Posted by: newperspectives85 | December 12, 2011

White is not always Right (Evangelism is not just a white person’s job)

White Is Not Always Right

Across the world, Christianity increasingly is adapting to local cultures.  Missions cannot ignore the change

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A Kenyan friend of mine is the pastor of a church founded by a white  missionary three decades ago. The missionary recently decided to retire, and  he left without training native Kenyans for ministry. It was up to my friend  Dennis to pick up the pieces. Thanks to the help of friends in the West, Dennis  received the theological training he needed to fill the leadership vacuum. Today  he’s back in Kenya and beginning the slow process of rebuilding the church.

Dennis’ church in Kenya, along with many others in the developing world, are  only beginning to recover from a long-held missions strategy that firmly  believed white was right. But times are changing. After two centuries of Western  missionary work, a staggering 70% of the world’s evangelical Christians are now  non-Western. Evangelicals in the developing world may still desire Western  church assistance, but they rarely want Western control.

Today, the world’s largest evangelical churches are not in London or New  York, but in South Korea, where nearly 20% of the world’s evangelical Christians  now live. In 1900, there were 8.8 million Christians in Africa; today, there are  more than 300 million. The new international complexion of evangelicalism means  that a movement once thought to be distinctly European and American is being  reinvigorated with input from nations once (and sometimes still) thought to be  on the missions frontier.

All over the developing world, in places such as Africa and South America,  seminaries are springing up, pastors are being trained, and Christianity is being conducted more in tune with local  cultures and customs than ever before. Dennis says he is thankful for his  Western training, but he knows that Kenya faces economic, political, cultural,  and even theological challenges a relatively affluent American could never  imagine. For instance, how does he cope with the economic and health crises devastating  his part of the world?

Missions can’t be immune from these shifting sands. Billy Graham and other  Western missionaries and evangelists know that now is the time to tell future  generations that West isn’t always best. It seems that Graham wants Amsterdam  2000 to recognize this new reality.

It may seem obvious to outsiders, but for Western evangelicals to accept (at  least intellectually) that the average evangelical is no longer white and  Western is something like the evangelical equivalent of Copernicus discovering  that the earth revolves around the sun.

For decades and even centuries, Western evangelicals have seen themselves as  the chief executives of evangelicalism, and as such strongly suggested that  non-Western evangelicals were like children–best seen but not heard. Many in  the West, it seems, saw their economic prosperity as proof of the superiority of  Western culture.

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Recently, as Western evangelicals like Graham have begun to see the intrinsic  value of non-Western cultures, they’ve come face to face with a truly global  evangelical church that is multi-hued and big and loud and unconventional and  sometimes a little unsettling. As the center of the evangelical world moves  south and east, meetings like Amsterdam 2000 will help chart the future course  of evangelicalism.

Unsettling questions are now being raised, and Western and non-Western  evangelicals have begun to come together to search for answers. How does the  increased prominence of evangelicals in the developing world alter or amplify  what it means to be an evangelical? To what extent should evangelicals tailor  the Christian message to appeal to local animist, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist cultures? Who speaks for  evangelicals? How should evangelicals globally come together to represent Jesus  to a hurting world?

The Amsterdam conference, for example, will have representatives from 190  countries and territories. And lest evangelicalism be too closely linked to the  English language, translations into at least 25 different languages will be  available. It has taken a while, but Western evangelicals seem ever so slowly to  be “getting it.”

For evangelicals of color, these gestures can’t come a moment too soon. In  recent decades, non-Western evangelicals have moved beyond Western theology and  are formulating versions of Christian theology that travel well in places like  Buenos Aires, Seoul, and Nairobi. For example, where Western theology tends to  be individualistic–focusing on a person’s relationship with Christ–non-Western  theology emphasizes the Christian’s faith within a larger  community of believers. Non-Western theology also tends to emphasize the  importance of economic justice in light of Third World debt and the so-called  “digital divide.” These new perspectives on traditional Christian teachings  about justice and community can help uncover many theological blind spots in  Western Christianity.

What does this paradigm shift mean for the future of evangelical missions?  First, it means that there’s no longer an “over there.” Evangelicals all over  the world will send missionaries all over the world. In the United States alone,  there are already more than 16,000 missionaries from other countries. Many of  these missionaries, like Stephen Kasamba of Uganda, are driven to reintroduce  Jesus to a country partly responsible for sharing Jesus with their mothers and  grandmothers. He told Christianity Today recently of a time when an American  missionary in Uganda told his grandfather, “Today, we are coming to you to  preach the Gospel, but tomorrow, you shall bring the Gospel to us.”

Second, the time is coming–and may already be here–when evangelicals in the  non-Western world will be able to evangelize their own nations with little or no  help from the West. Think of it as an illustration of the old adage about  teaching a man to fish. Dennis, my friend from Kenya, received theological  training in the West, but he and other evangelicals in the developing world are  longing for the day when they’ll be able to train Christians in their native  lands.

Amsterdam 2000 or any other conference probably won’t soothe all  the evangelical growing pains. But Western evangelicals should be proud that  they have taken at least a few baby steps toward accepting the many cultural and  theological contributions their non-Western brothers and sisters bring to the  question of how to be the church in the 21st century.

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