This article was first published in the Autumn 2013 issue of Bearings, a semi-annual publication of the Collegeville Institute.
For centuries both Christians and non-Christians in the West have perceived Christianity as a western religion, securely linked to European cultures and people. But if it was ever fitting to so identify Christianity, that time has passed. Populations of Christians in Africa, Asia, or Latin America now outnumber Christians in North America, and the total number of affiliated Christians in the global South eclipses the number in the West by more than 500 million by conservative estimates. Sixty percent of professed Christians live in the southern regions of Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific, a proportion that grows annually. Numerically speaking, the map of “Christendom” is radically different in the 21st century from what it was in previous centuries.Scholars Andrew Walls, Philip Jenkins, and Lamin Sanneh have been the most prominent heralds of the news that the demography of the world’s population of Christians has shifted dramatically. Philip Jenkins argues that the ascendency of southern Christianity is the most significant development of recent history. Lamin Sanneh likens the magnitude of worldwide Christian resurgence to a tidal wave, and Andrew Walls describes the current situation as a post-Christian West meeting a post-western Christianity. “Perhaps the most striking single feature of Christianity today,” he writes, “is the fact that the church now looks more like that great multitude whom none can number, drawn from all tribes and kindreds, people and tongues, than ever before in history” (The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission and Appropriation of Faith, Orbis, 2002).
Aside from demographic changes, these scholars contend that Christianity’s spiritual heartland has also shifted to the global South. Primarily through the efforts of indigenous and Pentecostal churches, Christianity has become especially vibrant there. In contrast to the stagnant and defensive posture of many northern Christians, southern Christians are powerfully on the move—even sending missionaries to the North to challenge its alleged decadence and secularism. Global southern Christians, distinct both in worldview and practice from Christians in North America and Europe, are becoming progressively influential on the world’s religious stage.
While it’s difficult to overstate the magnitude of change in global Christianity over the past century, underscoring only differences between the church in the North and the church in the South makes it easy to miss important moments of connection and collaboration between Christians representing various geographic, cultural, and ideological poles. As sociologist Robert Wuthnow contends in Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (University of California Press, 2009), the prevailing tendency to portray northern and southern Christians using an us/them dichotomy fails to acknowledge the central logic of globalization: different parts of the world are becoming more closely connected. Instead of a bipolar map of global Christianity in which the North and South are seen as competing centers, a truer picture would represent an interconnected church with multiple centers.
Southern forms of Christianity are gaining leverage around the world, but northern forms continue to steer the practice of the faith all over the globe as well. Such influences are often celebrated rather than resisted in local communities. Northern Christians sing African choruses and display Latin American liturgical art in their sanctuaries, while southern Christians teach from North American Sunday school curricula. Christianity develops distinctively in each particular context rather than following a uniform trajectory. Religious adherents around the world influence one another jointly and uniquely in the particular context of each encounter.
European and North American influence in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has often been overstated. As a correction, many contemporary scholars of global Christianity have highlighted the autonomy and internal vitality of indigenous churches in the formerly colonized world, attributing the growth of Christianity in the global South largely to local efforts and describing the character of Christianity there as thoroughly homegrown. The correction goes too far, however, and ends up understating the impact of northern Christians in these regions, especially in a positive sense. Focusing on differences can too easily eclipse instances of northern and southern Christians interacting collaboratively and constructively.
As Wuthnow states “globalization begs for a new paradigm that emphasizes not only the autonomous vitality of the churches in the global South but also the cultural and organizational mechanisms through which Christianity in its scattered global locations has become more intricately connected.” Using the analogy of the body, Wuthnow advocates for an account of global Christianity that recognizes each organ’s dependence on others, and the importance of various parts working together. In this telling, the story of global Christianity is less about “shifting centers of gravity” than it is about “mutual edification and interaction.”
Like Wuthnow’s work, my own study of relationships between congregations in the U.S. and their partners overseas attempts to rethink how global citizens, and particularly Christian coreligionists around the world, have become interdependent. In Sister Churches: American Congregations and their Partners Abroad (Oxford University Press, 2014), I profile 12 U.S. congregations from across the spectrum of Christianity participating in long-term partnerships or “sister church relationships” with congregations in the global South. Since the 1980s, an increasing number of American congregations have entered into such relationships, aiming to build faith-based partnerships across cultures for the sake of solidarity, mission, and joint ministry. Proponents of such partnerships place a high premium on interpersonal connections at the grassroots level, power and resource sharing, and mutuality between partners—often in defiance of efficiency and measurable results. Reflecting a growing commitment to leaving behind colonial patterns of mission, participants in sister church relationships deliberately seek to blur lines between sender and receiver, donor and dependent.
The problems of sister church relationships shouldn’t be discounted. Significant disparities in access to resources threaten the possibility of mutuality and interdependence between partners. Patterns of interaction “on the ground” sometimes contradict theoretical ideals and good intentions. Even so, interactions between Westerners and non-Westerners need not be automatically understood as imperialistic. Nor should western Christianity be envisioned as an impotent or irrelevant force in global affairs against a growing dominance of non-western forms of the faith. Patterns of cross-cultural engagement among Christians reveal a complex dynamic in an era of globalization. Coreligionists around the world are interconnected, and their outreach efforts interpenetrate one another. Encounters among Christians hailing from various parts of the world carry not only the potential for conflict but also the possibility for solidarity. Sister church relationships aren’t the Kingdom of God on earth, but they mark a welcome occasion for practical ecumenical advance.
Illustrations by Elisabeth Kvernen