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What can Western Christians learn from churches in the rest of the world? (I)

Around 1980 the center of gravity of the church had moved out of the West into the Majority World. With this shift, some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Western Christianity have become increasingly clear.

FEATURES FUENTES Forum of Christian Leaders AUTOR 392/Hwa_Yung 13 DE SEPTIEMBRE DE 2023 11:53 h
A church biulding in Malaysia. / Photo: [link]T RR[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

The title of this article would have been a non-question had it been asked as recently as the middle of the 20th century. The churches in the non-Western or Majority World (MW) [1] were by and large still under Western tutelage.



The big fear in Africa then was that the end of the colonial era would lead to Islam sweeping across the whole continent. The struggling Chinese church was just entering the darkest hour of its modern history. In South Asia, Christians were a tiny, and often despised, minority in the midst of hundreds of millions of Hindus and Muslims. Yet in just 70 years, there has been a massive change, with some two-thirds of the global church now living in the MW.



Even so, the title of this article still appears presumptuous today to many for various reasons. First, the theological centers of power are largely found in the West, with multitudes of students from the MW still treading there on pilgrimage for their PhDs. Although excellent seminaries are now found in the MW, in terms of faculty, financial and library resources, and drawing power, they are no match for the Western institutions.



[destacate]In terms of theology, ways of thinking, and doing church and mission, many Majority World churches still adopt Western models and answers uncritically[/destacate]Moreover, regretfully many churches in the MW still function as appendages and extensions of the churches in the West, consciously or unconsciously. Organizationally and financially, they may be independent. But in terms of theology, ways of thinking, and doing church and mission, they still adopt Western models and answers uncritically. The problem is not only because many churches in the MW have been birthed through Western missions or movements, with many in the leadership trained in Western methodology and theology. It is also because, globally, the political and cultural dominance of the West has been so overwhelming throughout the 20th century. These factors have combined to hold back many Christians in the MW from articulating alternative understandings and narratives of their faith that are firmly rooted in Scriptures on the one hand, and culturally sensitive and contextually relevant on the other.


However, the fact remains that around 1980 the center of gravity of the church had moved out of the West into the MW. With this shift, some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of Western Christianity versus those in the MW have become increasingly clear.



Against this background, I offer this analysis as a fellow pilgrim and learner because Christianity in the MW still faces a multitude of challenges. At the same time, I believe that in at least six areas the Western church can learn something from Christianity in the MW.



 



1. Recovering the supernatural dimension



In referring to the advance of the gospel in his work, Paul speaks of “what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom 15:18f).



Over the past hundred years or so, the rapid growth of churches in the MW has been driven largely by the same “signs and wonders” that Paul speaks of. These include deliverance from demonic powers and healing, miracles and prophecies, dreams and visions, and the like. It should be emphasized that this is not due to the influence of American Pentecostalism from Azusa Street making inroads into the MW. In many cases, it was simply indigenous believers taking the Bible seriously and acting on its teachings, or the Holy Spirit coming in revival and manifesting His awesome power to the church.



A comprehensive and careful examination of the records will bear this out again and again, as shown by scholars like Philip Jenkins [2]. This is true of the growth of many grassroots churches in the Indian sub-continent, the growth of Christianity in Africa, the breakthroughs among tribal groups all over the MW, the Chinese revival in the last 60 years, the historically unprecedented and ongoing breakthroughs among Muslim peoples all over the Islamic world today, and so forth.



[destacate]The rapid growth of churches in the Majority World has been driven largely by the same “signs and wonders” that Paul speaks of[/destacate]A most interesting illustration of this is the powerful healing ministry of the Korean Presbyterian pastor Kim Ik Du (1884-1950) in the 1920s. The official position of the Presbyterian Church then was that “in the present age, the authority to perform miracles is suspended”—a cessationist position presumably taught by American missionaries. But the impact of Kim’s healing ministry was such that it brought about a fundamental shift in thinking and recognition within the church that God continues to work miracles in the present age [3].


In direct contrast, one observer of Brazil’s emerging churches said, “Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow” [4].



Under the influence of the Enlightenment, Western Christianity in the modern era has either rejected the supernatural as outdated superstition, as with liberals, or treated the miraculous as something that happened in the past but no longer happens today.



Consequently, much of the Western church has failed to address this whole subject adequately. It has blinded the church to the power of the Holy Spirit and his signs and wonders, as well as to the reality of demonic activity in the world today. The result, as Fuller professor Charles Kraft describes it, is that “Enlightenment Christianity is powerless” [5].



Herein lies a major flaw in Western Christianity—its captivity to an anti-supernaturalistic Enlightenment worldview. Could this blindness to the spiritual realm be one key reason for the decline in Western Christianity, especially at a time when occult practices of all kinds, including Satan worship, are proliferating throughout the West?



 



2. Managerial missiology versus dependence on the Spirit



The Latin American theologian Samuel Escobar has critiqued a trend within evangelical missiology in the later part of the 20th century, associated especially with the Church Growth School and movements like AD2000 and Beyond. He calls this “managerial missiology” and describes it as “an effort to reduce Christian mission to a manageable enterprise”. [6]



To achieve this, reality is simplified into an understandable picture: “Missionary action is thus reduced to a linear task that is unfolded into logical steps to be followed in a process of management by objectives” [7]. Thus, for example, mission goals are quantified by the number of converts won or churches planted, and strategic plans are laid to bring about the desired results. The whole exercise is based on secular strategic planning approaches, built on the scientific method which produced our technological age. Crudely stated, in principle, it is no different from the assembly-line model of modern manufacturing.



I would like to suggest that Escobar’s critique of managerial missiology is part of a much wider problem in the modern church. Is it not the case that much of our thinking has succumbed to modernity’s scientific-technological approach to doing church and mission?



[destacate]Can ministry and mission be done primarily by sound management techniques and good strategic planning?[/destacate]Do not most of us assume that if only there are sufficient resources such as suitably trained personnel, money, proper strategic planning, and sound management, the church will invariably grow and our mission goals will be achievable without fail within our human time frame? In other words, ministry and mission can be done primarily by sound management techniques and good strategic planning, in a manner that is no different from other human enterprises like selling Coca-Cola! Ultimately, there are two major problems with this approach.


The first is that reducing our mission goals primarily to quantitative measures of how many converts are made and churches planted falls far short of Christ’s command to “make disciples.” As one writer puts it, “When we aim only at what we can measure, we ignore the most important goals of character, discipleship and holiness, which we cannot predict or quantify without falling into legalism … Lukewarm churches are the results of this assembly line mindset”. [8]



The second problem is that both the New Testament and church history have demonstrated again and again that the gospel never advances by mere human effort alone.



Rather, what we find is that revivals and major advances of the church are invariably the result of two powerful intertwining forces at work. On the divine side, we see the initiative and power of the Holy Spirit, and on the human side, we find less tangible factors such as radical holiness, prevailing prayer, obedience, and sacrifice. These, and not human management and strategic planning, are foundational. “The wind blows where it wishes … So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).



In the past hundred years, we see this repeatedly in mission advances in the MW, e.g., the ministries of Africans like Prophet Harris and Simon Kimbangu in the early 20th century and the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism in Latin America in recent decades. One of the best illustrations of this in Asia is the ongoing Chinese revival. The most notable Chinese evangelist and revivalist of the first half of the 20th century was John Sung, a brilliant American-trained PhD. On returning to China in 1927, he found that the Protestant churches were only growing slowly despite the great and sacrificial efforts of the missionaries. As he prayed, God revealed to him the heart of the problem. Western missions had brought in thousands of missionaries and plenty of money, and built many of the finest orphanages, hospitals, schools, and universities in China. And both Western and Chinese leaders were depending on these human resources and not the Holy Spirit for growth. Sometime before his death in 1944, John Sung revealed that God had shown him that a great revival was coming to China. But first, all the missionaries must leave [9]. As he predicted, shortly after his death, every missionary had to leave China with the Communist takeover in 1949. All that the Western missions had brought was confiscated by a hostile government. And then, under intense persecution and left with nothing but God, revival came [10]. As they say, the rest is history [11].



Unfortunately, many in the MW churches have not learnt this vital lesson well. Instead, the tendency for many of us is to draw on Western approaches based on managerial missiological thinking, modelled and taught by our Western teachers, without critically reflecting on them in light of scriptural teaching and the Spirit’s leading. For example, just think of the two thousand or so plans drawn up by the AD2000 and Beyond group for the completion of the evangelization of the world by that date! Human resources, good management and strategic planning all have their proper place in the ministry and mission of the church. But for the gospel to advance, ultimately our dependence has to be on God and on Him alone. How can this truth reshape and drive our ministry and mission in the coming years?



 



3. Confidence in the Gospel of Christ as Good News



Many in the West today consider Christianity outdated, stale, and irrelevant. The Good News has now become Bad News! This has contributed to the decline and loss of vitality in Western Christianity. This loss is also in part due to the inner spiritual and moral weaknesses of the church. Unfortunately, this has been further aggravated by the revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and similar reports of sexual and financial scandals, and power abuse involving megachurch pastors and TV evangelists.



But the loss of vitality is also the result of the pressures on the churches in the West from an increasingly militant secularism, rooted in modernity and postmodernity. In much of public life in the West, there is a prevailing hostility, both subtle and open, towards any Christian point of view. If, for example, a Christian leader publicly advocates a biblical view against the LGBT+ agenda, it is almost certain that the national media will come down hard on him. In Europe, one of the clearest examples of this public hostility towards Christianity was seen in the debate over the new EU Constitution in 2004. The row was over whether Christianity should be cited as one of the sources of European civilization. Many intellectuals and academics argued against it because they treated Christianity not only as irrelevant to public life, but as an obstacle to the evolution of a secular Europe [12]. Against all historical evidence, militant secularists in a post-Christian Europe seemed bent on denying that Christianity made any significant contribution to the well-being of European society.



All these have contributed to a loss of confidence in the gospel as “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16) within the Western church. This is most clearly seen in the liberal wing of the church, which has basically abandoned missions on the grounds that it is religious imperialism and destroys the convert’s culture. Further, liberal Christianity affirms religious pluralism in contrast to the uniqueness of Christ, and champions the rejection of biblical ethics, especially over abortion, marriage and divorce, and LGBT+ issues.



[destacate]In Europe, one of the clearest examples of this public hostility towards Christianity was seen in the debate over the new EU Constitution in 2004[/destacate]But this loss of confidence in the gospel and the Bible’s distinctives and final authority is now beginning to be seen even among those who identify themselves as evangelicals. For example, some Western evangelicals are unwilling to take a firm stand on the biblical position on LBGT+ issues. But the problem actually runs deeper. Many Western evangelicals are reluctant to accept the Bible’s clear teachings on divorce and remarriage, and yet they want to assert scriptural authority on the same-sex issue. But that is clearly a losing battle. You cannot compromise on one aspect of biblical teaching and draw the line on another.


This loss of confidence in the gospel, however, is not shared by most Christians in the MW. To begin with, in many societies and cultures in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and MENA, the encounter with Christ is recent and the experience of its efficacy and power is fresh and liberating. In Asia itself, think about the tens of millions that have been set free from the age-old fear of and bondage to demonic powers and evil spirits. Think of the millions of Dalits in India who have been lifted out of cultural and sociopolitical oppression after thousands of years of existence as a subhuman underclass. Or, consider many intellectuals in China, both Christian and non-Christian, who see clear evidence in history that the gospel of Christ offers the only adequate basis for building a new society based on genuine freedom, democracy, justice, and equity [13]. Although this position has been rejected by most secularists, it has nevertheless been argued by many Christian thinkers. Moreover, as one observer notes: “Many conservative intellectuals today now openly confess that Christianity is essential for the survival of Western civilization, but simply cannot bring themselves to believe that Christianity is true” [14]. A notable example is Tom Holland, a British public intellectual, who has argued in his latest writings that much of what is good and noble in Western culture owes its roots to Christianity. Writing as a lapsed Christian, he concludes a recent article in The New Statesman as follows: “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian” [15].



The second point to note is that the beliefs shaped by modernity and postmodernity that underlie militant secularism in the West today are not shared by the cultures and societies [6] in the MW, simply because they are not children of the Enlightenment. Certainly, much of the MW has been hit by the surface impact of secularism through globalization. But few societies in the MW share the modern idea that there is only truth in logic and science, but not in religion and ethics, or the postmodern view that there is no such thing as truth because everything is a matter of perspective. That being the case, modernity and postmodernity must be recognized for what they are, not concepts that are universally true, valid, and applicable everywhere, but narrowly contextual worldviews operative only in the West and in a particular moment in history. Why then should Western Christians be awed and accord them the respect given them by a militant secularism?



Many Christians in the MW are driven by a vision of a new world founded on the gospel of Christ, which holds promise for both now and eternity. With them, there is conviction in and excitement over the saving power of the gospel. They find it rationally coherent and intuitively true and satisfying. And most of all, empirically they have seen its power transforming lives and communities. Or, in the language of Julia Garschagen, Christians in the MW find the gospel “emotionally fulfilling, intellectually inspiring, and morally good and beautiful” [16]. I submit that this sense of freshness and confidence in the gospel should serve as a source of encouragement and empowerment to many Christians in the West who are seriously committed to biblical truth and authority but are battling against a powerful and militant secularism threatening to overwhelm the church there.



(The second part of this article will be published next week)



 



Hwa Yung, Bishop Emeritus of the Methodist Church in Malaysia.



This article is based on a presentation given at the European Leadership Forum 2023  in Wisla, Poland. Re-published with permission of the Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL).



 



Notes



1. The term “Majority World” is preferred to “Global South” simply because much of the non-Western world is not in the south, especially Central and East Asia.



2. Philip Jenkins’ most well-known book is probably The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, 3rd ed. (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).



3. Jun Kim, A Historical and Theological Investigation of the Healing Movement in Korea: With Special Reference to Ik-du Kim, Seongbong Lee, and Yong-gi Cho (PhD diss., Middlesex University, London, and Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, Oxford, 2021), 77–78.



4. Cited in Jenkins, The Next Christendom, 98.



5. Charles Kraft, Christianity with Power: Your Worldview and Your Experience of the Supernatural (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant Books, 1989), 37-49.



6. Samuel Escobar, “Managerial Missiology,” in Dictionary of Mission Theology: Evangelical Foundations, eds., John Corrie, et. al. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2007), 216-218.



7. Escobar, “Managerial Missiology,” 216.



8. Jim Plueddemann, “SIM’s Agenda for a Gracious Revolution,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, Vol 23 (1999), 156-160.



9. William E. Schubert, I Remember John Sung (Singapore: Far Eastern Bible College Press, 1976), 65-6. See also John Sung, The Diary of John Sung—Extracts from His Journals and Notes, compiled by Levi (Singapore: Genesis Books, 2012), 79, 197-8, 210, 231, 369 & 383.



10. It is impossible to say when the revival began. The best that can be said is that it was quietly birthed under persecutions during the 1950s and 60s, and gained momentum and became publicly known in the 1970s.



11. It is pertinent to note that many older mainline churches in South Asia which benefited from the abundant provision of financial and material resources from Western missions in the same period are not known for their growth today. Moreover, these churches are often bogged down by legal disputes over their vast property holdings inherited from the missions.



12. George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics without God (New York: Basic Books, 2005), esp. 54-68.



 



13. E.g., see Samuel Ling and Stacey Bieler, eds., Chinese Intellectuals and the Gospel (San Gabriel, CA: China Horizon, 1999); David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003), 5.



14. Jonathan van Maren, “Malcolm Muggeridge, Lifelong Seeker,” The European Conservative (Jan 28, 2023).



15. Tom Holland, “Why I was wrong about Christianity,” The New Statesman (14 Sep 2016); see also his Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co, 2019).



16. Julia Garschagen, “How the Good News of Jesus Became Bad News,” European Leadership Forum, 20-24 May 2023.


 

 


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