ON A GLOBAL SCALE
The Church of God, the Movement as we know it, was birthed in northern Indiana in the 1880s. It was conceived, we believe, by the Holy Spirit, and it spread like wildfire.
The first footprints rapidly moved into other American states touching the Great Lakes, it was catapulted beyond into Canada, and then coast-to-coast in both countries. Mexico was next, becoming the first country to receive the Movement where English was not spoken as its first language. Germany. China. The Caribbean. Kenya. India. Guyana. Latin America. Lebanon. Egypt. The United Kingdom. And so it went, from place to place, leapfrogging oceans, jumping across continents, reaching far away from the original Gospel Trumpet office base camps in Indiana, Michigan, West Virginia, and then Indiana again (settling in Anderson in 1906).
Today, the Church of God is present in over ninety countries. The number of countries we “claim” varies, depending on the definition of “country” we use. We have a robust presence in the Republic of China, for instance (Taiwan), as we do also in the People’s Republic of China (on the mainland); Taiwan is not everywhere formally recognized as a country, though (much to the chagrin of the Taiwanese), as many defer to the line from Beijing that Taiwan is really just a renegade province standing apart from the mainland: a “renegade province,” not an independent country. Is Bermuda a country? The Church of God there is a very influential family of churches in that dazzling, self-governing territory. But, Bermuda is actually an “overseas territory” of the United Kingdom. Country counts, as you can see, can depend on how we do the counting. But, suffice it to say, we’ve grown far and wide, on six continents, within the context of many, many diverse cultures, jurisdictions, and national identities.
Ah, “within the context.” This is an important understanding of the global Movement. All of us tend to see the world through the context of our experience and culture. There are transcendent truths, of course, that are fixed stars in every civilization. But, there are also unique lenses, histories, and perspectives that inform each of us. The Spirit’s voice can be understood with different emphases, from place to place. Local context matters, even as the Scriptures are applied to everyday life. A teetotalling congregation in western Pennsylvania may consider the Spirit’s leading on alcohol quite differently from a congregation in northern Germany, which gives wine an ordinary place on the dining table. Few of our churches abroad would ever consider placing their national flags on church property; displaying the stars and stripes prominently in our houses of worship is quite common in the United States. These variables exist because of our varying contexts.
Even within one country, there can be noticeable differences in approach to church life. Most Church of God assemblies in India, as an example, literally speak different languages (the Indian government recognizes twenty-two different languages for official use at state and federal levels); these assemblies can have significantly different approaches to church life, organization, and relationships with each other, even within the same language group. In the United States and Canada, geography can define one part of the church uniquely from another; ethnic and cultural communities sometimes also have divergent expressions of church life, organization, worship, and even theological imperatives. In the absence of a “handbook of discipline,” without defining ecclesiastical structures, and with the passage of time and generations, the global Movement increasingly faces questions about identity and forward motion (much like we do at home). All profess to be animated and driven by the same Spirit, but not all see eye-to-eye.
There was a day in which “Anderson” was seen by the church abroad as the last stop when wrestling with questions and interpreting the Spirit’s voice that could not be resolved locally. Missionaries sent from the United States and Canada (and, in our early decades, sent in a colonial world largely administered by Western powers) naturally brought their worldview to their assignments. As in many other areas of secular influence, “the American way” was assumed to be the “right way” in church life, too. “No, you will not sing local songs in your worship services, you will only sing songs and melodies translated from the Gospel Trumpet hymnal,” locals in India were once long ago told. Young believers then in the developing world looked to the more mature church in “the States” and Canada for routine guidance and modeling, even authority.
But, generations have passed. Mature expressions of the Church of God are now resident in scores of countries. The Movement is three times as large outside of the United States and Canada as it is within our two countries. Some national assemblies abroad are zooming ahead, expanding Kingdom boundaries. Some congregations in far places have found huge success, growing by leaps and bounds, measured by baptisms, influence, and changed lives. Some have mastered technology for outreach, others have developed house church networks; still others have found new ways to work as teams in new structures, quite different from our own. We are no longer the single custodians of best practices, vision, or “the way things should be.”
There are struggling assemblies in the global church, too, of course, just like there are here at home. And, there are many, many parts of the world still unreached, requiring our ongoing investment and leadership, even as there are fledging ministries properly depending on partnerships with us. Church of God Ministries and all our affiliated associations, agencies, and congregations must always embrace the unique calling (and resources) heaven has given us to engage the world beyond our front doors.
But the reality of a global church—a worldwide Movement—comprised of partners clothed with equal spiritual gifting, wisdom, vision, and understanding, each formed in the crucible, challenges, and opportunities of their local context is now the norm. When dreaming about next steps, when defining responses to tough social and political questions, when listening with fresh insight for the Spirit’s direction, the Church of God in the United States and Canada must now also listen to the Spirit speaking through the whole body, not just that part of the body with whom we have been raised.
If unity is the inevitable consequence of the one Holy Spirit setting us apart and empowering us supernaturally for His purposes, then unity cannot be authentically proclaimed (or realized) without respecting the Holy Spirit’s leadership manifested in other cultures and countries as well as our own.
One of the most striking lessons I have learned over time is how great is the depth and width of spiritual gifting in the global church. Some of the most influential voices speaking into my life have never lived in North America. I have been privileged to reflect on the ministry here at home with new perspective and a sense of possibilities by the witness of a dynamic body of Christ away from home. I have been inspired and humbled by leaders who have never studied in the United States or Canada—and, in some cases, have never traveled here—but who have walked with God.
I have been impressed by how much the successes, failures, questions, and opportunities of the church abroad mirror our own. I have also been struck, from day one in my office as general director, that there is a thirst across the Movement, on every continent, to become more connected. There is a hunger for our identity to be refreshed and renewed, so that we might be one family, even as we maintain our diversity in so many unique contexts. The pendulum drift toward isolation, cynical autonomy, and independent courses, is profoundly swinging back toward a more interdependent, partnered, cooperative approach to expanding the Kingdom on a global scale—and on a local scale, as well.
But, how to get there? In substantive dialogue across the global Movement in the last few years, I am persuaded that the Lord is stirring—and that He would be pleased for us to pursue the birth of a new forum and relational mix, bringing the Church of God everywhere around the world into conversation together for a new century. Tentatively named the Global Council of Church of God Assemblies, it is simply an idea to hear from voices from every continent and region, sitting together routinely at a table, as important questions surface and opportunities arise.
What are the theological non-negotiables of this Movement? Is the Spirit speaking only to His people in the Great Lakes? The West Coast? Or, is He also speaking in Kenya? Bolivia? Egypt? Bangladesh? Can the church in Kentucky learn from the church in Korea? Can the astonishing ministry of the local church in Encarnación (Paraguay) speak wisdom into the life of the local church in Indianapolis (USA), and vice versa? When once universally held theological tenets are challenged and stretched in some quarters, does the global church have a Spirit-led response (and stake)? I think so. I know so.
The Global Council is just an idea to talk, routinely. It is not an ecclesiastical hierarchy (for all those who fear every new idea is a Trojan horse for denominationalism or a power grab); it is not useless window dressing of all-talk-and-no-action (for those who are weary of endless conferences and meetings that seem to go nowhere). It is not a development over which the American and Canadian churches have veto power or ultimate sway (for those who understand that our cultural hubris can muddy the water). It is an acknowledgement that the Church of God in the United States and Canada—and in every other place—is living in the 21st, not the 19th or 20th, century and that voice, anointing, leadership, and destination for the Movement is no longer the province of one assembly or culture alone.
I am writing today from a Boeing 777, en route from Indiana to Japan. It will be my privilege to speak to two Church of God conferences there: the first a national meeting of Church of God pastors, convening three hours south of Tokyo, and the second a national meeting of Church of God leaders, congregational representatives, and pastors. Following these two events, I will fly to Seoul, to similarly meet with Church of God pastors and leaders in South Korea. As all of us know, our brothers and sisters in these two countries live on the edge of recurrent headlines and sobering context. How is the Spirit speaking to them? Hmmm. I will be listening, I promise.
Still, it must also be said that I am traveling at the invitation of these two Church of God assemblies, because they want to hear from me, too. They want to know how the Spirit is speaking to me and the Church of God at home. They are specifically exploring the theme Jesus is the Subjectand the outcomes walking under such a banner can produce. They are interested in “identity” in this new century and “how the Movement is facing the rapidly changing world.” They wonder if we will be true to our original tenets; they wonder if Presidents Obama and Trump actually represent the thinking of the American church (both presidents have alarmed them, for different reasons). They wonder what we are thinking and they wonder if we care about what they think.
My conversations this month abroad will also visit the idea of a Global Council. In June 2019, the Church of God in the United States and Canada will convene its biennial Convention in Orlando; by the mandate of our General Assembly, we are working to make this a truly global event. In 2014, the Assembly asked that the Convention, every fourth year, focus on celebrating and engaging the global church.
In 2019, we will talk more about the prospects for establishing a Global Council for the Church of God, with our family of assemblies worldwide. A team of ten international church leaders, resident on the five continents beyond North America, have also drafted a request that we (at Church of God Ministries) take the lead in prompting the development of a Global Council. Our Ministries Council has been in the loop since 2014 and has asked us to follow through. Thanks for praying with us. Thanks for supporting the global reach of Kingdom work in our hands. Thanks for your investment in Church of God Ministries always, as we daily strive to serve the church at home and abroad.
In the end, it is the filling of the Holy Spirit in each of our individual lives than can swing wide open the doors of promise. Our preeminent identity in the Spirit is the only hope for the Movement. The Spirit will always remind us that we are citizens of the Kingdom, above all else, the ekklesia, the called-out ones. This world is not our home. But the church around the world is our family. See the world from heaven’s view.
You can learn more about our interface with the global church (and about lots of other stuff, too) at our next two Church of God Regional Conventions, set for September. Join us in Washington, D.C. (Fairfax), or in Tampa (Safety Harbor) and dive into the “Go Ahead, Ask Anything” town halls offered at both.
Be encouraged, friends. Jesus is the subject. Be bold. Give life. You are.