The Changing Face Of The Church

It is Sunday morning in Agbor, a remote village in southwest Nigeria, where chickens peck at rutted roads and bicycles outnumber cars. All morning long women in brightly colored dresses, wide-eyed children holding hands, men in white Sunday shirts and dark pants stream toward the churches. There are more than 20 of them within a square kilometer. Some are clearly Roman Catholic, Anglican and evangelical Protestant--the fruit of Western missionaries. But most are of purely African origin like the Celestial Church of Christ, Miracle Apostolic Church and The Winners Chapel. And so it goes all across the African subcontinent, where Christianity is a 24/7 experience. On decaying asphalt highways the backs of trucks and buses proclaim Christian slogans: IN HIS NAME, ABIDE WITH ME, and GOD IS GOOD. Inside urban malls, the lilting pop music carries an upbeat Christian message in Ibo, Twi or Swahili. Even the signs above storefronts bear public witness: THY WILL BE DONE HAIR SALON, THE LORD IS MY LIGHT CAR WASH and TRUST IN GOD AUTO REPAIR, SPECIALISTS IN MERCEDES BENZ.

This is the heart of contemporary Africa. And south of the Sahara, at least, that heart is proudly Christian. Pope John Paul II has visited Africa 10 times--more than any continent outside Europe--and for good reason. Here among the Ashanti and Baganda and the thousand other tribes who occupy the world's second largest continent, Christianity is spreading faster than at any time or place in the last 2,000 years. Among the most prominent African Christians is an Ibo from Nigeria, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official now regarded as a prime candidate to become the first black pope.

In 1900, the beginning of what American Protestants christened as "the Christian Century," 80 percent of Christians were either Europeans or North Americans. Today 60 percent are citizens of the "Two-Thirds World"--Africa, Asia and Latin America. "The center of Christianity has shifted southward," says Andrew Walls, an expert in the history of Christian missions, at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. "The events that are shaping 21st-century Christianity are taking place in Africa and Asia." Europe itself is now a post-Christian society where religion is essentially an identity tag. In Scotland less than 10 percent of Christians regularly go to church, but in the Philippines the figure is nearly 70 percent. In Nigeria alone there are seven times as many Anglicans as there are Episcopalians in the entire United States. The Republic of Korea now has nearly four times as many Presbyterians as America.

Not only is the flood tide of non-Western Christians altering the map of world Christianity, it is also reversing the flow of influence within the Catholic and Protestant worlds. A month ago the presiding bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion met in North Carolina amid a rift between the liberal churches of the West and the eruption of more conservative churches in Africa and Asia. On Feb. 21, the pope expanded the College of Cardinals to a record 184; of the 135 eligible to elect the next pope, 41 percent are from non-Western nations. And as Christianity becomes a truly global religion, theologians from India and other parts of Asia are developing new and often controversial interpretations of the faith based on their contacts with Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

The emergence of non-Western Christianity has many converging causes. In Latin America, the faith that arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century is now expanding in part because the population is exploding. In India, the growth is mainly among the outcasts, who find in Christianity hope and dignity denied them by the rigid caste system. In China, Christianity answers problems of meaning that Marxism fails to address. But wherever it spreads, Christianity is also seen as the religion of the successful West--a spiritual way of life that is compatible with higher education, technology and globalization. American missionaries have never been more active in the developing world, providing health and education for the poor and--through television--reaching into the most humble homes with messages of miracles and salvation.

As a result, for the first time in its history, Christianity has become a religion mainly of the poor, the marginalized, the powerless and--in parts of Asia and the Middle East--the oppressed. Its face has also changed. "Christianity is no longer a white man's religion," says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois. "It's been claimed by others."

Christians in the West are already experiencing the effects of this massive demographic shift. Countries that were once considered Christian homelands have become the mission territories of the new millennium. Evangelists from Latin America and Africa now hold crusades in cities like London and Berlin. The effects on Catholicism are especially pronounced. One in six priests serving in American Catholic parishes is now imported from abroad, and among native-born Catholic seminarians a disproportionate number are of Asian background. In Rome, seminarians from former mission countries are now as numerous as those from Europe and North America. The United States used to be the Jesuits' primary source of new recruits. Today India is the largest supplier.

But to millions of Christians in Africa and Asia words like "Protestant" and "Catholic" inspire little or no sense of iden-tification. According to David B. Barrett, coauthor of the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are now 33,800 different Christian denominations. "And the fastest-growing are the independents, who have no ties whatsoever to historic Christianity," he says. In Africa alone, the collapse of European colonialism half a century ago saw the wild proliferation of indigenous Christian cults inspired by personal prophecies and visions. Throughout Nigeria, there are thousands of "white garment" congregations like those of the Celestial Church of Christ--a name that founder Samuel Bibewu Oshoffa saw written in the sky in 1947. In the vision, God told Oshoffa what true believers should wear and why they should go barefoot during services--as Moses was commanded to do when he approached the burning bush.

As in the past, today's new Christians tend to take from the Bible whatever fits their needs--and ignore whatever fails to resonate with their own native religious traditions. The Chinese have no tradition of personal sin--much less the concept of an inherited original sin--in their bedrock Confucian background. But they have a lively sense of "living ancestors" and the obligation to do them honor. On the Chinese New Year, says Catholic Bishop Chen Shih-kwang of Taichung, Taiwan, "we do mass, then we venerate the ancestors"--a notion that is totally foreign to Western Christianity. In India, where sin is identified with bad karma in this and previous lives, many converts interpret the cross to mean that Jesus' self-sacrifice removes their own karmic deficiencies, thus liberating their souls from future rebirths.

In parts of Africa where urbanization has dissolved the old tribal morality, many new Christians have replaced it with the rigorous "purity code" governing personal behavior they find outlined in the Book of Leviticus. On the other hand, in officially Catholic Brazil, many Christians still appease the old tribal deities brought from Africa by slaves four centuries ago--albeit under different names. Thus in Bahia they may honor Saint George the dragon-slayer at mass in the morning and at night venerate the same patron of the hunt as the Afro spirit-deity Oxosi. "I don't think there has been a more dramatic moment of trying to define Christ since the fourth century, when the Council of Nicaea was convened to decide what was orthodox and what was not," says Martin Palmer, director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, in Manchester, England.

From the very beginning Christianity has been a migratory religion, seeking to plant the Gospel at the center of whatever foreign culture its missionaries could penetrate. In the process, the Gospel has not only been transplanted but also repeatedly reinterpreted. But in its developed forms (especially the Roman Catholic), Western Christianity has also emphasized the importance of maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy. Now that Christianity is becoming a truly global religion, the problem is how to decide which elements of Western thought and culture are essential to the faith.

Just last fall, the Vatican published a highly controversial document aimed at curbing what the pope considers compromising attitudes among some Asian bishops and theologians toward other world religions. In "Dominus Iesus" the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated the uniqueness of the Catholic Church as the privileged path to salvation. But the main concern of the 9,000-word document was the Vatican's fear of syncretism--mixing religions--among Catholic missionaries influenced by Asian spirituality. All religions are not equal, the Congregation insisted: "Catholics must be committed to announcing the necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ."

"Dominus Iesus" was immediately criticized--even in Rome --by mission scholars who have labored long to find a way of presenting Christ in terms that Hindus and Buddhists can understand. "The church cannot disregard the Spirit of God working in other people, in all cultures and religions," insisted Father George Karakunnel of the Pontifical University in Aluva, India.

Rather than demand that Indian converts accept Jesus as Westerners conceive of him, some missionaries today offer a Christ who is congruent with native spiritual traditions. Thus, in many Indian churches, as well as various Christian ashrams, priests have adopted the dress and rituals of the Hindu majority. The mass may begin with "Om," the sacred sound of the Vedas, and at communion the priest sometimes distributes traditional Hindu prasad (consecrated fruits and sweetmeats) along with the Eucharistic bread. But the identification of Christianity with Indian traditions often goes beyond externals. At the Jeevan Dhara Ashram in the Hindu holy city of Rishikesh, Vandana Mataji, a Catholic nun, sings bhajans (devotional songs) in praise of Jesus and of Krishna four times a day, eats strictly vegetarian and meditates in silence with retreatants. "Christians do not have a monopoly on Christ," Vandana Mataji teaches. "Nor is their knowledge of him exhaustive of his full reality."

For most Asians, however, what makes Jesus attractive is his identification with the poor and the suffering. "If you're an untouchable in India, meeting this Jesus for the first time is powerful stuff," says former Protestant missionary Scott Sunquist, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. But more important, says Father Karakunnel, Asian Christians themselves must witness to Christ through "the liberation of the impoverished and downtrodden." That, in fact, was precisely what the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta did--let Christ speak through her own works of mercy instead of proselytizing others.

What many U.S. Christians fail to realize is that when Asians convert to Christ it requires enormous courage. Converts typically are ostracized by family and neighbors--and often targeted for persecution. Over the last six months, Chinese communists have demolished some 1,500 houses of worship--most of them Christian--whose members refused to accept direction from the state. In officially secular India, scores of Christians have been murdered and their churches trashed since the rise of militant Hindu groups. On Christmas Eve, churches in nine Indonesian cities were bombed, killing at least 18 believers and wounding about 100 more. An additional 90 Christians were murdered for refusing to convert to Islam, and some 600 more are still being forcibly detained on the island of Kasiui.

If any continent holds the future of Christianity, many mission experts believe, it is Africa. There they see history doing a second act: just as Europe's northern tribes turned to the church after the decay of the Roman Empire, so Africans are embracing Christianity in face of the massive political, social and economic chaos. Plagued by corrupt regimes, crushing poverty, pandemic AIDS and genocidal wars--as in Rwanda and Sudan--Africans find the church is the one place they can go to for healing, hope and material assistance from more fortunate Christians in the West.

But there are cultural factors operating, too. Africans have always recognized a spiritual world within the empirical, and there is much in tribal religions that makes adaptation to Christianity easy. But the traditional African world view also includes witches and spirits of every kind--especially those of the tribal ancestors. All these presences have power to work good or evil on the living, and so must be placated or warded off through fetishes. Even today, says Buti Tlthagale, Catholic archbishop of Bloemfontein, South Africa, "African Christians are closer to their cultural roots than they are to Christianity. If there is a death in the family, even priests and nuns will cut their hair and wash their faces in the bile of an animal slaughtered for that purpose. What this says to me is that we are still living in both worlds."

But many African theologians insist their tribal heritage is part of a Biblical tradition. They say there were black Africans among Jesus' disciples at Pentecost, when the church was founded, and that they carried Christianity to Africa long before it arrived in Northern Europe. "The problem," says Catholic Archbishop Peter Sarpong of Kumasi, Ghana, "is not how to Christianize Africa"-- the old missionary approach--"but how to Africanize Christianity."

In fact, much of what Western missionaries once opposed as tribal witchcraft and idol worship more tolerant churchmen now regard as the spadework of the Holy Spirit--a tilling of the soil for the planting of an authentically African church. The idea isn't new: some early fathers of the Western church saw "pagan" Greek philosophy as divine preparation for the truths of Christian revelation. In the same way, many African theologians insist that the old tribal religions are more Christian because they are less skeptical of the supernatural than the post-Enlightenment Christianity of the modern West. "Africans are much closer to the world of Jesus" than are Western Christians, argues Protestant theologian Kwame Bediako of Ghana. What is really happening in Africa today, he believes, is "the renewal of a non-Western religion."

Yet from the evidence of what actually goes on in local churches, something very different is taking place. When Africans read the Bible or hear it preached, they see that Jesus was a healer and an exorcist, and controlling evil spirits has always been a primary function of tribal shamans. As a result, the most powerful and pervasive form of African Christianity today is Pentecostal faith healing--imported directly from the West. Last November, for example, nearly 6 million Nigerians jammed a park in Lagos to experience the miraculous healings of Reinhard Bonnke, a Florida-based evangelist. Those are numbers even Billy Graham might envy. Every night in cities like Accra, Ghana, thousands of Africans seek out evening Pentecostal "prayer camps." Most are women who can't find husbands or wives suffering from infertility, but others come because they've found no job. The diagnosis in every case is past association with tribal witchcraft. One by one, victims are sent rolling and moaning on the floor as freelance Pentecostal preachers "deliver" them from evil spirits in the name of Jesus.

Even the Catholic Church--still the largest body of Christians in black Africa--now provides healing services that are indistinguishable from the Pentecostal. It's a defensive measure: "These churches are getting most of their members from us," says Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, the young leader of Nigeria's Catholic Church.

Africans also embrace Pentecostalism because--again like tribal religions--it promises material abundance in this life. The best-attended churches are supported by relatively well-off, educated Africans who do not want to lose their precarious prosperity. "In the U.S., people can get a mortgage to buy a car," says Michael Okonkwo, founder and self-appointed bishop of the Redeemed Evangelical Mission in Lagos. "But in Africa, if I want a car, I have to pray to God to give me the money to pay cash."

Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa the Christian ministry is now regarded as the fastest career path to upward mobility. Catholic priests are better educated--and better recompensed--than other members of their families. Moreover, since anyone can claim anointing by the Holy Spirit, anyone with a charismatic personality can start a church. In this way, an estimated 1,200 new churches are launched each month--many of them with literature and instructions provided by evangelical organizations in the West. "Christian missions are perhaps the biggest industry in Africa," says British scholar Paul Gifford, who is currently teaching at a new Pentecostal university in Ghana. And given the political and economic chaos of most African countries, they are often the best conduits of Western influence and financial investment.

Although Christianity's future may lie outside the West, Western influence is still decisive wherever the Gospel is preached. In religion, as in other international affairs, globalization means that superpowers remain dominant. For the world's poor, Christianity often appeals just because it is seen as the religion of the most successful superpower, the United States. Nonetheless, as the world's most missionary religion, Christianity has a history of renewing itself, even in the most culturally inhospitable places. That is the hope that hides behind the changing face of the church.