The majority of the world’s Christians are Africans, Asians and Latin Americans. It is immediately obvious that this matters but it takes more work to pin down exactly how. What does it mean for us that the church is bigger and broader than we often think?
One of the most helpful voices in answering this is Andrew Walls. He is a pioneer in the study of World Christianity and has written and taught broadly for the past few decades. His book The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, was one of the most helpful things I have read on the subject and helped to clarify the direction of my own studies.
Walls recently gave his inaugural lecture for the Overseas Ministries Study Center (OMSC) and, as always, makes a number of important and helpful points. He starts with some history of the OMSC itself and focuses in on theological education in the latter part of the talk, but this little 8 page article is a decently accessible entry point for growing in what he calls a ‘World Christian Consciousness’.
You can download the whole article here but let me give you a few highlights to whet your appetite.
(There is also a video of the lecture on Youtube if you would rather listen than read. Walls begins his talk around the 8 minute mark. I did not take time to watch it all myself but the printed version seems to be a condensed form of the lecture.)
On the twentieth-century transformation of the church:
It is arguable that in terms of its composition and situation in the world, the Christian faith changed more during the twentieth century than in any previous century since the second, or even the first. When the Ecumenical Missionary Conference met in 1900, Christianity was, and had been for several centuries, the religion of the West…. Though a missionary movement to propagate the Christian faith had seen modest success, by far the greatest number of professed Christians were Europeans or descended from Europeans. And not only was Christianity the religion of the West; it was very much a Western religion, shaped by centuries of interaction with European languages and culture, entrenched in the symbolic registers of Europe and North America, shaping and being shaped by their philosophical, aesthetic, and literary traditions.
During the twentieth century, all this changed. By the century’s end, those who called themselves Christians formed a similar proportion of the world’s population as at its beginning, but there was a marked difference as to where Christians lived. No longer was Christianity so obviously the religion of the West; a recession, possibly the fastest the Christian faith has ever known, had occurred, most notably in Europe; while a rapid expansion had taken place in sub-Saharan Africa and in some parts of Asia. By the year 2000 the majority of the world’s Christians were Africans, Asians, or Latin Americans.
On the need for new ways of approaching the bible and theology:
For a long time, the life situations that have produced theology have arisen in Europe and North America, shaped by the cultures, traditions, and intellectual history of those continents. For vast numbers of Christians now, the life situations that require theological thinking arise from the conditions, cultures, and intellectual history of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The ancient cultures of Africa and Asia will throw up issues for theological reflection and decision, just as the Greek philosophical tradition did in the early Christian centuries. Africa, Asia, and Latin America are theological laboratories fully as much as Europe and North America have been hitherto; they will enlarge the whole scope of theological activity. There is every prospect of the twenty-first century becoming a period of major theological expansion, revealing to us from the Scriptures more of who Christ is. It is vital for the good of both theology and the whole church that theological activity be intercontinental in each of the constituent disciplines—biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, practical theology, and the borderlands with philosophy and the social sciences.
From the beginning, the Christian faith has been worldwide in its scope. The promise to Abraham proclaims blessings to all nations on earth. The prophets look to the coming of the Desire of all nations. The New Jerusalem that comes down out of heaven at the last day has gates open to the north, south, east, and west, through which the treasures of all nations pass into the City of God. The community of Christians is now a six-continent, worldwide fact of life.
The theological laboratories in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are already busy, and there is still plenty of laboratory space. This offers a prospect of new sources of light on and from the Bible, long histories embodying ancient cultures and modern realities, engagement with other worldviews and other assumptions about the transcendent and the empirical realms—not to mention abundant expressions of ebullient church life and innumerable situations not covered in the standard works on pastoral theology.
Although there is a daunting task outlined here, I find much of this to be wonderfully hopeful and invigorating. The core of the task for Christiane and I is to see that the word of Christ dwells richly among all of us. It is exciting to think that this “offers a prospect of new sources of light on and from the Bible”. Christiane is always eager to talk about the ways that her life with the Mabaan Church of South Sudan deepens and enlivens her understanding of God and his grace.
What does it mean for us that the church is bigger and broader than we often think? Partially, it means that there is more to God and the gospel than what we can see from our own perspective. In taking the time to build up our ‘World Christian consciousness’ we will be postured to see and know more of a God who is also bigger and broader than we often think.