The changing face of the church
UKPOM, Nigeria — They traveled days to get here.
Some came by car, navigating dirt roads that the rainy season had turned into lakes of mud. Some squeezed onto buses or the backs of tiny mo-peds. Some simply walked.
Now they gather under a wooden pavilion on the campus of Nigerian Christian Bible College. Their voices, more than 1,000 strong, swell to a crescendo of praise.
An American stands to preach, sweat stinging his eyes. The Christians sit silently, undisturbed by humidity and flickering lights. When the power goes out, they listen in the dark.
“I come because of the warm fellowship we have here,” says Jacob Achinefu, a Nigerian minister who makes the trek each year to the college’s annual lectureship. “My brothers in this part of the country amaze me.”
They astound their American counterparts, too.
Since 1948, when a Nigerian policeman named C.A.O. Essien discovered Churches of Christ through a Bible correspondence course from Tennessee, the number of Christians in the country has grown exponentially.
Now, leaders say there are 4,000 congregations in Nigeria. Some estimate combined attendance as high as 800,000.
Scholars who study Churches of Christ in Africa maintain that the continent now has more congregations than the United States — a little more than a century after the first missionaries arrived.
While Churches of Christ were later coming to India, with the first missionaries arriving about 1963, the subcontinent is home today to about 200,000 church members, minister Paul Renganathan told The Christian Chronicle. Tens of thousands of additional believers live in Central and South America, missionaries and supporting churches estimate.
These regions — and the believers in them — comprise an area of the world deemed the Global South. The term is often confused with the Southern Hemisphere, but actually refers to “the non-Western world” including Asia, Africa and Latin America, said Dyron Daughrity, assistant professor of religion at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.
DAWN OF SOUTHERN CHRISTIANITY
The realization that most people who profess Christianity today live in the Global South represents a shift in thinking for religious scholars, church leaders and missions-minded members.
“As Europe and North America complete their transition into a post-Christian era, Africa and South America enter a Christian era,” Evertt Huffard, dean of Harding University Graduate School of Religion in Memphis, Tenn., wrote in a 2006 issue of Restoration Quarterly.
Church of Christ missionaries in Africa, including Chad Westerholm, see evidence of that global shift almost daily.
Those who live in the Global South are more receptive to the gospel, he said.
“I grew up in New Jersey, one of the major mission fields in the U.S.A., but it is a difficult place to work,” Westerholm said. “In Mozambique, I walk into a village and announce I am going to have a Bible study and people show up!”
Ricky Gootam, a third-generation Church of Christ minister in India, grew up with U.S. missionaries staying in his house. He has visited 29 countries, including Ghana and the United States.
“The people in the South are very spiritual-minded,” Gootam said. “I think that is the main reason that churches in the South are growing. People have time for God.”
Philip Jenkins, a professor of religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, estimates that, by 2050, “only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites.”
“The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes,” Jenkins writes in “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity,” “and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning. The fact of change itself is undeniable: it has happened, and will continue to happen.”
CONVERTING FOR MONEY?
Evidence of the changing demographics of faith appears in unlikely places — including a Mexican restaurant in Arlington, Texas.
Over steaming plates of rice and beans, two ministers from Ghana — Isaac Daye and Willie Gley — discussed the appeal of Christianity in the South during a lunch break at last year’s Global Missions Conference, a gathering of missionaries and supporters among Churches of Christ.
On their U.S. visits, the ministers have heard reports from American Christians who have visited the South.
Though they are encouraged by the growth of churches on their continent, they cautioned against the use of church funds for mission work without local oversight.
“There is so much that you brethren don’t know about,” Gley said. “All you know is the stories that come
back. ‘Oh, we went in, and in one week we baptized 2,000 … 3,000’ … and you never write back to find out whether these (new) members are worshiping. You don’t know.”
Though corruption exists, it’s incorrect to assume that all involved are converting, preaching and teaching Christ for money, Daye said.
“It would be wrong to make a general statement,” he said, “overlooking the sacrifice 80 percent to 90 percent of Christians are making in terms of their devotion.”
Christianity appeals to the poor and disenfranchised in the Global South, but U.S. dollars often appeal to the corrupt, said Dave Jenkins, who has worked as a missionary in Uganda and currently serves in Rwanda.
“It’s easy to get hyped up about growth that is largely just gatherings of bored and desperate people,” he said. “Then, when money is handed out, there can be an early sign of church growth. It frequently is just well-marketed corruption and dependency.
“We need to invest in developing educational systems that promote an economic base of middle-class entrepreneurs,” Jenkins said. “With a base of middle-class tithers in our congregations, we have the intellectual and financial resources to provide leadership … and send missionaries to new fields.”
INFRASTRUCTURE AND MISSIONS
Some ministers in the Global South believe Churches of Christ have moved from an era of rapid expansion to one of infrastructure building, establishing schools for ministry training and Christian education.
In Chennai, India, church members recently dedicated the first building of a Christian elementary school. Churches of Christ in the U.S. donated funds to furnish the facility.
“It was a longtime dream and prayer to start a Christian school,” Renganathan said. “Thanks be to God for answered prayer — and everyone who helped.”
Such partnerships are vital to the future of Churches of Christ — Southern and Northern — said Behailu Abebe, who works with church-sponsored humanitarian efforts, schools for the deaf and preacher-training programs in his native Ethiopia.
“There must be trust and unity while serving in the kingdom of God,” Abebe said. “God may possibly use African missionaries one day to preach and teach in America, Europe and other parts of the world.”
In Sweden, that day has arrived. Abraham Monney, another minister from Ghana, traveled to Scandinavia recently during a mission trip to northern Italy, where churches are experiencing an influx of Ghanaian immigrants.
Monney worked with a church of six people that meets in the home of George Opoku, a Ghanaian, and his wife, Gabrielle Nilsson, a Swede.
“It’s difficult indeed to approach people here with the gospel,” Nilsson told the Chronicle. “We met brother Monney in Ghana when my whole family … visited in 2007, and we asked if it could be possible for him to help us with evangelism in Sweden for growing the Sweden Church Of Christ.”
‘TOUCHING NEW CIVILIZATIONS’
Christianity’s movement from North to South — and possibly back — is nothing new, Daughrity told U.S. church members during this year’s Pepperdine Bible lectures.
Christianity originated in the Middle East and rose to prominence in Western Europe before shifting southward.
While U.S. church members may lament their fellowship’s decline, they also have cause to rejoice, Daughrity said, because “the Holy Spirit is touching new civilizations, as it has done throughout history.”
“Christianity is always moving as a world religion,” he said. “Christianity goes where it’s accepted.”
Feedback“Scholars who study Churches of Christ in Africa maintain that the continent now has more congregations than the United States — a little more than a century after the first missionaries arrived.”
We need to do more in Africa, especially in South Africa to uplift the growth of the Church.Philip Larbi AdjeiCentral Johannesburg Church of ChristJohannesburg, Gauteng
South AfricaJuly, 19 2009My name is Craig Laird and I am a Missions Coordinator.I recently returned from my 4th trip to West Africa, where I worked alongside Isaac Daye, the missionary from The Gambia who you quoted recently. I have been approached by many men who have a desire to evangelize but are requesting sponsorships. It seems many are making decisions to become full-time evangelists w/o supporting congregation to whom they are answering. I believe we need to be very cautious when making a determination to sponsor someone. They not only need someone that can hold them accountabale for what they are doing, but they also need to be educated in the fact that they may need to be “vocational” ministers and grow support through the local church that they plant.Craig LairdCenter Street Church of ChristFayetteville, AR
USAJuly, 15 2009