The Black Man in Our Sacred Dreams

It has become almost a stock image, especially in missionary circles:  During a fitful night trying to sleep, an African man has a dream of a white man coming to him telling him that a message of salvation or healing is on the way.  The missionary then arrives, the gospel is preached, people gladly receive the good news and the church is born anew.  You don’t have to go far to find such a story.  In fact, the most recent issue of Christianity Today (May 2012) tells the story of an Islamic farmer in Mozambique named Feliz Talibo who had this very dream a few years ago and is now a devoted Christian, freed from sickness and demonic oppression.

I rejoice over this story and the dozens like it I have read over the years.  It reminds us that God is the greatest evangelist of all.  We see God showing up in the dreams and visions of Joseph  (Matt. 1:20; 2:19), the magi (Matt. 2:12), Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19), Ananias (Acts 9:10), Peter (Acts 10:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), and Paul (Acts 16:9, 18:9), among others.  Nevertheless, I see a day dawning when the “man in the dreams” will be an African, and the man or woman who has the dream will be white.  Paul once had a vision of a Macedonian Man and, in obedience to God, crossed the sea and found Lydia.  We need the message of Christ, of salvation, of healing, of demonic deliverance and of hope here in the West too, especially as North America is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  I am praying that God would start sending Africans into the dreams of white men and women.

This prayer may have already been partially answered in the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.  In the midst of leadership failures, stunning disconnects between the mission of the church and the work of the Conference, and attempts by protesters to hijack the Conference, the African delegation kept showing up.  Not only did the Africans bravely remind us that the church is the most diverse movement in the history of the world, but that great inclusiveness must be found in Jesus Christ.   The Africans showed up in our dreams to boldly remind us of the imperative of the gospel to preach good news, to heal the sick and to share the love of Christ.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to gently remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to lovingly remind us that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.  There were many in this delegation who remembered General Conference 2008 when some wanted to silence their voices and take away their vote.  Today, no one can silence the African church.

It is easy to cite disappointments in the recent General Conference.  But, looking back a decade from now, this conference will be remembered as the time when the African delegation really found their authentic voice to speak prophetically to the church they love so dearly. They showed up in our dreams.  They spoke to us.  If we listen, we just might hear the voice of the Lord calling us to a better day.

The Quiet Revival

Christianity Today reported a few years ago that eighty-five percent of the members of Yale University’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter are Asian, whereas “the university’s Buddhist meditation meetings are almost exclusively attended by whites.”[1. “Go Figure,” Christianity Today 47, no. 7 (June 2003): 13.]  There is an important lesson in this. It is often stated that Christianity in the Western world is in decline. It is true that, on average, every day there are approximately 7,000 fewer Christians in the West. Statistically, it has been as high as 11,000 fewer per day. However, this is only part of the story. While we are witnessing the dramatic decline in Christianity among Caucasians, the Western world is, at the same time, witnessing the dramatic growth of newly emerging ethnic congregations. The Chinese, Hispanic, African and Korean congregations, in particular, are experiencing unprecedented growth.

This weekend, for example, I had the privilege of speaking at the Rutgers Christian Community Church. It was planted only thirty years ago by a handful of Chinese students from Rutgers University. Today, it is a thriving Christian community with several thousand members. They have English, Mandarin, and Cantonese congregations and are in the middle of a major building program to build a new sanctuary.

Prior to my coming to Asbury I lived in the Boston area. Boston is the home of a major spiritual awakening. More people have come to Christ in Boston in the last three decades than during the Great Awakening, but it has largely gone unnoticed, because it is occurring primarily among African, Chinese, Korean, and Hispanic peoples. There are over 50 different African congregations in Boston and, indeed, on any given Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, more people worship Christ in a language other than English than in English. It has been called the “quiet revival.”

I am convinced that the greatest source of renewal in the North American church will be found in these emerging ethnic churches. Pastors across this country should begin planting ethnic congregations in their facilities and nurturing their growth. Boston already has more shared-facility churches than any other city in the country. May this trend continue.

Last night I worshiped in a sanctuary packed with Chinese Christians. The congregation sang, in Mandarin, Chris Tomlin’s excellent hymn, We Fall Down.  I don’t know if Chris Tomlin realized when he wrote this hymn, among others that he has written, that he is playing a significant role in stimulating the global Christian community. Indeed, when we fall down and worship Christ today and look to our left and to our right, we will increasingly be worshiping with Christians from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The globalization of the Christian faith is no longer a theoretical point we affirm, rather it will be, increasingly, the living experience of Christians in the West. So, whenever I am prone to discouragement about the state of Christianity in the West, I think about Rutgers Community Christian Church, and a thousand like it. They are the living demonstration that Christ is building his Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!