Ready or Not

Of the world’s estimated 2.1 billion Christians, only about one-quarter are part of those churches making up the World Council of Churches. By and large, those churches that have formed the foundation of present ecumenical structures are in decline, and those outside of such fellowship are more often the same churches whose dramatic growth is shaping the future of Christianity.

The stunning shift in the balance of Christian populations from the North to the South further intensifies this picture. Whereas a few decades ago 70 percent of all evangelicals were in the “North,” primarily in the United States, today 70 percent are in the churches of the global South. The Catholic Church, which is projected to lose 20 million members in Europe in the first quarter of this century, will gain 100 million members in Africa, 50 million in Asia, and 140 million in Latin America. At the beginning of the 20th century, 81 percent of Christians were white. By the century’s end, the number was 45 percent.

Our ecumenical institutions today spend considerable effort analyzing the global trends shaping political and economic life, but virtually no time analyzing how the life of the churches themselves are changing. But the picture can be summarized simply: The churches around the world that are growing the fastest, with the most vitality, are not connected to the institutional or relational fabric of the ecumenical movement.

The modern pentecostal movement, for instance, which is only about one century old, now accounts for nearly one-quarter of the global Christian community—542 million people. Plus, an estimated 19 million pentecostals are added each year. This astonishing growth is one of the most dramatic stories of modern Christianity. For example, in Rio de Janeiro, 40 new pentecostal congregations are started every week, and at least two Latin American countries have a virtual pentecostal political majority.

Or look at the Church of Pentecost in Ghana, which has grown rapidly to 1.3 million members and 9,300 congregations, with only 700 full-time pastors, but 50,000 ordained lay leaders. Ten new churches are planted each week, and 70,000 new converts join in a year. It is in 60 countries throughout the world, and sends out missionaries.

Pentecostal bodies are increasingly building South to South partnerships, and those from the South build bonds with their members in immigrant communities in the North, especially in Europe. But ecumenical relationships with other church traditions are scarce.

David Daniels, church historian with the Church of God in Christ, the major pentecostal African-American denomination in the United States (and present in 30 other countries), describes pentecostals as “explicitly individualistic and implicitly communal or social.” The patient, relational work needed to build links between pentecostal and mainline Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches requires a massive undertaking of intentional outreach, prayer, mutual risk, and opportunities for building trust. Yet all too often, ecumenical bodies have been content to keep pentecostals on the margins, relating to them with less intentionality and interest than, say, to Buddhists.

Ecumenists frequently say that pentecostal groups bring an individualistic understanding of Christian faith that is politically reactionary and socially repressive. Therefore, why should we want them in the room with us? But this analysis, at best, is only partially true. In many cases, it is a misleading and disrespectful stereotype.

Certainly one can find many examples of pentecostal churches preaching a “prosperity gospel” and echoing politically conservative rhetoric. Some are influenced by direct ties to similar groups in the United States. But one can find many other examples of pentecostal churches indigenously rooted in their societies, growing amidst the poor and the marginalized, providing communal support in situations of social disintegration, and living as a true “church of the poor,” seeking God’s power to free themselves from both spiritual and physical oppression.

“Evangelical” is a more elastic term than “pentecostal,” and therefore discussion about the presence or absence of evangelicals in ecumenical arenas is more complex. More damaging is the public perception generally promoted by the media that, at least in North America, the category of “evangelical” refers automatically to Christians whose social views and political muscle are synonymous with the Religious Right. This stereotype seriously misrepresents realities on the ground.

The past 50 years has brought to evangelical communities changes in leadership and new understandings of the whole message of the gospel. Many evangelical bodies today are far more ready to define themselves according to what they are for, instead of who they are against. A growing theological maturity and self-confidence is expressed in a strong missional commitment that embraces a holistic gospel, seeks to integrate evangelism and social action in a unified witness, explores creatively how to contextualize faith in Christ, and engages social issues—such as poverty, HIV and AIDS, and environmental destruction—as expressions of biblical faithfulness.

As with pentecostals, there is a diversity of evangelical voices on these questions. While some remain far more reactive, many evangelicals articulate a fresh and compelling witness on issues once thought to be only on the ecumenical agenda.

Consider a few examples. Last June a group of American church leaders joined church leaders in the U.K. for a forum on global poverty, in order to lobby the G8 meeting on the commitments needed to address the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams hosted the meeting at Lambeth Palace. The U.S. delegation included Rich Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals, George McKinney from the Church of God in Christ, Glenn Palmberg of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, Rich Stearns of World Vision, and Geoff Tunnicliffe of the World Evangelical Alliance, along with Sojourners’ Jim Wallis, David Beckman of Bread for the World, and representatives of mainline Protestant churches.

The group sent a letter urging President George Bush and leaders at the summit to “Help the poorest people of the world fight poverty, AIDS, and hunger” and “Cancel 100 percent of the debts owed by the poorest countries.” Other evangelical signatories included Rick Warren, Brian McLaren, Max Lucado, Bill Hybels, Tony Campolo, and Leighton Ford. To those familiar with U.S. evangelicalism, the breadth of these names and the constituencies they represent shatters old assumptions.

But even more striking are developments in the global evangelical community, driven particularly by the growth of the church in the South. The Micah Challenge is a prime example. Locally based community development organizations, organized by evangelical churches and groups, formed the Micah Network. Comprised now of more than 270 such community development organizations—most of which are in the South—its purpose is to provide a means of multi-country, international advocacy around the issues of global poverty.

The list of those who seem not to be invited—or who do not respond—to the banquet of today’s ecumenical institutions goes on. The ecumenical participation of the Catholic Church has been enhanced by many new avenues opened since Vatican II. Until last year that was not the case in the United States. But after three years of dialogue, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops decided to become a founding participant of Christian Churches Together in the USA, an emerging fellowship on its way toward official organization. This is the first time in U.S. church history that the Catholic Church has made a decision to join such a body, and this has brought vitality and deepened expectation to the journey of CCT.

Noteworthy in several contexts are those churches that have sprung up in the indigenous cultural roots of their societies. Most familiar are the African Instituted Churches (sometimes also called Indigenous or Independent). Simply defined, these are churches begun in Africa by Africans. They deeply embrace African culture, but in that process encounter in fresh ways the complex relationship between gospel and culture within their context.

Similar indigenously rooted and fast-growing churches are found elsewhere, like Brazil for Christ and the Jesus is Lord Fellowship in the Philippines. Globally, those in such “independent” and “indigenous” denominations now number an estimated 386 million people.

Most of the church’s future growth will take place in new, locally rooted expressions of Christianity that demonstrate promising vitality, but also display disturbing independence and isolation from the wider church. In 50 years, if present growth rates and trends continue, the world will be home to 1 billion pentecostals. But our present global ecumenical institutions are comprised largely of the historic Protestant and the Orthodox churches. They are becoming seriously removed from streams shaping Christianity’s future.

We face an urgent need to build relationships between the independent, emerging faces of Christianity and the historic expressions of the Christian tradition. I believe that there is no ecumenical challenge more important for the health of the whole global church and the strength of its witness in the 21st century.

An ecumenical body with evangelicals, pentecostals, and Catholics remaining out of the room, or at best as polite observers, will have failed in its foundational mission and forfeited its capacity for common Christian witness.

Todd M. Johnson, co-author of the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia, said, “Christianity is steadily moving from this Caucasian, European-dominated, modern way of life, even beyond Christianity as an institution.... There’s no central, unifying narrative.” This is far truer now than it was four years ago. And how can we ever hope to restore a “unifying narrative” if we aren’t even listening to one another’s stories?

That, it seems to me, is the place to begin. And in some ways, we come back to the place where the ecumenical movement started, and always begins anew: engaging the wildly different and divergent stories of those who, in St. Paul’s words, “were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13) and then asking where God would lead us together in the midst of the world. To paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, “We would as soon wish God were always stable and reliable. What we find is God moving, always surprising us and coming at us from new directions.” May that be so for Christianity in the 21st century.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson was general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and author of Leadership from Inside Out: Spirituality and Organizational Change when this article—adapted from a speech he gave in October 2005 in New York City—appeared.

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