From Everywhere to Everywhere

01 May 2023

From its initial beginnings in Jerusalem, Christianity has spread out over the whole world, so that today it is found in virtually every country in at least some numbers. As it has done so, it has developed in to four traditions (Catholic, Protestant, Independent, Orthodox) and over 47,000 individual denominations. Each denomination forms out of a separate ethnolinguistic cultural setting, broader national political setting, and its own backstory that leads to a characteristic set of doctrines and ways of doing things.

A classic example of this is the recent conversation by the pope over the issue of priests marrying. Many Christians think of Catholic priests as always celibate (with the many strengths and weaknesses this doctrinal position incurs), but the pope notes that in Africa and in the eastern rites, priests have always had permission to marry. This is just one case in point of different strands of the church doing things in different ways.

Thanks to globalization and global communication, these strands of the church are less and less isolated these days, and different parts of the church are becoming exposed to other parts of the church and other ways of working. We hear stories of what God is doing ‘there’ and wonder why it can’t be done ‘here.’ Global partnerships and networks have developed. Even new power structures, new denominational structures, are being created. One sharp case study: Patrick Johnstone, in his article this week, notes that by 2050 some 80% of the Anglican Communion will be African and evangelical. This strand of the church is far more conservative than the UK-based originating strand. During a disagreement over how the Anglican church should response to homosexuality, US Anglican churches have abandoned the UK branch, and placed themselves under the African branch (2007). This trend, spread out over a decade, is threatening a split in the Anglican Communion.

Expressions of Christianity within countries - like Protestants within America, for example - are being further ‘globalized’ as immigrants arrive. The largest, most vibrantly growing expressions of Christianity are found outside the West, in Africa and Asia. Yet many of these countries are less politically stable and often persecute believers. Christians from these locations - often new believers, many of them staunchly evangelistically minded - are showing up in the West. They are passionate about their faith and quick to begin planting churches. Thus we get Nepalis in America who found their faith in situations of great trial and now are passionately spreading it, as well as Africans in Europe launching some of the largest churches there.

One might think that the hope for revitalizing faith in the more nominally Christian West would therefore be immigrant missionaries. Unfortunately this also runs into the rock of rising nationalism and widespread fears about immigrants, whatever religion they may be. I can think of plenty of scenarios where, in America, a Scottish, Irish, or even Ukrainian evangelist would be welcomed with open arms—but a Nigerian, Bangladeshi, or Somali evangelist would be rather less so. All passports are equal, but some are more equal than others.

And that trend, plus some other security issues, leads to a situation where very often immigrant evangelists are planting churches among their own diaspora people, and often very deep “under the radar.” Immigrants feel like they should keep their heads down, protect each other, and exist within their own communities (although there is also a known trend of 2nd and 3rd generation adopting language and assimilating).

All of this leads to a great challenging soup mix of complex religious interaction. In any given country, the makeup and nature of doctrine and demographics of the church is changing, often in ways we don’t see now that will suddenly startle us some years later. Trying to figure out what’s going on in some sectors, and how to serve it, is extremely difficult. Many of these efforts do not respond to surveys—lots of conversations over coffee are needed.