Flying somewhere between Seoul and Bangkok, I began counting the number of international ministry trips I've done in my lifetime to pass the hours - a bit like counting sheep to fall asleep. I started flying internationally in 1990 and worked it out to be around 100 trips by 2023, not including the many times I've driven across international borders. This is not a flex. It's a confession. While I love the nations, international travel has lost its novelty for me. My body is not designed for it. My soul does not long for it. Long haul flights in particular, make me feel every year of my age. I can no longer shrug off jet lag like I used to. It hovers around like an unwanted visitor who has overstayed their welcome.
So, why do I still do it?
Very simply, I do it because I believe embodied visits impart something to churches that videos, zoom calls and books do not. The Apostle Paul, in his inestimably great letter to the church in Rome, wrote that he longed to be present with them so that he might impart some spiritual gift to them to make them strong, that they might be mutually encouraged by each others faith.
I do believe that in some way Rynelle and I impart something to churches when we travel. I also know for sure that we always gain some mutual encouragement from being with them. Having just returned from our 10 day trip to Asia where we spent time with our dear friends at One Light Church in Thailand and Redemption Hill Church in Singapore, though my body is tired, my heart is full. Despite my travel complaints above, both visits were a real joy, re-kindling treasured friendships and strengthening gospel partnerships. So, I waned to share some of the encouragement I have received from being with them.
Of course, Asia is not monolithic. It is vast and wonderfully diverse. Thailand and Singapore themselves are vastly different from one another, both culturally and economically. But collectively they have something to say to us, so I am reflecting on the gift of the Asian Church broadly to us as the American Church broadly.
What does it have to teach us?
A Minority Faith is a Robust Faith
First, it teaches us that a minority faith is a robust faith. Thailand is just over 1% Christian, while Christianity has slightly more influence in Singapore at 11%, but in both nations, Christians are a vast minority. Bhuddist monks are so revered in Thailand that they have special seating for them in airports and Bhuddism is by far the majority religion at 94%. The spread of religions is more even in Singapore, with Bhudddism at 31%, Islam at 15% and Taoism at 8%, while 20% of the population identify as having no religion. Overall though, the religious rights of Christians in Asia are fragile to non-existent. Churches live at the mercy of watchful and mostly suspicious government authorities who fear that their growth may disrupt the religious and cultural status quo. People who become Christians are often viewed as betraying their families, their faith and their culture, so there is a significant cost to following Jesus. Yet, this minority faith reality serves to forge an astonishing common bond among Christians.
While the debate rages on about whether America is or should be a Christian nation, there is no debate for me as to the quality of Christian that is forged in a minority faith context. It is simply a more robust faith because there are no social benefits to becoming a Christian, so believers count the cost of following Jesus in more sobering ways than do Christians in the U.S. Does this mean that we should wish that Christianity becomes a minority in the USA in order that it should flourish? Certainly not. But neither should we fear the fact that we are living in an increasingly secular post-Christian reality. It creates more robust Christians, while a majority Christian nation tends to create more nominal Christians.
An Embattled Gospel is a Treasured Gospel
While Christians live lives that are embattled by hostility to the gospel in Asia, there is a treasuring of the gospel that is marvelous. I spoke to a man in the Singapore church who was from Malaysia, which is a strict Muslim country. He personally knew of people that had been imprisoned or killed for trying to convert Muslims in his home country. He was sensing a call to leave the relative comfort of Singapore and return to Malaysia, but was wrestling with the danger of the call. As he talked you could see that despite real fear, the love of Christ was compelling him.
If you compare the last words of Bhudda to the last words of Jesus you will understand why Christians from primarily Bhuddist nations treasure the gospel. On his death bed, Bhudda's last words to the monks around him were, "Monks, work hard to earn your salvation!" In contrast, Jesus last words to those who surrounded him at the cross were, "It is finished!"
Christ finished the work of redeeming humanity from slavery to sin, paying our debt in full with his own life to set us free. While grace calls us to worshipful effort in serving God, it is opposed to earning of our salvation. Asian Christians treasure the grace of God in Jesus that has freed them from slavishly having to earn merit with God. There is a palpable relief and joy because of the gospel. Make no mistake, they are generally sacrificial and highly disciplined. But they treasure the gospel. You can hear it in their voices as they sing. You can see it in their faces as they speak. You can hear it in their earnest prayers. An embattled gospel is a treasured gospel.
A Communal Christian is a Healthier Christian
The communal nature of Christianity in Asia is compelling. The idea of being a Christian who is not part of a church, just doesn't make any sense to a Christian here. For a start, culture is far more collectivist, less individualistic. But also, following Jesus without the encouragement of other Christians and godly leaders is just too hard. We should take our cue from them. A Christian walking alone is a Christian in walking in danger. One Light Church in Thailand builds community by feeding their whole congregation a simple lunch after their morning service. Nobody rushes off to their favorite restaurant. It's more important to be together. RHC in Singapore is a bigger and busier church with 5 different congregations so there is no after-church lunch, but still, people linger after each service in their rented hotel ballroom, chatting at length and praying for one another. Both churches have facilities that are solid but minimal - no high end coffee shops or playgrounds to get people to stay around. (I am for both of these, by the way!) And yet, there is a profound priority on an unhurried gathering that weaves a strong communal fabric within the church. While both churches do Christian counseling and community groups it seems as though much of the disciple making and counseling is happening organically and relationally, rather than programmatically and professionally. This makes for a more healthy Christian.
A High Carb Diet is the Best Kind of Diet!
Not really. But seriously! Lots of walking, 5 small meals a day, lots of carbs, and very few overweight people. What are we missing?
You may think I am idealizing Asian Christianity. Make no mistake, there are many qualities of Christianity here in the USA that have resourced the Church in Asia. Our music, our books, our seminaries, our innovation and our generosity have fueled the mission of Christ in Asia in remarkable ways. But let's not fall into thinking that the resourcing is a one way street. Far from it. The Church in Asia has so much to teach us, and in the years to come I believe the American churches that are humble enough to learn from our brothers and sisters there will be noticeably stronger than those that don't.
I'm forever thankful to God for Asia and particularly, the Church in Asia.