An Interview with Dr. Philip Jenkins, Distinguished History Professor (Part 3)
Ed: Some are estimating that in the next couple of decades, they'll be more evangelicals in Brazil than in the United States. It's already the second largest mission-sending country in the world by some measurements. Honduras may be as much as half evangelical Christians now. With all these shifts of numbers of believers, what will that do in terms of global leadership? We've already seen the Anglican Global South assert its authority as the majority. How will this shift play out in the coming years?
Dr. Jenkins: So much of this change has happened very recently – within 30, 40, 50 years, which in the span of Christian history is not great. It's hardly surprising that some institutions have not adapted fully to take account of that. Other churches, however, recognize it. On a typical Sunday, there are more Assemblies of God worshippers in the greater San Paulo, Brazil area than in the United States. It's a radical change.
Let me suggest to you that in 30 years, there will be two sorts of church in the world. There'll be the ones that are multi-ethnic, transnational, and multi-continental. They are constantly battling over issues of culture, lifestyle, worship, and constantly in conflict, debate and controversy. And those are the good ones. The other churches will have decided to let all these trends pass them by. They'll live just like they've always done with an average age in their congregations of 80. Personally, I'd much rather be in one of the ones that is recognizing, taking account of the expansion with all the debates and controversies.
We are dealing with a movement that comes out of a uniquely American birth. I don't think anyone would argue that Pentecostalism was born anywhere else. But one of the great challenges is how do America and other Western nations make the transition from parent to partner with these other countries that are now taking the lead in some respects.
Ed: What are some of the principles or characteristics you've seen from churches or movements that have successfully moved into partnerships, moving away from the parent/child relationship that defined missions for centuries?
Dr. Jenkins: Sometimes the greatest mistake that an organization can make is deliberately trying to be flexible or accommodating or have any particular policy at all. I sometimes tell the story of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the French finance minister, calling a meeting with a group of businessmen and entrepreneurs in the late 1600s. Colbert asked the men, "What can I do to help you?" They replied, "Let us be" or in French "Laissez-nous faire," which is the origin of the phrase laissez-faire.
I sometimes think that instead of trying to come up with policies about how to do this, the answer is let things evolve. Let things emerge. One of the great success stories here is the Roman Catholic Church. The world's first globalized institution, an organization that by any rights should have broken up hundreds of years ago in terms of where its people are. Today what people always say is the only problem with the Vatican is that it is 2,000 miles too far north because finally it's richest growth is in Africa. But what they have, and maybe that other churches don't have, is historical vision. In other words, they know that things come and things go, that movements come and movements go. They are able to let things evolve and emerge. We might be very surprised to see the directions they'll take.
You should decide what really matters as a core value. Decide what you will go to the stake for and then don't care about the small stuff. The Roman Catholics came extremely close to converting China during the 17th Century. But eventually what happened around 1700 was the Vatican stepped in and said, "No, you're doing this all wrong. Let us help you." It's like the famed Ronald Regan quote: "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'" The Roman Catholic leaders came in and said, "We're from the Vatican, and we're here to tell you what to do." The mission died in 25 years.