By Eric LeMaster
Pastors and academics converged in early October at United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, to discuss the changing landscape of Christianity in North America and abroad. The convocation raised a call to action to reengage culture domestically, while highlighting the increasing prominence of the Global South in the world communion.
Notable among those speaking were Dr. Philip Jenkins, professor of humanities at Pennsylvania State University and author of numerous books on the growing Global South church, and Os Guinness, Christian scholar and founder of the Trinity Forum. Attending the event were pastors and church leaders from various mainline denominations from the southeast, primarily United Methodists.
Most speakers addressed the need to reevaluate the domestic strategy of mainline churches to engage culture and reverse the contraction of congregations in the West.
Kendra Creasy Dean, founding director for the Princeton Theological Seminary Institute for Youth Ministry, dealt with the loss of young people as a major failing of the church in our times. This failure, she says, is exhibited in the startling minority (only eight percent, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion) of American Christian teenagers who are “highly devoted”—those who are active in their churches, pray independently, etc.
“People who are in economic development know that the most important stimulus you can invest into a developing economy is to invest in young people,” said Dean, relating this to the need to make greater spiritual investments in the coming generation. She also asserted that the best way to develop young people is “to invest in the spiritual formation of the adults that love them best”—whether in the context of youth ministry, the family, or the general congregation. Strong leaders are necessary, she argued, to counteract what she called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism”—the relativistic, feel-good theology of choice for many church-goers, and a philosophy devoid of a dynamic relationship with Christ.
In a series of sermons concluding each day of the conference, Dallas United Methodist pastor Tyrone Gordon, senior pastor of St. Luke’s “Community” Church reiterated the need to be forward thinking in preaching the gospel. Gordon emphasized the inadequacies of current strategies to engage culture, especially the church’s role in combating social injustice.
“Micah spoke to a culture where the powerful were oppressing the powerless,” Gordon said, drawing from the prophet’s words that true religion is both social and spiritual. “Workers were being exploited. Immigrants were being ignored. The courts were corrupt.…The faces, the corporations, the political players may have changed, but the game sure looks the same.”
“Justice is lacking in our nation, and sometimes the worst perpetrator of injustice by silence is the church,” Gordon admonished. “We have bought into a gospel of prosperity that diminishes suffering, sacrifice, commitment, and surrender. We’ve been just naming it and claiming it, and just milking the people for whatever we can get, in the name of the gospel.”
The growth of the Global South.
While congregations in Europe and North America are shriveling, those of the Global South are seeing unprecedented growth and vitality. According to Dr. Philip Jenkins, there are practical reasons for the contraction of North American and European mainline church congregations. The great shift in demographics, a trend which he considers “the most important change in progress in the world today,” can be partly attributed to declining birth rates in Western countries that have predominately Christian traditions—a pattern Jenkins characterized as an “attempt to almost breed [ourselves] out of existence.” This is contrasted with African populations in countries such as Uganda, which is projected to double within the next several decades, and other nations which may see growth on the order of 15 percent or more.
The rapid encroachment of Islam in Europe through immigration and the relative stagnation of church participation also contrast dramatically with the Global South’s Christian expansion through conversions.
Global South Christianity tends to be very conservative by some perspectives, based on their stances on controversial social issues such as human sexuality. Jenkins warned against pinning “the North’s ecclesiastical labels on the South”—our packaged understandings of “conservatism” versus “liberalism”—but this has not prevented some very heated exchanges between the two groups. He quoted one liberal Episcopal activist as saying Africans should “go back to the jungle [they] came from and stop monkeying around with the church.” Equally inflammatory to some are the African leadership’s conservative views on the American Episcopal Church, especially concerning homosexuality, which some Africans equate with a “cancerous mass that must be excised from the body.”
The Christianity of the Global South also seems strikingly different from Western churches in its apocalyptic and supernatural emphases. “If you’re not prepared to take healing [and the supernatural] seriously, be prepared to take a different line of work,” said Jenkins. The secularization of Christianity in the West is far from the reality abroad and we should come to terms with a faith that is overwhelmingly “traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural” in churches in Africa and South America. However, Jenkins suggested that if we look at Christian history, such a movement is truly a return to form.
Jenkins distanced himself from saying that one paradigm is better than the other—asserting rather that this is what works in the Global South, and that we should come to terms with it without trying to project onto it our domestic church politics. This includes scriptural interpretations that are unique to African, Asian, or South American sensibilities. “There’s so much of Christian history that we should look at in order to realize how many different ways Christianity has manifested itself, while being in the apostolic norm,” he argued. “The more we know about the history—the accurate history—the less we’ll be concerned about the wonderful world that’s opening up before us.”
Cultural challenges in the West.
In his presentation, Dr. Os Guinness maintained that our engagement with culture has been a losing battle, much due to the philosophical paradigm of modernism that Western Christianity helped to create.
Guinness warned of the distortions modernity has imposed on religion, but especially on Christianity. “Modernity has done more damage to the Christian faith than all the Christian persecutors in Christian history,” he said, noting this worldview’s fragmenting effect on individuals in society. “Many people have not only different hats in different places, but different souls. And faith is not compartmentalized.” He further argued that this has caused belief “to become not an authority, but a preference,” in which “the Lordship of Christ is denied.”
Relating this fragmentation of values to the church’s role in the public arena, he warned: “We must choose our stance in public life with care.” The U.S. as a nation has swung from a “privately engaging, [but] publicly irrelevant” faith mid-century to a faith that’s highly public, but privately inadequate. As an example, he cited the 2004 elections in which Catholic hierarchy considered withholding sacraments from members of Congress who were privately pro-life, but publicly pro-choice.
“I personally thank God for the decline of the Religious Right. I’ve attacked it for 30 years,” quipped Guinness, referencing his distaste for the way politicians have often used their religious affiliations to either garner support or direct public policy initiatives. “Politics is downstream from many of the sources of the ideas in our culture. They [public policy leaders] asked politics to do what politics simply can’t do.”
Like Jenkins, Guinness responded to the shift in spiritual gravity from the West to the South with optimism and promise. “The Global South is almost completely pre-modern. So they have yet to face the challenges that have undermined us in the West,” he said, “but their challenge will come to them. And our privilege is to teach them how we have failed.”
Eric LeMaster is a research intern at UMAction in Washington D.C.