Welcome. A bigger blog on a big topic - the future of world Christianity. As ever, the views of a western male. I would love to hear from other perspectives. Please comment and please circulate as widely as possible. May the Lord be with us.
One River, Two Streams
The Blue Nile and the White Nile merge at Khartoum, but apparently as the river flows north for many miles differences in the colour of the water mean it is still possible to identify which of the two tributaries sourced the water.
Likewise Christianity in Britain includes, very broadly, two separate sources. The dominant flow has been that coming from the old Christendom of Europe, which for ease of labelling we might term ‘western’, or perhaps more pejoratively, ‘white’. The other flow stems from the rapid growth of Christianity in the ‘global south’, especially Africa, Latin America, south and east Asia. I am aware that this account over-simplifies, especially if it is taken as affirming false stereotypes of ‘emotional’ southerners and ‘rational’ westerners. Also it omits the contribution of the Orthodox (‘eastern’) churches, whose survival through the present bloody conflicts of the Middle East will be an important story yet to be written. (Note too Rowan Williams recent book ‘Looking East in Winter: Contemporary Thought and the Eastern Christian Tradition’).
Nonetheless the ‘two streams’ categorisation helpfully frames what I believe is the big issue for world Christianity for the next few decades: will the remarkable growth of ‘southern’ Christianity over the past sixty years transform the fortunes of world Christianity and successfully reverse the spread of secularisation in the west; or conversely will western secularisation, which has so effectively undermined the vitality of Christianity in the west over the last century, inexorably spread to overwhelm the Christian faith (and most likely all religious faiths) across the entire globe? The late Lamin Sanneh, one time Professor of Missions and World Christianity at Yale, wrote of ‘the revealing contrast between a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity’ (p xi, in his introduction to Vincent Donovan’s ‘Christianity Rediscovered’). Are we heading to a ‘post-Christian world’ or to a ‘post-western world Christianity’?
Secularists, emboldened by their success in the west, tend to assume unquestioningly that indeed they are (to use a phrase that begs many questions) ‘on the right side of history’ and that they have already delivered such body blows to religious faith that its ultimate expiry is only a matter of time. Christian revivalists on the other hand, amazed and buoyed up by what the Lord has done in their lifetime, confidently expect lost ground to be reconquered by renewed and energetic zeal, thus the hopes for effective ‘reverse mission’ in Britain and Europe.
This conflict between western secularism and southern revivalism is happening right here, right now, in a big city somewhere near you. The formation hereof the New Testament Church of God in 1953 marked the formal arrival of ‘southern’ Christianity in the UK. Yet it is still going on tragically unobserved and ignored. But by the end of this century the health and strength of the mission of the whole church to the whole world will be determined by how free and fast and honest is the communication between western Christianity, bloodied and bowed but not beaten by its bruising encounter with post-Enlightenment secularism, and the vibrant, growing, confident Christianity of the south and east, but still yet to face the full force of that encounter. If that encounter with secularism is not to lead ultimately to the world-wide extinction of religious faith, except as content-lite expressions of personal ‘spirituality’, then it is essential that Christians from these very different contexts – but now living side-by-side in the world cities of the west – share in worship and learning, affirmation and rebuke, exchanging signs of both progress and lessons learned in failure. In 1987 David Edwards wrote “It is clear that Christianity will not profit greatly if its boisterous growth in the Americas and Africa, and its arrival to settle in Asia, turn out to have been temporary phenomena, to be terminated by the impact of a secular Europe as a human body is killed by the spread of a malignant cancer” (‘The Futures of Christianity’ p 287). So, quite simply, becoming the expression of Jesus’ prayer that ‘they may be one, as we are one’ (Jn 17:11) across our racial, social and cultural divides is at the heart of the future of our faith.
Both these forces flourish in the large and now cosmopolitan cities of the west – yet the awareness of each to the sharpness of the challenges presented to each other is still undeveloped. ‘Hotbeds of Religious Revival or Seedbeds of Secularization?’ was the question posed by a symposium on 19thcentury European cities (on the cover of H McLeod (ed): ‘European Religion in the Age of the Great Cities 1830-1930’, Routledge 1995). It is now clearly an apt description of the major international cities of the twenty-first century, not least London, and the question is of even greater and global importance. (See the excellent collection of studies of London in David Goodhew and Anthony-Paul Cooper ‘The Desecularisation of the City’, Routledge 2019). It is a question which the Church of England – open alike to the warm currents of revivalism and the cold undertow of sceptical unbelief – is strategically placed to help answer, both by sharing with southern Christians hard won lessons of success and failure in responding to secularisation, and by continuing to challenge the pretensions of secularism in its very heartlands.
And yet the sad reality is that we have hardly addressed the issue at all. ‘Southern’ Christians within the Church of England have until recently received at best a lukewarm reception. We have been culpably lax in failing to develop warm-hearted, reciprocal, mutually challenging relationships with churches that have minority ethnic leadership and orientation. If the big challenge facing twenty-first century Christianity is to be met, it is essential that the Church of England, and other churches, become urgent in working out in both theory and practice how whilst coming out of many different cultures we can yet become one people bearing witness to Jesus Christ as the Lord of his creation.
Because the west/south distinction is not only one of spirituality and theology, but also more obviously and immediately of distinctions in race and power, these latter issues can inhibit free and open sharing through prioritising inter-racial courtesy and respect over the need for that honest and open disagreement as well as affirmation that alone can lead to an ultimately creative intermingling of the two sources.
What follows is an attempt to set out pointers as to how we might move beyond simply creating ecumenical good will to being mutually transformative in our relationships.
This already happens to a significant degree in local areas as church leaders meet together to pray, and to plan local initiatives in witness or service. The Evangelical Alliance’s One People Commission, and Churches Together in England already seek to facilitate such coming together; but I believe it needs to happen on a more intensive and intentional level. As mentioned above the need to exhibit unity and the fear of damaging it can inhibit the agenda.
Yet what is needed is that we step back and address the diversity, often cultural, of what we have to offer. Whilst there is a danger of a rigid ‘essentialist’ perception of different ethnicities, the west/south distinction in the church does point to important differences that can become points of growth. It is far too simple to see Pentecostalism as the major issue in west/south difference, but it often is a rough and ready guide. Southern churches tend to have a much more immediate understanding of the supernatural – evidenced at a fairly straightforward level in the weight that people give to guidance through dreams (In a 2007 survey, 33% of whites did; 56% of other groups). Allied to more immediate cultural expressiveness this gives rise to more fervent, believing prayer and livelier worship. The differences need exploring together in a conscious, explicit way.
* How can the prayer life of western churches be re-invigorated through contact with praying southerners? Overall and with honourable exceptions southern churches give prayer a much higher profile in church life; even more so if fasting is brought into the balance. Personally, I have found both within and also between congregations that it is the members with ‘southern’ origins who bring awe, adoration, expectancy, fluency and urgency into praying together. It is probably also the most frequent form of west/south interaction that is happening in Britain today. Part of the service that the newer churches from the global south can bring is to recall the older and often tired churches of Christendom back to prioritising prayer. Such relationships need sensitivity to established cultural differences in how we are used to praying, knowing that neither silence nor noise are more godly, and finding a mean between a Quaker-like silence and turning the volume up to 11.
* In a society where using the name of Jesus in conversation is now more shockingly disruptive than using the f-word, how can western Christians be helped to be less reticent? It has been widely observed that expressions of personal faith by footballers were unheard of twenty years ago but are now common thanks to the upsurge in the number of ‘southern’ players. The growth of southern Christianity in this country has been in significant part simply a consequence of migration (so that growth stutters as migration declines - as Caribbean churches have discovered, and African churches may yet discover), nonetheless confident, vigorous, imaginative evangelisation has also played a part. Again, there are pitfalls. Screeching into a microphone outside Seven Sisters underground station almost certainly hinders not helps the gospel. Nonetheless, the traditional western churches need nurturing in confidence in talking positively about their faith to neighbours.
* What is the role of sacrifice in the Christian life? Traditional churches in the west, not least the Church of England, have been cushioned by inherited resources. Southern churches in Britain have needed to pay their own way, or fade away. Consequently their level of giving is higher, related to which is greater seriousness about the demands of faith, not least the readiness to suffer. It is significant that virtually all instances where Christians have encountered official sanctions on expressing their faith (with wearing a cross at work, or tweeting disagreement with same-sex marriage as examples) have featured southern Christians. On the one hand the difference between church and world can be unhelpfully simplified in churches that are accustomed to seeing themselves as minorities; conversely churches that have been used to closely relating to power can be unsure in knowing how to rebuke it. (See my comments in the one-sided way in which western churches conceive of ‘speaking truth to power’ in a recent Blog).
This quick tour of some ways in which western and southern Christians and churches tend to operate hopefully highlights important ways in which by interacting we can learn and change for the good. I believe it would be helpful to develop resources for meeting together so that interactions can be structured and so enable mutual sharing, learning and - beyond recognising disagreements - moving towards a more powerful unity of mind and spirit. Philippians 2:1-4 is not just for within congregations, but should also point us to seeking greater unity and commonality amongst the world Christian community, and especially the churches of different ethnic backgrounds in my neighbourhood. This will need more than just amiable, occasional meetings but rather a commitment to encountering each other’s faith at depth. Could Evangelical Alliance or Churches Together facilitate such resources?
The German Evangelical Church has several people responsible to develop cross-cultural and inter-church relationships, admittedly with the strong financial ballast provided by a nationwide tax income. By contrast the Church of England not only has no such appointments but has shown little formal interest in developing such relationships, which often don’t appear in diocesan strategic plans (in London, for example), nor were they given much focus in the recent ‘From Lament to Hope’ Report.
The churches of the old Christendom have been required – to varying extents – to come to terms with the changes in understanding developing since the late seventeenth century and usually referred to as the Enlightenment; which has in turn given birth to societies that are unquestionably secular, at least in the sense that resort to religious authority is no longer seen as deciding public questions, and very often personal ones as well.
In ‘The Futures of Christianity’ (1987) David Edwards termed the main challenges presented to Christianity by secularism as being science, sex and socialism. Whilst there can be debate about how well western churches have responded to those challenges, that they have learned to respond in some way or other is not in doubt. In this situation it is too easy for ‘southern’ Christians now living in the west to see churches here as struggling simply because of spiritual coldness or unbelief. To quote David Edwards again: “I am prejudiced because I am a European, but I cannot ignore this faith that has survived this acid-throwing by European modernity. It has survived the unromantic agony of doubt and the humiliation of the need to change one’s mind. . . I believe that a faith tested and purified in these fires still has something precious to contribute to continents where religion has not so far been challenged so harshly” ( p 356). Storms of questioning and doubt that we have had to learn to weather are now looming on their horizons. Studies in the rise of atheism by scholars such as Alistair McGrath have often identified hostility to the church’s abuse of power and imperviousness to criticism – both intellectual and moral – as serious factors. Recently Professor Alec Ryrie has underlined the emotional factor in the growth of hostility to Christianity stretching back well into the Middle Ages. Older southern Christians need to receive questioning and criticism, not least from their own children, with humility and flexibility, not by holding fast to authoritarian responses.
For children from burgeoning southern churches in Britain evolution over millenia is taught without question (Edwards’ ‘science’). They have friends who are explicit about being gay (‘sex’). They are concerned about the causes and solutions of social and racial injustice (‘socialism’). These are questions that need to be openly debated not ignored. A white friend who is involved in the youth group of an African church says that all the young people readily accept their peer’s assumption that same sex activity is perfectly acceptable, whereas for their parents it is a question not even fit for discussion.
As Edwards says above, it is vital that southern churches tune in to these inevitably raised western questions, and take them very seriously. Western churches, of course, have varied in how they respond - to generalise: with a degree of confidence and unity over science; with a range of opinions that track, though add theological depth, to the secular views of socialism; but with considerable disagreement and controversy over sex.
Nor is the view of western academia the final word. It is right to push back and question the secularised world view. (James K A Smith’s ‘Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Philosophy’ (2010) is a stimulating counter). In particular the ‘southern’ emphasis on God’s supernatural power rightly unsettles the reductive causal uniformitarianism that the west finds it so hard to avoid. Similarly, southern Anglicans who have resisted growing western tolerance of same-sex activity have done so in the name of recalling the church to greater faithfulness in costly discipleship and refusing conformity with the world.
As with spirituality then, so with theology, western and southern Christians need to come round the table together to learn how to face the common challenge of a secularised world view.
* Just as ‘western’ theological institutions and colleges engage with Islamic and Jewish scholars and institutions, so they need to engage with the predominantly Pentecostal orientation of ‘southern’ training institutions in this country. Too often the majority world theologians who are taken seriously in the West are those whose background and training has been in the context of western-originated mission churches, though often themselves also now teaching in the West. Fear of a return to fundamentalism should not inhibit listening to the more ‘supernaturalist’ voices coming from southern churches with more indigenous roots. The sudden arrival of Zoom into our world can facilitate listening to more world-wide and often less accessible sources.
* Extending that point, colleges ought to be making themselves available to the ‘southern’ churches in this country. It is good that Oak Hill Theological College is offering bursaries to students of a wide variety of church and social backgrounds. Generally, the southern churches have far fewer resources to finance in depth theological study, and may well have seen less need for it. But it is now imperative for the sake of those grown up and educated in this country that they are intellectually equipped to face the challenges that life in the West brings.
In summary, the waters of the Blue Nile and White Nile in the course of their flow become indistinguishable. But we don’t have the luxury of letting things gradually take their course. For the health of world Christianity there needs to be a deep level of koinonia, a shared enterprise, amongst the politically, socially and culturally very different churches of the world. Providentially those varied streams now meet in the big cities of the West. Here we have a responsibility to initiate not just cordial relationships and affirmations of spiritual unity but humble, open and honest pioneering in prayer and faith together so that we are better equipped to serve in our emerging global community.