Remember when Global Christianity was Shaming the Church in the West?

Fifteen years ago, bookies were betting on the Global South:

Today the Christian total stands at 360 million out of 784 million, or 46 percent. And that percentage is likely to continue rising, because Christian African countries have some of the world’s most dramatic rates of population growth. Meanwhile, the advanced industrial countries are experiencing a dramatic birth dearth. Within the next twenty-five years the population of the world’s Christians is expected to grow to 2.6 billion (making Christianity by far the world’s largest faith). By 2025, 50 percent of the Christian population will be in Africa and Latin America, and another 17 percent will be in Asia. Those proportions will grow steadily. By about 2050 the United States will still have the largest single contingent of Christians, but all the other leading nations will be Southern: Mexico, Brazil, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. By then the proportion of non-Latino whites among the world’s Christians will have fallen to perhaps one in five.

What could go wrong? All indexes were pointing up.

But human sinfulness even among the saints has a way of defying prognosticators:

Christians in Nigeria are dancing on the brink of moral and ethical collapse. Many Christians who hold public office have become corrupt or immoral, betraying their public Christian testimony. They lack integrity and cannot present a strong moral and ethical witness. They lack the virtue of honesty in public life.

Nigeria is considered a very religious country. Christianity is not limited to churches and prayer meetings. Prayer and Bible readings are found in boardrooms and government offices. Billboards announce upcoming crusades, and exclamations like “to God be the glory” and “praise the Lord” easily fall from the lips of Nigerian Christians, even in public.

But as the well-known and respected Catholic priest George Ehusani has noted,

Alongside religiosity, corruption in its many shapes and sizes is booming in Nigeria—from the petty bribery taken by the clerk in the office or the policeman at the checkpoint, to the grand corruption by which huge project contracts are hurriedly awarded, not for the sake of the common good, but because of the greed of the awarding official, who requires some money via contract “kickbacks.”
He also notes that activities like embezzling and cheating—ranging from school children to high-profile public figures—often go hand in hand with outward expressions of piety. Many Nigerians obtain fraudulent medical certificates, as well as fake birth and citizenship certificates, to be admitted to good schools or to get choice jobs. They evade taxes, over- and under-invoice customers, perform fake audits, and on and on. He concludes, “All these practices are so commonplace and so widespread that many young Nigerians are unable to distinguish between good and evil or between right and wrong.”

Father Ehusani is merely describing what is common knowledge to all Nigerians. These matters are more lethal to the Christian faith than any Islamization agenda.

In the 20th century, indigenously founded churches sprang up across Africa, particularly in Nigeria. After the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), Christians who saw the conflict as a sign of the end times embarked on a massive campaign to spread the Good News of Christ across Nigeria. Student associations and missionary movements sprang up. Nigerian Christians were determined to re-enact what happened in the Book of Acts: turning “the world upside down” (17:6 ESV).

Sadly, today the story has changed. Both mainline and Pentecostal Christianity in Nigeria are still committed to reaching out to the unreached, but the undue emphasis on health and wealth has permanently changed the face of Christianity in Africa and the world at large. Pastors and church members are now more interested in building beautiful and massive edifices than in reaching out to the unreached people groups of the world. Many pastors are obsessed with material possessions, sometimes owning one or more private jets! The corruption of Christian moral values has now given way to the worship of materialism and pleasure. Our real god is now mammon (Matt. 6:24). We have become devoted to what American theologian and social critic Reinhold Niebuhr called self-love, self-interest, and the will to power.

Some of us wondered way back when about the way historians and journalists were evaluating the success of the church in the Global South with Christianity in the West:

The differences between the old and new Protestantism are not simply in the realm of perception, one being invisible or hard to discern, the other being very visible because of its numbers, intensity, and dramatic displays of divine power. Perhaps a more fundamental difference is the one between the eternal and the temporal. As the Brazilian pastor quoted in Jenkins’ book put it, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” This assertion may not be representative of most pastors ministering in the context of southern Christianity. But its bold contrast between the temporal and the eternal, between the South and the West, does help to illustrate the outlook that has dominated the analysis of global Christianity. Southern Christianity is alive and booming because it daily proves its efficacy in providing real, tangible relief for those enduring great suffering. Western Christianity, by contrast, offers theological complexity or liturgical precision but hardly has the goods to make a difference upon those people most in need.

Without wanting to diminish the difficulties that southern Christians face in their economic, political and physical conditions, is it possible to suggest that concentrating on these realities is short-sighted? What happens if another political or economic system takes better care or if another religion provides more control over the spiritual forces seemingly causing so much affliction for Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians? But this is more or less a pragmatic question. The ultimate question is the eternal one of death. Will those Christians miraculously healed or even the ones benefiting from modern medicine still face death? Or how about those believers for whom Christianity has instilled a work ethic that yields physical comfort, whether it be clothing for children or a brand new Ipod? Will these benefits make much difference when men and women, as the prophet says, fade like the grass? And what of the significant manifestations of the Spirit in the worship of Christians, whether in Lagos or Minneapolis? What will be the advantages or benefits of these spiritual gifts on judgment day? To be sure, such questions may sound sanctimonious or wrongheadely obtuse. But if Christianity is at least in part a religion that promises eternal life, that no matter how difficult the sufferings of this life may be, believers have hope for relief in the world to come, then questions of eternal significance have genuine merit in evaluating contemporary Christianity, whether in the global South or West.

No delight here in what’s happening in Nigeria. And the troubles of Christians in Africa in no way proves the health of churches in North America and Europe. It is only a way to raise questions once again about the way scholars analyze and journalists cover religion. Generally speaking, the spirituality of the church is not sexy and enthusiasm (especially among the marginal) is.

And where did academics and reporters receive their training in Christianity?

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The Parachurch with the Mind of a Superpower

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton said of the United States it was a “nation with the soul of a church.” He was referring in part to the difficulty he had finding an adult beverage, Prohibition being the law of the land thanks to the support of both modernist and fundamentalist Protestants.

Seldom noticed is that American evangelicals think they are the center of world Christianity. Consider this report on what the recent presidential election says about evangelicalism:

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it, or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”

But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that, in many cases,actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the Access Hollywood tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians, and, as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

The story links to reactions from historians (and other academics) who study evangelicalism and so you would think might be aware of different ways of evaluating born-again Protestantism, such as global Christianity:

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield, and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree, and in whatever ways, Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed, or currently contributes, to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Ever since Philip Jenkins wrote The Next Christendom, global Christianity has become “hot.” Scholars have been amazed at the growth of evangelicalism in Africa, South and Central America, and Asia for starters. Jenkins even argued that by 2050 Christianity in the global North (Europe and North America) would be in the rear view mirror of the churches in the global South.

But when it comes to politics, American evangelicals put the born-again in evangelical Protestantism. What do Canadian, British, Swiss, Nigerian, Australian, Costa Rican evangelicals think about Donald Trump? Did the election divide evangelicals outside the United States? I surely doubt it. But no one really knows because American journalists only follow the cues of American evangelicals.

So why do American evangelicals think that their religious identity hangs in the balance thanks to what happens in the nation’s electoral politics? (The short answer is that U.S. evangelicals, like their mainline predecessors are Christian nationalists and have trouble separating national from religious identity.) Especially when the evangelical academy is supposed to aware of the non-American church among the people of color around the world (and celebrates those Christians when the campaign season is over), all of a sudden the future of evangelicalism depends on white Protestants’ votes in U.S. elections? It’s hard to think of a faith more parochial, nationalist, and introverted.

And yet, somehow the people who voted for Trump are bigoted, intolerant, and mean nationalists.

Evangelicals need to get out more. They need to go to an Orthodox Presbyterian Church General Assembly and hear reports from fraternal delegates who minister in churches in places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Asia, Scotland, and Switzerland. If they did, maybe their understanding of the church would be more like the one that prevails in the OPC — a communion that transcends national boundaries but ministers in a low key way (if you aren’t all that impressed with word and sacrament) chiefly in a particular nation. As near as I can reckon, neither SCOTUS’s ruling on gay marriage nor the 2016 presidential election is threatening to divide our little, off the radar, church.

That proves once again the Old Life maxim: the higher your estimate of the nation, the weaker your ecclesiology (or vice versa).

How Are You Going to Get them to Read John Mbiti once They've Read Ben Carson?

Ever since Philip Jenkins’ (at least) The Next Christendom, people have found it fashionable to assert that the churches in the Southern Hemisphere are leaving the Christian West in the dust (of death?). The odd thing about this logic is that it missed how much Southern or Global Christianity had learned (for good or ill) from the Christian West, first through colonial churches and then through pietistically inspired non-denominational missionaries. Indeed, the West has been dominating the world for almost 500 years. Not saying that’s a great thing or a wretched development. It simply is what it is.

And now comes some evidence of the West’s dominance even in Global Christianity:

Now, a new study, polling more than 8,000 Christians in four languages across three countries, has found that African Christians aren’t reading African Christians, either.

In the Africa Leadership Study, a quarter of Central Africans, a third of Angolans, and half of Kenyans named a preacher or pastor as their favorite author. Majorities in Angola and Kenya named authors whose writings were explicitly Christian. High percentages also named African writers.

However, “overlap between the two was low, with relatively few respondents identifying favorite authors [who] were both African and Christian,” said Robert Priest, a professor of international studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, who presented the findings to the American Society of Missiology.

The lack of prominent indigenous authors was also evidenced by the library holdings of five major Christian higher education institutions in Kenya, where only one African Christian (John Mbiti) ranked among the top 15 authors with the largest presence on the shelves. Kenyan Christian bookstores had a significantly different top 15, but only one African author (Dag Heward-Mills) cracked their lists. Other commercial booksellers and street vendors didn’t have any African Christian authors among their top 15.

Turns out that once you link the world politically and economically (not to mention linguistically and educationally), the Christian voices with the loudest mouths tend to dominate. (Odd though how the bishops with global jurisdiction aren’t on those lists.)