Christian leaders shouldn’t think only about how Christianity is changing the world, but about how the world is changing Christianity. That’s according to Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, recently retired as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America.
Granberg-Michaelson was speaking to representatives from member bodies of the North American Baptist Fellowship, who met March 8-9 in Falls Church, Va.
Drawing largely on statistics garnered from the Atlas of Global Christianity (Todd Johnson and Kenneth Ross, Edinburgh Univ. Press., 2010), Granberg-Michaelson pointed to major shifts in global Christianity from 1910 to 2010, and noted challenges and opportunities resulting from the changes.
The most apparent change is geographical: in 1910, the vast majority of Christians were in the northern hemisphere, in Europe and America. Today, the rapid growth of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, South America, and China has shifted the global center of Christianity from near Madrid, Spain, to somewhere near Timbuktu, in Mali, Africa.
This geographical gap brings with it a number of tensions, Granberg-Michaelson said. Though the population of the Christian world has shifted to the south, financial resources and denominational power remain in the north. Leaders in the global north may still think they are able to shape the future of world Christianity, but that is becoming “more and more a spiritual and practical illusion,” Granberg-Michaelson said. Major denominations still have their headquarters in northern cities, most of them very expensive places to live, but the majority of Christians live in much poorer conditions in the global south.
The geographical divide is compounded by a theological gap, Granberg-Michaelson said.
The modern Pentecostal movement was virtually unknown in 1910, but now 25 percent of global Christians are Pentecostal or Charismatic. That movement’s emphasis on immediate experience is what detached the church in the global south from missionary control and shifted it to indigenous leadership, Granberg-Michaelson said. The growth rate among Pentecostals, Charismatics, and similar Independent groups is nearly five times rate of other groups. Brazil, for example, has the largest number of both Catholics and Pentecostals in the world.
The distance between mainline churches and southern movements is getting wider and wider in many areas (spirituality, experience, etc), and that gulf is most serious challenge facing the unity of Christianity today, Granberg-Michaelson said. The gap has to be bridged if we are to offer the world a witness that is unified.
Churches in the north major on tradition based in creeds and confessions, and hold to the concept of a broad universal church, but the global south features highly creative indigenous expressions of Christianity. There, expressions of faith can be highly sectarian and actively compete against other traditions, tribes, cultures. There is very little sense of a universal church and virtually no participation in traditional ecumenical expressions. This leaves Christians in the global south vulnerable to beliefs and expressions that are far beyond orthodoxy, or even deemed heretical by those rooted in the historical church, Granberg-Michaelson said.
“These differences cry out for our attention,” he said, “because the spiritually fervent churches of the South need the rich tradition of the North, and churches of the North need the fervency of the South.”
Granberg-Michaelson also pointed to an institutional divide, as the church becomes more fractured along denominational lines. Citing David Bartlett, who keeps track of such things, he said the world has at least 38,000 denominations, with a ticker at the bottom of a denomination-tracking website now registering over 43,000.
This, while the World Council of Churches has just 349 member bodies. “The changing dynamics in global Christianity are rapidly outpacing the ability of traditional groups to respond,” Granberg-Michaelson said. He pointed to a new organization, called the Global Christian Forum, that is attempting to bring together a more representative group of leaders from world Christianity. The effort is still small, fragile, and underfunded, he said, but has begun to show promise as a means of facilitating greater unity.
Granberg-Michaelson pointed to two other growing divides: one is generational, as younger Christians rely more heavily on the immediacy and connectivity of social networks for information about faith. This tends to undermine authoritative institutions as reliable sources of truth and values, he said. “The emerging generation is less concerned about dogma and more concerned about spirituality,” he said: “They thirst for more immediate spiritual communities.”
Finally, Granberg-Michaelson said, the church is challenged by a trend in which Christians shaped by the global south are migrating into the global north, bringing their experience and understanding of Christianity with them.
The question, Granberg-Michaelson said, is “How do we navigate this changing scene in the context of local ministry where we are?”
There are no easy answers, he suggested, but one thing is clear: “We can’t grasp the love of God by just loving those who are like us or agree with us.”