What's Tony Thinking

The New Face of Christianity


Last summer I attended a conference in Pittsburgh sponsored by the American Association of Theological Schools. The schools — seminaries — represented at the event were all recipients of major grants to strengthen their work from the Lilly Endowment for Religion. The work of such schools is primarily, though not exclusively, the preparation of clergy to lead congregations.

We sat at tables for 8. I was the only Caucasian person at my table. All the others were Chinese or Latino. There was another difference. While I represented a seminary that by North American standards is doing well, we are not experiencing the rapid growth of most of the other schools represented at the table. The colleagues I chatted with could barely keep up with burgeoning enrollments as well as all the new formats in which they were going about their work. I had met the cutting edge and it didn’t look like me.

What was true at my table was true, if not by such a large percentage, for the overall event. The majority were people of color, including many immigrants representing new theological schools serving immigrant communities, in the U.S. or Canada.

Tish Harrison Warren would not be surprised by my experience. She recounts a similar one in her eye-opening NYT column on the changing face of global Christianity. The center of gravity for Christianity has shifted, dramatically so. It is no longer located in the west nor among white people. It has moved to what Warren calls “the majority world,” outside the west where most of the world population lives. If in 1900 80% of all Christians lived in the western world, and 20% elsewhere, that has flipped. In 2000, 37% of Christians live in the west, while nearly two-thirds are in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I expect that trend has continued apace in the subsequent 23 years.

But it’s not only beyond U.S. borders that this is taking place. It is happening here too, as congregations serving immigrants to the U.S. are growing rapidly, as my table mates attested. That is also happening in Canada, where the school for which I work is located. In the Vancouver metro area, the number of immigrant churches has caused that school to re-think its standard ways of operating. And instead of established, predominantly white and mainline congregations providing a wing under which new immigrant churches may shelter, at least some of the former are now eagerly trying to learn from the latter.

Warren writes that we cannot assume that the future of the U.S. is more secular so long as it is also less white. You may want to read that last sentence over again and let it sink in. Twenty plus years ago the writer. Richard Rodriquez, spoke of “the browning of America.” Now, with it, we are seeing the browning of the church in the U.S.

So, first take away, at least from a numerical standpoint, Christianity is alive and well, though more so in the “majority world,” than in Western Europe and North America. As such, it is larger and more diverse than any other world religion. Second take away, the direction of great 19th and 20th century missionary movement, which sent Christian missionaries from the west overseas, has sort of made a U-turn. “They” are now coming to “us,” sometimes as missionaries to American culture, but most often as church-planters for immigrant Christian churches here in North America.

Here’s Warren on the shift and its implications for the U.S.

“When I first started investigating these trends, I thought that what I was seeing could be summed up as “the future of American evangelicalism isn’t white.” And I still think that’s true. However, I discovered as I’ve read more, spoken with more people and attended events like the Austin Diaspora Network meeting that it’s more complex than that.

“I quickly recognized that the standard American religious survey categories no longer account for the realities expressed in the church in America. “White evangelicalism,” “Protestant mainline” and “progressive” are categories that are largely defined by a white majority. This “browning” of the church in America, as some scholars call it, scrambles all the categories. What we are seeing isn’t simply that white evangelicalism is changing; it’s that something new is emerging.”

In other words, while many of us in traditional churches in the U.S. have been obsessing about numerical decline, or busy reacting to and sometimes mirroring the political polarization in our own society (Religious Right vs. Progressive Christians), the real story may not be about any of that. More from Warren:

“This influx of nonwhite believers will challenge white religious conservatives to choose between xenophobia and building alliances with immigrants who share their views on social issues. These trends will also challenge them to unbundle their religious views on social issues from a kind of libertarian economics that harms those who are less wealthy. In the same way, white progressives will be in the awkward spot of choosing whether to continue to push boundaries about sexuality and gender — which will put them on the side of largely white, wealthier Westerners — or to be in solidarity with those from the majority world who most likely hold views that are out of step with social progressivism.

“The future of American Christianity is neither white evangelicalism nor white progressivism. The future of American Christianity is probably not one where white concerns and voices dominate the conversation. The future of American Christianity now appears to be a multiethnic community that is largely led by immigrants or the children of immigrants. And that reality ought to change our present conversations about religion in America.”

Two thoughts in response to Warren’s helpful article. First, while we in the U.S. are polarized into right and left, red and blue, there are signs — globally — of an alternative that is neither of the above. One of the scholars Warren cites describes the new face of Christianity as more “communitarian.” It may be that the future will not be found in our liberal/ conservative binary, but in other places and among other people who recognize the deficits of our presently dueling extremes.

Second, what’s been going on for nearly a century now in the west is demise of western Christendom. By “Christendom,” I mean the way that Christianity was either a legally or culturally established religion in the west, in particular for the middle and upper classes. While there was certainly good that came from this melding of western, middle-class culture and Christianity, it often meant the priorities and practices of Christians were more like those of that culture, than like those of Jesus.

It would seem, as the prophet Isaiah wrote long ago, that “God is doing a new thing.” Isaiah followed that up by asking, “Can you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 19), as if to suggest that perceiving a future that isn’t the one you have been preparing for is . . . difficult. For a long time we in the West, in America in particular, have thought that we were the center of the world. We have identified God with our nation and project. But God is surprising, even elusive. To judge from Christianity’s own story God is often up to things that the powerful miss entirely. We may be waking up, slowly, to a new reality — that the world has other centers and that God has other plans.

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