Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The "Conservative" Nature of Two-Thirds World Churches

Writers on the status of Christianity in the 21st Century, such as Dr. Philip Jenkins in his book The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, have pointed out that Christians in the "Majority World" tend to be much more conservative in their approach to Scripture than those churches from North America and Europe that first brought them the gospel. I commented on this reality in an article on the Future of Christianity that I wrote back in 2004. As Jenkins' title indicates, believers in the new center of gravity of world Christianity are much more likely to be "Bible believing." That means they will take the Bible more seriously in terms of the theology it presents, as well as the moral issues it teaches.

Recent actions by two Lutheran Church bodies have resulted in scathing criticisms that are coming from, in one case, a Lutheran communion in Kenya, and in another case, from the Lutheran Churches of the Baltics. These churches have paid a price for their faith, and I suspect that they find the mental and theological gymnastics that are being toyed with by certain church bodies reprehensible.

You can read, in their own words, the following documents:



Churches in the "Majority World" certainly must look with wonderment at the way in which churches in the U.S. and Europe seem to be playing footloose with the Scriptures and the faith handed down to them. Not only are more and more missionaries coming from the Global South to the U.S. and Europe, but churches from the Global South and other areas where the church has experienced persecution are more and more exercising theological leadership.

Interesting times!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Questions of Majority World Christians

There is a great article by Todd Johnson that helps put some numbers to the tremendous global shifts that are taking place in Christianity worldwide. It is "Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics."

We simply must take stock of the fact that Christianity is not a western religion. But it also means more, because it means we must begin to look at how our theological resources in the west can be brought to bear on the questions being asked by Majority world Christians. While the questions may seem strange to us, or perhaps resolved or unimportant, they are issues of importance to our fellow Christians in other parts of the world.

Twenty-five years ago I remember leading a home Bible study in a low-income barrio of Guatemala City. The topic of discussion, which I didn't even plan on addressing that evening, revolved around the eternal destiny of the Mayan descendants of our hosts! Was it true that God simply condemned them to eternal punishment because it took so long for the Christian message to reach Mesoamerica? While we may be able to provide answers, doing so in a way that takes seriously the perspectives of relatively new Christians is a challenge. Mark Noll mentions the same question in his new book, The New Shape of World Christianity. I guess it's never been such a pressing question for me. After all, my family has been Christian for generations. Bohemia has been evangelized since the martyrdom of Prince Wenceslaus in 929, and Germany even earlier. But newer Christians are asking different questions than we might be asking.

Another factor that shapes the kinds of questions newer Christians in the Majority world are asking is the struggle to just get by day-by-day that they are experiencing. In many cases, Majority world Christians are struggling just to survive. To a hungry man, or a sick woman with no medical help available, the question of God's immanent involvement with our world is of pressing importance. If God can act, why not ask him to and expect him to, even in surprising ways?

It's not that we don't have answers to these kinds of questions; it's just that we sometimes find other questions more fascinating. Once I have finished Noll's book, I'll post a short review.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

World Christianity and Lutheran Mission in Venezuela

This is being written from a little hotel room near the international airport in Caracas, Venezuela. This past week I had the privilege of teaching a course on homiletics to a group of about 20 enthusiastic students, young and old. The first time I visited Venezuela was 13 years ago, when I was here for a course on Pastoral Theology. For some reason my introductory lesson in which I mentioned Luther's comments on the making of a theologian--Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio--really resonated with the participants then--some of the more seasoned pastors from that day and age reminded me of that this year too!

Oh, let me get this over with right from the start: Hugo Chavez says hi to all of you. I can't count how many people ask me to greet him or asked about how he is doing as I prepared for this trip.

The Lutheran Church in Venezuela is a small but committed group of Lutheran Christians who are very enthusiastic and hard-working. Their love for God's word and the sacrifices they are willing to make for the sake of the gospel is inspirational.

I was thinking about the spread of Christianity around the world, especially in terms of the idea that Christianity is often considered a "western religion." I've often begun my presentations on missions in Latin America by asking where the first Lutheran church in the Americas was founded. One time a young lady argued with me vigorously that it was Perry County, Missouri. That wasn't even close. My home church in Fort Wayne, Indiana--St. Paul--was founded before those guys from Dresden even set sail for Missouri.

I only ask that question to point out how much we have allowed ourselves to believe that the United States is the center of the universe. Actually, there is some evidence that the first Lutheran Church was founded in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

In fact, it is often stated that the first Lutheran (and protestant) church was founded in the 1530s when Charles V, in need of funds, gave the right to explore the region of Venezuela to the Welser family. There is little evidence that they established a Lutheran church in Maracaibo, Venezuela, as has been asserted by some, or that the Welsers were even Lutheran. However, even if they were Lutheran and had established a Lutheran church, today there remains no remnant of that church. If it was established, it survived only a short time since the activities of the Welsers in Venezuela lasted only a few years (1538-1546).

On the other hand, one must wonder. If one had more time, one might investigate this history further. The first stop in doing so, of course, is to check with my resident expert, friend and longtime colleague, Dr. David Coles. I wrote the following to Dr. Coles:

"David, I know I’ve asked you about this before. I ran across the following statement: “The fathers of both the governor of the colony, Ambrosio Alfinger, and the Vice-governor, Nicolás Federmann, signed the Augsburg Confession.” Do you know of anything that backs that statement up? Thanks. Doug"
David did not disappoint, although, being the careful historian that he is, he did not try to insist that the Lutheran church was, indeed, established by the Welsers. Here is his infomrative response to me:

"Hi, Doug:
Thanks for your query about these two representatives of the Welser Bank who governed a part of Venezuela in the 1520s and 1530s. I checked my notes for my course on the history of the church in Latin America, and I do have a reference from Pablo Alberto Deirós, Historia del cristianismo en América Latina (Buenos Aires: Facultad Teológica Latinoamericana, 1992), page 592, that Federmann’s father (he doesn’t mention Alfinger’s father) signed the Augsburg Confession. Of course, when one looks up the signers of the Augsburg Confession in the Book of Concord, one only finds the names of seven noblemen and the mayors and councils of Nuremberg and Reutlingen. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that by 1530 there were a lot of other cities in Germany that supported the theology of the Augsburg Confession, as we can ascertain by reading Bernd Moeller’s and Steven Ozment’s monographs on the Reformation in the cities, and my notes also indicate that Alfinger and Federmann were from the city of Ulm, which supported the Lutheran Reformation. So, there must have been a way for these other German cities to show their support for the Augsburg Confession, and, who knows, the fathers of Federmann and Alfinger may have been members of the municipal council of Ulm who had ushered in the Reformation in their city.

The arrival of the Germans to Venezuela and the signing of the Augsburg Confession were events that happened in close chronological conjunction:

a) In 1528 the Spanish government made a contract with two Germans, Heinrich Ynger and Hieronymus Sayler, authorizing them to pacify the area from Maracaibo to Puerto La Cruz. According to the contract, the Germans would also colonize the area and take fifty German miners there in case precious metals were found.

b) In 1529 Ambrosius Alfinger, Ynger’s brother, landed in Coro with seven hundred men and eighty horses.

c) In 1530, while the Diet of Augsburg at which the Confession was presented was in session, Ynger and Sayler transferred the rights they had over the Venezuelan territories to Anton and Bartholomäus Welser, owners of the noted international bank that also by that time had interests in India, and thus apparently were in business with the Portuguese. The headquarters of the Welser were in Augsburg, and my impression is that the Welser, unlike the other great German banking family, the Fugger, sympathized with the Reformation.
This episode is thought-provoking for at least two reasons:

a) Charles V and his successors in Spain were about to embark on a vicious circle of indebtedness to foreign bankers that would lead to repeated bankruptcies of the Spanish government. Was he already becoming dependent on loans from the Welser, and did such a factor affect his attitude towards the pro-Lutheran electors at the diet?

b) During the early 1530s a number of Germans and Flemish people settled in the Spanish colonies in America (not just in Venezuela) before the Concejo de las Indias restricted free entry of these ethnic groups into the American colonies in 1535. Hence the appearance in the inquisitorial records of people with names like Andrés Alemán.


It's an interesting thought, to be sure. It's hard to say how much the gospel might have infuenced these German adventurers. Did they really bring the cross with their sword, as the Catholic conquerers did. There really is a lot to learn from the history of Christianity in Latin America. In our seminaries it seems we only hear a part of the story. Soon I'll present some interesting "suggested reading" on the history of Christianity that helps us understand Christianity as a global phenomenon rather than focusing almost entirely on Northern Europe and North America.

Another interesting point that Dr. Coles makes is his reference to Charles V embarking on a "vicious circle of endebtedness." Sound familiar?

Until next time! I've got to try to get some sleep before my 2:30 a.m. wakeup call.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Return of Religion: Currents of Resurgence, Convergence, and Divergence- The Cresset (Trinity 2009)

This piece by African theologian Lamin Sanneh is an excellent reflection on the status of Christianity around the world. It provides further analysis of what I presented in the short YouTube video.

The Return of Religion: Currents of Resurgence, Convergence, and Divergence- The Cresset (Trinity 2009)

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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Future of Christianity

In conjunction with a little video presentation that I am preparing, I'm offering this piece on the Future of Christianity. There has been a lot of discussion on this topic lately, and, as always, a proliferation of crazy articles in all the mainstream news magizines, such as Newsweek, Time, etc. Hopefully I'll be able to update this and offer more reflections soon.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Contending for the Faith

Speaking of the Gospel in the 21st Century, you should check out this site. You'll find information on a great conference hosted by Concordia Theological Seminary.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Globalization I(a)

I promise not to do this on a regular basis, but Mical's remark made me think about the article below.

As an aside, did you know that it was a British missionary, Thomas Payne, who showed the now famous Hiram Bingham the ruins at Machu Picchu? Brinham is the inspiration for the adventurer Indiana Jones. The trouble is, he basically was a con-man (read Yale professor) who took advantage of others for his own personal benefit and for the advancement of his career, eventually even becoming governor of Connecticut, to that state's shame. Too bad he didn't know that historians would eventually catch up with him. The Peruvian government is now suing Yale University, which refuses to return the thousands of artifacts Bingham"borrowed" from Machu Picchu as he plundered the archeological site. You can see what even National Geographic, who had a part in the episode, said about it here:

At any rate, the article below is an interesting reflection on the work of Christian missionaries. Parris
The Times
December 27, 2008

http://www.timesonl tol/comment/ columnists/ matthew_parris/ article5400568.ece

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it's Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I've been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I've been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I've become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people's hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding - as you can - the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It's a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn't fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world - a directness in their dealings with others - that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.
We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers - in some ways less so - but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. "Privately" because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man's place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There's long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: "theirs" and therefore best for "them"; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don't follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the "big man" and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety - fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things - strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won't take the initiative, won't take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds - at the very moment of passing into the new - that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain?
"Because it's there," he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It's... well, there. Just there. Why interfere?
Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary's further explanation - that nobody else had climbed it - would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/ spiritual framework I've just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change.
A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I'm afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Globalization: Part I

When we think of “globalism” we may think it is a fairly recent phenomenon. We think of things such as the “global village,” or “multi-national corporations,” or the “global economic crisis,” or the ease of travel and communication that we enjoy today.

It could safely be said, however, that biblical Christianity is the first globalized movement in the history of the world. The global and universal meaning of the message of Scripture was made evident when God said to Abraham “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). All the families of the earth would be blessed through what God was doing in and through Abraham and his offspring. While it has been argued that the Jewish believers of the time before Christ did not see their task as going out into the world to convert people to the one true faith, it is clear that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who sought to bring all mankind back to himself.

The Hebrew Scriptures were written in a time of polytheism and animism. Polytheism is the idea that there are many gods—family gods, gods for a particular clan, territorial gods, gods of various aspects of nature, etc. Animism is the idea that all things, even those things we would call “material,” have an animus, that is, a spirit to them. The spiritual forces that are all around us, according to this belief, can be good or bad or neutral, they can be personal or impersonal, but most importantly, they must be manipulated properly to assure success and well-being in life. It is important to understand that in the midst of this world of polytheism and animistic beliefs, the Hebrew Scriptures are unique in that they speak of One True God, who is Creator of the world.

The Hebrew Scriptures are replete with references demonstrating this God is not of just a territory or clan, but is meant for all. For example, Psalm 67 says:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

Clearly this God’s “saving power” is to be made known “among all nations,” so that “all peoples” are to praise him and “all the ends of the earth fear him.” What we learn in the Hebrew Scriptures is that there is One God, who is over all, who is to be worshiped by all, who is to be respected by all. His dominion is global, and more importantly, his message of grace and love is for all.

The global nature of Christianity becomes even more explicit in the pages of the New Testament, where Christ says that the church is to go into all the world to give witness to the gospel—“in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Christianity is a global movement, and the message of God to the world has always made that point.

Next we will need to talk about globalism today and what it means for the church.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Spread of the Gospel in the 21st Century

Trends and Challenging Issues

To start this blog rolling, I have decided to reflect upon a series of issues that are having a profound impact on Christian mission in today’s world. The ten issues that will be discussed in the coming weeks are the following.

  1. Globalization
  2. Urbanization
  3. Technology
  4. Shift in the Center of Gravity” of Christianity
  5. Innovative Ways to Reach "Closed" Countries
  6. World Brought to the U.S. (and other major world centers)
  7. Move from Constantinian Age to “Apostolic Age”
  8. Age of Tolerance and Religious Pluralism
  9. Changes in the Funding of Mission
  10. New Kind of Missionary

I welcome any comments on the selection of issues.