“The Problems of Becoming a World Church” by Apostle Charles D. Neff

Part 1

Published in September 1974 Saints Herald (Vol.121-9:554)

The subject suggests some contrasts. More than that, it suggests dramatic polarities; at one end of the spectrum is the strong conviction that the gospel is the good news which all the world is straining to hear, and at the other is the disturbing fact that penetration of the human mind and heart by this good news is minimal. Perhaps the situation was well described by William Temple, late Archbishop of Canterbury: “The gospel is true always and everywhere, or it is not a gospel at all, or true at all.” It is also reflected in the title of Robert Lee’s book about the church in Japan – Stranger in the Land. Together these put the problem in focus: the incarnation of the Lord Jesus is sorely needed in all the world, but, for the most part, the Christian Church is a stranger to many countries in which its followers have tried to establish it.

Lest there be any thought that some cultures just can’t be penetrated by any religion, let me strongly assert that every man, whether he is conscious of it or not, cannot long exist without finding some outlet for worship. If he is not won to the true God, he will espouse a false creed or cause. I have found this to be the case in the materialistic nation of Japan, where Christianity has such a tiny foothold in terms of enrolled followers but where new, indigenous religions have gained millions of disciples since World War II. I have seen it in the mysterious land of India, among the illiterates of the Sora tribes, where men feel “born to die”… where there is no sense of purpose or hope and where people answer the instinct to worship by enslaving themselves to idols.

But what about the Stranger? If he is the Savior – the Word made flesh to dwell among men and save them – why is he not welcome? My experience tells me that, at times, the Stranger is warmly accepted, showered with hospitality and kindness, and received into the family circle. At other times he is rejected simply because he is an “outsider.” After all, he is different; he is foreign. He may not be trustworthy. The Stranger is a threat, because he may attempt to upset established patterns of living. (1)

Isn’t this how we would regard a newly established Buddhist mission in our neighborhood? I submit that it is precisely the description of the attitude of much of the world toward the Stranger – the Church. Why? Let’s search for the answer.

Of necessity, we must be concerned with the twentieth century world in which we live. It is not the nineteenth century agrarian society of the United States of America; therefore, the Stranger at the gate cannot be identified in those terms. This is the day of “one world.” This is the day, as our statement on objectives declares, “of technological advance when the history of many peoples has become one single history.” Kenneth Boulding identifies the twentieth century as the “middle period of a great transition in the state of the human race.” (2) Along with many other commentators, Professor Boulding points out that the keynote in the great transition is scientific knowledge. Traditional theologians might call it simply the age of materialism or the rising tide of humanism.

I think of technology in terms of the ability of scientists to control life and death – through a transplant, an electronic heart pacing device, the shutting off of a valve or the withdrawal of a syringe. I think of it in terms of the amount of money spent on research (in the United States alone it exceeds 20 billion dollars a year). Even more dramatic is the possibility that the development of synthetics can make it possible for the entire world population, however large, to be fed. I cannot help projecting that possibility to some rather sobering proportions. If this nation sets out to feed a major portion of the world’s population, think of the implications. We can control those we feed. This, then, would be more than a technological achievement; it could develop into a tremendous spiritual problem.

The kind of genius which characterizes the modern world provides a sense of freedom or independence. Indeed, humanism is being extolled. There is another kind of independence which also characterizes the present world. Nations are being set free. Traditional colonialism is almost a thing of the past. This, plus the industrialization efforts of these countries, is causing an unprecedented rise of nationalism. The United Nations’ success has provided many nations with a peculiar sense of confidence, ego, and equality. With this self-respect renewed pride in national cultures grows.

Unusual prominence is given to the indigenous religions of the emerging nations. These are being recognized as the cohesive agents of the cultures. The flags of the nationalism frequently are waved most vigorously in the name of religion. Political parties are often formed in the name and purpose of religion. The most notable of these is Sokka Gakkai in Japan. Perhaps even more troublesome to our church is the Hindu party, “Jan Sangh,” in India. One of its first sweeping actions was to pass a law making it a crime, punishable by fine and imprisonment, to convert Hindus to Christianity by force or allurement. We, along with all the Christian churches, suffer from this. The rationale on the part of the political party centers in the idea that the precious Hindu culture is being watered down by the presence of the American ideology called Christianity. If the traditions of Hinduism are to be preserved, Christian leaders from the West must be expelled and all Christian influence squelched. Hundreds of white missionaries have been expelled from India. The prognosis is not good.

Anticolonialism, closely related to the rise of nationalism, certainly threatens the work and spirit of well-meaning Christian missionary enterprises. Even the language is becoming offensive. For instance, the term “Missions Abroad” is sometimes abrasive. To many, it suggests an inferior or subordinate national church. It serves to constantly remind the overseas churches of their dependence on the Western – particularly the American – branches. While ego and pride are being enhanced by other institutions, such as business, the churches continue to humiliate by maintaining a Western fixity in the organizational structure and by using degrading terminology. Add to this the continued presence of Western appointee ministers, and the problem becomes serious indeed.

The world, even the so-called capitalistic countries, is fast becoming socialistic. Governments have become hopelessly bureaucratic but continue to assume responsibility for the social welfare of the citizenry. In this country, the day is not far distant when there will be a guaranteed annual wage. The philosophical and the theoretical base is that, because a man is a human being, he is entitled to a certain standard of living – whether or not he works. Or, as much of labor now proposes, a man shall be paid for not working, as is the case when he is paid on the basis of a forty-hour week but actually works only thirty. What happens is that a man’s sense of values, or his feeling of worth, seems no better than secondary in such a system. How does this jibe with the deeper meaning of stewardship?

Another feature of today’s world – especially in the United States – is the strange sense of isolationism among individuals. In this time of material plenty the theme, “Mind your own business,” is very strong. We have unusual tendencies toward privacy and rather resent any intrusion. This mind-set can be seen in the trend over the years toward single family units by home-purchasing citizens. Perhaps it can be better illustrated by referring to the difficulty with which people discuss religion. Faith is a very private affair and is mentioned very infrequently by strangers who meet on an airplane… or even by friends traveling together. Opening up a discussion on this subject, no matter how objective we might be, frequently suggests a kind of aggressiveness designed to persuade. I think the reason for this is the isolationist stance of Americans. I find the situation in some Asian countries, particularly India, to be exactly the opposite.

FInally, our world is urban – at least, we think it is. Roger Shinn says:

“Urban may mean urbane, humane, cultured; it may mean urban sprawl, ugly destruction of values in the chase for profit, the frustration of persons by mechanisms. Metropolis may evoke thoughts of slums, of rats, of delinquency; or it may stir the exhilaration of professional opportunities and enjoyment of the arts. People discover in the city partly what they fear to meet, partly what they want to meet, partly what the city invites them to meet. Whether we like it or not, the city is part of modern America and the modern world. Whether we live in it or not, we must learn to live with it. Even rural man, if he has a car, a telephone, and a television set, has become urbanized. So, today inner city, suburbs, and countryside must all come to terms with metropolis.” (3)

Because of these conditions the church will be required to take a new stance if it is to become a world church in the true sense of the word. In summarizing I shall use the word “indigenous”. This, of course, does not mean that the church will become so localized as to lose all of its identification marks. After all, the revelation of the Lord Jesus is universal; it is not given to a particular nation. This means that no local conditions ought to limit the freedom and universality of the gospel. In this sense, it is free from indigenization. But there is a positive side. Once the gospel is brought to a nation the interpretation, expression, application, and communication of it should reflect a local, contemporary, and national color in order that the gospel may take root and grow and bear fruit according to the spiritual, intellectual, social, moral, and historical climate of the people. Therefore, the possibility of indigenization takes place in the encounter of the gospel with the culture of the people.

“When the church bears and nurtures the revelation, she must be in consultation with the culture of the land where the revelation takes root. Dr. Harold Hong is right when he says ‘the first step toward the indigenization of Christianity is to have a necessary knowledge of the culture of the land.'” (4)

How is the church indigenized? The proper way is to be sought both in the function of the church and in the expression of faith. In the former the problems of the leadership, administration, organization, and social responsibility of the church are to be seriously tackled. In the latter the problems of mission, worship, and related matters such as Scripture translation, hymns, music, art, architecture, and theology are to be creatively and relevantly considered.

No indigenization can be properly achieved if the indigenous leadership is ignored. Church administration should not rely on foreign aid either in personnel or finance over a long period of time. I think we are already in trouble at this point because, in some places, we have applied Western institutionalism to the extent that it will be difficult to phase it out. Rather than being shaped to Western styles, the church’s structure and organization should be carefully adopted to enhance the relevance of the gospel to the people to whom it is being taken. Instead of condemning a culture, the church should positively accept social responsibility in the changing society of each nation where it is.

Without getting deeply into the subject I would simply say that a special effort should be made to formulate a theology relevant to the people, using contemporary language and categories of thought from the situation to which the gospel addresses itself. This involves up-to-date translations of pertinent Scripture, the development of hymnology, and the creation of other worship tools.

1. Robert Lee, Stranger in the Land, Friendship Press.

2. Kenneth Boulding, The Meaning of the Twentieth Century

3. Roger Shinn, The Tangled World.

4. Symposium, Korea Struggles for Christ.

Part 2

Published in October 1974 Saints Herald (Vol.121-10:626)

Let us take a brief look at problems other than indigenization which come into focus when the church attempts to be a dynamic force in the modern world.



First, there is the problem of the church’s theological stance in regard to authoritarianism. One Asian layman put it this way: “The doorstep in Japanese church building is too high to come in freely” (a reference to theology, not to architecture). Perhaps the root cause of the strangeness of the church can best be expressed in the words of the Japanese scholar, Murakami, who wrote in the Hartford Quarterly:

“Christianity is widely regarded in Japan as a western religion and probably by some even as an American religion. Westernness itself is not problematic, for Japan has already been modernized and westernized in many respects. The problem is rather the fact that Christianity persists tenaciously in resisting any adaptation to Japanese culture. Secular Westernization is subject to modification at will. [However] Christianity does not seek to fulfill but to displace the Japanese people’s spiritual life. What it offers is not a universal gospel adaptable to Japan but Western Christianity – with its institutions, theology, social and political ideas, and behavior patterns, all of which the church identifies as the gospel itself.”

It is noteworthy, then, that the acceptance of the gospel is always dependent on the mood of the public toward the foreigner. This can be friendly, but – as is the case in many places today – it also can be hostile.

Lest we be misunderstood in regard to theological stance, we must remember that “in all climes and times the Gospel has been an offense, confounding the wisdom of the world with its scandal of particularity – Jesus Christ. That God has entered into human life in the form of Jesus Christ – that God became incarnate in Christ – is still apparent but to a few. It is an offense to most, for Jesus can really be seen best through the eyes of faith.” (1) Nowhere are we more offensive than when we talk in authoritarian tones of absolutes. For instance, demanding allegiance to the one monotheistic, transcendent God in a setting where the idea of monotheism and polytheism are not mutually exclusive can lead to rejection. We think of our faith in singular terms; it resists absorption or religious syncretism; it seeks to supplant rather than supplement. It preaches a doctrine of sin to a people who have little consciousness of sin but an acute awareness of shame. It must be adhered to on its own theological terms. However, it is not necessarily a contradiction for a Japanese [person] to observe the Christmas season, then a week later attend a Shinto shrine and a Buddhist temple as well. A faith that claims absoluteness and exacts supreme loyalty seems narrow-minded to people who take religion with an air of tolerance, who approach religion in an inclusive rather than exclusive spirit.

Moreover, in calling for sole allegiance, the church promotes a spirit of divisiveness which may lead to disunity and split the nation into different religious camps. Therefore, Christianity may be looked upon as being detrimental to national unity and containing seeds of discord. It therefore comes under suspicion for its subversive potentials (2). This is happening in India.

Also in the framework of theological brittleness, the gospel always makes demands. It calls for obedience, loyalty, [and] commitment. It demands an “either/or” decision, a singleness of allegiance. Moreover, it calls for transformation of self, for moral reform and ethical purity (on Western standards). Generally speaking, this sense of finality seems to go against the grain of traditional Asian mentality, in which the decision-making process tends to steer away from the collision course of an either/or, yes/no ultimatum. Most Asians prefer decision-making to contain various alternatives and options, so they can find a way out and not be put on the spot which might result in embarrassment. When the gospel is confronted with a demand, theological or ethical, which leaves no room for options, it creates a rather untenable situation. (3)

In discussing the theological problems which make it difficult for us to become a world church, we must keep in mind that we are not offering proposals for sweeping changes in the stance of the church. Rather, we are trying to analyze the underlying reasons for the problem.


Now let us turn to a subject which has already been discussed to some extent but which might be identified more specifically by raising a question or two about which we might be able to do something. This might be called the problem of administrative authoritarianism.

An appropriate question for us in this day has to do with how we view the administrative structure and function of the church. Obviously, it has been a vertical arrangement. To survive and function, the church must become decidedly horizontal.

The insistence on centralized authority, with all its ramifications in terms of quorum exclusiveness, has meant that the leading councils of the church have spent much of their strength on the struggles of procedure. This has been true throughout the history of the Reorganization – 1894, 1925, 1966, 1968. My personal concern in this regard is that I have only one life to give. I do not like the thought of spending all my time and strength in this struggle over position, procedures, relationships, rights, and prerogatives. Maybe a new look at the church is in order.

I prefer to see the World Church as a combination of national churches. The function of headquarters should be greatly streamlined, and this could begin by our determining just what work is peculiarly World Church, and what should be assumed by the local churches. In my opinion an increasing amount of this responsibility should be borne by the local jurisdictions, including manpower support and finance.

There is not time here to adequately discuss the virtues and the problems of the horizontal arrangement, but the current financial crisis is, in a very real sense, the “handwriting on the wall.” As long as inflation continues, it is virtually impossible to continue to administer the church as we now attempt to do. The important consideration, however, is whether or not we should do so in any case. I think not – especially if we are truly interested in becoming a world church.

In many places I find conditions much like those Joseph found in nineteenth century America. The Christian church is fragmented. There is a “Protestant rut.” The most pertinent question that can be posed as we open our work is “What does it mean for the incarnate body of Christ to be present in this land?” The best way we can use a significant portion of the budget is to hold seminars, workshops, and experiments to find the answer to that question. The outcome – and we must keep in mind that it is never final – may be a very different life-style, unique operational procedures, and a flexibility that the church has not yet known. Are we really willing to risk that kind of outcome when we go exploring?


I cannot stop without commenting on the problem of provincialism. This takes many forms, and I’ll mention only a couple. There is the problem of provincialism in Scripture. The Doctrine and Covenants is especially affected by the cultural setting in which it has come to us. (I am not being critical, as I believe that revelation does not operate in a vacuum.) In many ways it is an American book; its language form is English; its guidance to the church is within the framework of a democratic government, American economy, and Western moral and ethical standards. To get full benefit from it, one must understand American history, denominational administrative problems and procedures, and so forth. There is a question as to how much of it is the word of God to the whole world. Section 150 may be a crucial turning point.

While I think this is a diminishing problem, there is the “Joseph’s Land” emphasis which has been applied so literally that now – when immigration laws are more stringent, and when economic opportunities exist in other lands, and when the world has become more like one community – we are faced with the necessity of searching out the basic principles in the concept and teaching them to the church, a large segment of which still is committed to the literal interpretation.

Then there is the provincial view of the world which we have and about which we must be concerned. Because we are who we are, and because our background is as it is, we have a tendency to reduce to a single concept or view all the societies of the world. That view tends to be American, middle class, urban, white. Let me just pick out one of these and expand on it a bit. Nineteenth century America, when the church was born, was an agrarian society. We have tended to project that society forward, and our approach to every culture and every situation has been on that basis. Now we are shifting gears and are calling the whole world urban. Actually, while this may be true in America it is not true of the largest portion of the population. The fact that the world of most people is the world of the village is not taken very seriously by most modern theologians and pragmatic church-men who are trying to make the church relevant in the world. In India, for instance, over 80 percent of the population lives in the villages. “Villagers are increasingly aware of city life through radios and movies; yet their world is not dominated by ‘modernity,’ but by the fateful rhythms of nature, ancient religions, social traditions and age-old traditions.” (4)

I mention this only as part of a plea for us to be less provincial and more flexible in the application of gospel principles. It is a plea for decentralization. Highly authoritarian, centralized, ecclesiastic, theological, and administrative structures cannot provide adequate leadership for the variety of world situations in which we find ourselves.

As I see it, there is at least one more serious problem in becoming a world church. This has to do with a concept of ministry and applies especially to the present social struggle in the United States – although it is germane to the rest of the world as well.

There seems to be a growing tension in the church – and the world – in regard to the role of the minister and his relationship to the institutional church. On the one side is the strong conviction that theology is “something done” rather than “something absorbed,” and that ministry is function rather than status. On the other side is the traditional concept of ministry which describes it as service to a particular institution. This problem was discussed in an interesting way by Richard L. Schaper in an article, “The Challenge of the New Student,” in Christianity and Crisis (April 14th, 1969, Vol. 29-6:91). He observes that if we take the liberal approach to ministry we see the functional work not so much in terms of what we do, as official agents of church organization, but rather as what goes on among persons, wherever and whenever they are responding to each other’s human needs. This implies an indefinite number of roles and institutions in which ministry can take place. It does not claim that ministry, to really be effective, must free itself from all institutions; rather it seeks not to be restricted to present forms of institutionalism.

Traditionally we have approached saving ministry or evangelism largely as a matter of passing doctrine on to the unenlightened. In so doing we have assumed a static concept of history and regarded theology as a reservoir of answers that we can “apply” to the world – presupposing that the questions of previous ages are the questions of modern man and that inherited answers can also be our answers. In this respect our theology is little more than institutional ideology bound by inherited categories and organizational forms.

On the other hand in social action ministry we approach theology as something that is done, not something that is absorbed and passed on. We see its role as trying to make sense out of what we experience in the contemporary world. We start not with the past but with the present. Instead of asking, “What does our tradition have to say to this situation?” we say, “What is the meaning of this situation for the possibilities of living fully human lives?” We must perpetually respond to ever new questions raised by ever changing situations. Cybernetics, the bomb, and the pill today force new questions that did not exist yesterday. (5)

Many people in the church are insisting that we continue to use our time and ministry in providing certain answers, even though questions are no longer being raised to which these answers apply. This concept of ministerial function reduces our role to defending tradition and form rather than going where the action is to pound down the “gates of hell.” As Schaper put it in his article, this kind of work is just “guardian maintenance.”

It may be that this is the single greatest struggle taking place in the church. Surely it affects our effort to become a world church. For my part, I see ministry not in terms of a “canned sales talk” to take around the world, but in terms of listening to the world, discerning the nature of the present situation, and devoting my time and skills to effecting the Incarnation in those situations. This involves the institutional church – and I thank God for it – but it does not necessarily mean that the involvement of the institution will be in traditional form.

“The gospel is true always and everywhere.” I am grateful that there is a growing confidence in this affirmation. I am also grateful that the Twelve and Seventy are relatively free to go throughout the world to uniquely witness of the Incarnation… and free to use forms and procedures and techniques which seem appropriate. I am encouraged by the strong spirit of inquiry, even though some are sorely critical of the form of that inquiry. I am grateful that the Prophet and the Presidency have created a climate in which honest searching can be undertaken and have chosen to lead us in it.

It may be that the Christ is a stranger at the door. I would expect that to be so. His ways, his life, his standards, are an offense. But we are dedicated to helping the Stranger move in and become a vital, responsible member of every community, society, culture – of every kindred, tongue, and people.

1. Stranger in the Land

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Leroy S. Rouner, “The Place of Provincialism in Theology,” Christianity and Crisis, February 7th, 1966

5. Richard L. Schaper, “The Challenge of the New Student,” Christianity and Crisis, April 14th, 1969.