The Back Side of the Wave

I met a man named Lazarus a few months ago who changed my perspective with one finger and a map of the world. Lazarus is the Missiologist-at-Large for the global Pioneers movement. He is Zambian and in addition to his labours for Pioneers, he is Vice Chancellor of Evangelical University in Ndola, central Zambia. With a CV like that, one would assume that Lazarus knows a thing or two about missions. So it was no surprise when, during a chat over our midday sandwiches, Lazarus casually dropped the phrase “The Shift of the Centre of Gravity of Christian Witness” into our laps.   

None of us responded with, “Ah yes, that old chestnut,” so Lazarus graciously elaborated. He pointed at the world map on the wall behind where he sat and traced with his finger the 2000-year path of the centre of gravity of Christian witness. Starting in the Middle East in Jesus’ time, it travelled like a tidal wave west to North Africa (think Augustine and Athanasius), then it curved north to Europe (Constantinople, Rome, Geneva, Luther’s Germany), then further north to Britain and the rise of modern missions, and then across the Atlantic to North America where the words ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are very nearly synonymous today.  

But then, to my (all too American) surprise, Lazarus’ finger kept going. In the last decade or two, the tidal wave has shifted direction again, gaining momentum and travelling south at phenomenal speed. The centre of gravity of Christian witness—the place where the gospel is sweeping through hearts like wildfire, where the call to cross-cultural mission is being heard and obeyed—is now in the Global South, that highly populated part of the world south of, roughly, 30° N latitude. Places like South America, Africa, India and China.  

It was fascinating stuff – so fascinating, in fact, that I decided that very day to make it the subject of Pioneers’ December Reach magazine. It has been exciting to learn about what God is doing in the Southern Church while making the magazine, but on the day Lazarus visited us, the shift of the centre of gravity of Christian witness to the Global South wasn’t the thing that gripped my heart. What changed me that day was the realisation of what happens once the shift has moved on. 

As Lazarus’ finger traced the shift of gravity from place to place, marking the path of that tidal wave around the world, it occurred to me that in the wake of that wave – the places where the wave had come and then gone again – true Christianity had all but gone with it: the Muslim Middle East and North Africa. Secular Europe. Post-Christian Britain and North America.   

When the wave first reaches a new place, people receive the Gospel with gladness and unquestioning obedience. They catch the fire, they do what the Bible says, they are sensitive to the Holy Spirit. As the wave crests, faith reaches its height – the whole society (more or less) is Christian, operating under Christian ideals and values. But soon the wave moves on and society finds itself on the back side of the wave. The ideals and values of Christianity become intermingled and confused with culture. Where once Christianity meant faith and obedience, it becomes merely cultural rules to live by, ordinances, norms. People “believe in Jesus” because that’s “what one does”, rather than because they’ve had a life-changing encounter with Christ. And as the wave passes on, young people begin to feel that their parents’ cultural Christianity isn’t all that relevant to their personal experience. They look for something else to fulfil their longings, because what they interpret as Christianity just doesn’t cut it.  

When Lazarus traced that line across the heart of Britain and away again, my heart sank. Just like you, I know these people. I know the grandparents whose eyes well up with tears when they think of God’s goodness to them. I know the parents who serve the community and go to church faithfully on a Sunday.  And I know their children who have boldly walked away from cultural Christianity, choosing a different and (what they consider) more relevant, up-to-date value system.  

I love deeply a few people who grew up in church, have wonderful godly parents, and yet confidently call themselves non-Christian. They’ve left the church for different reasons, just like so many of my generation, but to be honest I don’t find that particularly worrying.  That’s because I know that banging the Christian drum in people’s ears won’t make me a better Christian, and it certainly won’t entice people to join me in faith.  

But Jesus is a different story altogether. Jesus is compelling. He’s fascinating when you really look at him. He’s mind-blowing when you know him. The fact is, Jesus is the only one who can turn this thing around. And he will do it one heart at a time, just like he’s always done.  

So I don’t bother telling my friends to go to church or read their Bible or behave in a certain way or hold certain values.  They’ve tried that already and didn’t fancy it.  Instead, I just talk about Jesus – not to evangelise them, but simply because he’s important to me.  Do I want these dear friends who have walked away from Christianity to come back? Absolutely, unreservedly, with all my heart. But I don’t really mind if they come back to Christianity-as-we-know-it. I want them to come back to Jesus, because he’s where the good stuff is. He’s the one who gives the rest of it life. Church, the Bible, values – without him, it all quickly becomes weak and lifeless.  

So what are we to do, here on the back side of the tidal wave? I believe that we, as people in relationship with Christ, must unearth Him from the towering mound of traditions, rules, cultural idiosyncrasies and religiosity that bear his name. If we’re honest with ourselves, we know that bald religion has never met anyone’s deepest needs. That honour belongs to Jesus himself.  It is only Jesus who will attract those who have walked away from what they consider an irrelevant religion.  

One lunchtime conversation with Lazarus shifted my perspective. It sparked in me a new hope that maybe, just maybe, this period of British Christianity is a great opportunity to streamline our faith, jettison the surplus and present our non-Christian loved ones with a new vision of Christ. Anything more or less than Jesus simply won’t do. Not anymore.


Photo by Tim Marshall