Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church. For 17 years he served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, and has long been active in ecumenical initiatives such as the Global Christian Forum and Christian Churches Together. He’s been associated with the ministry of Sojourners for 40 years.
Articles By This Author
A Duet of Demise
My experience in the worlds of both religion and politics convinces me that one of three issues is at the heart of the catastrophic demise of any leader — money, sex, or power. Sometimes it’s a trifecta of all three together, like the case of John Edwards, the former Democratic presidential candidate. But in virtually every case, a leader’s personal inability to exercise appropriate constraint and control over one or more of these three dimensions of life can lead to careers that crumble and reputations that become shattered.
That’s why, despite all the fascination on the external qualities, traits, and strategies of successful leaders, it’s their internal lives that can be far more decisive in their long-term ability to be transformative leaders — or not. But that requires attentiveness to the powerful but often hidden dynamics of one’s interior life, which “successful” leaders rarely have the time or courage to undertake.
Pentecostalism in a Postmodern Culture
“It’s a new form of Christianity,” explained Opoku Onyinah, “now also living in the West.” He’s the president of the Ghana Pentecostal and Charismatic Council, and also heads the Church of Pentecost, begun in Ghana and now in 84 nations. Onyinah was speaking at a workshop on “How Shall We Walk Between Cultures,” and explaining how African Christianity is interacting with postmodern culture. It was part of Empowered21, which gathered thousands of Pentecostals in Jerusalem over Pentecost.
I’ve found this idea intriguing. Pentecostalism, especially as it is emerging in the non-Western world, is a postmodern faith. Often I’ve said, “An evangelical wants to know what you believe, while a Pentecostal wants to hear your spiritual story.” Perhaps it’s an oversimplification. But Pentecostalism embodies a strong emphasis on narrative and finds reality in spiritual experiences that defy the logic and rationality of modern Western culture.
'And Your Daughters Shall Prophesy'
Christine Caine gave a passionate and prophetic call for the church to be continually changing, even while at its core, it is “the same.” That constant change is driven by God’s continuing call to be sent as witnesses in the world. “We want power,” she told the spiritually hungry Pentecostals gathered before her. “But we don’t know what it’s for.” It’s not for ourselves, not for our own spiritual ecstasy. The power of God’s Spirit is given for us to be witnesses to God’s transforming love. And one can’t change the world without being in the world, instead of running from it. “We’re not here,” Christine Caine proclaimed, “to entertain ourselves.”
You could feel how her words stuck a deep chord within the crowd of those listening. I walked over to sit by a friend who is bishop of a large Pentecostal church. “This is the best word that’s been spoken,” he said to me. And that’s after we had heard eight world famous Pentecostal preachers.
Finding Cracks in the Walls of Ecclesiological Separation
JERUSALEM — One out of four Christians today is Pentecostal or charismatic, which means one of every 12 persons living today practices a Pentecostal form of Christian faith. This, along with the astonishing growth of Christianity in Africa, are the two dominant narratives shaping world Christianity today. Further, the gulf between the older, historic churches, located largely in the global North, and the younger, emerging churches in the global South, often fueled by Pentecostal fire, constitutes the most serious division in the worldwide Body of Christ today.
One can also frame this as the divide between the global Pentecostal community, and the worldwide ecumenical movement. Each lives in virtual isolation from the other, and both suffer as a result. I call it ecclesiological apartheid, with its own endless, winding walls of separation. And these walls need to come down, for the sake of God’s love for the world.
It’s become my passion, in whatever small ways, to make some cracks in these walls.
More Than Demographics
The story of world Christianity’s recent pilgrimage is dramatic and historically unprecedented. The “center of gravity” of Christianity’s presence in the world rested comfortably in Europe for centuries. In 1500, 95 percent of all Christians were in that region, and four centuries later, in 1910, 80 percent of all Christians were in Europe or North America.
But then, world Christianity began the most dramatic geographical shift in its history, moving rapidly toward the global South, and then also toward the East. By 1980, for the first time in 1,000 years, more Christians were found in the global South than the North. Growth in Africa was and remains incredible, with one of our four Christians now an African, and moving toward 40 percent of world Christianity by 2025. Asia’s Christian population, now at 350 million, will grow to 460 million by that same time. Even today, it’s estimated that more Christians worship on any given Sunday in churches in China than in the U.S.
Is the Proliferation of Denominations a Failure to Die to Ourselves?
Denominations proliferate in Korea, Rev. Lee said, because church leaders have failed to die to themselves. People are concerned about recognition and their reputation, taking the glory for themselves, instead of for God. And Rev. Lee identified income inequality in South Korea as one of its greatest problems. Again, it calls for dying to the idol of wealth, and putting God’s love, along with serving one another, at the center.
The expected ecumenical agenda of economic justice, peace, protection of God’s creation came before the Jeju Forum in clear and forceful ways. Agnes Abuom, from Kenya, who is Moderator of the WCC Central Committee, said we are slaves to the larger economic and political systems; that’s another way in which we have to die to ourselves, echoing words from the Rev. Lee’s sermon.
Engaging in 'Wider Ecumenism' to Cure Injustice
From the Pacific islands, Rev. Male’ma Puloka shared how only 0.03 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases are produced by the islands in her region, but they are they ones directly experiencing the devastating effects of climate change. What more can be done by the churches to combat global warming and defend the integrity of God’s creation?
We also began looking at global economic inequality. The facts are these: the top 20 percent of the world’s people control 83 percent of the world’s wealth. The next 20 percent control 11 percent of global wealth. That leaves the bottom 60 percent of the world’s population with only 6 percent of the world’s economic wealth. What can the churches do in the face of such severe global injustice?
Beneath this some voiced the cry for hope. Facing such stark challenges of injustice requires a foundation of spirituality and prayer that can inspire our Christian witness.
The Global Pilgrimage of Christianity
Like most Asian nations, Korea experienced the influx of Western missionaries in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In Korea they are revered today by Christians. But in asking why the church grew here in ways unique on the Asia continent, it’s fair to say that the witness of faith which stood against oppression, and in solidarity with the poor and marginalized, accounted at least in part for this difference.
Today, however, the churches in Korea face the difficulties of being part of the society’s economic prosperity and success. The stories of congregations like Myungsong and Yoido are utterly remarkable and inspiring. Yet as a whole, Christianity in this society is no longer growing as before. Korean Christian friends tell me that it has “plateaued.” And a major worry, echoing that of the church in the U.S., is the growing disaffiliation of young people.
Addressing the Changing Face of Faith
The 6.5 million people in the greater Houston area now surpass New York City and Los Angeles as the most racially and ethnically diverse urban area in the U.S. That's the site where a broad spectrum of U.S. church leaders met this week to consider the impact of immigration on their congregations, and on the rapidly changing expressions of Christianity within North American culture.
The group gathered at the annual convocation of Christian Churches Together in the USA, which includes the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, several Pentecostal and evangelical denominations, the Orthodox Churches, some Historic Black churches, and nearly all the major historic Protestant denominations. All of these are experiencing the impact of immigration. Most dramatically, for instance, 54 percent of millennials — those born after 1982 — who are Catholic are Latinos. Of the 44 million people living in the United States who were born in another country, 74 percent are Christian, while only 5 percent are Muslim, 4 percent Buddhist, and 3 percent Hindu.
While church leaders in the U.S. have expressed united support for the reform of U.S. immigration laws, this is the first time an ecumenical body has gathered to examine together the actual consequences of immigration on the life and witness of its churches.
Christian Leaders Should Prepare for the Long Term
Wesley Granberg-Michaelson’s advice to Christian leaders: Discern God’s call and learn how to sustain your inward life for the long term.
“Leaders have to know who they are,” he said.
“When everything else crumbles and when you are in situations of disillusionment, when plans haven’t worked out, when colleagues have disappointed you, there’ll come those times when you say, ‘Why am I doing this?’
“At that point, what is needed is a deep and abiding sense of God’s call.”
Granberg-Michaelson’s call led him to take on a variety of roles in his career. He served from 1994 to 2010 as general secretary of the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several books, including “Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change.”
Before that, he served as research assistant for U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, managing editor of Sojourners magazine, co-founder of a nonprofit organization, and director of church and society for the World Council of Churches.
Q: You’ve had a really interesting career, including working on Capitol Hill and in Geneva, Switzerland with the World Council of Churches. What did you learn from those roles?
Working in the U.S. Senate with Mark Hatfield is when I first learned about how important it was to have a group that had a deep level of trust together. And that you have to work on building that.
And then in the life of Mark Hatfield as a U.S. senator, I saw the importance of giving voice to crucial issues in ways that helped empower others. The role of prophetic ministry I really witnessed in his life in the U.S. Senate, the kinds of stances that he took against the Vietnam War, stances that were rooted in his own convictions.
Those were qualities that came out of his Christian character. But those were also qualities I saw and learned in that secular context.
When I went to Geneva with the World Council, I got to see the enormous complexities of how organizations function and how decisions are made. I was very involved in a restructuring effort.
We spent a lot of time figuring out models for how church bodies can govern themselves. And the World Council was in a deep discussion — conflict, really — with its Orthodox members at that point. I was involved in a special commission on relations with the Orthodox.
One of the key issues was how we make decisions. To the Orthodox mind, it was incomprehensible that a central committee of 150 people could meet together and by a majority vote determine God’s will.
That led to a whole fascinating journey that I’ve continued on ever since, to rethink how church bodies make decisions.
Out of that dialogue came an embracing of models of consensus decision making, which the World Council still uses today, where 150 people will come to a decision that they arrive at by consensus. It’s a discussion, a deliberation that’s led very carefully, very artfully, taking into account the opposing points of view and getting to a point where either the body as a whole agrees or a minority that may not agree are willing to say, “We will step aside and allow this to go forward.” Or convictions are held so strongly that the body as a whole decides it’s really not ready to decide this.
None of these functions by majority vote. It’s a very different model, and I think one that’s much more attuned to how the church could make decisions.
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