World Christianity

August 2, 2018 at 4:16 pm Leave a comment

I have been reading a book on World Christianity edited by Jonathan Tan and Anh Tran.  For those of us in Western nations, such as Australia and are Anglo-Celtic, our experience of church can be that it has been declining over recent decades.  We can think this is the overall reality when it is not.  Christianity has been growing significantly in other parts of the world and among other ethnic groups.  The book highlights that a major shift has taken place.  The traditional homeland of Christianity was Europe and North America.  Now Christianity is predominantly a religion of Africa, Asia and the Americas.  An estimated 60% of Christians are now living in the southern hemisphere.


The missionary efforts of the past 500 years were successful.  First Roman Catholic and then Protestant missionaries took Christianity to the world.  This was connected to the colonial enterprises of European nations.  The outcome was not necessarily what they anticipated.  Those in other cultures who took on Christianity did not necessarily take on all its Western forms of thinking.  Asians, Africans and others contributed their ways of thinking and acting. As well as local forms of traditional churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and Methodist, there has also been the rise of indigenous movements.  Often these were related to resistance to colonialism.  In China indigenous movements were often overlooked or undervalued by missionaries.  In Korea it was related to Japanese imperialism while in Africa it was related to British, French and Belgic imperialism.  Prophets like William Wade Harris proclaimed Christian faith and resisted American domination of Liberia.  SImon Kimbangu proclaimed a faith of conversion and healing that resisted the Catholic Church and Belgic authorities.  The Kimbanguist Church was seen as a nationalist movement.  Many indigenous movements of recent history are closely linked to independence from missionary control and colonial powers.


The growth of the church in non-Western nations is related to the rise of Pentecostalism.  Pentecostalism traces its beginnings to a revival at William Seymour’s Azusa Street mission in Los Angeles in 1906 which then sent out missionaries.  Hollenweger in The Pentecostals: The Charismatic Movement in the Churches identified various influences nurturing the modern Pentecostal movement: black oral African American religion transmuted through Seymour’s leadership that featured fellowship between people from different cultural, racial and linguistic backgrounds; a catholic and evangelical influence related to John Wesley and the American holiness movement; Pentecostalism’s nonconventional spirituality; and an ecumenical influence in that converts to the Pentecostal movement came from many church traditions. Azusa Street missionaries were well received in other parts of the world because revivals were already taking place.  They had a catalytic role in establishing a world-wide network.


After the first generation of Pentecostals called ‘classic Pentecostalism’ which was largely ignored by other churches, came ‘charismatic renewal’ movements in mainline Protestant denominations and also in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions in the 1960s.  Then came a third wave of other more or less independent ministries and churches.  Some of the largest churches around the world are Pentecostal, such as Hillsong in Sydney.  More importantly, the growth and expansion of the church in the global south, Africa in particular, remains fuelled by charismatic renewal movements.  This is true of Roman Catholicism as well as Protestantism.  Protestant denominations such as Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Lutheran are growing primarily as pentecostalized or charismaticized movements.  These denominations are all now similar in size on a world scale.  Their style if not their theology is pentecostal appealing to experience and emotion not just thinking. Large protestant denominations in South Korea are essentially pentecostal in spirituality. The same is true in China even if the term pentecostal is not used.


In regard to Evangelical church free churches there has been a merging of pentecostal and charismatic influences such that Pentecostal churches and Evangelical churches are now very similar in their worship styles and piety. They have common spirituality, values and missional commitments.  Global Christianity is now made up of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal churches but within these there are often pentecostal and charismatic approaches especially in non-Western churches.  Then there are the independent type movements and churches which also have pentecostal features.


The people of the Global South face some of the greatest challenges: poverty, disease, environmental degradation, human and civil rights abuses, ethnic and regional conflicts, and mass displacement of people. For many moving across borders is the way to seek a better future.  Migration, refugees and asylum seekers have become a feature of our global world. This has also meant that the religion of such people is brought with them to the new country to which they move.  For people from non-western nations that often means Christianity, though it can also mean Islam or Buddhism for example.


When Christians from other countries migrate to new lands they typically establish or join with other ethnic Christians like them.  In Europe the decline of white people relating to the churches needs to be counterbalanced by the rise of thriving new ethnic and multicultural churches. Church buildings can be used by different constituencies over time.  For example, the Transfiguration Church in Manhattan, New York was built in 1801 and first used by Dutch Lutherans.  As Manhattan became less Dutch and more English it became an Episcopal (Anglican) congregation.  The Roman Catholic Church then bought the building to serve Irish then Italian immigrants.  Now it is a Chinese church.  In Western Sydney many churches are used by more than one group for Sunday worship.


It is worth noting that the vitality of immigrant Christians especially those who are Pentecostal is often associated with a missionary orientation.  They see the West, such as Europe, as a de-Christianized continent in need of revitalization. Two large Nigerian-led Pentecostal churches are having an impact. One based in Kiev, Ukraine has 25,000 members scattered throughout Europe.  Kingsway International Christian Centre has its main church in London.  With 10,000 members it is the largest single active congregation in Europe.


Let us then see ourselves as part of the world church and join in God’s ongoing mission.


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