It is now universally understood that the center of Christianity has shifted from Europe and North America to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Books and articles by Philip Jenkins, Dana Robert, Todd Johnson, Lamin Sanneh, Andrew Walls, and Mark Noll have highlighted this shift. In the year 1900, 80 percent of the world's Christians were in Europe and North America; by 2050, experts predict that 80 percent will be non-European/North American.
Still, as Jenkins notes, "I suspect that most [Americans] see Christianity very much as it was a century ago—a predominantly European and North American faith."
Numbers don't tell the whole story, of course. For many North American evangelicals, statistics blur together and prevent us from grasping what is probably the most significant development in church history in the past 500 years. The unique contribution of Miriam Adeney's most recent book, Kingdom Without Borders (InterVarsity), are the stories she tells that arise out of Christianity's new contexts.
Adeney's stories should open the eyes of many Western Christians. She notes how university graduates in the Philippines take jobs as maids, nannies, and construction workers in order to enter restricted-access nations in the Muslim world. Practicing downward mobility and embracing suffering, these under-the-radar missionaries are making an impact in some of the most difficult regions in which to introduce the gospel.
Adeney also uses stories to communicate complex missiological concepts. Take, for example, the growing scholarly interest in missio Dei, an emphasis on God's mission, which precedes human effort. Adeney doesn't delve into the specifics of missio Dei but instead demonstrates how, for example, Chinese philosophy and ethics can be seen as gifts of God's creational, common grace. The story of the growth of the church in China, therefore, is not the result of human effort but of God's mission at work.
For Adeney, it all comes back to the stories. She introduces women missionaries devoted to the Scriptures even though seminary has been closed to them. She relates stories of African believers who lack power yet embrace the suffering of the Cross for the sake of the gospel. She highlights Latin American believers who demonstrate Christ's love in the midst of political oppression and persecution. Though stories of Western missionaries are interspersed throughout, the book remains a tribute to indigenous Christian movements. Each story that Adeney relays reveals a God who is not a respecter of borders.
Stories have always had the power to motivate. The narrative of the Western missionary braving challenges and obstacles to bring the Good News to a pagan land has been a significant one. But what happens to this narrative when pagan nations have more Christians than Western nations? What lessons do we begin to learn from non-Western nations where the gospel message is now flourishing?
In the 21st century, the stories are changing—and perhaps it's the stories told by Adeney that will help North Americans see more clearly how the old story of the gospel plays out in new contexts.
Soong-Chan Rah is Milton B. Engebretson Associate Professor of Church Growth and Evangelism at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, and author of The Next Evangelicalism (InterVarsity).
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Kingdom Without Borders is available from ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Previous articles on world Christianity include:
Does Global Christianity Equal American Christianity? | Historian Mark Noll talks about how U.S. missionaries have—and have not—shaped the faith in other nations. (July 8, 2009)
The Other Side of Church Growth | Philip Jenkins says we need a theology of church extinction. (March 18, 2009)
My Top 5 Books on World Christianity | By Martin E. Marty, author of The Christian World: A Global History (April 22, 2008)
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