Yes, it’s finally time to take on Part 2 of our blog titled “Where Are The Christians?” As research by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has demonstrated, the Christians of today aren’t where we might think. Unlike a century ago when two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, there is a different story-line today.
Western civilization no longer has the monopoly on Christianity. As summarized by Pew, today’s “Christians are also geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.”
That’s the good news. For the first time in human history, the gospel is reaching into every nook and cranny of the globe – in fulfillment of the Great Commission.
But in our last post, we also outlined the bad news which is two-fold: a) the cradle of Christianity has been left behind; and b) former centers of Christianity as in Europe are increasingly nominal in their faith and practice.
Three possible reasons were advanced for this conundrum:
- Christianity is a religion of the poor
- God intentionally wills the action to keep shifting
- The Church has misunderstood the Commission, making Christianity unsustainable wherever it has taken root
Let’s examine each of these, in turn.
A Religion of the Poor
This argument, as summarized from the last post, is that as people become more affluent and cosmopolitan, they see less need for God. While appealing intellectually, this argument is not well supported by the history of the Jesus movement.
Despite claims that Jesus’ roots in Galilee were impoverished, the evidence suggests otherwise. During his sojourn on earth, Galilee was well populated with multiple urban centers, burgeoning empire-competitive industries, and increasing manifestations of wealth. Just a stone’s throw from Nazareth, Sepphoris was destroyed at about the time of Jesus birth and rebuilt as the capitol of Galilee during his boyhood – a possible place of employment for his earthly father Joseph.
As a young man, the capitol shifted to Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee – another major construction project. Jesus relocated a few miles north to Capernaum – renowned for its global fishing prowess and business activity for some of his earliest disciples. The so-called “Jesus boat” found and now museum-displayed represents sophisticated mortise and tenon joinery, not the work of unsophisticated country rubes.
In Jerusalem, Jesus had (a few) friends in high and wealthy places – like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. His movement was supported by women of means, including the wife of the king’s steward.
We find a similar story in Paul’s evangelization of the Roman world. Paul was himself both a Jew trained by the top teacher of his day and a Roman citizen. He took his message to the most important and wealthiest cities of the empire – including Antioch, Corinth, Athens and Rome. Those who heard him and responded were a wide range of urbanites – ranging from slaveowners to slaves,business owners to laborers.
The message of Jesus has fared best when carried forth by persons and communities representing all walks of life – from the least to the most favored. Where the message has faltered has been in places like Europe where the favored elites abandoned even the pretense of faith. Or in the US where academics schooled in places that were founded to train pastors have transitioned to become bastions of agnosticism and atheism.
Is this disconnect inevitable or is it the result of something else? If Christianity is to again become relevant in the cultured west, it needs to again compete for the minds and the pocketbooks of the elite as well as the marginalized. For the urban cores as well as the suburbs and rural types. It’s happened before and can again. Read on.
God Moves On
This argument is that God may intentionally will the action to keep shifting. Christianity transitions from its initial home in the Levant to Rome to western Europe to North America – and now to the southern hemisphere. Hearts initially receptive to the gospel inevitably become hardened – as people and nations turn to other priorities. And God looks for greener pastures for the flock of tomorrow.
While this path seems to be borne out by the evidence of history, there remains the question as to whether this course is inevitable. Can the cycle of sin to faith to backsliding be broken? Is Christianity sustainable?
The answer is maybe yes. But this depends on first understanding the third and final reason for Christian demise.
The Church Misread the Commission
When Jesus commanded making “disciples of all nations,” he wasn’t asking for nations of Christian robots. No as he himself states, Jesus came not to bring peace, but division – even in his own church. As iron sharpens iron, so the church can sharpen itself and maintain its competitive edge, but only if heterodoxy is prized over orthodoxy.
The first three centuries after Jesus’ resurrection were ones of extraordinary church planting and growth – despite imperial opposition and persecution. A key reason was that no single entity controlled the entire movement. There were great and healthy debates over issues ranging from the deity of Jesus to the determination of how to re-integrate those who apostatized during periods of persecution to the question of which books belonged in a New Testament canon.
This free-market of Christian belief and practice came to an end in 325 AD with the Council of Nicaea and a church creed imposed by imperial command. The inevitable outcome was a 1,200 year slide into monopolistic mediocrity – in matters both spiritual and material.
With Luther and Calvin, there came the prospect of renewed diversity. However, as each nation (or region) adopted its own state religion the practical on-the-street outcome was continued monopoly. And when these state monopolies came into unbridled conflict, the result was attrition by armed conflict ending in two world wars. Religion was rightly perceived as part of the problem, not the solution. So Europeans while nominally Christian have essentially walked away from any day-to-day interaction with their God.
America has had it slightly better, so far. When Puritanism got too overbearing, Roger Williams could go next door to Rhode Island, start a Baptist congregation and become the father of American religious liberty. The Catholics got their piece in Maryland. And Pennsylvania, while nominally Quaker, offered a little something for everybody.
This perhaps explains why committed Christians retain a stronger hold in the U.S. than Europe. However, with the late 20th century collapse of mainline Christianity, there is now little effective check on an ever more fundamentalist bent that runs from any urbane assumption of secular as well as spiritual responsibility.
Where to from Here?
The hypothesis advanced by this discussion is that the only way to not only build but sustain Christianity is to embrace diversity over uniformity, heterodoxy over orthodoxy, market competition over monopolistic mediocrity. Putting Christianity back into the urban fray.
How might this play out across the globe? A few ideas:
- In Europe, reminders of the intensity of a Christian past can be found in art – each painter investing his own take of the truth. Rediscover and value the diverse messages behind the art. Making God relevant can again be invigorating, even fun. And encouraging a greater mixing of Protestant, Catholic, and offbeat Christian expression within the borders of each nation-state.
- America needs mainline churches that can capture the imagination of Millennials, putting God back in the marketplace. Giving their fundamentalist and pentecostal brethren a reason to again compete – bringing us all back to re-examine scriptural truth.
- With a pope of their own, South America perhaps epitomizes the ability for a seemingly ossified Catholic church to reinvigorate – partly with the help of pentecostal influences in and outside the church. The challenge will be to keep a good thing going – without reverting to winner-take-all theology.
- Burgeoning Christian movements in Asia bring needed new blood and new perspectives to the faith – but with a need for participants east and west to revel in rather than stifle multiple and heterodox streams of Christian practice.
- And the Levant could again benefit from the civilizing effects of greater toleration of religious and cultural diversity – among varied strains of Islamic, Jewish, and Christian expression.
Conflict, not peace. That’s the name of the game. God’s game – for our gain. An internally competitive church brings out the best in Christian faith. There is greater opportunity for God to personalize his gifts to the talents and needs of each individual and faith community. We compete in love and mutual respect – with resulting unity in the God of our salvation.
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