Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Next Christendom

Several years ago, a friend took an extensive trip through Asia. He met a number of missionaries and took a lot of pictures. When he came back, I had the opportunity to hear a presentation (complete with pictures) of his trip. As best I remember, the main point of his presentation was, "These people are deprived and their lives would be a lot better if they were more like us." I don't think the missionaries told him this, but this probably expressed my friend's bias about the real purpose of missions. His idea was that "missions" was something we do to people, and much of that involved their adopting our culture.

Today we find ourselves in a unique situation. Where Christianity has taken hold in Asia, Africa, and South America, believers are articulating their faith in ways that reflect their own traditions and culture. This is a dynamic and exciting movement of the Spirit. Philip Jenkins has written about this in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. God is working in unusual ways in what we have often called the Third World (or "two-thirds" world). The reality of this, however, is that we may not be entirely comfortable with some of those expressions of the faith.

Of course, this is not the first time this has happened. When the Christian message began to be preached throughout the Roman Empire, its proponents had to grapple with the Hellenistic mindset. This meant that they often appropriated ideas, metaphors, and philosophy that was part of that culture. Was this a bad thing? Only if you think that presenting the Gospel in a way that people can understand and appropriate it is wrong. We are Christians today because they were able to do this.

What is happening among our brothers and sisters of the Southern Hemisphere is not a bad model for those of us in North America. We are called to engage with our culture and find new ways to present the faith so that it will be heard by nonbelievers. This is the challenge that we face. We can learn from how others are doing this. Maybe we need to be more like them!

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