That religions are no longer confined to geographical regions but are now all around us is a major shift that Christians in America will have to adjust to. I wrote about this last week, and undoubtedly it had already come to your attention before I talked about it. But there is another giant shift, perhaps even larger, that is occurring within Christianity that undoubtedly has gone largely unnoticed by the average Christian in America. They wouldn’t have reason to notice it, for it isn’t occurring in their backyard—or front yard, for that matter. But it has huge implications.
Christianity began in the Mediterranean basin and remained there for the first few centuries. Paul’s letters reflect this, as they are written to churches in Asia Minor or Italy, and refer to churches in Jerusalem, Macedonia, and Spain. Though unmentioned by Paul, we also know that there were strong Christian communities in Egypt and Ethiopia. Over the centuries it spread into Russia and Europe, but not without problems. A schism in the 5th centuries led to the Egyptian church—called Coptic Christianity—to go its separate ways, and in the 11th century the church suffered another great schism, this between the western churches centered in Rome—what became the Roman Catholic Church—and the eastern churches centered in Constantinople—what became the Orthodox Churches. The Protestant Reformation was a fight within the western church. Thus even Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians etc. are part of Western Christianity, and this is the perspective that many of us take.
But Christianity is no longer centered in the West. This is not just because Christianity is declining in Europe and stagnant in N. America, but because it is growing in the global South—S. America and Africa—and East—in S. Korea and China in particular. And even if its spread there is the result of missionaries from the West, these cultures are giving Christianity their own unique flavor. Beyond the cultural differences between western Christianity and that in the global South or East, there are two other major differences.
First, the churches in these areas are in the religious minority. Christianity is expanding most rapidly among millions of people whose cultures are steeped in millennia of Buddhist and Hindu motifs, Confucian values, and indigenous African and shamanic rituals. For many of them, it is dangerous to be a Christian, and many have faced family rejection as a result of their faith in Jesus.
Second, in stark contrast to the relative wealth of western Christians and the churches they attend—or belong to but no longer bother to attend—these Christians live in poverty, real poverty. As a result of these two things, there is a real vitality to their faith. They have neither the time nor the inclination to debate each other on points of doctrine like predestination, the exact nature of the Trinity, and proper modes of baptism. Instead, they read Scripture and energetically discussed the problems their communities were facing in light of the passage they had read. Jesus is less a “personal” savior whose mission was to rescue individuals from a sinful world, but the one who announced and demonstrated the nearness of the Kingdom of God that is to come to their world.
In these two areas—their minority status and their poverty—the new center of Christianity reflects the time of the early Christians much more than the western church ever has since the time of Constantine. Unsullied by wealth and power, unencumbered by endless—and pointless—theological debates, unfettered by the insistence that a particular form of church governance is the only right way, these churches and these Christians are vibrant in their community life and their witness. It’s as if, because it’s hard to be a Christian in these areas, Christianity is flourishing. Christians do best under pressure, when “taking up the cross” is more literal than metaphorical. We should be watching and learning from these Christians.