by Jim Reapsome
I’ve classified the world’s hostility to the gospel four ways: ideological, religious, social, and political.
That the enemies of God’s kingdom are on the attack should not surprise us. Much as we might like to be at ease in Zion, that is not an option. Jesus told his disciples, "The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God" (John 16:2).
The apostles plainly taught that opposition, persecution, and suffering are part and parcel of one’s identification with Jesus Christ. Therefore, as we conclude this series on obstacles to world evangelization, we must review how this opposition is demonstrated today.
I’ve classified the world’s hostility to the gospel four ways: ideological, religious, social, and political.
In its short history, Marxism has suppressed, subverted, hindered, and persecuted the church. As an ideology, Marxism is deliberately and scientifically anti-God, anti-Christ, and anti-church. Marxism does not hide its antipathy toward religion.
Its hostility goes far beyond locking up prisoners of conscience. Marxism competes with the gospel for human loyalty, because it addresses keenly felt human needs and announces that it has the answer. On the one hand, Marxist dictatorships have smashed churches, while at the same time offering hope to the oppressed, a share of the wealth to the poor, and land to the dispossessed and exploited. That is powerful competition to Jesus Christ.
For a world that has no leanings toward God in the first place, Marxism says it all. It offers all that religion offers and much more. In less than one century Marxism has captivated and captured two-thirds of the world. It has also captured the ideals of many Western students and thinkers. It has infiltrated churches and religious organizations, so that people can now call themselves Christian Marxists. It provides much of the theoretical underpinning for liberation theology.
As an obstacle to world evangelization, Marxism has close competitors on the ideological front. Many would say that secular humanism is an equal foe. Why? Because in competing for the world’s allegiance it offers solutions for human problems apart from divine intervention. Just give us enough time and money, secularists say, and we’ll find the solution.
Serious challenges to world evangelization are mounted by such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, and psychology. What is man? What is man’s purpose and destiny? These fundamental questions are answered one way in Scripture, but in a totally different way by secular humanists.
The gospel offers personal fellowship between God and man, which gives meaning to life. However, in a man-centered world view, there is no need for divine intervention, either in creation or redemption. The gospel of grace is irrelevant.
When looking for roadblocks to winning the world for Christ, materialism as an ideology looms large. The good life militates against world evangelization just as much as the restrictions of controlled societies. World missions would be in dire straits without material abundance to pay the costs, but there are dangers in affluence, too. Christians can lose their first love and be enticed away from the King’s service by the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
Rampant, greedy materialism is the bane of world missions, not only because it saps spiritual vitality, but also because it violates the biblical principles of justice and righteousness. Covetousness and greed are no friends of Christ. When materialism serves only to satisfy our lust for more and more of this world’s goods, at the expense of human dignity and values, then it becomes a hindrance to world evangelization.
Even a casual survey of the world shows that in many countries religion is as strongly arrayed against world evangelization as is Marxism. In some places, it’s Islam (the Middle East, for example); in others, it’s Hinduism (Nepal), or Judaism (Israel), or Buddhism (Thailand), or Catholicism (some parts of Europe and Latin America).
Not only does Islam continue to be largely impervious to the gospel, it has recaptured flagging spirits throughout the Arab world by offering a faith to fill the vacuum of Western materialism. As recently as 20 years ago it was thought that Western education, technology, and goods and services would break down the walls of Islam. But that hope has been dashed by a resurgent Muslim fundamentalism that has seen Islamic law imposed in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
What was once thought to be a moribund Hindusim has suddenly come alive, intellectually and politically. It has strong links with right-wing nationalistic political movements in India. Religiously, Hinduism has its own master missionary plan, which includes the infiltration of gurus throughout Europe and North America.
In Southeast Asia, prevailing political powers in Burma and Thailand are staunchly Buddhist. Buddhism has remained strong in Sri Lanka, China, and parts of India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan.
On the 43rd anniversary of the end of World War II in Japan, government and military officials gathered to honor the war deadâ€”including some convicted of war crimesâ€”at the Shinto Yasukuni Shrine. Christians in Japan worry about the resurgence of Shinto militarism and nationalism.
In Israel, as well as in U.S. cities with strong Jewish populations, hostility to Christian evangelism continues unabated. In Israel, this opposition prevents open witness and at times turns to violence.
Leaders in the American Jewish community have promoted interfaith dialogue, hoping to diminish anti-Semitism. While rightly condemning anti-Semitism, Christian evangelists among American Jews insist that it is proper for them to win Jews to faith in Jesus as their Messiah.
World evangelization suffers when Israel’s Zionism captures the hearts of Christians and when evangelistic appeals to Jews are denounced as religious bigotry and intolerance. In today’s climate of religious pluralism, it is difficult for missionaries to avoid the charge of proselytism.
Of course, within Christendom itself, there is powerful hostility to world evangelization. In addition to undercutting world missions with various theories of universalism, liberal Protestantism has thrown its "missions" causes in with social and political reform. Liberals claim that the world sets the agenda for the church. God’s kingdom, they say, is not established by proclaiming the unique salvation message of Jesus Christ, but by restructuring the world’s social, political, and economic order.
While Protestant-Catholic tensions around the world have eased to a considerable degree since Vatican Council II, there are still within Catholicism some openly hostile attacks against Protestant mission work. Catholicism is not a monolithic movement. It is seriously fractured and contains within it the seeds of evangelical revival in many places. But Pope John Paul II, in his many travels, makes it clear that Catholics should hold the line against defectionsâ€”primarily in Latin Americaâ€”to evangelical churches. At the same time, he must shore up Catholic doctrine, recruit more priests, and put the lid on radical priests while expressing concern for the poor.
In some Catholic countries, the changed atmosphere brings new freedom and openness to Scripture. At the same time, radical, politicized priests and nuns in some countries are offering a new kind of salvation: revolution. This, combined with liberation theology, presents a different kind of obstacle to world evangelization than the former persecution and oppression.
On the front lines around the world, we also confront the cults. Some of them are outrageously anti-Christian, but others claim to be Christian, such as the Mormons and the Jeohvah’s Witnesses. Either way, they pose serious obstacles in our efforts to win the world to Christ.
SOCIAL AND CULTURAL OBSTACLES
The gospel is never proclaimed in a vacuum. In this brief survey, we touch on only a few of the social and cultural hindrances to world evangelization: urbanization, illiteracy, poverty and oppression, and Western cultural imperialism.
The world’s urban population has been increasing 3 percent a year, far greater than the overall global growth rate of 1.7 percent. This mass migration of people to the cities represents an enormous challenge. Urbanization brings a new set of social factors that militate against the gospel. People lose their identities and get caught up in a host of different pursuits that insulate them from spiritual values and needs.
Coupled with these increased barriers to faith is a generally weak, ineffective evangelizing force in the cities. By and large, the gates of hell have prevailed against the church in the cities.
Despite remarkable gains in Bible translation and distribution, world evangelization is hindered by illiteracy. Although the world literacy rate is increasing, in terms of the numbers of people who can’t read, we are losing the battle. Today, 800 million people can’t read; by the year 2000, it will be one billion.
Despite the high ideals and generosity of the West, the struggle for economic uplift is going badly. This, too, is a hindrance to world evangelization, because these grievous conditions make it difficult for missionaries. As the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens, people’s suspicions about the motives and values of Christians are aroused. Under extreme poverty, oppression, and exploitation, people are ripe for Marxism and revolution.
While it is true that people turn to Christ in refugee camps, and as a result of our relief efforts, generally the masses of the oppressed are not turning to Christ in sizeable numbers. The harsh facts of life make it difficult for them to accept any hope for a better life that is not tied to here-and-now political and economic solutions. They want radical change and they want it fast.
Missionaries get frustrated because they can’t offer the gospel as a cure-all for oppression and poverty. Some have quit in the face of overwhelming social needs. Some decide to work for immediate relief of social ills rather than invest in patient seed-sowing of the gospel. The world forces us to make hard choices: evangelism or social action? If both, which one gets our attention first?
Western cultural imperialism – ”our movies, books, music, TV shows, fashions – ”is a horrendous obstacle to world evangelization. Its basically sensual message dulls spiritual sensitivities. People try to find relief in radios, tape players, and TV sets. The god of this world is blinding their eyes through the Western media. The message is: you can escape, you can have fun, you can be happy if you get the things the West has to offer.
The message of hope and salvation in Jesus Christ is obliterated. Biblical principles of godly living are overwhelmed in the media, if not ridiculed. Righteousness, justice, compassion, and humility are not upheld as virtues to gain. Sex, drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes are peddled unceasingly.
POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CHALLENGES
No one can look at a needy world and miss the impact of nuclear arms and trade wars and international debts. Fear of a nuclear holocaust grips people and spawns depression, suicide, and hedonism. It promotes the "me first" spirit. Fear destroys compassion and caring. It disrupts governments and businesses. The debates about nuclear missiles force other issues to the background.
But in many nations of Africa, Latin America, and Asia the greater fear is mounting foreign debt. Many scholars think this is the world’s time bomb. They see war down the road, sprouting in the seed bed of unfair trade practices and impossible debt.
Although world evangelization leaped ahead in the 18th and 19th centuries on the coattails of business, in our time missionaries often have to live down the economic exploitation of huge multinational corporations. Today, it is the lack of economic progress that hinders world evangelization in many countries saddled with poor prospects of any improvement. The growth of God’s kingdom often is shaped by economic factors that missions strategists generally pay little attention to.
In light of the above roadblocks to world evangelization, is there anything missionaries can do about them? Let me suggest that the way to begin might be to evaluate the local situation through a grid of basic questions. Without the facts locally, we can’t begin to make adjustments in our strategies. For example:
How would you assess the current impact of Marxism in your area? Is it growing? Weakening? Why? How are you seeing the influence of Marxism in your countryâ€”politically, economically, in the churches, in the universities, in the theological schools? What preparations have you made for yourself, your mission, your churches, your institutions for a possible communist takeover?
How do your church leaders feel about the current economic situation? What contribution can you make toward helping believers cope under economic stress?
Which religious systems are the strongest hindrance to evangelization? Why? To what extent is your mission investigating current developments in non-Christian religions? How are your missionaries trained to confront adherents of other religions, cultists, and Marxists?
How strong is the link between politics and religion in your country? What problems does that cause?
What data do you have about urbanization in your country? What trends do you see? What plans have you made in light of those trends?
How does illiteracy hinder evangelization and what steps are you taking to reduce it?
To what extent are poverty, oppression, and exploitation hindering evangelization? What plans do you have to deal with them? Have you and your leaders discussed these issues with church leaders?
What contingency plans does your mission have in the event of a worldwide economic disaster?
When we come to grips with questions like these, we will be better prepared to adopt specific remedies. Diagnosis is the first step, but it must be followed by careful assessment of possible options and then by specific plans.
We have no illusions that the world’s hostility to Christ, the gospel, the church, and world evangelization will ever change. As we seek God’s wisdom in devising strategies to defeat the enemy, we must keep our eyes on the Lamb in the midst of the throne (Rev. 7:16,17). The Lamb is all we have to lead us into battle, but he is more than enough.
Power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, and glory are what the world aspires to. Only the Lamb who was slain is worthy to receive them (Rev. 5:12). As we work and plan to destroy "every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:5), he must be central in our thinking, in our worship, and in our obedience.
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