In a World Flipped Upside-Down, Can Your Church’s Ministry Remain What It Has Been?

By Tom Gilson Published on September 14, 2023

If the world seems strange to you as a believer in Christ, it should — probably even more than you realize. You are walking territory no Christians before has ever walked. Your church is, too.

I am speaking mostly to Americans when I say that, though it’s probably even more true in certain other parts of the world, where these changes happened sooner. I believe it comes as more of a surprise in America, though, and we’re less prepared for it as a result.

My generation, the boomers, has watched our world spin upside down, from a largely Christian culture, to post-Christian, to the current situation which I have called post-reality, and where the dominant culture and ethic is very much anti-Christian.

Unprecedented in All History

There is nothing strange or new about Christians living in a culture that opposes the faith. We read of it in the book of Acts, in modern persecution accounts, and in church history through the centuries.

Never before, however, has a culture flipped from Christian to anti-Christian so willingly, and with so few shots fired. This was no military takeover such as the Muslims attempted in Europe centuries ago. It was no political revolution like the Bolsheviks accomplished in Russia.

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No, ours is the first culture in history to make a decisive turn against Christ and Christianity because that culture decided Christianity was wrong. This revolution was neither political nor military. Certainly it has affected our politics, and may be on its way to doing the same to the military. Before that, though, it was a revolution in attitudes and beliefs: a revolution of the Western mind.

What we’re experiencing is truly unprecedented. We are walking territory no Christians have walked before, at least not on any scale approaching this huge culture-wide shift.

We Walk Uncharted Paths

The result? Tragic in almost every way. Uncounted people caught in deception, worshiping idols (including self), flipping morality on its head to their own destruction, and taking many down with them. And so, so many lost to a Christ-less eternity, or dangerously heading that direction.

The news isn’t all bad. It can’t be, not while a good God reigns! And while the dominant culture is decidedly anti-Christian, the number of firmly, decisively committed believers may be on the rise. Nevertheless their role — our role — in the world is still different than it once was here in the West.

If the situation has no precedent, it follows that the church must make unprecedented shifts as well. We could continue ministering as if the world hadn’t changed, but that would be deceiving ourselves, and distancing ourselves from the world that desperately needs the message we bear. I fear a lot of churches are doing that, whether from naivete, from inertia (churches do not change easily), or from not caring.

Understanding It in Mission Terms

So we need a new way of understanding our role in outreach, and the easiest way to describe is in missionary terms.

I still remember the first time I heard of Christians in another country sending missionaries to America. It was in the 1980s, and the sending country was Korea. Details are hazy in my memory now, but as I recall, they came to reach specific pockets of unreached peoples in America.

Missiologists (people who study Christian missions) at the time were treating America as a “reached” country on the whole. Not everyone was a Christian (obviously!) but virtually everyone was within easy reach of the gospel. At the same time, they were identifying unreached “people groups” worldwide.

These “people groups” were groups of people (naturally) with a sense of shared identity through a common language, religion, customs, practices, etc. A tribe in southeast Asia might be a “people group.” In America, horse racetrack workers were identified as an unreached people group.

Cross-Cultural Ministry = Missionary Ministry

At the same time missiologists also recognized that missionary sending was less about crossing oceans or national boundaries, and more about crossing cultural divides. Being a missionary wasn’t so much about going to foreign lands but to foreign languages, customs, beliefs culturally significant stories, and so on.

This was — and still is — an important adjustment in the missions sending mindset. Crossing into other cultures requires learning the host language, customs, taboos, etc., and knowing all that well enough to be able to build friendships, share the message, and ultimately communicate the timeless truths of Christianity in such a way that the people could hear it. It’s bringing them them good news in their own “heart language,” where “language” means more than words, it means all their culture. But of course it also means lovingly confronting false, sinful aspects of their culture.

Outreach in America has become cross-cultural, missionary outreach. Your church has become a missions outpost.

This readjustment of what it means to be a missionary has helped the missions cause enormously. For one thing, it’s allowed a clearer grasp on which people groups are effectively “reached” (there are a variety of definitions) and which are not. For another, it’s helped missionaries realize and prepare for the cross-cultural shift they need to make for effective ministry.

So here we are today: Korean missionaries came to America in the 1980s, as I recall, to reach unreached pockets of non-Christian peoples here. Now the pockets have switched, and it is the Christians who exist in pockets. A recent Barna poll says just 4% of American adults hold a fully Christian worldview and live accordingly.

Your Ministry is Cross-Cultural Now

They are in the churches, because (for very good reason) that’s part of how Barna defined that group. Your church is one of those pockets. Missionaries often establish outposts as places for worship, prayer, community, humanitarian outreach, and study. These outposts are islands of life and truth in the midst of unbelieving cultures, established to reach out across cultural divides and share the love of Christ.

Your church, too is an island of life and truth in the midst of an unbelieving culture. Historically it may not have been established to reach out across cultural divides, because historically those divides may not have been significant enough to take notice of.

That was then. Now the divide exists. If you see your church as a community for worship, prayer, and teaching for people already on the inside, you can ignore that divide. If you see it also as a center for outreach, you will need to study the divide, so you can reach out across it effectively. (We here at The Stream are committed to helping you with that.)

Your Church as a Missions Outpost

Outreach in America has become cross-cultural, missionary outreach. Your church has become a missions outpost. If it hasn’t, it has probably become ineffective in reaching the lost.

I do not mean to say American ministry is cross-cultural to the same degree that traditional missionary sending often is. Neither do I mean that churches are exactly like mission outposts in every sense of the term. (Not that there’s one perfect catch-all definition for “outpost.”)

What I’m suggesting instead is that you place the word in your mental map by which you describe your church. It will help you get the right picture of the new reality. Our world has flipped upside down in unprecedented ways. Once the unreached peoples came in “pockets,” here in America. Now the Christians exist in outposts — outposts designed for worship, prayer, teaching, community — and for cross-cultural outreach.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor), a senior editor with The Stream, studied missiology at the U.S. Center for World Mission with the late Dr. Ralph Winter, and has traveled and ministered in China, Russia, Cuba, and South Africa. He served five years as a strategic planner specializing in home (North America) missions, on a team reporting to the President’s Office of Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). His most recent book is the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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