ‑‑ I said they have 70% of the world’s Christians, but that 70% only has 17% of the church’s annual income, and that’s not wealth; that’s income. And so we have a real vital role to play, but it’s certainly not the role that we have thought. We are not the headquarters or even the strength of the Kingdom of God. We certainly have the financial resources, the institutional resources, but the human resources, the spiritual resources, the creativity, the passion, that’s outside of the West. And so we really are going to have to rethink about our role in the global Kingdom of God and humble ourselves to become learners instead of assume that we are somehow the old colonial masters or experts in kingdom matters. 

So yeah, I love getting to spend time in those spaces and come back and share with the American church. And I’ve got this sermon I do called “What in the World is God Doing?” where I just talk about all of these things, and it’s amazing how many people come back after a service and say, “Thank you. I had no idea. I thought everything was falling apart.” Turns out God knows what he’s doing and he’s on the march.” And so, yeah, I love getting to work in this space.

WES: That’s awesome. You’ve already touched on this, but when you do share those kinds of perspectives with people about what’s going on in the world and people start to develop a global perspective, what shifts do you see in American Christians’ minds when they understand the church through that global perspective versus sort of an American‑centric way of thinking about things?

DAN: Well, there are a lot of things. One, I think it causes us to become more worshipful and to spend less time poking around strategy and more time around worship and listening and learning and humility, because I think we have this old idea that goes back to the colonial era of the white men’s burden to save the world. Well, that’s incredibly presumptuous. It’s arrogant. It’s also racist, you know, that somehow, instead of God being the one who saves the world, God who goes out before us on mission, that he is, you know, the Lord of the harvest and we are mere field hands who are out here working with him, we kind of felt like, no, it’s our responsibility to save the world, and in the process of doing so, we really exported a lot of our culture, and there was a whole lot of superiority mentality that was coming along with that. 

And when we can reposition ourselves and say, “You know what? We don’t have to fix everything. It’s not all up to us. We need to engage. We need to engage as learners and listeners,” it’s just a whole lot more fun and it’s a whole lot less pressure. We don’t have to figure it all out. We just have to engage and follow what God is doing, and so the sense of dread and fear and responsibility goes away, and you find yourselves moving into serendipity and discovery and experimentation, which is really wonderful. And instead of being stuck in a decline narrative, we are now in a growth narrative, and that’s a lot more fun. 

But a lot of it, too, is it changes the way that we perceive the immigrants in our midst and the foreigners in our midst. Instead of seeing them as threats, we see them as access points to the global church. So our son does evangelism and church planting with immigrant populations in New York City. He lives in the Bronx. And 43% of the people in New York City are foreign‑born, and they are reaching people for Jesus in this dense urban environment of incredible international diversity, and those people are taking the gospel back to their home country. And so one of the things that we do when we talk with churches is say, look who all God has brought into your neighborhood. Look at the global diversity. You can look at those people as political threats to your culture or to your nation, and I can understand how sometimes it feels that way, but God has brought the diverse people groups of the world to our country. There are people who are from unreached people groups in inaccessible places who are living in your city and that you can reach. You’ve got people from Pakistan; you’ve got people from Afghanistan; you’ve got people from Vietnam; you’ve got people from Laos, Cambodia. You’ve got people from all of these countries that are less than 1% Christian, and they’re all around us all the time, and it’s like, well, what if we actually love those people? Most of those people have never been in the home of anybody born in the United States. They think we hate them, we don’t want them here. If we saw them as people made in the image of God, we love them, we welcome them, we got to know them, we earn their trust enough to share what we believe by talking to them about what they believe, these people can become followers of Jesus. And then they typically are supporting 15 people in their home country, and that gives them high status, gives them high influence, and they can be the ones who introduce people to Jesus back in their home country. 

So when I see somebody who is not from here, I see somebody who is a potential pathway back into a country for the gospel, and it completely changes the way that I see what’s going on around me, and instead of being stuck in a fear‑based, nationalistic narrative, I’m looking at the world through a global lens of how can God use the diversity that’s around me to be an instrument for kingdom expansion all around the world and demonstrate that the kingdom is bigger than all of the political forces that divide us. And, you know, some say, well, those people are our enemy. Well, it’s a good thing Jesus taught us to love our enemies, you know, and to bless those that hate us. And so, yeah, I think it’s an incredibly wonderful thing to say, hey, the world is here, and for the first time in history, we don’t have to go to every part of the world to reach all over the world because all the world is here. 

I mean, think about the huge, three major forces that are transforming the world right now. Think about urbanization. For the first time in human history, in 2005, over half the human population moved to the city. By 2050, that’s going to be 70%. So the world is urbanizing, and then the world is moving. So we’ve got immigration that’s happening all over the world; that’s not just the United States. So you’ve got one out of seven human beings right now is an immigrant. They are not living in their home country. You’ve got like 270 million people are on the move. You’ve got all of these people who are moving from all over the world to everywhere else in the world, and no matter where you go in the world, you see incredible diversity. So you’ve got urbanization, you’ve got immigration, and then you’ve got global technological connection. We can talk to people via technology almost everywhere in the world, which means that we have the ability, for the first time in human history, Wes, to reach every people group in the world, in our cities, through technology, in one generation. It’s just an incredible opportunity. And when you see that, it just changes the way that you see everything. Things that once looked like threats now look like opportunities. And so, yeah, it’s a whole lot of fun.

WES: I love how you frame it as a whole lot of fun, and it is. I wish people could see what you and I get to see. Last night was Wednesday and we had Bible class here at the building, and one of the things we do here at McDermott Road on Wednesday nights is we have FriendSpeak classes with people ‑‑

DAN: That’s awesome.

WES: ‑‑ that English is a second language. And so as I looked around last night, I saw so many people from China. I met a couple that has ‑‑ they’ve only been in the States for about five weeks now. I met another lady from Russia. So I’m just surrounded by people that ‑‑ I don’t know their religious background. I don’t know if they have any affinity towards Jesus yet, but they’re getting to see the love of Christ, they’re getting to hear scripture, and they’re making relationships with Christian people that they know love them. And like you said, what a tremendous opportunity.

Collin County ‑‑ when I first moved here to Plano, I was shocked by ‑‑ you know, I was thinking we’re in the middle of Texas. You would think that if there was another language ‑‑ you know, restaurants and stores, banks with another language printed on the signs, it would probably be Spanish, but I was shocked how many signs were in ‑‑ whether it be Indian languages or Chinese languages, so many Asian languages, and so we are surrounded by, as you said, this global diversity. God is bringing the nations to our door, and if we’re not concerned ‑‑ if we’re not nearly as concerned with preserving whatever sort of nationalistic identity or nationalistic ideals that we have traditionally been concerned with, and we’re more concerned with telling the world about Jesus and God reconciling the world, not only to himself through Jesus, but reconciling us to one another, it’s just an amazing thing to watch. 

One of our elders last night was speaking to this Chinese couple in the little bit of Chinese that he’s learned already, and here they’re trying to learn English and he’s trying to learn Chinese in order to express his love and care for them. It’s just such a beautiful thing. And there’s so many wonderful things going on, as you said, not only on the other side of the world, but right here, as God brings the world to us.

DAN: Yeah, there’s no question. That incredible. I’m so happy to hear that you’re doing FriendSpeak, and I want to give a shout out to Let’s Start Talking to any church that’s like, well, how would we do that? There’s a turnkey program: Let’s Start Talking. We’ll come in and we’ll train your people how to do that. And you can begin to connect with people around you who want to improve their English, and you can use the Bible as the text for having conversations with them in English, and it just creates an interest in the Bible and a lot of spiritual conversations, and it’s a phenomenal ministry and it does change the way people see things because all it takes is one relationship with people from another country to completely change the way you see that country, because now they’re not a stereotype from a news program. They’re a person made in the image of God, and you see that they have all the same needs and hurts and challenges and fears and joys and loves that you do, but they may not know Jesus, who gives life meaning and who gives us hope, and so that’s really phenomenal. 

But you’re right. I mean, just to give you some stats, about 5 million people in Texas are foreign‑born. That’s one in six. 25% of Dallas residents are foreign‑born. 46% of people in Houston speak a language other than English at home. One in four Texans is either Latino or Asian. Over a quarter of the people in Texas speak a language other than English at home. And you can say, “Well, I don’t like that.” Well, God brought them here.

What are we gonna do? You know, you think God was surprised that they’re here? “Oh, I didn’t see that coming,” you know? I mean, so they’re here. How do we love on these people in the name of Jesus and welcome them? And how do our churches demonstrate that our story is a whole lot bigger story than a national narrative? This is an international narrative that goes all the way back to Abraham and his calling to be a blessing to all nations and ends in a city where the kings of the earth bring the treasures of their nation into the New Jerusalem to be celebrated and be put on display in the menagerie of God’s creative goodness at the end of time. And so getting to lean into that now, and the fact that you’re doing that with your church, that’s just awesome.

WES: Yeah, it’s wonderful to see. It was one of the things that I appreciated the most when I came here to McDermott Road. 

You know, one of the things I want to explore for just a second is the idea of fear and how I think that it’s really easy to slip into that rut of fear, probably, at least in part, because ‑‑ it’s always been there, but we have this 24‑hour news cycle. We have social media that is constantly feeding the fear, that there are many people making money off of keeping us afraid. 

DAN: Oh, no joke.

WES: And I hear Christians say all the time ‑‑ and it just bothers me to no end. I hear Christians ‑‑ I forget whoever quoted this ‑‑ whoever said this quote in the beginning, but the idea that all it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. First, I would never encourage anyone to do nothing. But secondly, evil doesn’t triumph. We know how the story ends. Evil is not going to triumph.  

DAN: That’s right.

WES: And so there is this fear that if the right people don’t get elected, if we don’t have the right president or we don’t have the right Supreme Court or we don’t have the right Congress, if we don’t do enough to promote whatever partisan politics we want to promote, then somehow evil is going to triumph in the world. And I want to look at people and say, what Good News do you believe? Do you believe the Good News? The Good News is that evil has already lost.  

DAN: That’s right.

WES: We are on the side, not only of an inclining church, but we know how the story ends. And so I think that that global perspective not only helps us to realize how fun and wonderful and good things are and what God is doing in the world, but how the story ends, and that we’re victorious and we don’t have to be afraid of whether or not we have the, quote‑unquote, “right person” in the White House.

DAN: That’s right. Yeah, if you think about the language of “Good News” and the story and the political implications of the gospel in the Roman Empire in Jesus’ day ‑‑ I mean, the language of Good News, euangelion, was first used by Caesar to say, “Good News, the Son of God ‑‑ Caesar is the Son of God, and he has brought peace to the world,” but he’s brought peace through a sword, through oppression, through dominance, by killing all of his enemies, right? And we have the audacity, in the backwater of the empire, for some peasant who ‑‑ you know, who was born in a barn and killed on a cross, to say, “No, here’s the really Good News: The true Lord and master of the universe was crucified and raised from the dead, and he’s the real Son of God, and he is the one who’s bringing peace to the world,” and that seemed like such a ludicrous message. And all of the smart money would have been on Caesar and Rome for a few hundred years, and yet that faith triumphed and brought down a massive empire, and now we’re going to put our faith in politics? We’re going to put our faith in some type of political system? When have we ever seen any nation’s politics really care about anything other than its own power? 

You know, and talk about the news media ‑‑ you’re right. The news media is a for‑profit industry that uses fear to sell advertising. It’s not a public service; it’s a for‑profit industry. And the way the human brain is wired, we pay more attention to threats than we do to opportunities because that’s how you survive in the jungle. That’s how you survive on the savanna. And so fear triggers way more attention, and fear will shut your brain down because fear causes your brain to overload its reasoning capacity and to move into fight, flight, or flee. So fear makes people stupid and fear sells advertising, and so we’ve got a whole news industry that knows how our brains are wired and are manipulating us to keep clicking, keep paying attention to make money for them when all that does is make us stupid. It causes us to not see what God is doing in the world, and instead of seeing people, we see threats. Instead of seeing potential, we see threats. 

And that’s really sad because it takes the rational part of the brain in order for us to live into our faith, which is why Jesus was constantly saying, “Don’t be afraid; just have faith.” Or why, throughout the Bible, you have this constant refrain, “Don’t be afraid; just have faith,” because fear will lead you to move away from what God is doing, and faith will cause you to embrace things that you probably would not even consider on your own, but that’s where all the gold is, that’s where all the good stuff is. And you said that so, so well.

WES: Well, I appreciate you bringing that perspective. Let’s kind of switch gears just a little bit. It’s something you’ve already touched on, and that’s the idea of what we might call ethnocentrism or ethnic superiority. You know, we often talk about racism, and that tends to be about physical features, but in the first century, the idea was very much along cultural lines: the language that people spoke, the ethnic background from which they came, the culture that they had. Even in the Jerusalem church, you had widows from a Greek background, Greek‑speaking widows, and you had Hebrew or Aramaic‑speaking widows, and you saw some ethnic superiority, ethnocentrism there, and widows who were being overlooked. And then, of course, so much of what Paul writes is about that tension between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians and bringing them together and not discriminating against one another or rejecting each other or overlooking each other. How do you see that still being an issue we’re dealing with today in the church, and what can we learn from scripture about this issue?

DAN: Well, this is really complex, but I want to begin by saying that superiority narratives are not monopolized by white, Western European‑based countries. Superiority narratives are pretty much natural to every people group, and if you study anthropology, almost every people group, in their language, doesn’t have a word for their own people. We’re just the people. It’s the other nations, it’s the other tribes, it’s the other ethnic groups that we have a word for them and we describe them. We’re the people, and they’re the others, right? And so the tendency is to think that we’re normal and everybody else is weird, dangerous, or inferior. That’s just fallen human nature, and so superiority narratives reside everywhere. And you can go to almost any culture, almost any part of the world and find groups of people who have achieved dominance, and they have a superiority narrative and they mistreat everybody else and they try to impose their culture on them. So that’s not unique to European nations. It’s not unique to white people.

We could talk about that a lot, and I don’t want to call names and single out certain nations, but it would be very, very easy to talk about the superiority narrative, but certainly the Jews had a superiority narrative, and the biggest fight in the early church was really about whether we’re going to make these people culturally become Jewish. And if you think about it, when Peter went to Cornelius’ house and preached to a Gentile for the first time, it was a huge thing for him to cross over, but when he came back and he had to report on what he did, what bothered them wasn’t so much that he baptized them, but that he ate with them. “You ate with those people.” You know, it’s fine for them to follow Jesus and become baptized, but we can’t have them joining our group. We can’t have that level of fellowship.  We’re different, we’re better. If they’re gonna be part of us, they’re gonna have to accept our culture. And the early church had a big conversation around this in Acts 15, and they said, you know what? The gospel is not a cultural‑dominance narrative. It’s open to all cultures, and we’re not gonna impose Jewish culture on all nations. That’s gonna get in the way of the gospel, and the gospel is designed to unite all cultures. 

Well, that is hard for people everywhere to get. And so, you know, churches that are spread by Korean missionaries, who have a lot of people all over the world, they tend to want to turn all of their converts into Korean‑style Christians, right? And Americans who have sent the gospel over, we have tended to confuse culture and gospel and we have imposed an English‑dominant, Western European‑dominant way of thinking and doing church, and we don’t even realize we’ve done it because our culture and our church have been so intertwined, we can’t separate them and we end up subverting the impact of the gospel while requiring that they become like us culturally and not giving people encouragement and permission to read the Bible through their own cultural lenses and asking them, “How would you obey that in your context,” you know? 

And there are a lot of illustrations of that, but, for example, if you read a book written by a theologian who’s white and he’s from Europe or America, it’s just called theology; but if it’s written by a Black theologian, it’s Black theology. Now, wait a minute. That makes no sense, you know? And so we tend to want to impose our culture along with our gospel, and that’s created a lot of problems all over the world, and we don’t even realize the ethnic superiority that goes with that. We don’t even realize the imbalance of power that goes with that. 

And then you add the economic power and the military power that comes as Americans. You have privilege everywhere you go, as a white American, anywhere in the world. And unless you travel with and work with people from other cultures, you may not see it. But I was recently in Ghana with five African‑American preachers as part of a ministry we call Atlantic Bridge, and I noticed, everywhere we went, I’m the only white guy in the room, and all the Ghanaians are talking to me ‑‑ I mean, are looking at me when they talk. They’re not looking at these other guys; they’re looking at me. When we stayed at a hotel, they wanted to put me in a different part of the hotel than they did the African‑Americans. I’m white; I continually was put in a position where I was shown greater privilege and honor. And you would think, in Africa, you would not have that kind of ethnic difference, but you don’t even have to ask for it. It’s just built in, and that’s a product of a lot of history. 

Well, the gospel subverts that and said, hey, Jesus calls us to lay down our privilege, to lay down our honor, and to be a servant. We’re not to use titles, we’re not to get at the head of the table. We’re to move to the foot of the table. We’re to say, at the end of the day, no matter what we’ve done, I’m just an unworthy servant. And so shedding power and giving away privilege and exalting and lifting up others is the most gospel thing that we can do. And so imposing the gospel in Western form on other cultures just makes no sense at all, and it’s creating a whole lot of problems. 

And to give you an illustration, I was in South Africa over a decade ago at a big international missions conference, or they call it the South African International Lectures, and there were probably 3,000 to 5,000 people from seven or eight Southern African countries. And during the breakout times and during the breaks, you would see people get together and they would be singing songs in their own language. They would be moving along with those songs in ways which are very typical for Africans, and there was just a joyousness and a vitality about that that was really, really compelling. Then we would go into the formal worship times for the plenary sessions and everybody would stand perfectly still and sing songs in English, written in either England or North America, and they would act like they were in a white American church from 1967 or something, you know? And it’s like, wow, that is just so strange. They code‑switch their culture when they go into worship. 

Or when I was in Ghana earlier this summer, for a Tuesday night Bible study and worship time, these college students at Cape Coast came in by the hundreds and they sang very formal, Western‑style songs in English, and then afterwards, when it was over, they sang their own songs and they were moving and dancing and they were themselves, you know? It was like, where does that come from, this idea that we have to be afraid of our bodies, we have to stand perfectly still and that we have to sing in a certain kind of formal way in four‑part harmony? Well, that’s the imposition of culture. 

Well, that makes the gospel less relevant in their context. And increasingly, in Africa, as well as a lot of parts of the world, you’ve got a younger generation of people who are more educated than they have been in the past. They don’t really admire the West. They feel a lot of discomfort and frustration with the West. They want to be themselves. They want to live into their culture. And if they have to go to a church that feels like it’s an expression of Western imperialism, they’re turning away from that. And so if churches around the world don’t have the freedom to contextualize their faith in ways that make sense in their culture, they’re gonna really lose the ability to reach another generation. And often we, in the United States, don’t realize that we are reinforcing the idea of Western superiority by expecting that all churches that we support or partner with do things exactly like us, look like us, organize like us, express themselves like us, or we’ll cut their funding or we’ll break off from them. We’re actually causing them to be less effective because we’re imposing our cultural norms. And if we humble ourselves and say, well, actually, they’re doing better than we are; maybe we should learn from them and stop assuming that we’re the experts in what we’re doing and come in as learners again, it would free everybody up to be in a lot better position.

WES: Yeah. You know, it’s funny you used the phrase, “do things like us,” and then I was contrasting that in my mind with what Paul says in I Corinthians 9 about the way that he did mission work, and that is that he became like others, that he did things their way. He became ‑‑ even though he wasn’t under the law, he became as one who was under the law to reach the Jews. To those that were outside of the law, he became as one outside of the law. And so he adjusted the way that he did things, the way that he interacted. And I can’t imagine how difficult and challenging that was, especially for a Jewish person, because their culture literally was handed down to them from God. Like we believe that they received many of these cultural mandates from God: the things that they ate, the things that they didn’t eat, the clothes that they wore, the way that they did life. It wasn’t just a matter of preference; this was by divine mandate, and then, all of a sudden, they’re supposed to switch gears and eat food with people that have pork stuck between their teeth. I can’t imagine how difficult that would be for these people, to say, this isn’t just my preference; this is what God told us to do. 

And so you have passages like Romans 14, and Paul says, listen, I get it. If your conscience and what you’ve studied, the conclusions you’ve come to, they’ve led you to believe that you should keep these holidays or you should eat this food or you shouldn’t do this, then fine, but welcome your brothers and sisters in spite of the fact that they don’t have the same convictions that you do. And we have so much to learn from that, that our culture is not by divine mandate; it’s just the way we like doing things.  

DAN: That’s right.

WES: And of course we like doing it that way. Everyone likes ‑‑ they like their culture. I love my culture and I would struggle to do things differently, but for the sake of our brothers and sisters and for the sake of the lost, we have to learn to adapt. We have to, as you said, learn to lay down our privileges and our rights and our preferences and be willing to do things as others do them for the sake of reaching them with the gospel.

DAN: No, that’s absolutely right. That’s an excellent point that you make there, and I like the way you articulate that. And the Jewish culture served a purpose for a period of time, and the gospel didn’t mean that Jews had to stop being Jews. They didn’t have to stop being Jews. They didn’t have to give up eating kosher. They didn’t have to give up Sabbath. They didn’t have to give up anything, right? And Paul, when he comes back after his third missionary journey, he still goes through Jewish rituals, and he goes into the temple and he demonstrates he’s still an Orthodox Jew. The fact that he is preaching to Gentiles and he’s causing them to follow Jesus within their cultural framework and he’s not imposing Jewish customs on them doesn’t mean that Paul has renounced his Judaism. Quite the contrary, right? 

But that doesn’t make you superior. You still need to be the people that God called you to be. That’s not gonna save you. That’s not what your salvation is, but that’s still your cultural heritage. And I don’t need to become any less white or European background in order to love and serve other people, but I can’t impose my culture on other people. It’s not about somehow that we hate our culture and we stomp on our culture and we dismiss our culture. I mean, every culture has things that we have to own that are bad and evil and part of our heritage, but not imposing our culture on other people because Jesus transcends culture. But that is so hard for us because we want to wrap those things together. Especially if our culture has had a Christian presence or influence for a long period of time, we tend to really confuse those things, and certainly, the Jews of Jesus’ day confused their culture with God, and what really got them upset was the idea that God would accept Gentiles on equal terms with us. That’s when they wanted to kill Paul. It wasn’t when ‑‑ it’s when he said, “God sent me to be the apostle to the Gentiles,” that’s when they pick up stones and sticks and they come after him. 

The idea that we’re not better, that our culture, you know, may be formed by God in many ways but that doesn’t make us superior and we don’t get to impose it on other people ‑‑ yeah, that is really, really threatening. But if we don’t surrender that, we’re going to impede the development of the global church and trap them in our flaws and limit their impact. And because of the disproportionate money and influence and institutions we have, we throw a lot of weight around and we don’t even know it, and we make requirements on churches that we partner with in other parts of the world to be like us in ways that make them less effective. 

And, you know, in our heritage, we’ve believed in the importance of the autonomy of the local church, right? That we don’t have denominational structures, we don’t have regional bishops and archbishops and things, but that every church is responsible directly to God and communicates in the priesthood of all believers, and yet I can tell you of countries where, if somebody starts to clap or move or do something, somebody from America will go over and shut that thing down or cut their money off because that violates a cultural value that we have. And what happened to congregational autonomy? What about trusting local churches to read the Bible in their context and be answerable to the Lord? If we lived into our value of local autonomy and trusted that Jesus is directly Lord of other cultures and that churches are responsible to obey him and not obey us, that allows for a tremendous amount of contextualization and creativity and diversity in the world as we try to figure out how do we obey these commands of Jesus in our context.  It may not mean sitting in rows; it may not mean passing the Lord’s Supper in individual cups; it may not mean

that we meet at 10 o’clock in the morning; it may not mean that we do one‑hour worship services; it may not mean that we build separate baptistries; it may not mean all other kinds of things. The question is, how do we give ‑‑ how do we empower people that we partner with? You need to wrestle with how you obey scriptures in your context and don’t just copy our Western ways because the Bible’s not a Western book. It didn’t start here. We came to this party late, so why would we be imposing our culture, which isn’t God‑given like the Jews’ was, on people who weren’t Western, much less Jewish?

WES: Well, and that really gets to the heart of what we’ve been trying to do in Churches of Christ for the last couple hundred years, is the idea of restoring New Testament Christianity. And I like that idea, if we’re talking about actually getting back to what is the heart of the gospel message, what is it that Jesus is accomplishing, what is the kingdom of God all about, and how do we restore that in our local context? So, I mean, talk about that for just a second, if you would, Dan. The idea ‑‑ do you think that ethnic diversity should be a part of the restoration vision and mission of the church?

DAN: It has to be. It has to be. I mean, the gospel was designed to unite all people. You know, there’s this beautiful prayer of Jesus in John 17:22‑23, where he prays for those who would believe on the apostles’ missions, that they would all be one, that the world would believe that you have sent me, right? What has created the greatest division in the world? We tend to focus on denominationalism. We say, well, the division of the church into denominations is a terrible thing. Well, maybe it is, and I wouldn’t argue with that, but it is the racial/national tensions that cause the world not to believe. You want to ask why is it that Gen Z are walking away from church? It has a lot to do with the fact that white people go to church over here and black people go to church over here and Latino people go to church over here, and we can’t get it together. And our inability to demonstrate that the gospel is bigger than racial, cultural, and national divides discredits the gospel far more than denominational divisions. It’s not about Catholics, Protestants, various denominations, but that’s there. But it is that division, that we cannot demonstrate Jesus is bigger than all these things that divide us. 

And so if we want to restore New Testament Christianity, we have to restore the fact that there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave or free, no male or female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. I mean, think about how the Bible ends, the glorious summation of it all, where you have the New Jerusalem coming down, and then you have the kings of the earth who bring the treasures of their nations into the New Jerusalem, which means that the nations are still represented. And it’s not nation states, as, you know, you’ve talked about before on this podcast. That refers to the ethnic groups around the world, the people groups, the distinct cultures. They’re still present. Those cultures matter, and every people group needs to be represented. Every culture needs to be represented. By God’s common grace, every culture has the capacity to create beautiful things only because God created us in his image to create beautiful things, and God wants to save all the good stuff from every culture.  

But you also have the Tree of Life, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. So every nation has glories and beauties to be preserved, but they also have wounds and brokenness that needs to be healed, and they’re all put together in this beautiful, complex menagerie of God’s created beauty

to be preserved throughout all eternity. The gospel is the original United Nations. We are the people who bring peace to the world. We preach peace to those of you who are near and peace to those who are far off. We’re all one in Christ Jesus. If what we’re preaching doesn’t lead to that, we have a real problem. And so a restoration gospel is not just about where you go when you die; it’s about how you deal with people that are around you in your world. 

And if we really cared about being restoration people, we would have to really rethink our whole models of church, because the early church didn’t have buildings; they didn’t have organizational structures; they weren’t institutions. It was an underground people movement. And the restoration leaders, you know, Campbell and Stone and those others, didn’t really go back far enough. They really did more to restore a fourth‑century Christianity, where the church was officially established institutions with building and property and gatherings that were more of an official public nature than an underground, persecuted, people‑movement church. The early church looked more like the underground church in China than it does what we think of Western Christianity. It looks more like the underground church in Iran than it does Western Christianity in our institutions. 

And if we were to recover that real restoration impulse, we wouldn’t be trying to build ever larger institutions that demonstrate our success and make us feel good. We would be trying to multiply the gospel into every neighborhood, in every community in every imaginable way, because it’s about the kingdom of God getting into every neighborhood. It’s not about getting lost people in our church; it’s about getting Christ in lost people in all of the ways that that can happen. And so we’ve got to get out of this institutional Western mindset and be thinking about what our mission is and how do we get the gospel into that neighborhood and that neighborhood and that neighborhood, which is something we could learn from the global church. And like I told you, we took these African‑American preachers to Ghana in June; took some earlier. That’s one of the things that they commented on was, wow, the Ghanaians are not trying to build ever bigger churches. They get to a certain size and then they send off a group of people that plant a church in that neighborhood. And then they send off their people to plant a church in that neighborhood because they want everybody to be within walking distance of a church. They keep sending their people off to plant new churches and plant new churches and plant new churches, and they meet in all different kinds of places and ways because it’s not about big institutions; it’s about more and more people who know and follow Jesus. Now, that’s a restoration vision that I can get excited about, and it just changes the way we think, that it’s an outward impulse and not an inward impulse. It’s not about increasing market share in big institutions; it’s about getting the gospel infected in every people group around the world with a virus that heals instead of destroys.

WES: Amen. Well, Dan, thank you for this conversation, but, more importantly, thank you for your work in the kingdom, Brother. I so appreciate what you do.

DAN: Well, thank you. I’m just so honored to be invited to the table. I appreciate you creating this platform for these kinds of conversations. It’s not easy, it’s a lot of work, so thank you for doing that. Thank you for giving me a chance to share some of the things that the Lord’s teaching me.

WES: Thanks, Brother.

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