The morning prayer that starts each session of a major gathering of Catholic churchmen underway here is an important chance for the 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world to set a meditative tone for what are contentious debates about church teachings on sexuality and family life.
With Pope Francis leading the way, the prelates seated in a large Vatican lecture hall chant the traditional Latin prayers pausing near the end for a brief reflection on the day’s Scripture by one of the bishops at the meeting, known as a synod.
Yet even that moment of spiritual peace is not always a sanctuary from the tensions roiling the three-week meeting that ends Oct. 25.
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.
It’s important to listen to the stories told through the numbers as well as the untold stories. As a non-American, it is surprising to hear my brothers and sisters throw out phrases like, “the church is in decline,” when what you are referring to is the church in America. The global church is alive and well and thriving in many areas of the world, and what joy it would be to allow their voices to speak into the congregations of the global North. Many of the polarizing, divisive issues in the American church, such as gay marriage, abortion, and the death penalty, are being discussed by the global church outside the context of the binary lenses of the American left and right. These outside voices can serve to soften the rhetoric hurled by each side, and also give perspective to the priority placed on them in light of the problems faced by the global South.
The center of Christianity has dramatically shifted, and that means the agenda was very different from the northern and western agendas of the older white evangelicals in America and the issues they think most important. Korea could play a particular and convening role as a bridge between the churches of the global north and south.
In sharp and grateful contrast to the old ideologies of global North evangelicals, these global South evangelicals spent their time together wrestling with issues of global economic inequality, the realities of climate change, the imperatives of racial justice, and the need for Christians to wage peace instead of war. Since these are the issues that global evangelical and Pentecostal constituencies are facing in their own lives — and of course, the Bible addresses all of them as the central issues Christians need to confront today — the narrow, white American evangelical agenda had no interest in this global evangelical and Pentecostal forum. The fact is that they represent a different evangelical world.
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.
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.
We all wear a set of spectacles. Everyone does. These lenses dictate the way we view life. They determine the habits we make, what to eat, when to sleep, when to marry, and how to work. They assign value to our lives, determining what is meaningful: family, faith, honor, love.
If you are like me, you wear two pairs of spectacles — some people in the world wear three or more.
What I learned living cross-culturally as a Christian is that you can see Jesus wearing different spectacles. You do not have to abandon your pair, or switch it out for a new one, in order to find Jesus. You do not have to forsake the cultural values you were assigned at birth, taught by your parents, and passed down by your ancestors in order to know Jesus. You find Jesus by looking through them.