When the Christian Global South Heads West

on February 28, 2014

Between 1910 and 2010, the global center of Christianity shifted from Spain to Timbuktu. As far back as 1980, there have been more Christians living in the Global South than in the first world. On any given Sunday, there are more Christians attending church in China than in the United States or Europe.

Facts like these drove the conversation this Wednesday, February 26, at the Library of Congress, as a panel of Christian experts and observers discussed how Western Christianity needed to react and understand the growth of the non-Western Church. Entitled “World Christianity, Immigration and the U.S.: The Non-Western Church Comes to America,” the four scholars remarked on the new face of Christianity around much of the world, and how migration to was bringing this new Christianity to the States. Moderating the discussion was Laurie Goodstein, religion reporter for The New York Times.

Speaking first was Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America. Granberg-Michaelson has spoken at length about the intersection of Non-Western Church and the West before and it is the subject of his newest book.  Increasingly, he said, immigrants to the United States bring new brands of Christianity, often very charismatic and Pentecostal in nature. Granberg-Michaelson rattled off impressive statistics on the rise of worldwide Pentecostalism. 1 out of 4 Christians today are now charismatic or Pentecostal. 80% of those converted to Christianity in the continent of Asia are Pentecostal. In total, one out of every twelve people alive today are Pentecostals. What makes these numbers all the more impressive is that Pentecostalism was only founded a century ago.

The other speakers spoke about the growth of Christianity in certain areas of the world, and what form that Christianity takes when they migrate to the United States. Author and researcher Jehu J. Hanciles spoke about Africa, and how a century of evangelism saw the percentage of Sub-Saharan Africans who are Christian rise from 9% to 63%. Hanciles called out scholars who treated this rise as “artificial” and imposed by Western missionaries, slyly noting that the spread of Islam to Africa is never treated the same way. Most Africans, he said, are converted by other Africans, to the tune of 23,000 new Christians a day. He agreed that African churches are largely spiritualistic and charismatic, and even African congregations who belong to mainline churches in the US are “Pentacostalized.”

Hanciles also noted, with some disappointment with how the financial and political power in US mainline denominations remains in West, even when Africans outnumber them. “We might have to challenge the term “Anglican”, which of course means English,” he said. Hanciles spoke approvingly of African churches in the United States, which he claimed were very little-e evangelistic in their outlook.

Professor Scott W. Sunquist of Fuller Theological Seminary spoke about the vibrant Asian-American Christian population. Asian-Americans were much more likely to be Christian than Asians in their home countries, with many Asians coming to the United States to attend seminary. Professor Sunquist could think of off the top of his head three Korean, one Vietnamese, at least four or five Chinese seminaries near Fuller. Fuller itself is now teaching classes in Korean, with Chinese lessons on the way. He confirmed that Asians who adopt Christianity, like Africans, often retain much of their pre-Christian culture: “If you scratch a Chinese Presbyterian, you get a Confucianist.” He noted that some of aspects of Confucianism are good, such as a respect for family, but other aspects are not, such as the subjugation of women.

Professor Virginia Garrard-Burnett of the University of Texas-Austin spoke at length about the religious tendencies of Latino migrants, including the often overlooked Protestant Latinos. Roughly 1/4 of Latino immigrants are Protestant, most of which are Pentecostal. Catholic Churches in the US that cater to these immigrants often take on charismatic forms of worship, she noted, often causing friction with existing native Americans. Latin-American Protestant churches take part in almost “reverse missionary” work, where churches in the Global South send people to minister to those in America. She cited the example of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the third-largest denomination in Brazil, whose presence in the US is mostly mission work to Latin-American migrants.

Illegal immigration was often alluded to during the individual presentations, but during the Q&A session, the panelists came out strongly in support of the push for immigration reform. Granberg-Michaelson explicitly thanked the National Association of Evangelical’s Galen Carey (who was in the audience) for his leadership on the issue “If we get immigration reform in the US, and I think we will, it will be because of a broad coalition of religious voices, [including] Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Protestant.” One panelist, Professor Sunquist, likened illegal immigration to the slave trade, with churches speaking up for those who cannot speak up themselves. In general, as in most religious discussions, there was a general vagueness about what form “immigration reform” actually should take, other than the general consensus that it must better the lives of those in the country illegally.

Another hot-button issue that emerged towards the end of the discussion was the issue of homosexuality. The panelists uniformly dismissed that idea that homosexuality was even on the radar of most non-Western Christians. Granberg-Michaelson said that homosexuality was “our issue, rather than their issue.” Conservatives, he said, wanted to “use” non-Western immigrants “for political purposes.” He did not deny that most Christians in the Global South are opposed to homosexuality, but said when poverty is widespread and food hard to come by, most don’t really take heed of Western cultural battles. Professor Sunquist said bluntly and simply that he had never heard homosexuality mentioned in an Asian church. Needless to say, the non-acceptance of homosexuality was uniformly treated as a bug, not a feature.

I think all panelists missed the obvious point that homosexuality is not on the radar of non-Western Christians for roughly the same reason debates over ancestor worship aren’t on the radar of Western Christians; there’s already a consensus on the issue. Largely unaddressed was questions about what might happen when mainline churches reached out to the charismatic African and Latin-American churches here in the United States. It isn’t an issue that just liberal churches need to consider. While orthodox Christians see an ally in the new migrant Christians on issues such as homosexuality, how are we to react to ethnic churches where there are still elements of Confucianism and ancestor worship? One pertinent example given was a vibrant Pentecostal Congolese church with 5.5 million members and a growing presence around the world, which after it’s founder’s death, added him to the Trinity. Sure, they probably don’t think gays should be married, but that isn’t the litmus test for orthodox Christianity.

But in general, there was much to agree with in the presentation. The growth of Christianity in the Global South, especially a spiritual, passionate form of Christianity, is something every Christian can applaud. When migrants bring these forms of Christianity to the United States, we must make efforts to fully include them in the Christian fellowship. My only critique is that the panelists failed to take note of the greater implications of what they were saying. Why is it that mainline denominations are declining, but Evangelicalism and Pentecostalism are ascendant? What can liberal Western churches can learn from the quickly growing churches, both at home and abroad? And what happens when their desire for sexual inclusiveness complicates their mission for racial inclusiveness? One thing’s for sure, as the Global South’s exciting new forms of Christianity go global, Western Christians will face these questions sooner than they might think.

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