Wes Granberg-Michaelson is the author of From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church and Future Faith: Ten Challenges for Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century (Fortress Press). 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. He and his wife Karin now live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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If Donald Trump had been Pharaoh of Egypt, the Holy Family never would have escaped from Herod’s persecution. Jews would have been prohibited from entering the country. Christmas features the story of a family from the Middle East leaving a homeland in fear and seeking refuge is a foreign land, just as millions do today.
If you visit Egypt and its ancient Coptic Church, you’ll see images of the Holy Family everywhere: Joseph, Mary — always on a donkey — and the infant Jesus. They are moving, wandering. You’ll find pictures of them passing by the pyramids. Egyptian Christians treasure this story for theirs is the land that offered welcome and hospitality to the Son of God when he was a refugee.
Francis Effect? Try the Gospel Effect
Watching hundreds of thousands wait 12 hours for a 12 second glimpse of Pope Francis, listening to jaded journalists drop their professionalism and confess their faith — or desire for it — when covering the Pope, and seeing self-serving politicians become humble and hopeful, I ask, what is this “Francis Effect?”
In the end, it’s not about Pope Francis. He would be the first to say so. A gimmicky CNN invitation asking viewers to tweet three words describing the Pope yielded this from one its reporters: “Not me. You.”
But what causes this response? It is, quite simply, the authentic message of the gospel. The gospel of mercy, the gospel of joy, the gospel of love. Christians believe that Jesus is the compassion of God. The church is formed to embody this reality.
History Facing History: When Pope and President Meet
When President Obama meets with Pope Francis tomorrow, the world will catch a glimpse of what history looks like. The first pope from the global South in 1200 years will be welcomed in the White House by the first African-American president of the United States. This picture will be worth far, far more than a thousand words.
Pundits will analyze each public word spoken, and search for hints about the private words exchanged between these two. The politics of Pope Francis’ interaction with the President, and later with Congress, will fuel incessant speculation from Washington’s insiders. But around the world, and particularly in the global South, it’s the symbol of this meeting which will matter.
Pope Francis represents the changing face of world Christianity. Today, one billion Christians are found in Latin America and Africa. In 1980, more Christians were found in the global South than in the North for the first time in a thousand years. Every day, that movement accelerates. Francis’ words about the world’s injustices, and his actions of humble human solidarity, project the voice and longings of world Christianity’s new majority and resonant far beyond the boundaries of this faith.
President Obama symbolizes the changing demographics of America. Hope and demographics elected him in 2008, and by 2012 the changing face of the electorate in the U.S. proved determinative of America’s political future. Today, a majority of babies born in the U.S. are non-white, and some major urban areas already reflect the coming reality of a society without a racial majority.
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.