Christianity is and always has been a global religion. For this reason, we should never think of it as becoming global.
Following the valuable work of prominent missiologists, it has become commonplace among 21st-century Christians to highlight the significant demographic shifts in the global church. The fact that the majority of Christians now live in the Global South has led many to speak of what the scholar Philip Jenkins has called the “coming of global Christianity.”
Contemporary missiologists have drawn needed attention to the demographic shifts of the 20th and 21st centuries and given helpful challenges to what North Park Theological Seminary professor Soong-Chan Rah calls the “Western, white captivity of the church.” However, in noting such developments, there has been an implication that global diversity is exclusively a 20th-century innovation of the Christian movement. Too many people, both Christian and non-Christian, still perceive Christianity as the white man’s religion.
Contemporary missiology has often advanced the church’s cultural self-understanding by highlighting the unprecedented recorded numbers of Christians in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, the modern global church has often been presented as emerging from centuries of a Western-majority church, when the reality is quite the opposite in several significant respects.
Take Egypt, for instance, which was home to many of the earliest biblical manuscripts and had an organized ecclesiastical hierarchy no later than the late second century. Ethiopia became a predominately Christian nation in the fourth century and, along with the ancient region of Nubia, functioned under the ecclesiastical hierarchy of Egypt. Syriac-speaking Christian merchants brought Christianity along the Silk Road to the Persian Empire in the early third century, to Central Asia in the mid-fourth century, and as far east as China in the mid-sixth century.
While it is possible that the apostle Thomas brought the gospel to India in the first century, Syriac-speaking Christians reported missionary activity to India no later than the late third century. These traditions spread rapidly across the continents of Africa and Asia and took on indigenous forms at a time when the majority of Northern and Western Europe practiced pagan religion. Despite the persisting association of the Christian faith with Western culture and whiteness, Christianity has always been a global religion that spread from Jerusalem in every direction.
The Western and white captivity of the church is a profound stumbling block to the reception of the gospel. In the Western world, the growth of secularism, agnosticism, and atheism is due in large part to historical atrocities committed by Western Christians. In the non-Western world, non-Christians perceive Christianity as a white, Western, or American religion while seeing the gospel as antithetical to their cultural identity. Therefore, fellow members of a non-Western people group who convert to Christianity are often seen as becoming white, Western, or American.
The church has two interrelated and indispensable tasks going forward: first, the deconstruction of the Western, white cultural captivity of the Christian tradition; and second, the elevation of non-Western expressions of Christianity. The goal here is neither the cultural idolatry of one group nor a prescription for abhorrence of another. Rather, this shift in focus is motivated by the continued realization of the kingdom of God through embracing the image of Christ among every tribe, tongue, and nation.
God has been at work among every nation since the beginning. From the moment God called Abram to be the progenitor of God’s chosen people, the vision for this plan was intrinsically global: “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen. 12:3). Along the way, Christianity has often come to be perceived as the historical and cultural possession of a particular region of the world and a particular culture. Recovering a fuller picture of Christianity’s global heritage underscores the fact that God’s kingdom work extends to all the peoples of the world—as it always has.
Adapted from A Multitude of All Peoples by Vince L. Bantu. Copyright © 2020 by Vince L. Bantu. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
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