I just finished a Skype video conversation with a friend who for security reasons I’ll call “Zhang” (which is the third most popular name in China according to my Google search which I performed wirelessly from my laptop borrowing a signal from some generous neighbor). Zhang is a young house church pastor in China who I met at the Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering that took place last Fall in Malaysia. I had the privilege of giving the opening night talk where I challenged the 550 young leaders from 111 nations (possibly the largest and most representative gathering of young global Christian leaders in the history of the church), “How big is your God?” At the end of my talk, Zhang walked up to me and confessed, “Michael, sometimes my God is so small.” He shared about the great challenges Christians face in China. He confessed his struggles to persevere in the midst of persecution. That night, Zhang became my friend.
So via Skype Zhang and I video-conferenced over the internet. I “met” his new wife. I mourned with him over the passing of his mother four days ago. We prayed for the salvation of his relatives who were together with him in his hometown for the funeral. We talked about his coming to Japan accepting my invitation to take three courses (taught by D.A. Carson, Robert Coleman, and Willem Van Gemeran) at the seminary I lead in Nagoya, Christ Bible Seminary. We planned for my Fall visit to China.
548 others just like Zhang and me met in Malaysia. Young. Leaders. Passionate. Weak. Hopeful. Sinful. Globally-minded. Unified.
I declared during my opening talk, “This is NOT a conference!” Conferences are about organizations, are information-centered, and are isolated moments in time – all of which young global leaders are not interested in! Ours was a “gathering” – a gathering that was about people, relationships, and movement – all of which young global leaders ARE interested in! So let me take the opportunity in the context of this gathering to share some of the heart and priorities of the young leaders of the global church.
PASSION UNITY LOVE for CHRIST and People ACTION SACRIFICE
These are the words of my generation, the words of my brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Most of you will never have the opportunity to know the young global leaders who are serving the Church, but I want you to know a few things. First, be encouraged that this generation is one of tremendous potential. Not in a worldly sense (though many of us could easily pursue personal gain in emerging cities like Bangalore, India or Beijing, China) but in all the right ways that Christ taught and modeled. Creative and visionary almost to a fault. Defiant against meaningless protection of tradition. Fiercely committed to personal engagement and genuine relationships. Noxiously resistant to territorialism and denominationalism. Deeply passionate in faith and worship. The future is in good hands. And those hands are God’s, held affectionately by the world’s younger leaders.
It’s easy to be unnerved by a generation that aspires to be “full-on” disciples of Christ, Jesus Freaks. But this is not your 1960’s version but instead is one that is more theologically-rooted, technologically savvy, educationally committed, socially-engaged, and relationally open-minded. As one younger leader from Asia mentioned to me, “We must seek faithfulness to the Gospel and to God’s WORD amidst a tendency towards pragmatism as young people.” Be encouraged that ours is a generation deeply committed to God and His Word… however colorful our display of faith might be!
Secondly, be challenged.
I believe this generation of young Christian leaders is one that will seek to be orthodox in the Word but creative in service of that Word. We are not content to merely discuss problems; we must act on them!
At the Younger Leaders Gathering in Malaysia one participant shared about his evangelistic canoe ministry where he shares the Gospel with Muslims in Africa wanting a ride on the river. We rejoiced in hearing of life-transformation experiences of transsexuals who found Christ through a ministry led by a young Brazilian brother. We laughed as we heard that their ministry runs beauty pageants for the local transvestites with the winner receiving a Bible as a prize! We wept as we saw pictures of a drug-addicted young prostitute who lost her life to the streets before she could be brought to Christ. Small groups displayed the incredible diversity of the Body of Christ. One participant wrote about his group that included a Lebanese leader, a New Zealander, a Cuban, a Swiss, a Rwandan, a brother from Sierra Leone and himself. Their sharing about living through genocide and civil war provided both great challenge and encouragement to endure in faith.
One participant shared with her small group about coming to faith because of finding a bag full of Christian tracts on a bench at the train station. The group wept and rejoiced as another member who was from the United States shared in shock that on a mission trip to that same country and city she had in the last moments before leaving left a bag full of tracts on a bench at the train station hoping that God might reach out to someone, somehow.
I share such stories not that you might be astonished at what God is doing somewhere else through someone else but that you might be challenged to have expectation that the very same God can do something similarly powerful through you. Regardless of what generation you might belong to we serve a God who works powerfully when His people step out in faith and in action. We each, like those whose stories I have told, have been given one life. Just ONE life. One WHOLE life. LIFE. At the end of your days it could be seen as a colossal waste if lived for self, comfort, and personal glory. Or it could be a truly inspiring, eternity-impacting, Christ-honoring treasure to lay down at the feet of our Lord. What will be YOUR life story? Be challenged!
Thirdly, be involved.
PRAY! These young people represent the future leadership of the global church. As I speak with young leaders I find tremendous transparency and awareness of their own weaknesses. In fact you could almost say that each area of strength of this generation is also a potentially fatal weakness. Our action-orientation can border on hyper activity; the breadth of relationships threatens depth; creativity can overshadow commitment to orthodoxy; our irreverence towards tradition can leave us unanchored and foundationless. Some of these weaknesses and threats are unique to our generation; others have characterized young people for centuries. Pray that our strengths might in the hands of God be true strengths and that our weaknesses too might be strengths.
I also call you to involvement through sacrifice. No I’m not asking for donations. I’m asking that you have Kingdom involvement through a life of sacrifice.
The last day of our gathering I gave a dear brother from Uzbekistan two things. The first was a flash drive with Christian resources, my sermons, and notes from courses I’ve taught at my seminary. This brother who was 35 years old just like I was and leads a theological institution just like I do held the drive in his hands staring at it like I had given him a bag of diamonds. Living in a nation where Christian activities and training are illegal and resources are scarce, it was a blessing far beyond the gift itself. And then I gave him the last $100 in my wallet. He had shared with our group that it is his prayer that one day he might have a laptop computer so that he can keep Christian materials mobile and safer from possible raids from the security police. As I handed him the money he kept shaking his head saying, “No, no Michael. It’s too much,” with tears in his eyes. Even on a missionary salary with a family of six, I could have given him ten times that amount and we would basically be fine.
In studying and meditating upon the life and teaching of Jesus Christ, I’ve come to believe that true offering to God begins at the point of sacrifice. It’s something that is almost completely foreign to American Christians, something so counter-intuitive to the “pain-free Christian life” that many in the West so often seek with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. We stingily offer the Lord in our finances, energy, aspirations, and life what amounts to the proverbial coins under the couch cushion and think that the lost, the church, and God should somehow be pleased.
In my limited exposure to the global church, I’ve sensed a subtle but undeniable growing cynicism towards America and the West. Though we in the West often think of ourselves as the leaders of the global church, the disciplers of the nations, and the teachers of the world, we must recognize that our ability to train leaders around the world is threatened by a perception that we in the West have lost our first love. We disqualify ourselves from training up the nations when those nations see our lifestyle! The 2/3rds (Majority) world Christians see churches in the West filled with Christians whose primary instinct is the seeking of comfort; physical, emotional, spiritual and economic comfort – a Christian life of affluent capitalism with a dash of spirituality and beneficence.
Christian brothers and sisters around the world are sacrificing not just finances, comfort, and personal advancement but their very lives. In a world where tens of thousands of Christians are martyred each year and more than two billion people live in nations where there is little or no access to the Gospel what should the American Christian and the American Church look like? Be involved sacrificially with your whole life for the Kingdom. Be involved!
Lastly, be encouraged.
The Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and younger generation leaders make quite an interesting mix! It’s almost conceptually oxymoronic! Lausanne (and the 1974 Lausanne Conference) is known as one of the quintessential impacting movements and events of the previous Christian era. Called together by Billy Graham, 2300 world Christian leaders gathered and helped to stem the tide of liberalism that was sweeping through the world in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and reaffirm the global church’s commitment to world evangelization. Today the Lausanne Covenant which was produced from the gathering led by John Stott is used by more Christian organizations and ministries than other statement of the Christian faith.
Despite this document that is one of the greatest of the modern church era and this movement that was one of the greatest expressions of the unified global Church in history, Lausanne is largely unknown to my generation. I can’t tell you how many young people and also seminary students that I’ve talked with have no idea what Lausanne is!
So when the Lausanne Younger Leaders Gathering took place, it was a strange happening. But there’s something that was so right about it as well. It inspires in me greater encouragement and confidence about our times and the future that such a synergy and organic confluence of generations could occur. It’s the kind of thing that must be from the Lord. It gives me great hope that the present and future generations of leaders and the church can be involved in much less fissure and much more cooperation and love in Gospel partnership and leadership transition.
Today the Lausanne Movement (it’s not an organization) is regaining some of the strength, unity, and mobilizing role that it once had. I was won over by a leader, Doug Birdsall, who serves as the Executive Chair of the Lausanne Committee and by the vision that the WHOLE CHURCH bring the WHOLE GOSPEL to the WHOLE WORLD. For myself and other young leaders who have become involved with Lausanne I can say that we are seeking to learn humbly from the previous generations. While young people may always have some degree of organizational phobia, we know that we shouldn’t fear organization, movements of God, and lessons from the past. In 1987 a smaller but similar group of young Christian leaders met in Singapore organized by Lausanne. Among the alumni from that group were Doug Birdsall, Paul Borthwick, Peter Kusmic, and Ajith Fernando.
Currently other gatherings of young leaders are being planned all around the world. I have the joy of leading preparations for a North and East Asia Younger Leaders Gathering where young people from North and South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Mongolia, Hong Kong, and China will come together. In 2010 Lausanne III will take place in Cape Town, South Africa as Lausanne seeks to continue its calling from the Lord to be a unifying, inspiring, and challenging movement for the global church.
I too am a younger leader defying the traditional mold and path of leadership of previous generations. I serve as president and founder of Christ Bible Seminary in Nagoya, Japan. Our ministry was motivated by a passion to see Christ known among the 130 million people of Japan (the largest unreached people group in the world) and also by a burden to see authentic Christianity experienced in Japan with a key role played by Japanese young people. We’ve had to negotiate treacherous waters to establish a pedagogically progressive seminary in a nation (and church) where traditionalism is often idolized. For a 33 year-old to start a seminary in one of the oldest, most Gospel-resistant, and most Confucian nations in the world is just the kind of radical, tradition-defying, absolutely-gonna-fail-unless-God-is-in-it ministry that my generation loves to be a part of.
A few years before my seminary opened I was shooting down the Japanese coast on the bullet train at over 100 miles per hour talking with a senior Japanese pastor. I knew that unless he was supportive of our proposed ministry it would never happen. Weeks before I sent him a large pile of business plans that laid out the goals and hopes for our seminary. I turned to him and hesitantly asked him, “What do you think?” He paused and then asked me, “Michael, do you know what a furoshiki is?” I responded, “Yes,” knowing the square cotton cloths that Japanese use to hold things in. Then he said, “We have a saying in Japanese, ‘Your furoshiki… is too big.’” I knew exactly what he was saying to me. There’s no way that this happens. It’s too ambitious and difficult of a project. This is Japan! There’s no way that you can do this Michael Oh. After thanking him for his feedback, I turned to him and said, “Sensei (teacher), we have a saying in English, ‘Your God… is too small.’” It was one of those crazy moments where I knew that I had overstepped my bounds culturally, logically, and generationally. But inspired by either the Spirit or my own insanity without thinking I said what I said. But then the most amazing thing happened. The pastor turned to me and said, “You know, you’re right. I’ve been ministering in this country and leading Japanese churches for over 30 years. I can’t even imagine more than what we’ve had, but surely God is able to this ministry and much, much more.” Because of the faith of that man, Christ Bible Seminary exists.
If the older generations (whether this pastor, the Lausanne Committee, or other Christians) are willing to take such faith risks for our young generation, how can we not also humbly learn and join in partnership with them?
I believe that God has great plans for my generation. This confidence is not based on our gifting and abilities but upon the bigness of our God and the whole-hearted faith with which our generation pursues such a big God.
We are a weak, idealistic, defiant, and sometimes overly rebellious generation of young global leaders, but perhaps through our passion, unity, love for the Lord and the lost, and our willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of the Gospel, God might once again show this world that He is a very, very BIG God!
Dr. Michael Oh is president and founder of Christ Bible Seminary and Christ Bible Institute in Nagoya, Japan. He is father to four daughters who keep him and his wife Pearl very busy and happy. Michael did his seminary training at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he graduated in 1997. His undergraduate work was in Political Science and Pre-Medical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania where he also completed an M.S. in Education and PhD in Leadership and Anthropology as a Kellogg Scholar. He studied cultural anthropology at Harvard University where he completed an M.A. as a Regional Studies East Asia fellowship recipient. Michael’s PhD dissertation topic focused on dialogical analysis (based on the scholarship of Mikhail Bakhtin) of oral histories of Korean Christians who lived under the Japanese occupation of Korea. Michael is also a member of the administrative committee of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.