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Philip Jenkins

Companions of Life

A supple faith.

In 2007 Books & Culture joins our sister magazines Christianity Today and Leadership Journal in the second year of the Christian Vision Project, focused on the church and global mission. Few scholars have made as decisive a contribution to the conversation about the changing nature of mission as Philip Jenkins, whose writing has awakened both the faithful and the secular to the dramatic shift southward in world Christianity. His books The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity are exercises in both learning and unlearning: unlearning the widespread assumption that Christianity is a "Western" religion, perhaps in irreversible decline, and learning just how varied and vigorous global Christianity can be. Here is his provocative answer to our question, What must we learn, and unlearn, to be agents of God's mission in the world?

Be careful what you wish (or pray) for: you may get it. For some centuries, European and American Christians prayed fervently for the conversion of the wider world, especially in Africa and Asia, and many devoted their lives to achieving this end. And to an astonishing degree, they succeeded. During the 20th century alone, around 40 percent of the population of Africa converted from animism or primal religion to some variety of Christianity. Within a few decades, the African continent could be, in numerical terms, the center of world Christianity. Growth in Asia has also been impressive, while enthusiastic new forms of Christianity have blossomed in Latin America. Many denominations are discovering, to their surprise, that large numbers of their adherents, even majorities, no longer live in those areas that could once be claimed to represent the "Christian world."

The language of mission so often assumes the establishment of churches in new territories, in virgin soil. But perhaps the time has come to think rather of reconversion.

At least by the 1970s, churches were acknowledging, at least in theory, that concepts of mission had to reflect these changing realities, that mission could no longer be seen as a blessing bestowed by Europeans and Americans upon those less fortunate dwellers beyond the pale. But for all the well-intentioned egalitarian talk of "mission in six continents," we still find people asking, semi-humorously, whether someday we might even find African or Asian missionaries coming to evangelize Europe and North America—as if such missionary efforts were not already widespread and thriving. As to the intellectual effects of the epochal southward movement of Christianity, no less a celebrity than Father Andrew Greeley opines that "We will depend on them for vitality, but they will continue to depend on us for the ideas." Uh-huh. I somehow doubt that the global South's contribution to theological inquiry will be confined to rhythmic dancing or hand-clapping.

In order to rethink mission, we Northerners must absorb a number of basic points. Primarily, we must appreciate the wider context in which we stand in relation to the wider Christian world. Already, we do not represent the norm within Christianity, whether in racial, social or economic terms, and we will over time be ever further marginalized. By 2050, white non-Hispanics could represent just 15 or 20 percent of the world's Christians. Following from that fact, the world's "average Christian" looks very different from the media stereotype. She or he is above all likely to be an extremely poor person by Western standards, with all that implies in terms of access to food, water, schooling, transportation, medical care, and a healthy environment. Nor, probably, does this ordinary believer live in a stable nation-state in which government is limited by the popular will, and where human rights receive more than lip service.

In terms of mission, that profile demands a reorientation of priorities. Of course, it is far too early to think of abandoning the basic task of proclamation, of introducing Christian faith and doctrine to new sections of the world. For all the brilliant successes of the past century, the gospel still remains unknown in much of the Muslim and Hindu worlds, in the celebrated 10-40 window, and where Christianity is known in those regions, its Western cultural associations often give it a radioactive taint. But having acknowledged this, we must also recognize how effectively and thoroughly the basic job of foundation-laying has already been done across so much of the world. It is impossible to travel in much of Africa without noticing the constant revivals, healing services, and prayer meetings. (A bemused Kenyan friend once asked me, "How do people find time to do any work?") Today, the primary obligation is not trying to make people Christians, but to help the Christians who are already there, and who are often living in dreadful circumstances.

Rather than thinking about how to carry the message, then, the churches of the Old Christendom must now undertake a rigorous self-assessment to determine just what "we" have that "they" still lack. High on the inventory, obviously, would be the incalculable material riches of the global North, as well as the technological brilliance that manifests itself in medicine, transportation, and communications. Europe and North America still also carry the ambiguous blessing of their immense political and military predominance, which could—if used judiciously—be used to defend Christian communities under assault, facing massacre or forced conversion.

Second, we should take account of the opportunities presented by globalization, and by global mass migration. A network of churches in the United States (say) might wish to make an impact in Central Africa or in South Asia. Rarely, though, do they begin by asking just what communities from those regions might be found on American soil, perhaps in the same cities in which the churches themselves operate. Any study of the historic spread of world religions suggests the importance of networks, of peer-to-peer evangelism within family or social groupings. Also critical are migrant groups, who often "catch" a religion on their travels, and then spread it back home: faith, like disease, can be studied through a kind of epidemiology. If one wishes to reach Guatemalans or Ghanaians, then approaching people of those origins within the United States is an excellent way to begin.

Nor, often, do "native" European or American religious groups have much awareness of the flourishing churches in their own cities that have roots in the global South. Africans pastor four of Britain's ten largest megachurches, and Nigerian-founded churches are springing up all over North America. A group such as the Redeemed Christian Church of God is rapidly becoming a truly global denomination. How many churches have taken advantage of the opportunities presented by such enthusiastic new neighbors, for instance by forming tactical alliances with immigrant congregations, and using such links to provide entrée to their home countries?

Third, if we are serious about "mission in six continents," we should look impartially at where we see the greatest need for a mission to introduce and reinforce the Christian faith. By any rational standard, is the need not greatest in Europe? The language of mission so often assumes the establishment of churches in new territories, in virgin soil. But perhaps the time has come to think rather of reconversion. Anyone familiar with Christian history has read accounts of the planting, growth and development of churches; but how many know accounts of the decline or extinction of Christian communities or institutions? Though the concept is unsettling, such events have certainly occurred, in North Africa in the early Middle Ages (in the first waves of Islamic conquest) and in much of the Near East in the first half of the 20th century. Most Muslims in modern North Africa and the Near East are the descendants of once-Christian families, and often of communities that retained their Christian loyalties for several centuries. Sometimes, the religious collapse is the direct result of persecution, but Christian churches also perish when societies change, and some new faith does a more effective job of identifying and serving the spiritual marketplace.

Indeed, whatever the reasons, one of the most significant and least studied facts of Christian history is dechristianization, the destruction or removal of Christian beliefs and loyalties in a particular region. According to many observers, such a phenomenon is now under way in much of Europe, and we should pay close attention to the means by which churches are trying to rekindle the ancient flames before they gutter out entirely. Such endeavors would for example include the very successful Alpha Course, which derives from highly secular Great Britain, and the Thomas Mass, which has revitalized worship and liturgy in areas of Scandinavia. Perhaps we should be sufficiently modest to borrow from the practice of Muslims, who do not undertake mission ("sending out") but instead believe in da'wa, the call or invitation to faith, which is directed to nominal believers as well as outsiders.

Deciding what we must unlearn is a much more straightforward matter, and in fact there really are only three minor items on this "to forget" list, namely history, geography, and politics.

In terms of history, we must understand that the emerging shape of the Christian world is not a radical departure from normality but rather a resumption of older norms. It is a salutary exercise to rethink the familiar narrative that explains "how we got here." We all know the standard image of the Christian trajectory from Palestine into the Mediterranean, into Western Europe and then to North America: Westward the course of Salvation takes its way. And of course it did, but in the very same centuries, the faith also drove eastward and southward from the Holy Land. By the 13th century, there were probably more Christians in Asia than in Europe.

I think of the Chinese-born Rabban Bar Sauma, who appeared in European courts around 1290 as the ambassador of the Mongol emperor. European kings and bishops were amazed to find that this strange creature was a Christian bishop, who owed his loyalty not to a Roman Pope or a Byzantine Patriarch but to a Nestorian Katholikos residing in Baghdad. Europeans were shocked to discover that the Christian world stretched much further than they had ever dreamed, to the shores of the Pacific. Bar Sauma told them how "many of our Fathers have gone into the countries of the Mongols, and Turks, and Chinese and have taught them the Gospel, and at the present time there are many Mongols who are Christians." He, in turn, was surprised to find that Christianity was so well established in Europe, and was not just an Asian affair, as he had assumed. The Nestorian church, perhaps the greatest Christian missionary body in all history, operated equally comfortably in Syriac, Persian, Turkish, and Chinese. And don't even get me started on the 1,700-year story of the Ethiopian Church. Christianity is a religion born in Africa and Asia, and in our lifetimes, it is going home.

We should also rethink our view of geography. Familiar American visions of the world reinforce the notion of "mission" as literally a top-down phenomenon, flowing from the Christian North to the various hearts of darkness on or near the equator. Maps do much to shape our consciousness, and the great historian Fernand Braudel famously advised that if you wanted to shake up your preconceptions, to see connections you had never dreamed of hitherto, an excellent start is to turn your maps upside down. You can find globes that do place the global South at the top, and they offer a sobering reorientation of global reality. We also need to abandon our beloved Mercator projection, which so exaggerates the size and consequence of lands far from the Equator. (No, Greenland is not in fact anything like as vast as it appears, whereas Africa and Arabia are much, much bigger than Mercator makes them look.) Modern-day geographers advocate replacing Mercator with the Gall-Peters projection, which shows areas of equal size on the globe as also having equal size on the map. For mission studies, the newer projection does a wonderful job of highlighting both the world's largest and most populous regions, and focuses attention on the areas of most dramatic Christian growth. When colored to reflect ecological zones (jungles, deserts, steppes, and so on), such a world map also makes it easy to see at a glance the fault-lines between faiths, especially the contested Christian-Muslim borderland. You can really see the 10-40 window.

These geographical shifts also help us understand the emerging realities of mission. Over the past two centuries, Christian mission overwhelmingly did mean a movement from North to South. Today, though, so much of the story is South-South, and takes place between communities within Africa, Asia, and Latin America: we think of Brazilians in southern Africa, Nigerians in Asia, Koreans everywhere. And once again, Gall-Peters offers a fine visual perspective, presenting countries such as Nigeria, Brazil, and the Congo as what they are in reality, namely booming centers of the world's Christian population, and of mission.

And we should unlearn our politics. In any society, ideas tend to become associated with particular traditions, so that ideologies represent packages of themes and beliefs. Tell me an American's stance on gun control, and I will make a plausible bet about his views on abortion, or on granting POW status to terrorist suspects. Western Christians, too, take their beliefs not singly but in packages, and we know what is implied by umbrella terms like "liberal" and "conservative." Or to take other ideological labels, Americans know that liberation theology advocates social justice activism, and opposes unjust or exploitative political structures. At the opposite end of the spectrum we would expect to find charismatic believers in deliverance, who espouse spiritual warfare and confront the demonic or supernatural forces holding humanity in thrall. Politically, such believers would be presumed to be on the Right just as assuredly as liberation is on the Left.

All of which prepares us poorly for the world of the emerging Christian churches, which have rediscovered the basic semantic truth that liberation and deliverance are actually the same thing. To be credible, any presentation of the Christian message must offer the prospect of freedom from the oppressive forces of this world and the other worlds. We should not be startled when global South evangelicals are "conservative" about abortion or homosexuality but also demand forceful state intervention to fight poverty, even if that means regulating the free market. And we should not expect that newer churches will respect the walls that separate styles of worship and belief among Europeans and North Americans, between churches that are evangelical and catholic, liturgical and charismatic.

In short, Christians of European descent should learn that they are not necessarily the norm within the Christian tradition, still less the authentic core; nor, perhaps, have they ever been. And whether they like it or not, the rules will continue to change and evolve, because that is the nature of growth. This principle was well expressed by a Chinese scripture that so often parallels Christian insights, the Dao De Jing of Laozi:

A man is supple and weak when living, but hard and stiff when dead. Grass and trees are pliant and fragile when living but dried and shriveled when dead. Thus the hard and strong are the comrades of death; the supple and the weak are the comrades of life.
(Ch. 76, translated by D. C. Lau)

As the companions of life, of course newer churches remain flexible and bend our familiar dividing lines. Perhaps by observing how they do this, we can find our way back from a faith that has been, on occasion, too hard and strong to flourish.

Philip Jenkins is distinguished professor of religious studies and history at Penn State University. His new book, God's Continent, on Christianity and Islam in contemporary Europe, will be published this spring by Oxford University Press.

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