American intervention in the Middle East will become a significant factor in the Christian witness here and around the world.
Congregations and denominations seeking to attract people to Christian life and faith will reap the harvest, at once blessed and bitter, of the seeds being sown in Mesopotamia’s cities and deserts.
In the first place, and perhaps in the short run, American people are attracted to churches supporting the war.
Opinion surveys show that evangelicals in general are the only religious group with strong majorities that approve of U.S. military strategy. This may be connected to their longstanding support for Israel, as well as their admiration for the American president and the British prime minister, both of whom are evangelical Christians.
Evangelical churches have shown significant numerical increase over the last decades. They are in tune with the mood of the people.
On Sundays past, present and future, these religious communities will find that sermons, music, testimonies and prayers that mention the military and express the patriotic fervor of the people will prove valuable in attracting members.
None of these, however, will surpass a video recorded on site among the troops. Visuals are powerful and those showing the troops at prayer and at play, at worship and at war will hold the people spellbound.
Technology may provide the winning edge here as well as there.
Churches that integrate these elements in their gatherings will see a modest surge in attendance during the Middle East conflict and a sustained increase for a considerably longer time.
On the other hand, churches and ministers that critique the war or avoid verbal and visual displays of patriotism will struggle to keep the loyalty of their people.
There is, however, a dangerous flip side to this evangelism equation: It will work only in America. In other parts of the world, Christians (and especially missionaries) will find their work much more difficult.
Difficult, first, because it will be dangerous. Already Muslim majorities in Iraq are taking out their anger on the 400,000 member Christian community among them. One religious news service is reporting that a 70-year-old Chaldean Catholic nun was stripped naked, cruelly tortured and then beheaded; another reported the murder of three doctors.
But beyond this clear and present danger, the result of any invasion into the Middle East may be a growing hostility to American ideals and institutions, including the witness of its Christian missionaries.
This is especially true throughout the Muslim world (which constitutes an impressive and expanding slice of the demographic pie). One evangelical pastor in Iraq admits that the pressure against them is “because of our relationship with and support from American and British friends.”
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, well intentioned though they may be, are perceived by many in the region as a Christian attack on Islam. Such conviction translates into public rhetoric that further inflames radical opinion in the region.
But there is more. For the first time in its history, America finds itself as the sole power on the world scene. It has no rivals for military and economic power. This power is resented by many allies as well as most enemies.
The recent revolt of France, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Chile and China on the matter of military efforts in Iraq may have been rooted as much in their fear of the unhindered will of Uncle Sam as in the uncertain ways of Saddam Hussein.
The ill will being generated by our diplomatic and military efforts around the world may create a grassroots resistance to American missionaries and their Christian gospel.
So while the rhetoric of war may work here, it may not work there. And in the long run, there is more important than here.
Dwight Moody is dean of the chapel at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Ky.