I have had the pleasure of hearing Philip Jenkins, the noted professor of history, lecture on a number of different occasions – most memorably, early one morning at one of the many breakfast meetings held during the 222nd General Assembly. Jenkins’ expertise is in the rise of Christianity in the Global South and his lecture seemed to cast in stark relief the state of the mainline (which I recently learned is now often called “old line”) church in the United States and the booming churches around the globe. Jenkins noted that the world was coming to us and creating Christian congregations in our midst. As I listened I realized, yet again, how myopic my vision is. The tendency to be curved in upon myself is as strong as a riptide and I get pulled under by it regularly.
Jesus is Lord of all. God created all there is, seen and unseen. Christianity cannot be contained within national borders or denominational jurisdictions. Imagine.
Jenkins, quoted in a 2014 interview in Christianity Today, said, “We traditionally think of Christianity in the West as being, here’s the phrase we use: Western educated, industrialized, rich, democratic. If you take the first letters of that, it spells the English word weird. So what we’re talking about is a transition away from weird to a normal kind of Christianity.”
This new normal, or perhaps old normal, graces the pages of this issue of the Outlook. Actually, this issue attempts to show weird and normal Christianity side by side: one body, working together to follow Jesus Christ. Leslie Scanlon writes about immigrant congregations in the United States, those places where Jenkins noted at that GA breakfast “accidental mission” happens. Kathy Melvin gives us some context for mission in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), its history and evolution. Three of our mission co-workers share with us what it is like to live and serve in Russia, South Sudan and East Congo. Our book editor, Roy Howard, goes beyond even global Christianity and tells us about the Interfaith Partners for Peace trip that he took to Israel and Palestine with 27 pastors and rabbis.
The psalmist reminds us that, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” Jesus says, “The wind blows where is chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” Paul tells those nascent Christian communities, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” In other words: God’s Kingdom is bigger than us, not controlled by us and made up of others beside us. Imagine.
The voices in these pages testify to the truth that the church is alive and active, vibrant and faithful, often under very difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible circumstances. Weird Christians and normal ones together proclaim the love of Jesus Christ through worship, healing, teaching, peacemaking and table fellowship. I am grateful to my brothers and sisters who bear witness to the expansive nature of Jesus’ church, the ones to whom I am united through Christ, the ones who challenge me to look up and out so that I can see past myself.
At the end of that GA breakfast, one participant asked Jenkins if this Reformation-sized transformation had relevance for local congregations not in direct relationship with an immigrant congregation. He responded that, at the very least, it should give all of us pause to consider what we mean when we talk about “the church.”
I hope this issue of the Outlook will give you pause and invite you to consider anew what it means when we talk about “the church.” I hope that when you gather this Sunday to worship, you will remember that there is a huge, diverse, weird, normal, varied communion of saints worshipping with you. I hope you will pray and give thanks for your family in the pew with you, down the street from you and around the globe in Russia, South Sudan, East Congo and beyond. I hope you will celebrate the relentless winds of the Spirit that blow where they will, ever pushing us out into the world and toward one another no matter how far apart we live.
Grace and peace,