The Global South Churches: not our Saviors?

(pictured: Peter Akinola, Anglican archbishop of Nigeria)

The relationship between the Western Churches and those younger churches of the Global South espectially in South America, Africa and Asia is much discussed these days. As has been frequently repeated, Christianity is growing at an amazing pace outside of the West and we should sit back and savor the fact that we are living through a movement of the Holy Spirit of historic proportions. The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins is one of the most comprehensive treatments of this transition that I know of, though it is written from a somewhat Post-Enlightenment perspective. The author attempts a "secular" analysis of the situation, and is much less inclined than I am to be sympathetic to the character of these young churches.

On the one hand we are very enthusiastic about these young and growing churches: many conservatives and traditionalists in Western Churches (including many United Methodists) see the evangelical vitality and the orthodoxy of the Global South Churches as a sign of hope for the future, and many progressives celebrate the diversity that these new voices bring to the churches (in theory at least, when these new voices are not talking about Biblical innerancy or sexual ethics).

Yet there is good reason for all Western Christians to feel some ambivalence about the impact that the vital churches of the South will have on the faith.

Here are two Christianity Today (CT) articles that outline issues that Westerners, especially evangelicals, may need to come to terms with as we embrace our brethren of the Global South:

1) The First big issue is cultural baggage, especially including Erastianism. Erasianism is the subordination of the Church to the state, and - 4th of July "worship services" aside - is something very foreign to most American Christians.

Are two stories from one Denomination that illustrate this Erastian baggage: The Anglican Mission in the Americas (AMiA) is an outreach of the Anglican Church in Rwanda that was started by Anglicans on both continents who felt that the Episcopal Church in the USA was no longer a viable Anglican presence in North America because doctrinal innovation had carried it outside of the Anglican Tradition. So the AMiA is a conservative and evangelical alternative Anglican Group in the USA that it ultimately under the oversite of an African Archbishop.

CT tells us of an instance when Rwandan Church leaders, at the behest of the Rwandan President, instructed a US congregation to un-invite a planned fund-raising key-note speaker. The event was raising funds for a school in Rwanda, and the speaker was known for being critical of the government there. Anglican leaders in Rwanda felt this could put an unnecessary strain on their relationship with the government.

Another illustration of the cultural baggage (covered in the same CT article) that can surprise Americans in the AMiA occured at a Denver Church, when members of the American congregation were asked to bow before a visiting Ugandan King, just as they would have done back in Uganda!

2) The second major issue that Western evangelicals might be ruffled by is actually theological. This may come as a surprise since, especially in the mainline churches, many conservatives and evangelicals look to the Global South churches to help them re-assert the orthodox faith in Churches that are seen as having lost a clear handle on their own doctrinal standards and ethical convictions (especially with regards to sex and family).

And it is true that on issues like miracles (past and present), or how the atonement works, or the nature of Biblical authority, or the danger of hell to unbelievers, Western evangelicals and Global South believers will often have very similar views, both in firm opposition to many of the "classic liberal" views that have developed in the West as an attempt to accomodate the faith to Modernity.

However, there are other issues upon which they may find themselves in profound disagreement. Our second CT Article deals with what beliefs are most common among the world's Pentecostals. This article is dealing then with trans-denomination trends that are associated specifically with the Pentecostal/Charismatic renewal movements. This is relevant to our discussion here since, as was discussed at length in The Next Christendom (mentioned above), the Global South Churches have, across denominational lines a Charismatic tone to their common life more so than Western Churches. Presumably then (though this was not the specific focus of this study) it will follow that Global South Christians, regardless of denominational affiliation, will follow these trends far more often than Western Mainline Christians. If this turns out to be the case, it will distress many American Evangelicals within mainline churches who are looking to the Global South for theological leadership.

SO, according to the articles what trends do we see when we ask what do Pentecostal believers the world over hold MOST in common?

Tongues? According to the CT article, while most Pentecostals/Charismatics speak in tongues, a great many do not. Miracles? According to the study that CT is reporting around 85% of Pentecostals worldwide believe that miracles still happen today, as in Biblical times. However the percentages are much higher when asked about central tenants of "prosperity gospel":

"As common as belief in miraculous gifts, however, is faith in the prosperity gospel. Renewalists overwhelmingly agree that "God will grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith." In Nigeria, 95 percent of Pentecostals agree with that statement, and 97 percent agree that "God will grant good health and relief from sickness to believers who have enough faith." In the Philippines, 99 percent of Pentecostals agreed with the latter statement."

The Church catholic has traditionally held that material prosperity may very often be a hindrance to true spiritual growth (as in the Biblical story of the Rich Young Man) and encouraged Christians to simplicity and even voluntary poverty. The decline of faith in many of the wealthiest nations of the world seems to support the words of Jesus after that encounter: it is "easier for a camel to pass through the the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" Matt. 19:24.

The Church has traditionally held that God is more interested in forming our eternal spirits in virtue (which may involve temporal hardship, see for example 2 Cor. 4:17) than he is interested in blessing us with temporary material wealth (though he may do that as well in some instances). To use a rather mundane example: God may be interested in blessing me with a front-row parking spot at the super-market, but he may be even more intersted in making me into a patient person, which might be better effected by giving me a back-row spot. This traditional emphasis of "cross-bearing" for the sake of sanctity is often completely missing from "prosperity gospel" preaching (no doubt, this is one reason why "prosperity" is so popular).

So, why am I writing all this? Basically I want to caution myself, and anyone else who reads my blog - especially evangelicals within Mainline denominations - who may be apt to somewhat idealize the state of the Church in the Global South. We should not be tempted to denegrate all theology and spirituality that is "Western" (and in turn get on board some "Global South" fad) simply because we are more familiar with our own failings than with those of our distant brethren. We all have failings. I don't forsee any "quick fixes" for the health of the Church - it has always been a people in the wilderness, and this always involves spiritual dangers and theological pitfalls. Our call is to walk steadily through this wilderness - knowing that the Church as a body will always have problems while we are in the wilderness - but we walk, following the glorious presence of our God, led by the Word of his lips, and moved by the Breath of his mouth, into his ultimated Promised Land.

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Blogger lehall said...

What so you think is the best way to have North/South dialogue? We would all benefit from careful conversation, but I do not know how best to undertake that.

3:29 PM, February 27, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

hmmm...that's a good and important question for us to ask.

First, those dern Yanks should give us back all the stuff they stole during reconstruction and pay reparations for the destruction of Georgia! Ha, j/k!

My first thought (in keeping with my general soap box topics) is that if we look to the early Church of the first few centuries, we will find a community that was, in some respects, both what we would call Charismatic and Liturgical. Maybe we should begin by 'trialogue' including those historical voices.
I believe we will find that there is a Christian identity that is deeper than "Western" or "North/South." All of our churches (be they Pentecostal, Mainline, or both) reflect that older identity in some respects, but none do so perfectly (and we may find that the strengths of the one allign nicely with the weaknesses of the other: that is, that we compliment one another). In any case, all dialogue must start with humility (and not merely rhetoric about humility).

12:04 AM, February 28, 2008  
Blogger Stephen said...

Thanks for sharing this article. I read the book, The Next Christendom, by Philip Jenkins and I think he even postulated some of these things as possibilities in the book. He was wary of the Global South Church and what it would "reflect" back to the North.

Kind of ironic in a way that some of the ways Christianity first gained a foothold in some of these countries was at the behest of the "government" to keep the people in line? Or how we worried that their Christianity would too much be a carbon copy of our Christianity?

While I believe the global south is a vital voice (lets not leave out important theologies that have arisen out of the global south such as liberation theology), I believe it is best as a dialogue or as you say a trialogue or in a Wesleyan sense a "Quadralogue". :)

10:48 AM, February 28, 2008  
Anonymous Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for this post. I had glanced at the CT articles, but hadn't given it a lot of thought. You have. Thanks.

1:18 PM, February 28, 2008  
Blogger Andrew C. Thompson said...


This is a great post. I am like you (I think) in generally welcoming the vitality of the churches of the global South in welcoming what is going on there right now. But I think the two issues you raise - both church/state relations and the prosperity gospel - are serious and need to be examined in more detail.

In this issue as in so many in the church, we cannot fall for what seems like an easy solution to all our local problems. Christians of Africa and Latin America have much to teach us. But they are not perfect.

10:35 PM, March 02, 2008  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Thanks for the comments everyone;
Like Andrew, I really do believe that the Churches of the Global South have a lot to teach us, and their strengths I believe will compliment our own; so I remain cautiously optimistic about the future - though more cautiously optimistic now that I'm watching the Anglican Communion unravel...

8:26 AM, March 07, 2008  

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