We find ourselves on a mission frontier, on the periphery of world Christianity. That should cause European Christians to be humble but also hopeful.
When we speak or write, we choose the words that we think will best communicate our meaning. We put labels on things and establish categories that enable us to make generalisations.
And we trust that if we communicate clearly, any intelligent reader or listener, will understand exactly what we are saying.
When William Carey wrote his famous Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathens (1) in 1792 he used the language and categories of his time to describe the world.
Though Carey prefaced his treatise with the words of Paul in Romans 10:12 “For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord over all, is rich unto all that call upon him”, he then went on to divide humanity largely into Protestants, Papists and Greek Christians, Mahometans and Pagans.
If we jump forward to the World Missionary Conference held in Edinburgh in 1910 the language had changed. A key distinction was made between “fully missionised lands” and “not yet fully missionised lands”. (2)
Territories were marked off as effectively Christian and not-yet Christian. This territorial concept of expansion from Christian heartlands to the rest of the world is the essence of the “Christendom model” of mission from which much of our mission language still derives.
When I was at primary school, we did a project on India. It was the first time I had ever heard the expression “Third World countries”. This was not Christian language, but it did conserve something of the civilisational superiority of the largely Christian European Empires.
We lived in the “First World”, the developed world, and we learned that the poor or developing nations of the world were grouped together as Third World countries (3).
Even today it is common to hear about the “developing world” or the “emerging economies”, with all their implied inferiority.
The expression Global South is somewhat less problematic, but not all the countries of Africa, the Caribbean, Asia and South America are actually in the southern hemisphere and some countries which are not considered as Global South, like Australia or New Zealand, evidently are.
Yet away from the perceived European heartlands of Christianity, an astonishing shift was underway. At the beginning of the 19th century, well over 90% of Christians lived in Europe and North America, whereas by the end of the 20th century, over 60% lived in Africa, Asia, South America and the Pacific.
It was the historian and missiologist Andrew Walls, who died just last month, was among the first to notice and study this shift in “the Christian centre of gravity”.
Before Walls (5), the study of the growth of Christianity beyond Europe and North America was considered of secondary interest to theologians. Yet through his research, teaching, and publishing, Walls gradually changed perceptions, opening our eyes to the striking fact that World Christianity was actually “normative” Christianity.
As Phillip Jenkins would memorably put it in his book Next Christendom “today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a "typical" contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela.” (6 )
Walls’ insights were often the result of his reflection on trends in the light of Christian history. He observed that throughout the history of the church, places that had been the centres of Christianity often declined yet, through mission, new centres were created at the periphery.
“By the time Christianity was receding in Europe, the churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America were coming into their own. The movement of Christianity is one of serial, not progressive, expansion.” (7)
For those of us who are engaged in Christian mission in Europe today there can be no escaping the reality that we find ourselves on a mission frontier, on the periphery of world Christianity. That should cause European Christians to be humble but also hopeful.
In respect to humility, we would do well to drop the language of “Third World”, “developing world”, and “Global South”, and rather to speak of the Majority World.
Not only is this the demographic reality, since the majority of the world’s population is to be found in these regions, but it also reflects the shift in the centre of gravity of world Christianity.
Majority world Christians are the Christian majority today. Furthermore, “Majority World” is not a label that has been assigned to them by us, but rather one that they have chosen to describe themselves (8).
Given the reality of Christian faith in Europe, this is a moment for humility, but it is also a moment for hope. For it is always on the periphery that Christian revival begins. In my recent missiological report on Europe (9),
I suggest that this is a moment of tremendous opportunity for collaboration between Majority World churches and native European churches. We often talk of mission today as participation in the Mission of God.
That today, thousands and thousands of diaspora churches can be found from Dublin to Dubrovnik is no accident. As Andrew Walls would put it, this is simply how the Christian movement expands.
Will European local churches wake up to what God is doing in their midst? Will we adopt a more humble language and attitude with respect to our brothers and sisters from the Majority World? Will we seize the opportunity for collaboration that God has put before us in our day?
The future of Europe depends on it.
Jim Memory, church planter and European Christian Mission and Lecturer in European Mission, All Nations Christian College
This article first appeared in the October 2021 edition of Vista Journal.
1. Carey, W., (1792) An Enquiry
2. Ross, K. (2010), Edinburgh 1910: Scottish Roots and Contemporary Challenges, Theology in Scotland XVII.1, p.11
3. I don’t remember if anyone asked where the Second World was, but in this conception which dates from the 1950s, it referred to the communist Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites. See here.
4. Walls (1996), The Missionary Movement in Christian History, Edinburgh: Clark; Walls (2002), The Cross-cultural Process in Christian History, Maryknoll: Orbis
5. To get a sense of Walls’ influence on mission thinking and links to tributes and key papers, see Arthur (2021), Andrew Walls, Kouya blog, 16/8/21.
6. Jenkins (2002), The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford: OUP, p.2
7. Walls (2000), The Expansion of Christianity: An Interview with Andrew Walls, The Christian Century, Christian Century Foundation, pp.792-799
8. Alam (2008), Majority World: Challenging the West’s Rhetoric of Democracy, Amerasia Journal 34(1), Centre for Missionaries from the Majority World
9. Memory (2021), Europe 2021: A Missiological Report