Sunday, August 06, 2017

Seminary CM8: Global Christianity

This is the eighth post on the Contexts of Ministry in my Seminary in a Nutshell series. See the bottom for the previous posts in this unit, "The Person and Contexts of a Minister." I have completed one other unit in this series,The Pastor as Leader.
1. When we founded Wesley Seminary in 2009, one of the books students read in the second class at that time, Cultural Contexts of Ministry, was Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom. The purpose of this reading was to give students a sense of the shifting demographics of Christianity in the world. In particular, it was to give these ministers a strong sense of the shift of Christianity from what used to be called the "first world," the so called "Western" world, to what we might now call the "two-thirds" world.

Perhaps we should not assume that the background of our current situation is known to any degree among ministers in training. Beginning in the late 1400s, Europe began colonizing the rest of the world, looking for gold and other items of value that they might then sell back in Europe. The "New World" was discovered by Europe as Christopher Columbus sought to find a shorter route to the East Indies.

Some of the precious goods that were imported from Africa were slaves. The slave trade begins and black as a race is born. Before that point, you had distinct African people groups. Now, Europeans come to dub all Africans as black and, thus by contrast, dominant Europeans become "white," another new category.

2. Spain will conquer what becomes known as Latin America, from present day Mexico down to the tip of South America. The Portuguese will take what is now Brazil. The French, Spanish, British, and Dutch will fight over North America until first the British prevail. Then the French will eventually sell out. Finally the new States will push Mexico to its current boundaries.

In Sub-Saharan Africa the French, the Dutch, and the British will parcel up the land. After World War I, the British will watch over the Middle East, as they had already what is now India and Pakistan. The French, Spanish, and British will dabble in Asia, with the British taking the continent of Australia, the French being in Vietnam, and the Spanish in the Philippines.

3. In the twentieth century, these European powers, these "colonial powers" will slowly withdraw from these lands. They have left their traces in the languages that remain. All of Latin America speaks primarily Spanish or Portuguese. English is a predominant language in India and its surrounding countries. Various countries in Africa speak either French or English.

The relationship these European colonizers took to the peoples of these lands was that of master to subservient, superior to inferior. This colonization brought missionaries to these lands as well. Many of them will become Christian lands at least in name. These missionaries had little or no training. No doubt they came largely unable to distinguish the cultural aspects of their faith from its kingdom core. No doubt many if not most of them came with the same sense of superiority than the political colonizers brought with them.

So these missionaries also served to colonize these lands with Western culture, this term itself a sort of construct for the culture of Europe. They came with "benevolent" intent but probably did not, for the most part, view the indigenous peoples as equals in the sight of God. For most of them, these peoples were "poor," "unfortunate" types. Even in the United States in the days before and after the Civil War, few of those in the North actually viewed the slaves as equal individuals created in the image of God. They might "help" those poor folk but most were not looking to make them equal.

4. The language of these days found itself in a time when the industrialized world was called the "first world." Then these largely unindustrialized, colonized lands, including pretty much all of the southern hemisphere, were called the "third" world (cf. Bandung conference of 1955, p.69). The shift to refer to these lands as the "two-thirds world" shows the dawning awareness that the vast majority of the world is not Europe, North America, or Russia.

In the 1970s, my own church, The Wesleyan Church, made a move that I thought at the time was the right move to make morally. Rather than have the rest of the Wesleyan church world be subservient to North America in our general conference, why not empower them to have their own general conferences? Then all of these general conferences would come as equals to the table in a Wesleyan World Fellowship.

The first such conference to break away from North America was the Caribbean, then the Philippines. Canada began the process of breaking away this past year (2016) and Australia has been at least partially separate for five years, I believe. These last two seem to indicate that the principle is sound and in good faith. I will not try to parse the moral complexities of the sense that other general conferences should be financially self-supporting and that this should be the goal of all domains outside North America.

If the motives of The Wesleyan Church (TWC) were mostly pure in making this distinction, the situation is now much more complex in relation to a church like the United Methodists. The UM church never made the kind of separation that TWC made in the 70s. When TWC made the distinction, there seemed to be a genuine sense of empowerment and enabling.

But the situation has changed, as Jenkins' book indicates. Christianity is rising in the two-thirds world much more quickly than in North America. The "global south," as it is sometimes referred to, will eventually have more voting power in the UM church than the North American church. Already in the Episcopal fellowship, Anglicans from Africa are increasingly marginalizing American Episcopal congregations that support the ordination and appointment of practicing gay ministers.

The UM church has been facing the same struggle this decade. If I read the situation correctly, the bishops of the UM church in general seem to support the ordination of practicing gay ministers. The majority of US congregations probably favor unity over schism over this issue. A sizable minority of US ministers view this issue as a "make or break" one. That is to say, if the church in the end ordains and appoints practicing gay ministers, then they will break away from the church.

Until this most recent general conference (2016), I had assumed that a split would involve the conservatives leaving. But the rise of the two-thirds world within the UM church suggests that, if a split delays long enough, the conservatives will eventually have the majority and it would be those in favor of practicing gay ministers who would more likely be forced to leave.

An attempt to separate global Methodism administratively from the North American church, much as the Wesleyans did in the 70s, failed this past UM general conference.

5. So what insights might we gain from Jenkins' book? Let me give quotes and comments from the book that have stood out to me:

  • "In 2050, 72 percent of Christians will live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and a sizable share of the remainder will have roots in one or more of those continents" (xi).
  • "Over the last century, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably away from Europe, southward, to Africa and Latin America, and eastward, toward Asia" (1).
  • "By 2050 only about one-fifth of the world's 3.2 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites" (3).
  • "Far from Islam being the world's largest religion by 2020... Christianity should still have a substantial lead and will maintain its position for the foreseeable future" (6).
  • "Members of a Southern-dominated church are likely to be among the poorer people on the planet" (7).
  • "There is no single Southern Christianity" (8).
  • "Liberal Protestantism has never represented a mainstream of Christianity, or even a majority, and as time goes on, the relative significance of that tradition will decline even further" (11).
  • "Conservative theological or moral stances often accompany quite progressive or radical economic views" (19)
  • Christianity in the global south often has a strongly charismatic flavor and sometimes focuses on the potential economic prosperity of believers.
  • "Almost one Christian in five worldwide is neither Protestant, nor Catholic, nor Anglican, nor Orthodox" (76). Note--he is not including Pentecostal under Protestant.
  • The number of Chinese Christians is currently 65-70 million, about 5% of the population (88).
  • India has more Christians than most European nations (91).
  • "By 2050, six of the world's twenty most populous nations will be on the African continent" (107)
  • By 2050, eight nations could each have a hundred million Christians or more... only the United States is from what is presently considered the advanced industrial world. 
  • These countries are USA (estimated to have 350 million Christians in 2050), Brazil (234 million), Philippines (162), Ethiopia (160), Congo (150), Mexico (130), Nigeria (127), Uganda (106), China (85), Russia (70), Germany (52). See p.113.
  • "The number of African Christians in 2050 will be almost twice as large as the total figure for all the Christians who were alive anywhere on the planet back in 1900" (113).
  • "Most of the global population growth in the coming decades will be urban" (116).
  • Most of the growth in Christianity that will take place in the United States and Europe in the coming decades will be a function of global Christianity. That is to say, it will not be among "white" American Christians. 
  • "Perhaps three-quarters of Arab Americans are in fact Christian" (133).
At this point I might mention that Jenkins is not asking whether or not these are truly Christians. That is to say, he is counting what we might call nominal Christians. For example, he would count a Mormon as a Christian in his statistics. Who is truly a Christian is of course a matter for God to decide (also see next post).

It may be uncomfortable for American Christians to come to grips with the approaching loss of power within the trajectory of Christendom. The election of Trump was arguably just one sign, at least in part, of one section of white America having difficulty coming to grips with a dominance slowly and inevitably slipping away (think Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin). This struggle will likely continue for the next few decades in the US until we reach some kind of racial equilibrium.

Another observation is that these shifts are not necessarily about truth. The seemingly inevitable cycle of "liberal" Christianity's demise says nothing of whether it is right or wrong on this or that point. In the same way, the coming dominance of two-thirds world Christianity only speaks of numbers and power, not of correctness. One of the observations Jenkins makes repeatedly is that many of the theologies emerging from Africa and South America are not entirely "orthodox" in the historic sense (e.g., "African Independent Churches" or AICs--66-68).

So North American Christian conservatives are happy to have the southern hemisphere support them on a number of theological struggles, but they may be uncomfortable with the progressive social stances that may also come in force. For example, "liberation theology" has had a significant foothold in Latin America, which advocates at the very least economic liberation and at times political revolution. These socialist and at times communist flavored values will be as distasteful to American conservatives as the southern position is appealing on the ordination of practicing gay ministers.

One take-away I have is that the current shift in dominance is likely to make all of us from the former hegemony uncomfortable.

6. The Situation Past and Present
  • "The whole idea of 'Western Christianity' distorts the true pattern of the religion's development over time" (22).
  • The church of Ethiopia today claims some 25 million members, after lengthy conflicts with Muslims and Marxists, roughly the number of all the Methodist related denominations in North America (26).
  • Had the Mongul invaders, with a Christian queen, have defeated the Turks in Palestine in the 1260s, much of the Middle East might be Christian today (34).
  • Christians have until recently had a significant presence in the Middle East despite Muslim dominance. Ironically, a large percentage of Palestinians have historically been Christian (as opposed to Jews). There has been a significant minority of Syrian Christians in Syria and Chaldean Christians in Iraq. Coptic Christians have been a significant presence in Egypt. 
  • British and American actions in the Middle East over the last century have inadvertently resulted in forces that have brought persecution and diaspora to these groups. In Palestine, for example, American Christians have strongly supported the Israeli dominance over the Palestinians, even though far more Palestinians have been Christian.
  • During the colonial era, Westerners tried to impose their own ideas of Christianity as it should be to the world. Gradually, indigenous peoples moved beyond the colonial matrix. Finally they adapt and incorporate native ways and form wholly new churches (70). This of course is what happened when Christianity came to northern Europe as well.
A central take-away from these insights is the way evangelical Christians have often blindly participated in political forces that have, unintentionally, had harmful repercussions to Christians in the Middle East. America's blind support of Israel has hurt Christianity among Palestinian, Egyptian, Syrian, and Iraqis. The blind assumption that all Arabs or Middle Easterners are Muslim has only made things more difficult for Arab and Middle Eastern Christians, whose Christianity is far more ancient than American Christianity.

Another potentially sobering possibility is that what we consider orthodoxy may have elements of European (as opposed to the pre-Constantinian Christian) culture. A theological construct of which I am very fond--consensus Christianity--is vulnerable to the charge that the consensus of which we speak significantly involves the culture of the European Middle Ages. Are there elements that are similar to when holiness missionaries to Native Americans had them wear buns and skirts, while stopping all forms of dancing?

7. Looking to the Future
Some final quotes:
  • "As Christianity becomes increasingly Southern, it cannot fail to absorb the habits and thought-worlds of the regions in which it is strongest" (140). It has always done this, and that is okay. "London's St. Paul's Cathedral almost certainly stands on the site of an ancient pagan structure" (138).
  • "Hispanic theology is acutely concerned with issues of liberation, suffering, and social justice, while matters of race are also paramount" (144).
  • "A black or brown Mary would be a powerfully appropriate symbol for the emerging Southern Christendom" (147).
  • "The practice of healing is one of the strongest themes unifying the newer Southern churches, both mainstream and independent, and perhaps their strongest selling point for their congregations" (157).
  • Many Southern churches appropriate the OT more directly and literally than the West has come to do (this was also true of frontier churches in the US in the 1800s, as we see in traditions about the Sabbath, circumcision, tithing, and verses relating to appearance).
  • Churches are fundamentalist and charismatic by nature (169).
  • "The greatest change from present assumptions is likely to involve the Enlightenment-derived assumption that religion should be segregated into a separate sphere of life, distinct from everyday reality" (171).
  • Politics and religion tend to align in the two-thirds world. Of course this happens in the US as well.
  • "Religious loyalties are at the root of many of the world's ongoing civil wars" (201).
  • Catholicism is not so much waning in the southern hemisphere as changing. For example, charismatic and Pentecostal elements are on the rise.
  • Immigrant churches are on the rise in the US and Europe, and two-thirds world countries are increasingly sending missionaries to Western lands. 
  • By 2050, it seems likely that "whites" will make up less than half of Americans. Over half may be Hispanic, a quarter black. Asians not quite a quarter.
Jenkins is a sociologist of religion. He is not saying what should happen, only what he thinks has and is going to happen. What this means is that we who are in the church need to engage a dialog with "the other" as equal participants. This must not be a dialog of a supposedly "superior" Western Christian "schooling" the "inferior" global Christian. It should be a dialectic. Each side raises concerns and makes points. A synthesis will emerge over time. I believe this is also the most profitable way to move forward whenever any two or or more groups are in tension or conflict.
The alignment of political party with religion is something that European Christianity and indeed world Christianity has born the scars. History has emphatically shown the need to align Christianity with principles rather than political party. When Christians persecute Christians, something is wrong. Similarly, we can debate whether the strong alignment of American evangelical Christianity with the Republican party is in the end a healthy situation for American Christianity in general.

8. For the moment, he notes that Christianity is alive and well among the poor and persecuted (275), and the truly persecuted do not live in the white portions of North America.

No doubt the future will throw some wrenches in these prognostications. As G. K. Chesterton once said, future humanity listens respectfully to prophets and prognosticators, then goes on to do something different after they are nicely buried. Jenkins is convinced that the shift of Christianity to the southern hemisphere is taking place. He is less willing to commit to what that will end up looking like.

The currents of history are always alterable, especially through violence. For all we know, God could let the world destroy itself before the next election.
Next Sunday: Culture 9: The Rise of the Nones

The Calling of a Minister
The Person of a Pastor
Contexts of Ministry

No comments: