“A typical Christian today is a non-white woman living in the global South, with lower-than-average levels of societal safety and proper health care. This represents a vastly different typical Christian than that of 100 years ago, who was likely a white, affluent European.”(from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity)
This was the quote that jumped out at me recently when I saw a graphic called “The World as 100 Christians.” The graphic was created by The Center for the Study of Global Christianity , a research center located at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.
Like most infographics, the graphic is a way to help people grasp an idea and give them the desire to learn more. In my case it worked, and I began to look at something that I have known has been happening in Christianity and missions for a long time.
I’m asking you to track with me as I go back to 1982, when Oxford University Press published a landmark reference book called the World Christian Encyclopedia. Written with scrupulous detail, it was 1000 pages of detailed surveys and statistics on Christianity throughout the globe. At the time, Time magazine praised it as “a benchmark for our understanding of the true religious state of the planet.” This publication became the first of what are now three major publications released in 1982, 2001, and 2019. The 2019 edition was published after extensive updates of statistics and narratives by research staff from Gordon Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
Their website says this about the volume:
“From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the World Christian Encyclopedia includes quantitative information on every world religion and Christianity down to the denominational level.”
Significant to this discussion is the change of Christianity from being dominated by North America and Western Europe to the rise of Christianity in the Global South. As someone who grew up in a part of the world where the struggles that Christians faced were monumental, where to be a Christian meant that you faced discrimination, inequities, and potential persecution, this change is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold.
The important thing to recognize is that white, affluent Americans and Europeans are not the main voices that should speak – or be listened to – for Christianity or for Missions today. Instead, we must recognize, listen to, and open our hearts to be led by the Global South. If we do not already realize this, it is time that we pay attention.
What does it mean to be led by the Global South? We have been given the mic for a long time. What does it look like to pass it and to not try to grab it back? Those are big questions, and I can’t do them justice. What I can do is offer some areas where we can learn from Christians in the Global South.
The Global South knows what it is to suffer. When I talk to Christians from Pakistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan, I am always humbled by their understanding of suffering, by their grace in the midst of suffering. I know little about suffering for my faith; I know little about suffering in general. I will never forget a meeting years ago with some Egyptian Christians who had converted from Islam to Christianity. When one of the students in our study abroad group asked them if they had suffered, they looked at the students in astonishment and replied with a simple, “Of course.” The simplicity and strength of the response was profound. No other words would have been as powerful. As Christians we have never been promised fame, riches, good health, healthy kids, or any of a number of things that we tend to put into our “blessed by God” buckets. What we have been promised is God’s presence no matter what happens.
The Global South knows what it is to live without safety, security, and physical comforts. Our barely conscious quest for safety, security, and physical comforts are hallmarks of Western Christianity, and we try and build up that safety and security in every country we enter. We pack large suitcases full of things that we don’t want our kids to miss. Our chocolate chips melt as our massive shipment stands for hours in the hot sun waiting for a customs official to let them go, and our taco mix sometimes gets eaten by rats – but by God, we will fill our suitcases or die trying. And I am the first to tell you that my suitcases are full of chocolate chips and that my taco mix did indeed get eaten by rats! I love, love, love my physical comforts. There is nothing wrong with comfort per se. There is nothing wrong with loving beauty and wanting to create a home, but we must be ever conscious of our motivation behind these things. If we go overseas only to recreate the homes and lives that we left, then we’d best look in the mirror and figure out our purpose and motivation.
And then there’s the safety piece. I’m struck by how often people from the west say to me as I travel, “Be safe! Be Careful!” It’s said out of kindness and concern, but perhaps there is also a distorted sense of what safety is or should be. Rachel Pieh Jones, long a favorite writer and friend of mine, has penned the truest words I know on safety in her longform essay, “The Proper Weight of Fear.” At one point in the essay, she describes questions that she and her husband were asked before leaving for Somaliland. “The second question after weren’t you afraid was were you safe? Of course, we were safe. Of course, we were not safe. How could we know? Nothing happens until it happens. People get shot at schools in the United States, in movie theaters, office buildings. People are diagnosed with cancer. Drunk drivers hurtle down country roads. Lightning flashes, levees break, dogs bite. Safety is a Western illusion crafted into an idol and we refused to bow.”
The Global South knows what it is to live in collective community. To live in collective community is a Biblical ideal. We are called to live not for self, but out of responsibility and love for each other. This collective community isn’t about finding who you like and deciding to form a team with them. It’s about working toward relationship with the people who are in your lives. Western Christians are great at being in community with people they like, people who agree with them politically, spiritually, and materially – but when disagreement enters, we are quick to absolve ourselves of the same community we spoke so highly of. It reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together: “The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community.” Since I was young, South Asian and Middle Eastern Christians have modeled community for me – community that doesn’t exist out of sameness, but out of love of God and neighbor.
How do we, how do I, respond to being led instead of leading? To giving up my belief in my own expertise, instead opening up to the wisdom of others?
With cultural humility – Cultural humility is a term I use all the time in my workshops. If it is true in healthcare, it is even more important and true in missions. Cultural humility gives up our right to be experts, releasing that right and being willing to be a student. In the school of suffering, safety, security, and community, I know I am not a teacher. I am a kindergartner. I know so little of any of these things. Cultural humility also emphasizes healthy self-reflection and self-critique. Not to be absorbed by self, but instead to willingly analyze and bring that analysis to God. Cultural humility also asks that we be aware of historical considerations and take them into account as we honor new leadership from the Global South.
With a focus on partnerships – I’ll be honest – I don’t know what this looks like. Partnership brings to mind a picture of relationships, service, and commitment to a long-term goal. All of those are impossible without a commitment to cultural humility. We want to walk beside, not in front of, people. Partnerships may look different depending on if the work is focused on education, medicine, business, or church.
With grateful hearts – What an incredible encouragement to know that so many places in the world are coming to understand the love story at the heart of the Christian faith! To grow in understanding the love of God and how this love compels and leads to new mission endeavors is a gift we have been given. What a picture of a creative God whose spirit moves in ways we can scarcely fathom! There is no better response than a heart of thanksgiving, a heart that humbly acknowledges God’s ways as higher than ours. It is with a grateful and awe-filled heart that I welcome these changes.
To be participants in God’s good work in the world is a gift. To be front row observers and called onto the stage of God’s glory being made known brings wordless humility. To step back and humbly be led by a new generation of Christians around the world – this is what it’s all about. May we stand back in awe and step forward in obedience. Amen and Amen.