Demographics, Power and the Gospel in the 21st Century

SIL International Conference and WBTI Convention, 6 June 2002

It is a very great honor and priv­i­lege to be in­vited to be with you. I have long had the great­est ad­mi­ra­tion for the work which Wycliffe and its al­lied or­ga­ni­za­tions are do­ing and many friends in Wycliffe in var­i­ous parts of the world. As some­one con­cerned for the well be­ing of Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy, I think there is no greater the­o­log­i­cal is­sue at the mo­ment than the one with which you are con­cerned: Mother tongue Chris­t­ian think­ing is, for rea­sons that I hope we can dis­cuss in the com­ing ses­sion, one of the cru­cial things for the fu­ture of the Chris­t­ian faith.

The Maori peo­ple of New Zealand, and I think this is true of other Poly­ne­sian peo­ples, speak of the fu­ture as be­ing be­hind us. We can­not see it. The past is what is in front of us. We can see that stretched out be­fore us, the most re­cent plainly, the more dis­tant shad­ing away to the hori­zon. As we ap­proach a topic such as the one as­signed to me it’s wise to re­mem­ber that the fu­ture is be­hind us. De­spite a ti­tle that speaks of the gospel in the 21st Cen­tury, I can­not say what that Cen­tury will hold for the Chris­t­ian faith or say what will be­fall the Church of Christ. What we can do is to look at the past in front of us and see what it sug­gests of the way that we have come and per­haps read in out­line, as on a sketch map, the place to which we have been brought now. That may give us some hints of what we can ex­pect in the days to come. That might be the rea­son why so much of the Bible con­sists of his­tory in one form or an­other. We are to use the past spread out be­fore us to show us where we are, as we en­ter a fu­ture that is still be­hind us.

I’d like to at­tempt some gen­er­al­iza­tions this morn­ing about Chris­t­ian his­tory that may tell us some­thing about what we might call a Chris­t­ian de­mo­graph­ics, and this may give us some hints for lo­cat­ing our­selves for the work of the gospel at the point of Chris­t­ian his­tory to which we have now come.

The first gen­er­al­iza­tion is about the na­ture of Chris­t­ian ex­pan­sion. Chris­t­ian ex­pan­sion is not pro­gres­sive; it is se­r­ial. Per­haps we can un­der­stand this best by com­par­ing the his­to­ries of Chris­tian­ity and Is­lam. Both faiths call the whole world to al­le­giance. Each has suc­ceeded in es­tab­lish­ing it­self among peo­ples among di­verse cul­ture and di­verse ge­o­graph­i­cal lo­ca­tions. But in the light of com­par­a­tive his­tory, Is­lam has, so far at least, been much more suc­cess­ful than Chris­tian­ity in main­tain­ing that al­le­giance over time. Lands that have be­come Mus­lim have, gen­er­ally speak­ing (there are ex­cep­tions), re­mained Mus­lim. Ara­bia now seems so ut­terly, ax­iomat­i­cally Mus­lim that it’s hard to re­mem­ber, isn’t it, that the Yemen was once a Chris­t­ian kingdom.

Con­trast Jerusalem, which can­not even claim an un­bro­ken Chris­t­ian his­tory, let alone a dom­i­nant one. Jerusalem, the mother church of us all, is not the Chris­t­ian Mecca. Or con­sider Egypt or Syria or Tunisia -these were once the show­case churches, the churches that led the Chris­t­ian world, adorned by the great­est the­olo­gians and the pro­found­est schol­ars, and sanc­ti­fied by the blood of the Mar­tyrs. They were churches that had seen the col­lapse of pa­gan­ism around them and the tri­umphs of Christ through­out their sur­round­ing areas.

Or think of the days, and few Chris­tians nowa­days even re­al­ize that those days hap­pened, when the Chris­t­ian faith was the pro­fes­sion of the whole Eu­phrates val­ley and most of the peo­ple who live in what is now Iraq, pro­fessed that faith; when new churches were spring­ing up in Iran and across Cen­tral Asia, even in the coun­tries we now call Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

Or con­sider my own coun­try, with its towns where John Knox and John Wes­ley once preached but are now full of churches that no­body needs and that get turned into fel­low­ship doors or restau­rants or even night­clubs. In my own city of Ab­erdeen we have a for­mer church that now re­joices as a night­club un­der the name “The Min­istry of Sin.”

In each of these cases, a place that had been a lead­ing cen­ter of Chris­t­ian faith, an area where the Chris­t­ian faith was dom­i­nant, ceased to hold that po­si­tion. For what­ever rea­son, and there are many dif­fer­ent rea­sons in the dif­fer­ent cases, the light was dimmed, some­times in­deed, ex­tin­guished. As the Book of Rev­e­la­tion puts it, the can­dle­stick was taken out of its place. But in none of these cases did the dim­ming or with­er­ing of Chris­t­ian wit­ness in one of its ma­jor cen­ters lead to the end of Chris­t­ian wit­ness in the world. The very re­verse. By the time the Jerusalem church was scat­tered to the wind, as hap­pened within the very first Chris­t­ian cen­tury, there were churches of Greek ex-pa­gan Chris­tians right across this Mediter­ranean area and be­yond it. As the churches in Iraq de­clined, the churches in Iran in­creased. As the great Chris­t­ian cen­ters of Egypt, and Syria and North Africa passed un­der Mus­lim rule, the Bar­bar­ians of north­ern and west­ern Eu­rope, from whom peo­ple like my­self are de­scended, were grad­u­ally com­ing to ap­pro­pri­ate the Chris­t­ian faith. With­er­ing at the cen­ter went along with blos­som­ing at or be­yond the mar­gins of the Chris­t­ian faith.

Chris­t­ian ad­vance is not steady in­evitable progress. Ad­vance is of­ten fol­lowed by re­ces­sion. The spread of the gospel does not pro­duce per­ma­nent gains that can be plot­ted on a map: “We have done that.” Chris­tian­ity has vul­ner­a­bil­ity at its very heart, fragility in its ex­pres­sion. It’s per­haps the vul­ner­a­bil­ity of the Cross and the fragility of the earthen vessel.

Is­lamic ex­pan­sion of­ten is pro­gres­sive; it moves steadily out­wards from its cos­mic cen­ter, and Mecca con­tin­ues to have that cos­mic sig­nif­i­cance that no place on earth can have for Chris­tians (even our Jerusalem is the new Jerusalem, not the old one, and it comes down ready-made out of heaven at the last time).

Chris­t­ian progress is se­r­ial, rooted first in one place, then in an­other. Chris­tian­ity has no equiv­a­lent of Mecca, no sin­gle per­ma­nent cen­ter. Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ties of­ten wither in their heart­lands, their ar­eas of seem­ing strength, and then flower anew at or be­yond the pe­riph­ery. No one coun­try, no one cul­ture, owns the Chris­t­ian faith. There’s no per­ma­nently Chris­t­ian coun­try, no one form of Chris­t­ian civ­i­liza­tion, no sin­gle Chris­t­ian cul­ture. At dif­fer­ent pe­ri­ods, dif­fer­ent ar­eas of the world have taken lead­er­ship in the Chris­t­ian mis­sion and then the ba­ton has passed on to others.

This is one thing we see as we look at the whole Chris­t­ian past in front of us. But let’s look a lit­tle more closely at the part right in front of us, the re­cent past, the last hun­dred years or so. The 20th Cen­tury has prob­a­bly been the most re­mark­able Cen­tury of church his­tory since the first. Cer­tainly the shape of the Church de­mo­graph­i­cally changed more com­pletely, more rad­i­cally, dur­ing the 20th Cen­tury than it did in any pre­vi­ous century.

Two things hap­pened si­mul­ta­ne­ously. One was the great­est re­ces­sion that the Chris­t­ian faith has known since the rise of Is­lam, and that re­ces­sion was cen­tered in Eu­rope and has be­gun to spill into North Amer­ica. The sec­ond was a huge ac­ces­sion to the Chris­t­ian faith, again prob­a­bly the largest that has ever been known. There were only about ten mil­lion pro­fess­ing Chris­tians in the whole of the African con­ti­nent when the 20th Cen­tury be­gan. No one knows how many there are now, but an ed­u­cated guess would be in the re­gion of 350 mil­lion – that in the course of a cen­tury. Ko­rea had a tiny, tiny church when the cen­tury be­gan. Now it sends its mis­sion­ar­ies all over the world, takes over where West­ern mis­sions left off, and en­ters places where West­ern mis­sions never went.

We’ve heard this morn­ing al­ready of events in north­east In­dia, of Chris­t­ian states where, what is it? Over 90% of the pop­u­la­tion pro­fess the Chris­t­ian faith in Mi­zo­ram in a state that sends out mis­sion­ar­ies all over In­dia. But a hun­dred years ago that church hardly ex­isted. Fifty years ago Nepal was still a closed land and cer­tainly a cen­tury past, mis­sion work amongst the tribal peo­ple of the Indo-Burma bor­der­land was in its in­fancy. Now, that pic­ture that we have from north­east In­dia is part of a whole chain of new Asian Chris­t­ian pop­u­la­tions stretch­ing from the Hi­malayas through the Arakan right through the South­east Asian penin­sula. The new Chris­t­ian in Nepal, the move­ment in north­east In­dia, over the bor­der in south­west China, the peo­ples in Myan­mar and Thai­land and be­yond, a whole Chris­t­ian con­stituency that no one has thought of very much be­cause it cov­ers so many coun­tries and in each Chris­tians are a mi­nor­ity and not a small mi­nor­ity; but see that whole chain of new churches that have come into be­ing in the course of the 20th Century!

Over the past cen­tury Chris­t­ian ad­vance and Chris­t­ian re­ces­sion have gone on si­mul­ta­ne­ously, re­ces­sion in the West, ad­vance in Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­ica; with­er­ing at the cen­ter, blos­som­ing at the edges. The ba­ton is pass­ing to the Chris­tians of Asia and Africa and the Amer­i­cas, and let me add the Pa­cific (you have a most re­mark­ably uni­ver­sal rep­re­sen­ta­tion here); but it’s in these ar­eas, these south­ern con­ti­nents, if we may so call them, where more and more every year re­spon­si­bil­ity now lies for Chris­t­ian mis­sion in the world.

Chris­t­ian ad­vance in the world is se­r­ial and, in the prov­i­dence of God, it is the Chris­tians of Africa and Asia and Latin Amer­ica and the Pa­cific that are next in the se­ries. We who be­long to the West are no longer the lead­ers, the ini­tia­tors, the norm set­ters. We are now to learn to be the helpers, the as­sis­tants, and the fa­cil­i­ta­tors. The great event, the great sur­prise for Chris­tian­ity over the past hun­dred years has been this shift in the cen­ter of grav­ity of the Church. This rad­i­cal change in its de­mo­graphic and cul­tural com­po­si­tion, by all pre­sent in­di­ca­tions ap­pears to be con­tin­u­ing. It means that the Chris­tians of the south­ern con­ti­nent are now the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tians, the peo­ple by whom the qual­ity of the 21st and 22nd Cen­tury Chris­tian­ity will be judged, the peo­ple who will set the norms, the stan­dard Chris­tians. And the qual­ity of 21st Cen­tury Chris­tian­ity will de­pend on them.

A hun­dred years ago Eu­ro­pean and Amer­i­can mis­sion lead­ers took re­spon­si­bil­ity for re-Chris­t­ian mis­sion in the world. My of­fice in Ed­in­burgh is right next door to the place where the World Mis­sion­ary Con­fer­ence met in 1910. There were a few dis­tin­guished Asian Chris­t­ian lead­ers at that con­fer­ence. There wasn’t a sin­gle African pres­ence, by the way. But the pro­ceed­ings were shaped by the peo­ple of Eu­rope and Amer­ica. That will be less and less the sit­u­a­tion in the fu­ture. We must con­sider in a mo­ment the ques­tion of power, but what­ever may be true in the eco­nomic and mil­i­tary spheres, what hap­pens in the Chris­t­ian sphere will in­creas­ingly de­pend on the Chris­tians of Asia, Africa and Cen­tral and South­ern Amer­ica, and the Pa­cific. The de­mo­graphic fact we now have to live with and work with and think around is that we be­gin the 21st Cen­tury with an in­creas­ingly post-Chris­t­ian West and an in­creas­ingly post-West­ern Christianity.

At the World Mis­sion­ary Con­fer­ence in Ed­in­burgh in 1910, of which I’ve spo­ken, one of the In­dian del­e­gates was a young, still not very ex­pe­ri­enced An­gli­can min­is­ter, V. S. Azariah. He was asked to speak at a fringe meet­ing on co­op­er­a­tion be­tween mis­sion­ar­ies and na­tion­als in what were then called the younger churches. He an­a­lyzed some of the (par­tic­u­larly mis­sion­ary) at­ti­tudes that some­times made re­la­tions dif­fi­cult. Then he ut­tered the words, which have be­come per­haps the most fa­mous of all the many thou­sands of words that were ut­tered at Ed­in­burgh. “Through all the ages to come,” he said, “the In­dian church will rise up in grat­i­tude to at­test the hero­ism and self-deny­ing labors of the mis­sion­ary body. You have given your goods to feed the poor; you have given your bod­ies to be burned. We also ask for love. Give us friends.” And that was the last word of the speech. It was a bomb­shell. Mis­sions were busy plan­ning the evan­ge­liza­tion of the world, but the first de­sire of the so-called in­fant churches was not for lead­er­ship, not for more work­ers, not for more funds, but for friend­ship. Friend­ship im­plies equal­ity and mu­tual re­spect. A friend is some­one you want to spend your spare time with.

These younger churches were not, even at that time, prat­tling in­fants, and over the years since Ed­in­burgh 1910, many of those churches have been through the fires. What church in his­tory has gone through what the church in China has done over the last 50 years and emerged as it has done? What churches in his­tory have had rou­tinely to cope with such per­sis­tent hor­rors of dev­as­ta­tion, war, dis­place­ment, and geno­cide, as have those of cen­tral Africa and the Su­dan? Which churches have ever been re­quired more ur­gently to give moral lead­er­ship to their na­tion than those of South Africa, or to speak for the poor and op­pressed and the needy than those of Latin Amer­ica? Or have ever more thor­oughly de­voted them­selves to the spread of the Chris­t­ian gospel than those of Ko­rea? It is the churches of the non-West­ern world that now bring to the world the ac­cu­mu­lated ex­pe­ri­ence of God’s salvation.

In what parts of the world has God been prepar­ing his peo­ple by suf­fer­ing and des­o­la­tion? In what parts of the world does the cry go up most ur­gently for God to de­liver His peo­ple from saints be­neath the altar?

A sec­ond propo­si­tion is that Chris­tian­ity lives by cross­ing cul­tural fron­tiers. The first be­liev­ers in Jesus were all of them Jews by race. They saw in Jesus their Scrip­tures be­ing ful­filled. It gave new mean­ing and in­sight to every­thing that they’d al­ways known. They didn’t have to change their re­li­gion. Be­cause of Jesus the Mes­siah, they loved the Law; they loved the tem­ple with its liturgy and its sac­ri­fices, far more than they’d ever done be­fore. Every­thing about Jesus made sense in Jew­ish terms, and for a long time the lead­ers were very anx­ious that all other Jews should know about Jesus, but rarely men­tioned Him to peo­ple who were not Jews, and then only in spe­cial circumstances.

All that changed when de­scribed in the 11th chap­ter of Acts, a group of be­liev­ers who had been forced to flee Jerusalem (as we heard just now) af­ter the Stephen af­fair, made their way to An­ti­och and be­gan to talk about Jesus to their Greek pa­gan neigh­bors. It was so un­usual that the apos­tles sent an en­voy, an am­bas­sador Barn­abas, to in­spect what had hap­pened. He was de­lighted in that church at An­ti­och, where Jews and Gen­tiles mixed and ate to­gether, sent its own mis­sion­ar­ies to the Greek world, Jew­ish and Gen­tile mis­sion­ar­ies to the Jew­ish and Gen­tile Greek world. When Paul came back from one of these mis­sion­ary jour­neys, the Jerusalem church was glad to hear of the suc­cess of his work, but if we read Acts 22 care­fully, we can see that most peo­ple in Jerusalem still be­lieved that the re­ally sig­nif­i­cant work of the church lay right there at home. “You see, brother, how many thou­sands of the Jews there are who have be­lieved and all of them zeal­ous for the Law.” In other words, it’s great to hear these sto­ries from the mis­sion field, but the real work is what’s go­ing on here. This is the cen­ter. Yet, the Jerusalem church did not, in fact, have much time left. A gen­er­a­tion, and the Ro­man war had bro­ken out and that church had scat­tered and with the fall of the Jew­ish state in AD70, it lost its nat­ural habi­tat. Chris­tian­ity would have been noth­ing more than a mi­nor Jew­ish sect but for one thing. It had crossed a cul­tural bound­ary into the Greek world, and when that ear­li­est church, the church of the apos­tles, the church that had known the min­istry of Jesus Him­self, when that church was eclipsed, a new one, Greek speak­ing, Gen­tile, was al­ready in place.

Sim­i­lar things have hap­pened sev­eral times since. Chris­tian­ity be­came char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Hel­lenis­tic world; it spread to a dom­i­nant place in the civ­i­liza­tion of the Ro­man Em­pire with its de­vel­oped lit­er­a­ture and its tech­nol­ogy. But there came a time when that church, too, was eclipsed. What en­abled the faith to sur­vive and to grow was the fact that it had crossed an­other cul­tural bound­ary. It had en­tered the world that the Ro­mans feared so, as de­stroy­ing their civ­i­liza­tion, the peo­ple that they called Bar­bar­ians, the bar­baroi, the peo­ple whose lan­guage is all ‘bar-bar’, who don’t speak real lan­guages. Once again, Chris­tian­ity had sur­vived a ma­jor cri­sis be­cause it had been trans­mit­ted to a peo­ple of a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, dif­fer­ent cul­ture, dif­fer­ent way of life.

We could go on and on over the cen­turies, but the past cen­tury has seen that story re­peated.  When the 20th Cen­tury be­gan, Chris­tian­ity was very much the re­li­gion of the West. More than 80% of those who pro­fessed and called them­selves Chris­tians lived in Eu­rope or North  Amer­ica. A cen­tury later, Chris­tian­ity in Eu­rope is in deep de­cline, and North Amer­ica I sus­pect show­ing many of the signs that Eu­rope did when its own, soon rapidly ac­cel­er­ated, de­cline from Chris­tian­ity be­gan. But in the world as a whole, the Chris­t­ian faith is not in de­cline and the rea­son is that, in the past cen­tury and in the time be­fore that, by means es­pe­cially (though not ex­clu­sively) of the mis­sion­ary move­ment of which so many of us are be­ing priv­i­leged to be a part, the gospel crossed cul­tural fron­tiers in Africa and Asia. A cen­tury ago, the num­ber of Chris­tians in the non-West­ern world looked quite small. Now they are the ma­jor­ity, and every year there are fewer Chris­tians in the West and more in the rest of the world.

Chris­tian­ity lives by cross­ing the bound­aries of lan­guage and cul­ture. With­out this process it can wither and die. So, in the com­ing cen­tury, the new rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tians of Asia and Africa and Latin Amer­ica and the Pa­cific will be re­quired, I’m sure, to cross cul­tural bound­aries, pos­si­bly even west­ern cul­tural bound­aries, in or­der to share their faith.

The third propo­si­tion is that cross­ing cul­tural fron­tiers con­stantly brings Christ into con­tact with new ar­eas of hu­man thought and ex­pe­ri­ence. All of these, con­verted, be­come part of the func­tion­ing body of Christ. The full stature of Christ de­pends on all of them to­gether. We see how the ear­li­est church was en­tirely Jew­ish in race and in cul­ture in its ways of thought. It de­vel­oped a thor­oughly Jew­ish way of be­ing Chris­t­ian, a Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian lifestyle. When those Greeks in An­ti­och were con­verted, many be­liev­ers must have taken it for granted that they would be­come Jew­ish pros­e­lytes, ac­cept cir­cum­ci­sion and keep the Torah. That had al­ways hap­pened when Gen­tiles came to rec­og­nize the God of Is­rael. There was, in fact, only one style of Chris­t­ian life that any­one knew, and it was a Jew­ish style. The Lord, Him­self, had lived that way and had said that not a jot or ti­tle would pass from the law by His agency. All the Apos­tles con­tin­ued to this day to live by it. But when that great coun­cil of Jerusalem de­scribed in Acts 15 came to con­sider the mat­ter, the lead­ers of the church agreed that cir­cum­ci­sion and Torah were not re­quired for Gen­tile be­liev­ers. Hel­lenis­tic be­liev­ers would now have to find a Hel­lenis­tic way of be­ing Chris­t­ian un­der the guid­ance of the Holy Spirit be­cause they had to live in Hel­lenis­tic so­ci­ety and they would have to change Hel­lenis­tic fam­ily and so­cial life, but change it or­gan­i­cally, from the in­side. The Hel­lenis­tic way of be­ing Chris­t­ian would be dif­fer­ent from the Jew­ish way of be­ing Chris­t­ian, and yet the two be­longed with each other. One was not su­pe­rior to the other, one was not a soft op­tion for be­nighted hea­then, the other was not a le­gal­is­tic bondage for peo­ple who didn’t live in cos­mopoli­tan civ­i­liza­tion. These were dif­fer­ent seg­ments of so­cial re­al­ity, each be­ing turned to­wards Christ, con­verted to Him and be­long­ing to­gether in the func­tion­ing body of Christ. That’s what the Epis­tle to the Eph­esians is about, cel­e­brat­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary fact not just of the two mu­tu­ally hos­tile races be­ing joined to­gether but of two cul­tures brought to­gether to eat and work to­gether within the Body of Christ.

When the Epis­tle to the Eph­esians was writ­ten, there were only two ma­jor cul­tures in the Chris­t­ian church, two Chris­t­ian lifestyles, the Jew­ish and the Hel­lenis­tic. How many are there now? One of the great tasks of Chris­t­ian mis­sion in the com­ing cen­tury will be to al­low these dif­fer­ent Chris­t­ian lifestyles to grow but to in­ter­act be­cause (I love this rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the art­work be­hind me and around the wall), yes, all these be­long to­gether in the body of Christ.

Dis­tinct seg­ments of so­cial re­al­ity, be­cause we never meet hu­man­ity gen­er­al­ized. Christ was not hu­man­ity gen­er­al­ized. Christ was hu­man in a very spe­cific cul­tural sit­u­a­tion, and as He’s re­ceived by faith in other set­tings, He’s again trans­lated into spe­cific seg­ments of so­cial re­al­ity. Yet all this is the Body of Christ, and the Body of Christ is not com­plete, the full stature of Christ is not reached un­til all these cul­tures and sub-cul­tures, which your dif­fer­ent cul­tures rep­re­sent, are brought to­gether in Heaven. We have reached an Eph­esian mo­ment such as the Church has never seen since that First Century.

The Eph­esian sit­u­a­tion arose be­cause of the vi­tal dif­fer­ence be­tween con­verts and pros­e­lytes. Be­fore the time of Christ the Jews had de­signed ways of wel­com­ing Gen­tiles who rec­og­nized the God of Is­rael. Pros­e­lytes were cir­cum­cised, bap­tized and en­tered into the life of Is­rael by seek­ing to obey the Torah. That great coun­cil as we’ve seen de­cided that Gen­tile be­liev­ers in Jesus, al­though they were ex-pa­gans with­out the life­long train­ing in doc­trine and moral­ity that Jews had, should not keep the Torah, should find a lifestyle of their own within Hel­lenis­tic so­ci­ety un­der the guid­ance of the Spirit. They were not pros­e­lytes, they were con­verts. This dis­tinc­tion be­tween con­vert and pros­e­lyte is of fun­da­men­tal im­por­tance. If the first Gen­tile be­liev­ers had be­come pros­e­lytes, liv­ing ex­actly the style of life of those who brought them to Christ, they might have be­come very de­vout be­liev­ers but they would have had vir­tu­ally no im­pact on their so­ci­ety. They would have ef­fec­tively been taken out of that so­ci­ety. It was their task as con­verts to con­vert their so­ci­ety, con­vert it in the sense that they had to learn to keep turn­ing their ways of think­ing and do­ing things (these, of course, were Greek ways of think­ing and do­ing things) to­wards Christ, open­ing them up to His influence.

I wish we had time to ex­plore this. Let me, in the mo­ments that are left to me, sug­gest two as­pects of the new world or­der that arises out of this post-Chris­t­ian West and post-West­ern Christianity:

One of them is eco­nomic. I can sum­ma­rize this by point­ing to the United Na­tions re­port on pop­u­la­tion pub­lished last year. On this count the world’s pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ing by 1.2%, 77 mil­lion peo­ple each year, half that in­crease com­ing from six coun­tries: In­dia, China, Pak­istan, Nige­ria, Bangladesh, In­done­sia. The in­crease in pop­u­la­tion growth will be con­cen­trated in the coun­tries that are least able to sup­port it. By 2050, Africa, it is pro­jected, will have three times the pop­u­la­tion of Eu­rope, and this de­spite the an­tic­i­pated deaths of three hun­dred mil­lion Africans from AIDS by that time. On the other hand, the pop­u­la­tion of Eu­rope and most other de­vel­oped coun­tries is pro­jected to fall: Ger­many and Japan by 14%, Italy by 25%, Rus­sia and Ukraine per­haps as much as 40%. This will re­quire mi­gra­tion to main­tain eco­nomic lev­els in the de­vel­oped world and the prime tar­get for im­mi­gra­tion will be the US, which with a mil­lion new im­mi­grants per year will be one of the few de­vel­oped coun­tries to in­crease its pop­u­la­tion per­haps to 400 mil­lion, but en­tirely as a re­sult of immigration.

So, the Eph­esian mo­ment brings us a Church more cul­tur­ally di­verse than it’s ever been be­fore, nearer po­ten­tially to that full stature of Christ that be­longs to the sum­ming up of all of hu­man­ity. But it also an­nounces a Church of the poor. Chris­tian­ity will be mainly the re­li­gion of rather poor and very poor peo­ple with few gifts to bring ex­cept the gospel it­self. And the heart­lands of the Church will in­clude some of the poor­est coun­tries on earth. A de­vel­oped world in which Chris­tians be­come less and less im­por­tant and in­flu­en­tial will seek to pro­tect its po­si­tion against the rest.

Sud­denly, the main po­lit­i­cal is­sue across West­ern Eu­rope has be­come the in­com­ing peo­ples from East­ern Eu­rope and be­yond. As the bombs have rained down on Afghanistan, so Afghans have moved to the west. New po­lit­i­cal par­ties have arisen across West­ern Eu­rope, with op­po­si­tion to let­ting im­mi­grants in as their plat­form. They have fright­ened the old par­ties by their elec­toral suc­cess, so the old par­ties be­gin to use the same lan­guage. West­ern Chris­tians are go­ing to be faced with some enor­mous Chris­t­ian choices.

The Eph­esian ques­tion at the Eph­esian mo­ment is whether or not the Church in all its di­ver­sity will be able to demon­strate its unity by the in­ter­ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion of all its cul­ture-spe­cific seg­ment, what is ex­pected in a func­tion­ing body. In other words, will the body of Christ be re­al­ized or frac­tured? And there will be both eco­nomic and, I think, the­o­log­i­cal con­se­quences from the answer.

May I have a cou­ple of min­utes for the­ol­ogy? Please al­low an el­derly West­ern aca­d­e­mic to speak from his heart. I think the the­o­log­i­cal en­ter­prise of the 21st Cen­tury is sim­i­lar in scope and ex­tent to that of Chris­tians in the Greek world in the 2nd and 3rd Cen­tury and be­yond. This is the time when the foun­da­tions of the Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy were be­ing laid us­ing the ma­te­ri­als avail­able in the Hel­lenis­tic world. We can ex­pect to see new build­ing on those foun­da­tions, us­ing the ma­te­ri­als that are to hand away in all the var­i­ous peo­ples which you rep­re­sent or where you have been fa­cil­i­tat­ing the preach­ing of the gospel.

The­ol­ogy is made out of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als ap­plied to the Bible, be­cause the pur­pose of the­ol­ogy is to make or to clar­ify Chris­t­ian de­ci­sion. Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy is think­ing in a Chris­t­ian way and is done by all sorts of peo­ple who don’t know that they are be­ing the­olo­gians. It’s about choice, about think­ing in a Chris­t­ian way. But the need to do this arises from the spe­cific con­di­tions in which life is lived. So the the­o­log­i­cal agenda is cul­tur­ally in­duced. Cul­ture sets the tasks for the­ol­ogy. As the gospel crosses new cul­tural fron­tiers, cre­ative Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy goes on. The the­o­log­i­cal task is never com­plete. The the­o­log­i­cal work­shop is al­ways open and it be­comes more ac­tive every time we cross a cul­tural frontier.

And the ma­te­ri­als for Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy are also cul­tur­ally con­di­tioned. On the one hand, there’s the bib­li­cal ma­te­r­ial; but this ma­te­r­ial has to be brought to bear on the sit­u­a­tions which have caused the need for Chris­t­ian choice. This means us­ing the men­tal ma­te­ri­als of the time and the place where the choice has to be made. These ma­te­ri­als have to be con­verted, turned to­wards Christ to make this pos­si­ble, be­cause this is not what they orig­i­nally were de­signed for. The doc­trines of the Trin­ity and the In­car­na­tion, which the church at large con­fesses in its creeds now, were con­structed from the ma­te­ri­als of mid­dle pe­riod Pla­ton­ism con­verted to han­dle the ma­te­r­ial of the Chris­t­ian tradition.

Let’s re­mem­ber that con­ver­sion is about turn­ing things to Christ. It’s more about di­rec­tion than about con­tent. It’s not a mat­ter of sub­sti­tut­ing some­thing new for some­thing old or adding some­thing new to some­thing old; it’s a mat­ter of turn­ing what is al­ready there to­wards Christ.

But what brought the doc­trines of the Trin­ity and the In­car­na­tion, in the for­mu­la­tions that we know, into be­ing? They came from a need to think in a Chris­t­ian way about Christ across a cul­tural fron­tier. The need arose be­cause the gospel had crossed from the Ju­daic to the Greek world. The first be­liev­ers were Jews who saw Jesus in terms of Jew­ish iden­tity, Jew­ish his­tory, and Jew­ish des­tiny. When they came to faith in Jesus and came to share their faith in Jesus with Greek-speak­ing Gen­tile peo­ple who’d been pa­gans, they had a dif­fi­culty. The word that meant most to them per­son­ally was Mes­siah. The whole of the Old Tes­ta­ment was summed up in that word. But the word didn’t mean much to Greeks and needed an ex­pla­na­tion even if you trans­lated it into Greek. A term had to be used that would mean some­thing to Greek-speak­ing pa­gans, and they chose the word Kyrios, Lord, that those pa­gan peo­ple used for their cult di­vini­ties. To many, that must have seemed an im­pov­er­ish­ment, even a dis­tor­tion. Wasn’t it dan­ger­ous to use lan­guage that be­longed to hea­then cults? Shouldn’t Gen­tile con­verts learn about the Mes­siah as Is­rael’s na­tional Sav­ior? In fact, the use of the term was en­rich­ing. It made peo­ple think about Christ in a dif­fer­ent way be­cause they now thought of Him in in­dige­nous categories.

It also raised awk­ward ques­tions that had not been raised be­fore. For in­stance, what was the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Mes­siah and the One God? Jew­ish be­liev­ers could use a phrase like “Jesus is at the right hand of God.” And every­body knew what that meant. It was enough to get Stephen lynched! But this wasn’t enough for Greeks. Did it mean that God had a right hand? Even if you got over that an­thro­po­mor­phism, it didn’t deal with what a Greek needed to know: the re­la­tion­ship of God to Mes­siah in terms of be­ing, of essence. There was no es­cape from the lan­guage of ou­sia and hy­posta­sis. All that long ag­o­niz­ing de­bate (are they the same ou­sia [essence], dif­fer­ent ou­siai, sim­i­lar ou­siai) was needed to ex­plain what Chris­tians re­ally meant about Christ. Of course, the Bible was cen­tral to the de­bate, but there was no sin­gle text that would clearly set­tle the mat­ter. It was nec­es­sary to ex­plore the sense of the Scrip­tures us­ing the in­dige­nous vo­cab­u­lary, the in­dige­nous meth­ods of de­bate, the in­dige­nous pat­terns of thought.

It was a risky busi­ness. There’s no such thing as safe the­ol­ogy. The­ol­ogy is an act of ado­ra­tion fraught with a risk of blas­phemy, but an act of ado­ra­tion, of wor­ship, nev­er­the­less. Or­tho­doxy is giv­ing the right glory to God. A risky busi­ness. Peo­ple came up out of that risky but re­ward­ing process with a more thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of Christ as the eter­nal Son of God, be­got­ten of His Fa­ther be­fore all worlds, than they could ever have reached solely by us­ing the Jew­ish cat­e­gory of Mes­siah. And this en­riched knowl­edge came be­cause peo­ple asked Greek ques­tions, us­ing Greek ma­te­ri­als in lan­guage and thought, ask­ing the ques­tions that came from cross­ing that cul­tural frontier.

Trans­la­tion did not de­stroy the old tra­di­tion ei­ther. The old cat­e­gory of Mes­siah meant just as much as it did be­fore. There was no need to give any­thing up. And look­ing back, of course, one can see those dis­cov­er­ies about Christ were there in the Scrip­tures all the time. But it was pos­si­ble to miss them, un­til they were trans­lated into an­other lan­guage and an­other set of men­tal cat­e­gories. Every time the gospel crosses a cul­tural fron­tier there’s a new need for the­o­log­i­cal cre­ativ­ity. It was cross­ing the fron­tier from the Greek to the Bar­bar­ian world that brought the doc­trine of the Atone­ment to the mea­sure of un­der­stand­ing we now have of it, and so one could go on and on.

The process will be made in­creas­ingly nec­es­sary in this vast Eph­esian world that we now have by the ques­tions that come about Christ in the cir­cum­stances of all these di­verse Chris­t­ian peo­ples who are rep­re­sented here.

As it stands at the mo­ment, the West­ern The­o­log­i­cal Acad­emy rep­re­sented in our uni­ver­si­ties and sem­i­nar­ies is sim­ply not equipped to lead in the new world or­der that the de­mo­graph­ics of the Holy Spirit has brought about. I don’t have time to elab­o­rate that. What I’m try­ing to say is that even in terms of the­o­log­i­cal cre­ativ­ity, more and more the re­spon­si­bil­ity will fall on the Chris­tians mak­ing their Chris­t­ian choices in mother tongue the­o­log­i­cal think­ing in Africa, in Asia, in Latin Amer­ica, in the Pa­cific islands.

The pre­sent sit­u­a­tion of Chris­tian­ity is like that I’ve de­scribed with the first fron­tier, the Greek world was crossed, only this time it’s not the Mediter­ranean world or the West­ern world at all that’s the scene of the in­ter­ac­tion. The cru­cial ac­tiv­ity is now the Chris­t­ian in­ter­ac­tion with the an­cient cul­tures of Africa, Asia, the Amer­i­cas, the Pa­cific. The qual­ity of the Chris­tian­ity of those ar­eas and thus the qual­ity of 21st Cen­tury Chris­tian­ity as a whole will de­pend on the qual­ity of that in­ter­ac­tion. If the qual­ity is good, we might see some­thing like what ap­peared in the 3rd and 4th and 5th Cen­turies, a great cre­ative de­vel­op­ment of Chris­t­ian the­ol­ogy; new dis­cov­er­ies about Christ that Chris­tians every­where can share; ma­ture dis­crim­i­nat­ing stan­dards of Chris­t­ian liv­ing; peo­ples and groups re­spond­ing to the gospel at a deep level of un­der­stand­ing and per­son­al­ity; a long-term Christ-shaped im­print on the think­ing of Africa and Asia, a new stage in the church’s growth to­wards the full stature of Christ.

If the qual­ity is poor we shall see dis­tor­tion, con­fu­sion, un­cer­tainty, and al­most cer­tainly hypocrisy on a large scale. This is not sim­ply a mat­ter that af­fects the south­ern con­ti­nents. We’ve see that in the 21st Cen­tury Chris­tian­ity is re­vealed as an in­creas­ingly non-West­ern re­li­gion. The prin­ci­pal the­aters of Chris­t­ian ac­tiv­ity in this lat­est phase are in those south­ern con­ti­nents and what hap­pens there will de­ter­mine what the 21st and 22nd cen­turies will be like. What hap­pens in Eu­rope and even, I think, in North Amer­ica, will mat­ter less and less. The crit­i­cal processes will take place where the rep­re­sen­ta­tive Chris­tians take on the de­vel­op­ment of the­o­log­i­cal think­ing, eth­i­cal think­ing, the Chris­t­ian im­pact on so­ci­ety, the re­spon­si­bil­ity for the evan­ge­liza­tion of the world. The pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for de­vel­op­ing the­o­log­i­cal schol­ar­ship is go­ing to lie in those com­mu­ni­ties. The point’s worth stress­ing be­cause it will prob­a­bly be the only field of schol­ar­ship where this is the case. In sci­en­tific and med­ical and tech­no­log­i­cal spheres lead­er­ship will re­main with the West or in those ar­eas of East Asia where East Asia can out­strip the West.

But in the­ol­ogy, au­then­tic the­o­log­i­cal schol­ar­ship has to arise out of Chris­t­ian mis­sion and, there­fore from those prin­ci­pal the­aters of mis­sion, mak­ing Chris­t­ian de­ci­sions a crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion; and it’s in the south­ern con­ti­nent where those de­ci­sions will be most cru­cial. The­ol­ogy is a byprod­uct of cul­tural con­ver­sion. Will the de­mo­graphic trans­for­ma­tion of the Church great is­sues use for the­ol­ogy will be ar­riv­ing from the in­ter­ac­tion of bib­li­cal think­ing with the an­cient cul­tures of the south. We’re at the thresh­old of an age that could prove as cre­ative and en­rich­ing the­o­log­i­cally as any since the sim­i­lar in­ter­ac­tion with Greek cul­ture in the 2nd Century.

Con­ver­sion is the steady, re­lent­less turn­ing of all the men­tal and moral processes to­wards Christ; turn­ing what is al­ready there; turn­ing to Christ the el­e­ments of the pre-con­ver­sion set­ting. Ori­gion puts it beau­ti­fully with a lit­tle touch of his own spe­cial sort of ex­e­ge­sis: “How is it,” he asks, “that the Is­raelites were able to make the cheru­bim and the gold or­na­ments of the taber­na­cle while they were in the wilder­ness? The an­swer was, of course, that they had pre­vi­ously spoiled the Egyp­tians. The cheru­bim and ves­sels for the taber­na­cle were made from Egypt­ian gold and the taber­na­cle cur­tains of Egypt­ian cloth.” “It is the busi­ness of Chris­t­ian peo­ple,” he goes on, “to take the things that are mis­used in the hea­then world and to fash­ion from them the things for the wor­ship and glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of God.”

The se­r­ial na­ture of Chris­t­ian ex­pan­sion has taken its heart­lands away from the West and into the south­ern con­ti­nents. The trans­la­tion of the faith into new cul­tural con­texts, and the new ques­tions that process gives life to will ex­pand and en­rich, if we will al­low it, our un­der­stand­ings of Christ. Chris­tians every­where, in­clud­ing those who live in the mam­mon-wor­ship­ping cul­ture of the West, the last great non-Chris­t­ian cul­ture to arise, are called to the re­lent­less turn­ing of their men­tal and moral processes to­wards Christ. In the process and in the fel­low­ship of the body of Christ, we may no­tice that the taber­na­cle is now adorned with African gold and its cur­tains are hung with cloth from Asia and the Pa­cific and from Cen­tral and South America.

This doc­u­ment is also avail­able in PDF for­mat: De­mo­graph­ics, Power and the Gospel in the 21st Century

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