ATLANTA — With the center of Christianity shifting south in the 21st century, what can North American Christians learn from what’s happening in Africa, Asia and Latin America?
What are the implications of the new alignments — with pluralism and secularism increasing in Europe and the United States, while evangelical Christianity is booming in many places in the southern hemisphere?
There are many ways to answer those questions, but one common denominator is this: North American Christians need to be ready for change. Things are shifting all around them, whether they’re prepared or not, and some of these realignments amount to dramatic reconfigurations. And with every change comes both some pain and new opportunities.
Presbyterians gathered in Atlanta Oct. 20-22 for a global mission conference called “From Everywhere to Everyone,” sponsored by The Outreach Foundation, Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and the Worldwide Ministries Division of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
“From now on Christianity is primarily a non-western religion,” said Andrew Walls, a professor from the University of Edinburgh, who traced how shifts in migration patterns have affected missionary activity around the world. “Increasingly it will be shaped by the languages, the cultures, the music, the rhythms, the ways of thinking and choosing and doing things, the structures and networks of relationships of Africa and Asia and Latin America. …They must increase and we must decrease.”
Among the points he and others made:
Â· Over the last century immigration patterns have shifted tremendously. The great European migration, in which millions of people moved westward beginning around 1500, essentially ended by the middle of the 20th century. During that time, “western Christians came to see themselves as the representative Christians,” Walls said. “Europe was Christendom,” along with, later, the United States. At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America.
Â· There has been, over the last century, the most profound reconfiguration in Christianity since the first 100 years after Christ died and the church was founded. By the start of the 21st century, more than half of the world’s Christians were living in the southern hemisphere. If those trends persist at the current rate, by 2050 about two-thirds of the world’s Christians would live in Latin America, Asia or Africa.
Â· The western traditions of sending missionaries — and of colonization — did spread Christianity to other parts of the world. “The great European migration produced the transformation of the church,” not because of the west’s political and economic dominance, “but almost in spite of it,” Walls said.
Â· The north has seen big population shifts too, in part because of the changing patterns of migration. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other non-Christians — many residents of the former European colonies — are flooding into Europe, Canada and the United States. The melting pot is not their model — as Europe has discovered with Muslim immigrants, many keep close ties with their home countries and traditions. “Vasco da Gama sailed home,” Walls said. “And then the empires struck back.”
Cause, and effects
All this change has washed over the old religious configurations like a wave pounding the beach, changing the terrain.
In some countries south of the equator, Christian churches are multiplying with heart-pounding speed — and people tell stories of hundreds wanting to be baptized, of amazing conversions, of a church growing faster than pastors or leaders can be trained. And this is not necessarily the quiet, buttoned-down church that so many Western Christians revere.
In Laos, Christians have been expelled from their villages because of their faith, church leaders have been arrested and jailed, said James Oudom, the first Laotian the PC(USA) has ordained as a minister. But “they don’t give up,” he said, because “Jesus Christ never gave up on anybody.”
Sameh Maurice Tawfik, co-pastor of Kasr El Dobarah Evangelical church in Egypt, a congregation where 7,000 people worship in a largely Muslim country, told attendees at one workshop that “we have become crazy people,” planting churches among the Kurdish people in northern Iraq in the middle of the war, gathering “to pray and pray and pray and pray” for people to turn to Jesus Christ.
Muslims are being converted “by Christ himself, by visions and dreams,” Tawfik said. “Sometimes the whole village having the same dream the same night. Jesus is visiting every home. … I have hundreds of stories, hundreds. Some of them you can’t even believe. … To me this is the answer to prayer. We prayed that crazy prayer for years,” that “tonight a person in Egypt would be visited by Jesus.”
Organizers of the conference said they wanted North American Presbyterians to hear the voices of Christians from other parts of the world. But it’s also clear that there are many voices and many perspectives, even from within particular countries.
Kwame Bediako, a theological educator and minister with the Presbyterian Church of Ghana, drew applause when he said: “In those other regions of the world, it appears the gospel does not need to be changed or modified in order to speak to the realities of modern life.”
But that doesn’t mean there would always be agreement between north and south regarding, for example, the role of women in the church, economic issues and globalization, marriage and sexual matters, worship styles, or the relationship between Christians and those of other faiths.
The southern hemisphere’s view of Christianity is, to those in the north, “exotic, appealing, exciting, but also a little frightening,” Bediako said — frightening in part because it’s so different.
Walls described suffering as a model for leadership in many churches in the south — a concept that can be hard for affluent North Americans to grasp, but which resonates with those who’ve endured suffering in places such as Sudan and China and Korea. They’ve known firsthand famine, war, illness, persecution, bitter religious and national separations.
And the southern church’s experience of co-existing with Muslims and Buddhists and Hinduism, with practitioners of traditional religions and Pentecostalism, “has given entirely new meaning to the word ecumenical, “ Wall said. “It no longer has anything to do with how Presbyterians get along with Baptists.”
At the same time, religious pluralism has become a fact of life in the U.S.
Stan Skreslet, a professor of Christian mission at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, told one workshop that Islam has become a global faith community, as is Christianity, and “there are more Muslims and they’re in more places,” increasingly visible.
Muslim athletes speak out about their faith; the Koran is being translated into English; Skreslet picked up a flyer at his son’s college recently for Islamic Awareness Week. Islam has its own evangelists, seeking conversions to that faith — Skreslet said when he lived in Cairo, “it wasn’t unusual to be approached with a tract or to be asked casually what I thought about Muhammad.”
And there’s a “very energetic discussion” taking place in many languages about Islamic identity, about issues such as human rights, women’s rights, the practice of democracy and the conduct of war, according to the professor.
For Christians in the West, all of this means these conversations will be coming closer to them than ever before, Skreslet said, and that “no group of Christians can claim to be bystanders in this anymore.” In a multi-cultural setting, “part of it is how do we be good neighbors?” he said in an interview. “And part of it is how do we present the claims of the gospel? This is good news — shouldn’t we share it?”
But how to do that — what mission looks like in the 21st century — is being re-evaluated too.
Vic Pentz, senior pastor of Peachtree Church, where the conference was held, said that until the early 1990s, his idea of global mission was “just taking big gobs of money and sending it from the west to the rest. I’d go to other countries and often I’d feel like I was a traveling Santa Claus,” and he expected the Christian who received the money to be pleased.
But while on sabbatical in Israel, he met a Malaysian pastor who didn’t take the money. Instead, the pastor — who dreamed of starting a school — told Pentz that if he returned home with that much money as a Christian pastor “they’d probably take it away and throw me in jail.”
But the pastor asked Pentz to join him in their remaining weeks together in praying for the school. So Pentz found himself under the spiritual guidance of his Malaysian friend — and his view of mission shifted. Now he sees it as God’s work, ever surprising, not something of which he’s in charge.
How to do mission now?
“Just show up,” Pentz preached one night. “Just bring your toothbrush and a yearning for friends.” God will do the rest.