The Common Good

Moving South: Day Three at the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the third in a week-long series of reports from the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia filed by Wes Granberg-Michaelson, the former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America.

When I first saw the Atlas of World Christianity, I was stunned. This massive work charts the changes in world Christianity over the past century, from 1910 to 2010. Numerous charts, maps, and graphs, along with 64 interpretive essays by scholars from around the globe tell the dramatic story of how the center of Christianity has moved to the global South. These changes are tracked not only in every region and country, but even in provinces within countries.

In 1910, three-quarters of all Christians in the world lived in Europe and North America. A century later, that figure has dropped to one-quarter, with the remaining majority of Christendom living south of the equator.

The atlas also documents other dramatic trends, including the fragmentation of Christianity. New denominations, often borne out of strife and division, multiply endlessly. In Korea, for instance, there are now 69 different Presbyterian denominations. At the rate we are going, by 2025 there will be 55,000 separate denominations in the world!

That is an utter mess fueled by rivalry and confusion that hampers the church's witness and makes a mockery of God's call to live as parts of one body.

The atlas also documents the dramatic rise of revival movements throughout the world, and charts the story of Pentecostalism's rise. From its beginning a century ago, Pentecostalism now comprises a quarter of all Christians in the world. This fundamental change in Christianity's global composition, along with its geographical transformation, has created a dramatically different Christian footprint in the world.

Finally, the atlas follows the money. It documents how wealth is distributed throughout various parts of the Christian world and clearly demonstrates an increasing inequity. The geographical shift has exacerbated a glaring economic divide in the body of Christ. We're a long way from the book of Acts, and we're moving in the wrong direction.

On the third day of the Global Christian Forum here in Indonesia, Peter Crossing, part of the team that created the atlas, flipped through one map and chart after another in his Power Point presentation. Dana Roberts, professor of World Christianity at the Boston School of Theology, put the atlas data into a helpful theological framework, and David Young Bok Kim, President of the World Evangelical Alliance, interpreted these realities from a traditional evangelical perspective.

Later, I sat in a small group with about 25 others from around the world -- Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, and evangelicals -- trying to make sense out of all this. The same group had spent the day before sharing stories from our spiritual journeys. Today we struggled with what the meaning of unity is in the face of these new realities.

We also recognized that while the center of the church has moved south into a non-Western world, the structures of the global church's mission and its various vehicles to build fellowship and unity remain largely situated in the global North and West.

In the midst of all this, the participants here are also trying to give direction to the future of the Global Christian Forum. The level of trust seems high, and there's an excitement about simply being together, and sharing in worship, Bible study, and reflection together. There's a sense that we need this unique space -- and relationship with each other -- as we try to discern our future life and witness within this fast changing world.

Wes Granberg-Michaelson is former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of the book Unexpected Destinations, which includes a chapter about Global Christian Forum titled, "The Heartland and the Frontier."

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