The Changing Face of Christianity

Strapped for time available for posting material here, I humbly submit my first seminary paper. The prompt was “Drawing on your readings and class discussion, how is the face of Christianity changing? Describe the changes and what has contributed to those changes, and then analyze how this may affect the church as a whole.” Bear with me, as I have opted to not remove the parenthetical citations.; if you have questions about the context in the articles from which I drew my quotes, don’t hesitate to ask :)

The Changing Face of Christianity

Russell Duren

IN581: Theology of Mission & Evangelism

University of Dubuque Theological Seminary

March 3, 2008

Without a doubt, the face of Christianity is changing. Worldwide, Christians comprise a dynamic and diverse group of people. Because of this makeup, change -or the call for change, at the very least- should come as no surprise. So, although one could make the case that this state of constant transition might be called business as usual in Christianity, the possible changes themselves that lie on the horizon are quite remarkable. Global Christianity stands on the verge of deep shifts in demographics, in a revival of the missio Dei and the Gospel’s relation to the surrounding culture, and in the influence exerted on the church by technology. Though the effects of these changes remain largely unseen, no collection of circumstances in recent history holds as much promise for the Bride of Christ to respond in a unified and world-changing manner. Before exploring the church’s expanded possibilities for taking Christ to the world, an examination of the conditions setting the stage is in order.

If strength truly lies in numbers, shifts in Christianity’s global demographics give ample clout to believers in the southern hemisphere. Exact figures vary from source to source, but one clear trend is the Christian population boom in Third World countries, which for the purposes of this discussion shall be collectively referred to as the global South. In his 2002 article “The Next Christianity”, Philip Jenkins offers numbers of 480 million Christians in Latin America, 360 million believers in Africa, and 313 million in Asia. A numbers chasm emerges in plain sight when one compares any of these figures to North America’s Christian population of 260 million. (Jenkins, “Next,” p. 56) This writer’s experience in a single undergraduate-level statistics class destroys any automatic trust placed in numbers used for making arguments. However, even if Jenkins’ figures are relative or proportional at best, the global discussion on Christian orthodoxy clearly has more voices participating from the global South than anywhere else. In this conversation, a focal issue is that of how to engage surrounding cultures.

Wilbert Shenk offers a detailed exploration of the connections between theology of mission and the fulfillment of Christianity’s global aims, in “Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the Non-Western World”. Pointing to a resurgence of interest in the ongoing process of immersion in the missio Dei, Shenk maintains that a vital theology of mission flows from the Gospel’s engagement of culture, that this development is crucial for the shaping of Christian identity, and that we have much to learn from the growth of Christianity in the global South. (Shenk, “Recasting”, p. 98) The New Testament shows the early church headed in the right direction in issues of cultural engagement. Chapter six of the Book of Acts tells the story of the apostles’ delegation of food-distribution duties. In this instance, engagement of culture takes the form of giving bread to a widow, and the theology of mission that emerges advocates the individual believer’s exploration of his or her unique gifts, and how those gift might be employed in service of the message of Jesus Christ. Clearly, one’s theology of mission (which flows from cultural engagement) is directly tied to Christian identity. Discussing this connection, Shenk asserts that the introduction of Christianity to any particular culture must do more than merely replace the native culture with another. He maintains that surface-level cultural changes fail to address issues of Christian identity and its resulting loyalties. (Shenk, “Recasting”, p. 99) Shenk’s exploration of key themes in global South theology builds on his insistence on a solid Christian identity. Two themes that merit discussion here are the global South’s Christological openness to culture and a dynamic pneumatology. Regarding openness to culture, Shenk affirms that conversion loses its meaning when it fails to address the unique context surrounding the convert. (Shenk, “Recasting”, p. 101) Dynamic pneumatology is another area in which Shenk nudges western Christianity to take a cue from the global South. Advocating a middle ground between the current norm and full-scale conversion to Pentacostalism, Shenk points out Harvey Cox’s discussion of experientialsm, where adherents firmly hold to tradition but seek to experientially articulate their faith journeys. (Shenk, “Recasting”, p. 102)

Also addressing the theme of experience and interaction, but instead discussing technology where Cox discusses faith, Barry R. Taylor explores the role of the mediated event in his article “Culture Since 1985.” Defining his coined term, Taylor says mediated events are the particular manifestations of a culture “in which our personal interactions with reality are filtered through the lens of electronic media technologies.” (Taylor, “Culture”, p. 146) Taylor goes on to give examples of recent mediated events. The global fundraising concert Live Aid convinced ordinary people of their power to band together in bringing about profound humanitarian change. When the Berlin Wall fell, the world rejoiced, celebrating what seemed to be the unavoidable and world-changing power of democracy. (Taylor, “Culture”, p. 149) CNN’s nonstop coverage of Desert Storm facilitated a paradox, a real-time distance from the war. The world watched as every bomb dropped on Baghdad exploded on live television, but most went on largely unaffected in their day-to-day lives. (Taylor, “Culture”, p. 150) With the tragic and premature death of Princess Diana, the “People’s Princess,” the Royal family was more or less forced to temper their tradition, their royal law, and their pomp and circumstance to the satisfaction of a grieving planet. The solemnity of Diana’s funeral, originally planned according to the fullest extent of Anglican High Church formality, capitulated to the sentiments of the commoner. It was instead transformed (with the help of the always flamboyant Sir Elton John) into a celebration of a heroine whose life ended too soon. (Taylor, “Culture”, p. 153) These mediated events, and others, force us to come to terms with living in a world of immediacy, a world where last year’s models may not work, but where -with creativity and diligence- our carrying out of the mission of God can bring individuals into relationship with Jesus Christ and redeem a fallen world.

Implications arising from these and other significant changes hold great promise for the church. The southward-shifting balance in numbers of Christians will certainly change the direction in which our conversation moves. The theologically conservative tendencies in the global South will prompt the honest and aware western Christian to “work out with fear and trembling” his or her salvation, as we’re each admonished to do in Philippians 2:12. Granted, the charge of aloofness or unawareness is sometimes fairly leveled against western Christianity, but this author is hopeful that the sheer numbers of the global South will give necessary momentum to the West’s re-engagement in the global conversation. However, Timothy Shah makes a convincing argument against the probability of any sort of monolithic southern Christendom that would force (instead of invite) the West into conversation. The evangelical trends in southern Christianity’s growth -or specifically the grassroots, populist, and possibly anti-institutional nature of the evangelical organism- will impede the rise of a New Christendom. (Shah, “After”, pp. 27-29) In short, the massive growth in global South Christianity stands to affect the global church simply by becoming a voice too hard to ignore for the honest western Christian, resulting in a more globally conversant Christianity.

The growth in the global South is tied to a western recovery or revival of the missio Dei. Christianity’s robust witness in Third World countries makes it increasingly harder for the West to simply write a check to solve problems abroad. Rather, the global South Christians who are “in the trenches” stand poised to invite the western Christian to come alongside, roll up her sleeves, and her hands dirty. What if the apostles’ story in chapter six of the Book of Acts teaches the individual Christian to take ownership of his distinctive gifting to love his neighbor, and in doing so, further the message of Jesus Christ? For the apostles, spending even an hour doing something other than preaching and teaching was a disservice to the movement. Likewise, the apostles expected the differently gifted believers to step forward and serve the common cause by organizing food distribution. The western Church is on the verge of a reclaiming of the individuals’ potential to contribute to the mission of God in a hands-on way, and when this happens there will be great renewal in the western Church.

Finally, the technological changes discussed in this paper (the rise of Taylor’s mediated event, for example) lay out a wide platform from which the Church may proclaim its message. There is a clear trend among specific ministries targeting children, youth, and young adults to leverage social networking websites such as MySpace.com and Facebook.com in spreading their message. Mediated events could not have occurred without the impressive technological foundations laid over the course of the past few decades. However, a more significant factor is in play: People want to be part of something “big”. Technology can make things “big” very easily. For example, World Relief is a Christian organization that has put together the Turame microfinance project. Partnering with Turame, Christians can make relatively small donations, which World Relief uses to make seemingly small loans in impoverished countries. So far, Turame celebrates having “empowered more than 90,000 individuals to live productive, meaningful lives. Over the years, we’ve seen how initial loans of just $50-$75 can launch an individual on the path to economic self-sufficiency, spurring entrepreneurial ideas.” (World Relief, “Microfinance Home”) Christians’ involvement with Turame is primarily facilitated through its website. Clearly, changes in technology hold great promise for the carrying forth of the work of Jesus Christ.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Philip. “The Next Christianity.” The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 290 No. 3 (October 2002) 55-68.

Shah, Timothy Samuel. “Evangelical Politics in the Third World: What’s Next for the ‘Next Christendom’?” The Brandywine Review of Faith & International Affairs (Fall 2003) 21-30.

Shenk, Wilbert R. “Recasting Theology of Mission: Impulses from the Non-Western World.” International Bulletin of Missionary Research (July 2001) 98-106.

Taylor, Barry R. “Culture Since 1985.” Missiology: An International Review Vol. XXXV No. 2 (April 2007) 145-155.

World Relief. 2007. Microfinance Home. Baltimore, MD. On-line. Available from Internet, https://community.wr.org/NETCOMMUNITY/SSLPage.aspx?pid=668&srcid=597, accessed 3 March 2008.

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2 responses to “The Changing Face of Christianity

  1. Hi Russell

    Thank you for your mention of Turame. I work for WR and I am responsible for our Microfinance programs.

    Let me know if you have time for a call sometime. I am currently in Burundi having just attended the Turame board meeting.

    Hope to speak to you soon, Gareth

  2. Hello Russel,

    Just wanted to thank you for your research and insight on the ongoing change that occurs. I also wanted to thank you for discussing the effect technology has on Christians or any individual.

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