Changes taking place in the world and in China in particular are causing many ChinaSource readers to reconsider our China ministries. Publications by Andrew Walls, a British scholar of the African Church who pioneered the study of world Christianity, and Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician known for his statistically grounded global health advocacy, provide much needed perspective for those of us from outside China that are asking questions about our future role in the Chinese Christian community.
In part 1 the current state of world Christianity is presented, while part 2 looks more closely at the place of western Christians within the global church. In part 3 suggestions are offered for how western Christians—in light of all this—should approach their service to the Chinese Christian community.
Update Your View of the Global Church
For Christians from North America and, to a lesser degree, Europe, our educational and cultural background makes it difficult for us to see the church in other parts of the world clearly. And before we can assess our role in the global church we must first have an accurate picture of the church around the world today.
Let’s start with the basics: contrary to what many of us learned in school, Christianity is not a western religion. Historically, Christianity began as a minority Semitic religion that first flourished in North Africa and the Middle East before spreading further east into Arabia and Central Asia. As Andrew Walls says,
…it was not until comparatively recent times—around the year 1500—that the ragged conversion of the last pagan peoples of Europe, the overthrow of Muslim power in Spain, and the final eclipse of Christianity in central Asia and Nubia combined to produce a Europe that was essentially Christian and a Christianity that was essentially European. Paradoxically it is just at this point, when Europe and Christianity were more closely identified with each other than ever before, that the impact of the non-Western world upon the Western became critical. In the very era in which Western Christianity became fully and confidently formulated, the process that was to lead to its transformation or supersession had begun.
For a brief moment in history the political and financial dominance of Christendom—a supposedly unified society where church and state are understood to share the same “civilizing” goals—gave rise to the false impression that the Christian faith was somehow essentially western. This was not true in the past and it is not true today.
Nor does Christianity “belong” demographically to the west—let alone North America. We tend to look back with nostalgia on the 19th century as the great era of western Christian civilization. Currently available statistics suggest that in 1893 roughly 80 percent of the world Christian population lived in Europe or North America. However, as discussed in the previous paragraph, this was a brief outlier, a population bubble of western Christian numerical growth that was already bursting. As early as 1892—almost two decades before the epochal 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh—presbyteries in Syria, China, and Laos were already growing faster than Presbyterian churches in North America. And by the end of the twentieth century nearly 60 percent of the Christian community resided in the global southern regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific—and that percentage continues to increase rapidly. Recent trends in birth rates and immigration are even reshaping the church in North America in the same direction: by the middle of this century whites are expected to shrink to a minority of the evangelical community.
Once we master these little-known historical and statistical truths and recover a proper view of Christianity as a true “world” religion, we still need to dramatically adjust our image of who these world Christians are. Decades of well-intended financial appeals that rely on emotional responses to loosen purse strings have trained many western Christians to imagine our sisters and brothers from the rest of the world as simple, impoverished, and struggling to survive. This ignores the tremendous developments that have occurred during the past few decades, improving the lives of people all over the world. While poverty, disease, and injustice remain endemic in our fallen world, the numbers of people whose lives are controlled by these evils have decreased dramatically. Resources such as the Rosling’s Dollar Street website help us update our view of poverty around the world, showing in an easily grasped visual manner that both wealth and poverty now cross national and ethnic boundaries (e.g., “Africa” cannot be described as “poor,” and westerners are not simply “rich”).
The fact is that our lives may not look as different from the lives of our fellow Christians as we imagine, regardless of whether our sisters and brothers are worshipping in their passport country or attending services in one of the diaspora churches that are rapidly proliferating throughout the cities of the world. These signs of progress also mean that the resource gap between the western church and the church in other parts of the world is narrowing. In more and more cases western Christians can no longer bolster our sense of superiority by brandishing our checkbooks: the world church is becoming less and less reliant on our finances to advance.
This increase in the number of believers and the resources owned by those believers has also brought change to the church-going experience of our sisters and brothers from outside the west—in some cases dramatically. It is now increasingly common to find very large churches throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa in particular. Redeemed Christian Church of God in Nigeria is so large that it has developed a town around its massive church, complete with banks, schools, shops, and its own power plant to care for all its residents/congregants. Not surprisingly, there is an accompanying dynamism to many of these young and rapidly expanding churches—an excitement that often translates into participation rates for prayer vigils, ministry teams, special events, and even financial giving that would shame most churches in the west.
While illustrations of these shifts could be taken from around the globe, many ChinaSource readers will likely already have some familiarity with urban, middle class, Chinese Christians. While westerners often find that these educated, financially secure Chinese professionals with international travel experience are easy to interact with (culturally, they are comparatively less “distant” from western expatriates), these believers actually embody many of these changes in the global economic and spiritual landscape. For one, it is not uncommon to meet urban Chinese Christian professionals who are far wealthier than the expatriate cross-cultural workers who are “helping” them. This wealth often expresses itself through international travel—which in recent years has led to a surge in Holy Land tours from China. I know a surprising number of Chinese Christians who have been baptized just like Jesus: in the Jordan River.
Their urban location, financial strength, and international connectivity also means they tend to have access to vast amounts of theological training materials and opportunities. Observant cross-cultural workers may discover that the churches their middle class urban Chinese friends belong to are larger, growing faster, financially healthier, more dynamic, more active in prayer, and more effective in discipleship and evangelism than many churches in the west. And, again, this illustration is not unique to urban China, but could be repeated in urban and rural locations across the globe.
Of course there are still situations where inequalities exist in encounters between Western Christians and Christians from other parts of the global church. But the Christian world has changed dramatically in recent decades, and demographic trends suggest it will only change more. Our image of the church “over there”—of small gatherings of “simple,” impoverished women and men worshipping in rundown facilities—is tragically out of date! We are learning more and more about amazing things happening in and through churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
If western Christians are not the primary Christian population, not the best-resourced believers, and not coming from the most successful churches, then what is our value to the world Christian community? How are those of us from the west to understand our “mission” if we aren’t reaching down to lift others up? What, if anything, does the western church have to offer the world?
Suggested Readings on World Christianity
- “Dollar Street.” Gapminder. https://www.gapminder.org/dollar-street/matrix.
- Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia-and How It Died. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
- Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Johnson, Todd, et al. Christianity in its Global Context, 1970–2020: Society, Religion, and Mission. Center for the Study of Global Christianity, June 2013. https://gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/resources/.
- Noll, Mark A. The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019.
- Pachuau, Lalsangkima. World Christianity: A Historical and Theological Introduction。 Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018.
- Robert, Dana, and Aaron Handler. “Beyond Unity and Diversity: A Conversation with Dana Robert on Mission, Ecumenism, and Global Christianities.” Ecumenical Trends 48, no. 6 (June 2019): 2–9, 15.
- Rosling, Hans, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think. New York: Flatiron Books, 2018.
- Walls, Andrew F. “Eusebius Tries Again: Reconceiving the Study of Christian History.” International Bulletin of Mission Research 24, no. 3 (July 2000): 105–111.
- Walls, Andrew F. “From Christendom to World Christianity: Missions and the Demographic Transformation of the Church.” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 22, no. 3 (2001): 306–330.
- Walls, Andrew F. “The Gospel as Prisoner and Liberator of Culture.” In The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, 3–15. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996.
- Walls, Andrew F. "The Mission of the Church Today in the Light of Global History." Word & World XX, no. 1 (2000): 17–21.
Header image credit: ExplorerBob from Pixabay.
Text image credit: The Global Church: A Shift in the Christian Landscape,
Are you enjoying a cup of good coffee or fragrant tea while reading the latest ChinaSource post? Consider donating the cost of that “cuppa” to support our content so we can continue to serve you with the latest on Christianity in China.