Tough Questions!

As already noted in previous posts (2008: Oct 19; 2009: Jan 9, 23, Mar 11, 22, Apr 12, May 19), the face of global Christianity has been radically altered.  Jehu Hanciles, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West (2008), highlights how the development of Christianity into a non-Western religion has impacted Western Christendom.

According to the World Christian Encyclopedia (2001), the church in Europe and North America is losing members at a rate of six thousand members a day (just over 2.2 members a year).  The level of apostasy is much higher with regard to churh attendance: roughly 2.7 million church attendees in Europe and North America cease to be practicing Christians every year (an average loss of seventy-six hundred every day).  These extraordinary developments are substantiated by numerous reports (114).

How are we to respond to such information?  Several options: We can dismiss this information as only academic, statistical mumbo-jumbo, or we can give way to resignation, hand wringing, and despair, or we can pursue the questions which this information provokes.  

I believe that integrity and faithfulness demand that we pursue the obvious questions.  Such questions as …

  • Is this a signal that the church has lost its place of prominence in Western culture, or that faith has been successful translated into new places and fresh expressions?
  • Does the decline in church attendance indicate an abdication of faith or that people are doing their faith in different ways and places?
  • Where are those who leave going?  To new religions, other forms of ‘spirituality’, or to the mall?
  • Has denominationalism run its course and thus is the blame or cause of the statistical decline?
  • Where would the church in Europe and North America be if not for Pentecostalism and Charismatics?  If not for Christian immigrants from Africa and Latin America?
  • Has the Western church merely succumbed to the long process of secularization and thus just needs to rediscover or rejuvenate its conservative and/or evangelical moorings? 
  • Is the information a call to re-double our efforts to re-evangelize the homeland, or is it a cause to rethink the nature and purpose of the church within Western culture?  
  • For what reason and on what basis should we continue sending missionaries to Africa, Latin America, and Asia? 
  • In what ways should the shift evoke adjustments in our personal and corporate lives? 
  • In what ways should the shift cause us to rethink faith, church, theology, missions, etc?  

Tough questions!  Some would say these kinds of questions should not be voiced aloud, less we undermine our evangelical and missionary commitment and resolve.  Well, my contention is that to avoid these questions and blissfully continue doing church and missions as if nothing has changed is irresponsible.  Faithfulness to the gospel and the mission of God demands that we not dodge, dismiss, or mask difficult or uncomfortable questions.  Nor is it acceptable to just keep repeating well-worn answers.  The change in world Christianity is massive, complex, and dynamic and thus demands that we make reasoned and intentional adjustments in our thinking, living and loving.  Tough questions require an authentic response.

Growth and Maturity

 In The Coming of the Third Church (Orbis, 1976), Walbert Bühlmann makes an interesting connection between church growth and maturity …

“growth in maturity in a minority Church brings, as a consequence, numerical increase while growth in maturity in a majority Church leads in most cases to a numerical diminution, which is a healthy readjustment in which many nominal Christians discover that following the Lord exacts a price which they are not ready to pay.”  (147)

The minority church , of course, is located in those places traditionally called ‘the mission field’, and the majority church is in Europe and America.  The growth and maturity for both churches is found in the high price of following Jesus.  In the case of the minority church where discrimination and persecution is taking place, this price brings numerical growth.  For the majority church, the high price of discipleship produces health, as it trims away nominalism.  In both cases, costly discipleship is the key for growth and maturity.

From Everywhere to Everwhere

Jehu Hanciles connects globalization, migration, and missions in his new book, Beyond Christendom: Globalization, African Migration, and the Transformation of the West, (Orbis, 2008).  He maintains as one of his chief points that “in the same way that unprecedented European migrations from Christianity’s old heartland provided the impetus for the European missionary movement, phenomenal migrations from Christianity’s new heartlands (in Africa, Latin America, and Asia) have galvanized a massive non-Western missionary movement.  This latter movement implicates the West as a new frontier of global Christian expansion and represents a major turning point in the history of the Christian faith” (8).

If we concede Hanciles’ point, and I think we must, then this new, major turning point calls for a radical re-framing of mission promotion, rhetoric, and aims.  Rather than merely promoting missions as ‘going’ to the pagan world, we must welcome and receive missionaries to our shores.  This certainly requires new language, a shift in our concept of missions, and a recognition of our need, but above all it demands humility and grace.  Missions no longer travels only in one direction but is bi-directional.  Missions no longer means only reaching down from a place of privilege to those who have less but is receiving hope from brothers and sister.  In the words of one person, missions is now from everywhere to everywhere.

A time of theological renaissance

Today I begin a summer-long sabbatical study in which I will be reading like a mad man and hopefully get some writing done.  I plan to post throughout the summer, and thus share with you, challenging, provocative, disturbing quotes and thoughts that I stumble across.  The first of these is from an essay by Andrew Walls regarding what the church in Africa could bring to us …

“The Western theological academy is at present not well placed for leadership in the new situation.  It has been too long immersed in its local concerns and often unaware of the transformation that has taken place in the church.  It is often hugely ignorant of the world in which the majority of Christians live, their social and religious contexts, and the history and life of the churches.   Its intellectual maps are pre-Columbian; there are vast areas of the Christian world of which they take no account.  Nor are its products always readily transferable outside the West.  Western theology is, in general, too small for Africa; it has been cut down to fit the small-scale universe demanded by the Enlightenment, which set and jealously guarded a frontier between the empirical world and the world of spirit.  Most Africans live in a larger, more populated universe in which the frontier is continually being crossed.  It is a universe that comprehends what Paul calls the principalities and power.  It requires a theology that brings Christ to bear on every part of the universe, making evident the victory over the principalities that Paul ascribes to Christ’s triumphal chariot of the Cross.  The new age of the church could bring a theological renaissance with new perspectives, new material, new light on old problems, and a host of issues never faced before.” Walls, “The Great Comssion 1910-2010,” in Considering the Great Commission: Evangelism and Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit.  Edited by W. Stephen Gunter and Elaine Robinson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 19.

Exploding at the Edges

Dana Robert’s new book has finally arrived.  Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009, 192 pages) recounts the history of Christian missions but not from a strict partisan perspective or as a mono-toned description of western institution and theology.  Rather, Robert presents missions as “a central process in the formation of Christianity as a world religion” (p. 2).  Missions gives strength and vitality to the faith through its multi-lingual and multi-cultural expressions right from the beginning (p. 17) and expands as it provides “catalyst for identity-formation” (p. 2) for the various peoples, locales, and cultures it encounters.  “Cultural fluidity” and translatability, Robert maintains, are the engines for the expansion of the Christianity into a worldwide religion.

Alternative histories, especially those written from a western and/or denominational orientation, give the impression that the success of Christianity is due to one type of Christianity triumphing over errant forms.  In this attempt to frame the success of Christianity as the rise of orthodox faith, other ‘Christianities’ are characterized as heresy and dismissed from the main storyline, or they are not mentioned at all.  Such a one-sided interpretation of missions and Christianity is being revised by African, Latin American, and Asian historians, as well as westerners, such as Andrew Walls, Philip Jenkins, and Dana Roberts.  The story is truly much broader and more diverse than we’ve been taught.

Christian Mission belongs on your list of books to read.  When read along with Philip Jenkin’s The Lost History of Christianity, one cannot help but see the expansion of Christianity as greater than western colonialism or a religion exported from Britain, Germany, and America.  Until you get your copy of Robert’s book, here is an enticing excerpt.

But the story of Christianity around the world is not that of a simple, linear progression.  To become a world religion, Christianity first had to succeed on the local level.  Specific groups of people had to understand and shape its meaning for themselves.  What in totality is called a “world” religion is, on closer observation, a mosaic of local beliefs and practices in creative tension with a universal framework shaped by belief in the God of the Bible, as handed down through Jesus and his followers. … growth takes place at the edges or borderlands of Christian areas, even as Christian heartlands experience decline.

Robert’s history reminds me that I as go forth in mission I must do more than replicate my particular denomination and its theological formulations.  I am to proclaim Jesus Christ and then trust the Spirit to bring understand and hope from within every language, culture, and locale.  Robert and others give me hope that as I witness the demise of Christianity at what has been its center, it is exploding at the edges of the world.

Mark Noll on the Global Rise of Christianity

The following is an excerpt from a presentation by Mark Noll, Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on March 2, 2005. The full transcript can be found at The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

First, the magnitude. In order to grasp the current situation of world Christianity concretely, consider what went on last Sunday. More Roman Catholics attended church in the Philippines than in any single country of Europe. In China, where in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches at all, more believers probably gathered for worship than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” And in Europe (as reported by Philip Jenkins) the church with the largest attendance last Sunday was in Kiev, and it is a church of Nigerian Pentecostals. Last Sunday, more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the U.S. combined. And several times more Anglicans attended church in Nigeria than in these other African countries. In Korea, where a century ago there existed only a bare handful of Christian believers, more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul than all of the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church. In the United States, Roman Catholic mass was said in more languages than ever in American history. Last Sunday many of the churches with the largest congregations in England and France were filled with African or Caribbean faces. As a final indication of global trends, as of 1999 the largest chapter of the Jesuits was in India, and not as in the United States as had been the case for many decades before.

In a word, the world Christian situation is not what it was when your grandparents were born, or even when you were born.

Deep and Native

In The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How it Died (HarperOne, 2008), Philip Jenkins recounts the growth, influence and glory of churches beyond Rome and the empire.  It is a fascinating story that most of us (self included) are only mildly aware of.  It is also a story of the rise and fall of the church in places like Ottoman Turkey, North Africa, and Syria.  I found the following quote particularly instructive for modern missionary practice.

The key difference making for survival is rather how deep a church planted its roots in a particular community, and how far the religion became part of the air that ordinary people breathed.  The Egyptian church succeeded wonderfully in this regard, while the Africans failed to make much impact beyond the towns.  While the Egyptians put the Christian faith in the language of the ordinary people, from city dwellers through peasants, the Africans concentrated only on certain categories, certain races.  Egyptian Christianity became native; its African counterpart was colonial.  This difference became crucial when a faith that was formed in one set of social and political arrangements had to adapt to a new world.  When society changed, when cities crumbled, when persecution came, the faith would continue in one region but not another. (p. 35)

Faith must go deep, go native.  It must become part of the air.  And yet, for faith to go native, it must be native.  It must arise from the context, root itself and grow within the local soil.  This punctuates the absolute necessity of local believers and local church acting as the primary agents in the contextualization process.  While the outsider (missionary) has a role (which is another discussion), it is the insider who takes the faith deep, puts it into the vernacular, and translates it into daily actions, routines, and forms.  Ultimately, the faith survives not because it is coddled and protected, but because of its inherent power to transform communities.

Transmergence

Don’t go reaching for the dictionary.  You will not find the word there.  It is new – a brand new word.  While struggling last week to craft a way to describe how followers of Christ in North America could or should interact with, crossover to, and learn from brothers and sisters in the majority world Church (Africa, Latin America, and Asia), I felt the necessity of a new word.   So, here it is – transmergence.  The prefix ‘trans’ means spanning across, going beyond narrow interests, or crossing over, “mergence’ carries the sense of bringing together, integrating into, or submerging with.

trans·merg·ence\trant(t)s-‘mər-jən(t)s\n : the crossing over to another person or perspective that is radically different, in such a way that transformation occurs for both parties.

My experience is that words such as partnership, cooperation, and collaboration do not carry the weight of what is required for the global encounter between Christians.  While such words may convey the necessity of a two-way encounter, the aspect of mutual transformation is missing.  When a church is transmergence, it is actively and intentionally seeking transformation in the process.  This, I believe, is what missions in the twenty-first century must look like – because people are transformed by people who are continually being transformed. 

Thus, the transmergent church will do more than pray for believers in India, make trips to Africa, or fund the church in Cuba.  The transmergent church will exist in solidarity and love with Indians, Africans, and Cuban brothers and sisters in the hope of being transformational and being transformed. 

Transmergence!  Remember that you first heard it here!

Church as Christendom

The notion of a Christian West or Christian nation is gasping its last breath, and yet, Christendom is not dead.  It has just relocated. 

For many Christians, Christendom has shrunk from the broader national and political spheres to the narrow arena of ‘my church’.  For them, their church is the embodiment the kingdom of God on earth.  Everything beyond it is wrong, flawed, or evil.  Thus, church language, activity, and code of conduct do more than qualify and define it as different from the world but put it in opposition to the world.  High walls have been constructed, if not physically then mentally, and now the borders of Christendom lie at the edge of church parking lot.  Most everything beyond this border is a threat to the gospel and personal faith. 

While such an attitude can be attributed to a reaction to secular humanism, deteriorating social mores, and national politics, it has come to include expressions of Christian faith that are historically and culturally different.  Because they do not look, feel, or sound like us, they are a threat.  For example, reports of a vibrant, growing church in Ghana, West Africa can be ignored or dismissed by a church in Waco, Texas with the simple statement that it is foreign, aberrant, or syncretistic.  The siege mentality of Christendom gives my church permission to establish its forms of worship, polity, theology, and program as the norm for the church worldwide.  If they sound like us, act like us, and agree with us, then quite possibly there may be an outpost of us in Ghana.

Or it may be that I see the church of Ghana as simply irrelevant.  My church is in the midst of battle with its society and everything it teaches and does must be for the reinforcement of its border against society, for fear that it will be overrun by evil forces.  So, the church in Ghana is a distraction and irrelevant to our struggle.  We simply do not need them nor do we have time for them. 

So, when my Church is Christendom, then I will ensure that my granddaughter is schooled in real Christianity and protected from tainted or less-than-ideal forms of faith.  Africans in a cinder-block church half-way around the world have nothing to do with her and could even pose a threat to her formation in orthodox faith.

But to the contrary, Christendom must die.  I have come to believe that my church desperately needs to know about, learn from, and live in solidarity with believers in Ghana.  The church in Ghana has so much to teach me about what it means to live in a society of competing religions, the world of spirits and powers, and the kind of reliance on God that trumps money and privilege.  My granddaughter needs to be schooled in the richness and diversity of Christianity, to understand the power of the gospel in the face of disease, poverty, and evil, and to worship Jesus in dance and jubilant song.  She needs to know that walls do not hold this gospel and that the gospel has no borders.