Wesley Granberg-Michaelson is the author of Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage, 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).
He served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years from 1994 to 2011. Previously he held the position of Director of Church and Society at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. Earlier in his career he served as Executive and Legislative Assistant to U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (1968-1976) and then as the Associate Editor of Sojourners magazine when it was founded. He played a leading role in establishing Christian Churches Together in the USA, and presently helps guide the development of the Global Christian Forum. Over the course of his ministry his ecumenical work has taken him to all corners of the world. He is the author of Underexpected Destinations: An Evangelical Pilgrimage to World Christianity and Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change, as well as four other earlier books. His numerous magazine articles have appeared in Sojourners, The Christian Century, Christianity Today, The Church Herald, Ecumenical Review, and other publications.
In the fall of 2012, Granberg-Michaelson was appointed as a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center of the Library of Congress. While there he researched and wrote the book, From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church (Eerdmans, Fall 2013). The book deals with the effects of the shift in world Christianity to the global South, and impact of global migration on congregational life and society in the global North. It was chosen to be part of the 2013 National Book Festival in Washington, D. C.
Granberg-Michaelson is a graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, both in Holland, Michigan, and was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Reformed Church in America in 1984. Presently he continues his work in ecumenical organizations, in writing and public speaking on issues facing world Christianity, and consulting to church-related organizations, including Bread for the World. He serves today on the governing boards of Sojourners, Church Innovations, and the Global Christian Forum. His wife, Karin Granberg-Michaelson is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America, and they have two children. Wes and Karin make their home in Santa Fe, N.M.
Posts By This Author
Argument Over Pope Francis' 'Inequality' Tweet Misses the Point
The latest dust-up about the unscripted words of Pope Francis came this week when he tweeted, in Latin, “Inequality is the root of social evil.” Conservative Catholics had their underwear in a bundle, nervously tweeting away about the dangers of addressing complex issues on Twitter, and warning about thinking that “redistribution” would solve global inequities. Some feared this was giving Thomas Piketty’s new popular book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, more press. Liberal Catholics were delightfully surprised, once again, and argued that the pope was doing nothing more than putting Catholic social teaching into a tweet.
Inequality is the root of social evil.— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 28, 2014
But this latest interchange, happening of course between Catholics in the global “North,” misses the real point.
What If U.S. Christianity Needs More Immigrants?
Evangelicals around the country are praying for Congress to bring fair and just immigration reform to a vote. Often, advocates within the Christian community voice concern for the “least of these” — the unauthorized immigrants who are living in the shadows. But churches shouldn’t view Congress’ critical immigration decision as simply a matter of compassion for the “other;” immigration might be the lifeline that American Christianity needs.
Much has been written about the way that growing numbers of “millennials” are walking away from the church. The music, programming, and even vocabulary of many Christian churches seems aimed at solving the puzzle of how to keep young people interested in faith and keep them sitting in the pews. Yet while it seems millennials are walking out the front door of U.S. congregations, another group is knocking at the back door: immigrant Christians.
The Hidden Immigration Impact on American Churches
As Congress makes a final attempt this fall to act on comprehensive immigration reform, the debate is focusing on “securing” our borders and offering a path to citizenship to the 11 million residents here without proper documentation. These politicized arguments, however, don’t see the forest for the trees.
We’re not viewing the broader impact that immigration has had on American society, especially since the last major immigration reform of the 1960s. In particular, we’re missing the way immigration is transforming the religious life of North America.
We commonly view immigration as introducing large numbers of non-Christian religions into U.S. society. True, because of immigration in the last half century, America has become the most religiously diverse country in the world, with thousands of mosques and temples dotting our religious landscape.
'Break My Heart With What Breaks Yours'
High-octane contemporary worship with smoke, flashing lights, and words on huge screens energize and empower 3,400 Pentecostals from 69 countries filling the Calvary Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,. This is the 23rd Pentecostal World Conference, a triennial gathering of pastors, leaders, and youth from around the globe. I’m here as part of a delegation from the Global Christian Forum, warmly invited, seated right in the front, and including representatives from the Lutheran, Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, Mennonite, African-Instituted and Reformed church bodies, all members of the GCF steering committee. We’re easy to pick out of the crowd, since we’re the only ones who don’t spontaneously raise our hands in worship. I hope that image doesn’t make it to the big screens.
The explosive growth of Pentecostalism is an astonishing chapter in the story of world Christianity’s modern history. In 1970, Pentecostals (including charismatics in non-Pentecostal denominations) totaled about 62 million, or 5 percent of the total Christian population. In the four decades since, Pentecostals have grown at 4 times the rate of overall Christianity, and 4 times faster than the world’s population growth. Today they number about 600 million — one out of every four Christians in the world, and one out of every 12 people alive today. Most of this growth has come in the global South, in places like Africa, South America, and — yes — Malaysia.
The Pentecostal World Conference doesn’t look much like a typical denominational or ecumenical assembly. It’s more like a global revival service. Several of the world’s best-known Pentecostal preachers and leaders deliver stirring messages, complete with altar calls for those seeking the fresh empowerment of God’s Spirit in their lives and ministries. It’s a far cry from a Reformed Church in America General Synod, which I facilitated for many years. But these keynote speakers, along with the workshops held each day of the conference, open a window into global Pentecostalism’s present trends, challenges, and directions.
In writing From Times Square to Timbuktu: The Post-Christian West Meets the Non-Western Church, I found that one of the most intriguing questions I encountered is how rapidly growing forms of Christianity in the global South deal with social and economic issues within their societies. So in Kuala Lumpur, I was especially attentive to what might be said by the world’s Pentecostal leadership about the biblical call to justice and mercy. And I heard a lot that I wish I could now go back and add to my book.
ONE OF THE most well-known and revered icons today is Andrei Rublev’s reflection on the Holy Trinity, painted between 1422 and 1425 in Russia. It depicts three angels seated around a table that bears a chalice. The female figures form a circle evoking deep mutuality, interconnectedness, and love between one another. But the circle is open, inviting the world into this profound experience of community. As Christine Challiot, an Eastern Orthodox laywoman, wrote, “Rublev painted the three angels with a circular motion to signify their unity and equality, ‘thus creating a unity to represent the Holy Trinity in its movement of love.’”
This profound reflection is set in the biblical context of giving hospitality to the stranger. The icon depicts the story of the hospitality offered by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:1-15 to three strangers. Abraham rushed to offer them hospitality—water and food.
The three migrating strangers are messengers of God. The text says simply that they were the Lord; interpreters see the three as the presence of the Trinity. And they, in turn, bring an announcement that Sarah, in her old age, will bear a son, fulfilling God’s promises. Sarah and Abraham suddenly find the tables reversed, and they are the guests at God’s table, being invited into this community of love. Thus, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson explains, “This is a depiction of a trinitarian God capable of immense hospitality who calls the world to join the feast.”
This biblical story is a declaration of the unexpected, life-giving presence of God, discovered through providing hospitality to strangers. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the love of strangers is declared 36 times in the Hebrew scriptures, as opposed to the love of neighbor, mentioned only once. The love of strangers and sojourners is a primary test of one’s love for God; this is linked to the presence of migrating people, with whom we can unexpectedly encounter God in fresh and promising ways that open the future to new possibilities.
Gordon Cosby: My Mentor
Gordon Cosby was my spiritual father, not simply a brother in Christ. This relationship continued for some 45 years until his dying days. In a time when egalitarianism defines nearly all relationships as the desired norm, it’s well to remember the role of mentors who maintain, purely through their own internal integrity and faithfulness, a spiritual authority in the lives of others. Gordon Cosby was such a person to me, and to countless others.
I first encountered Gordon when I was a young legislative aide on the rise in Washington, D.C., working for Senator Mark O. Hatfield and his legislative efforts to end the Vietnam War. Disgusted with the moral vacuity of the evangelicalism that had been my heritage, but searching for faith that was more than just following a progressive social agenda, I discovered the Church of the Saviour. Gordon’s insistence that following Jesus required a disciplined inner spiritual journey always expressed in joining God’s outward mission in the world captivated me then, and ever since.
A Deeper Engagement
DR. JAMES BROWNSON'S book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships calls us all into a deeper engagement with the Bible itself, exploring in the most thoughtful and thorough ways not just what it says but, more important, what these inspired words of revelation truly mean.
On the one hand, Brownson argues that many of those upholding a traditional Christian view of same-sex relationships have made unwarranted generalizations and interpretations of biblical texts that require far more careful and contextual scrutiny. On the other hand, those advocating a revised understanding often emphasize so strongly the contextual and historical limitations of various texts that biblical wisdom seems confined only to the broadest affirmations of love and justice.
For all, Brownson invites us into a far more authentic, creative, and probing encounter with the Bible as we consider the ethical questions and pastoral challenges presented by contemporary same-sex relationships in society and in our congregations. In so doing, Brownson does not begin by focusing on the oft-cited seven biblical passages seen as relating to homosexuality. Rather, he starts by examining the underlying biblical assumptions made by those holding to a traditional view, and dissecting the undergirding perspectives held by those advocating a revised view.
Breaking the Impasse
THE CHURCH IS locked in a polarized debate around same-sex relationships that is creating painful divisions, subverting the church's missional intent, and damaging the credibility of its witness. We've all heard the sound-bite arguments. For some, condoning or blessing same-sex relationships betrays the clear teaching of the Bible, and represents a capitulation to the self-gratifying, permissive sexual ethic of a secularized culture. For others, affirming same-sex relationships flows from the command to love our neighbor, embodies the love of Jesus, and honors the spiritual integrity and experience of gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
The way the debate presently is framed makes productive dialogue difficult. People talk past one another. Biblical texts collide with the testimony of human experience. The stakes of the debate become elevated from a difference around ethical discernment to the preservation of the gospel's integrity—for both sides. Lines get drawn in the ecclesiastical sand. Some decide that to be "pure" they must separate themselves spiritually from others and break the fellowship of Christ's body. Then the debate devolves into public wrangling over judicial proceedings, constitutional interpretations, and property ownership. Meanwhile, the "nones," those who are walking away from any active relig-ious faith, find further confirmation for their growing estrangement.
Mirroring the dynamics of contemporary secular politics, the debate is driven by small but vocal minorities with uncompromising positions at one end or another of the spectrum. For the majority in the middle, who may be unclear about their own understandings, exploring their questions is made difficult because of the polarized toxicity of the debate. Further, those in positions of leadership in congregations or denominations come to regard the controversy over same-sex relationships as the "third rail" of church politics. They don't want to touch it. I know this because I've been there myself.
Why the Next Pope Should Come from the Global South
As the 117 Roman Catholic cardinals walk into the Sistine Chapel next month for the election of a new pope, one hopes that they fully recognize the unfolding, dramatic pilgrimage of world Christianity: The demographic center of Christian faith has moved decisively to the Global South.
Over the past century, this astonishing demographic shift is the most dramatic geographical change that has happened in 2,000 years of Christian history. Trends in the Catholic Church — comprising about 1 out of 2 Christians in the world — have generally followed this global pattern:
- In 1900, about 2 million of the world’s Catholic faithful lived in Africa; by 2010, this had grown to 177 million.
- 11 million Catholics were found in Asia in 1900; by 2010 there were 137 million Asian Catholics.
- Through colonial expansion, 59 million Catholics populated Latin America and the Caribbean in 1900; but by 2010, that number had grown to 483 million.
- In 1900, two-thirds of the world’s Catholic believers were in Europe and North America; today, two-thirds are in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
God Is Still Not A Republican, Or A Democrat
During the 2004 presidential election season, Sojourners put out a bumper sticker with these words: “God Is Not a Republican, or a Democrat.” The number of orders was overwhelming and we kept running out. The simple message struck a chord among many Christians who were tired of the assumptions and claims by the Religious Right that God was indeed a Republican, or at least voted a straight-party ticket for the GOP. They also absurdly implied — and sometimes explicitly stated — that faithful Christians couldn’t support Democratic candidates. We said that voting was always an imperfect choice in a fallen world, based on prudential judgments about how to best vote our values, that people of faith would always vote in different ways — and that was a good thing for a democracy and the common good.
Our efforts appeared to inject some common sense into our nation’s political discourse, but given recent electoral statements and newspaper ads from some conservative Christian leaders, it appears the message bears repeating — God is still not a Republican or Democrat.
DURING HOLY WEEK this year, columnist and practicing Catholic Andrew Sullivan wrote a Newsweek cover story titled “Christianity in Crisis.” He argued that Christianity is being destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists. This would “baffle Jesus of Nazareth,” Sullivan wrote. “The issues that Christianity obsesses over today simply do not appear ... in the New Testament ... It seems no accident that so many Christians now embrace materialistic self-help rather than ascetic self-denial ... [and] no surprise that the fastest growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity.”
My sense is that people are leaving organized Christianity because it has left behind the radical message of its founder. This has been a long and continuing struggle. Jesus taught and embodied a revolutionary, transforming love. Forsaking wealth and power, he constantly reached out to those on the margins of society. Renouncing violence, he loved not just his friends but his enemies. Condemning religious self-right-eousness and hypocrisy, he healed broken lives and opened eyes and hearts to the near presence of the kingdom of God.
The church confesses him as the risen Savior and Lord. But then, so often, it tries to domesticate him, explaining away those sharp, demanding edges of his compelling words, and finding theological excuses for not following his radical ways. We call upon people to believe in Jesus. But the question is whether we believe Jesus.
Driving Toward Cuba's Future
The cars in Cuba fascinate me. Where else in the world can one see a classic 1956 Oldsmobile, a shiny 1957 Chevy, and a 1970 VW bug alongside a new Audi and modern Chinese tour buses?
Our guide said there are four generations of cars in Cuba. First are those pre-revolutionary American cars—the vintage Chevys, Fords, Oldsmobiles, and Studebakers from the 1950s that somehow keep running. Then came the Russian-made Ladas, the small, ugly, square compacts that look like Fiats stripped of any Italian design.
By the ’70s and ’80s, Japanese and other Asian cars started trickling into Cuba, and they became the auto of choice after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, in the last decade, the more expensive European cars began showing up. More recently, a fleet of fancy buses, mostly from China, has arrived to shuttle around the 2.5 million tourists now visiting the island each year (and improve public transportation in general).
The cars, of course, reflect the stages of Cuba’s economic relationship with the outside world: the embargo from the U.S., its initial reliance on all things Russian, then growing global trade, followed by the influx of European tourists, and the recent economic resurgence of China.
Cars can now be bought and sold by Cubans. This is one example of dramatic new economic policies, approved last April, being instituted in Cuba. Dr. Osvaldo Martinez, director of Cuba’s World Economy Research Center, called these changes “shock therapy,” like that being experienced by Greece, Spain, and many countries. Cubans should no longer “idolize” the Cuban economic model, Martinez said. Salaries have been increasing faster than productivity. Foods are being imported that could be produced domestically, but weren’t because of the inefficiencies of centralized, Soviet-style agriculture. There has been an “exaggerated number of state employees,” and massive layoffs have been occurring. At times Martinez nearly sounded like a Republican.
Remembering Pope Shenouda III: 'A Heart for Unity'
Pope Shenouda led what many would call a biblical and spiritual life — the heartbeat of this ancient church. He loved the Bible, studying it thoroughly, memorizing vast passages, and teaching classes on its content — something unusual in the practices of this liturgical church. After becoming Pope in 1971, for many years he would teach from the Bible on a weekday night (I think it was always Wednesday) in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo. He would schedule his world travels to be back in time for these Bible studies. The cathedral would be packed, and Pope Shenouda would patiently answer the questions raised by those coming to listen and learn.
When I first met Pope Shedouda in 2004, I was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, leading a denominational delegation to the Middle East. At the close of our “audience” — a time of rich conversation — I presented him with a small travel Bible which had been printed by the RCA. It was the NRSV translation. He took it gracefully, but immediately looked up a particular verse in the New Testament that was of concern, and promptly announced that the NRSV’s translation was inaccurate.
The Bible Society of Egypt, which loved Pope Shenouda’s biblical emphasis, is using the occasion of his funeral this week to reach out to the society. Pope Shenouda’s call to ministry came in 1945, when he read a passage from the Bible in the window of a bookstore of the Bible Society of Egypt. The organization has prepared a pamphlet summarizing his life and love of the Scriptures, and printed 1,000,000 copies for distribution.
Today’s funeral will provide a focus of national attention of the extraordinary life of this church leader.
Power, Prayer and Money
It’s been several years since I’ve attended a National Prayer Breakfast, the annual event held Thursday morning in Washington, D.C., attended by the President, members of Congress, and guests — about 2,500 of them.
When I lived and worked in D.C. I attended almost every year. Senator Mark Hatfield, for whom I worked, was a faithful member of the Senate Prayer breakfast group which met weekly, and with the group in the House, sponsors the this national event.
My worry always has been that such a gathering merely sprinkles holy water on the nation’s powerful leaders without any real accountability to the prophetic message of the Gospel. As a breakfast speaker one year, Hatfield called for national repentance for arrogance and sin, referring especially to the Vietnam War. His comments broke with the normal rhetorical decorum of the event and angered President Nixon, but received widespread coverage and much respect.
These days, the early-morning prayer breakfast is also accompanied by countless luncheons, dinners, and seminars for people who come from around the nation and the world to attend. The idea behind the prayer breakfast movement is simple: Gather politicians and leaders together in a country (or state, or city) to pray with one another “in the Spirit of Jesus,” and hope that this dependence on God will transcend differences to build a movement grounded in love for one another and one’s neighbor. It’s supposed to be devoid of “politics.”
Wes Granberg-Michaelson Answers, "What is an Evangelical?"
“Evangelical voters” have now been sized and squeezed into a homogeneous political block. These folks have views on the political right wing, trust in robust American military might, believe that wealth is a blessing to be protected by tax policy, want society to be inhospitable toward gays, oppose any form of abortion, feel that “big” government is always malevolent, and assert that American individualism is the divinely sanctioned cornerstone of the Republic. Apply the label “evangelical” to a voter and you can expect these political responses.
The problem is that it’s simply inaccurate. One size doesn’t fit all when in come to evangelicals. It distorts reality. But that’s just too inconvenient for pundits intent on predicting how various blocks will vote.
The Cuban Journal
Earlier this month, Sojourners board member and former General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, journeyed to Cuba with a delegation of religious leaders from the National Council of Churches.
Their visit culminated in a joint declaration celebrating signs of unity between the U.S. and Cuban churches. Sixteen representatives of U.S. National Council of Churches member communions were in Cuba November 28 through December 2 meeting with Cuban church and political leaders, including President Raúl Castro.
The delegation, which Cuban church leaders said was the highest ranking U.S. church group to visit the island in their memory, was led by the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, NCC general secretary. The joint statement by the churches declared that normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba would be in the best interest of both nations, and the leaders called for the resolution of three humanitarian issues “which cause unjustifiable human misunderstanding and suffering.” Foremost among the issues is the 53-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba that dates back to the administration of President John F. Kennedy.
Read a series of dispatches from Granberg-Michaelson inside God's Politics.
Report from the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia: Day Five, Heading Home
The "sermon" consisted of reflections by five participants from different regions and traditions who were attending the Global Christian Forum for the first time. They each spoke of the joy, and often the surprise, in what they discovered here -- some of them interacting with delegates from Christian traditions they barely knew even existed.
The unity of heart and Spirit they experienced at the forum had a profound effect, they said. Emily Obwaka of Kenya, a staff member from the Association of Evangelicals in Africa, whom I met on the bus the first day of the forum, was one of those who shared. She said the forum felt like "a preamble to heaven." Such sentiments might seem excessive but they were not uncommon among the 287 forum participants from 65 countries. Joy and affirmation were among the greatest takeaways from the five-day gathering.
Moving South: Day Three at the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia
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.
Report from the Global Christian Forum in Indonesia: Day Two
The compelling story of the Global Christian Forum, shared with the more than 300 forum attendees (many of them new), was told in moving testimonies from Orthodox, Pentecostal, Evangelical, Catholic, and historic Protestant members of the forum's steering committee. ... It's remarkable to hear how an Egyptian surgeon became a Coptic Orthodox priest, or how a woman Anglican Bishop from New Zeland heard her calling to the priesthood as a teenager, long before her church ordained women. Story after story simply puts you in awe of God's grace.
Report from the Global Christian Forum in Manado, Indonesia.
The Global Christian Forum is the most exciting and promising ecumenical initiative I've participated in all my years of ministry. Its import can be summed up simply: This is the only place where the leadership of evangelical, Pentecostal, Catholic, historic Protestant and Orthodox churches -- which comprise all the major "families" of world Christianity -- are brought into sustained and intentional fellowship. In so doing, the Global Christian Forum is also responding to the dramatic shift of the center of Christianity from the North and West to the southern hemisphere.