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Sister Churches

Sister Churches, By Janel Kragt Bakker

320 PP.

Christianity is rooted in the Middle East and flourished in North Africa for centuries. Yet since the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century it has been perceived as a Western religion, and for 17 centuries Christianity has been closely tied to the cultures and peoples of the North Atlantic.

In our lifetime, all this has changed. For the past 10 to 15 years, scholars have reported on the amazing spread of Christianity, especially to the global South and the East. Nearly one-third of the global population, 2.18 billion people, identify themselves as Christians, and 60 percent of them live in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Pacific. Scholars who are tracking these exciting developments estimate that by 2020 almost 65 percent of the world’s Christians will live in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Many Americans continue to believe that the United States is the center of action for Christians and that North Americans are the real leaders, especially for Protestant Christians.

While books have been written on changes in Christianity and major studies have been conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life and Gordon-Conwell Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity, these extraordinary trends do not seem to have had much of an effect on the average church attendee in North America. In my travels in recent years to various parts of the United States, I rarely hear much discussion about developments in the global South and East and the remarkable emergence of Christianity as a truly global religion. Many Americans continue to believe that the United States is the center of action for Christians and that North Americans are the real leaders, especially for Protestant Christians.

For Roman Catholics, this is not true. The election of Pope Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,200 years, makes the striking reality of the changes in global Christianity impossible to miss. The huge Hispanic immigration to the United States and the reality that these folks represent 35 percent of the Catholic community in America makes it obvious that major shifts are underway.

Bakker’s excellent study of 12 churches in the Washington, D.C., area that developed sister relationships with churches in the global South, particularly in Latin America and Africa, is fascinating. She studied four groups of three churches each – three Roman Catholic, three mainline Presbyterian, three evangelical Anglican and three African American Baptist congregations. The congregations were from a wide range of theological traditions and represented a diverse demographic.

Because my church in Washington, D.C., National Presbyterian Church, is in the process of strategic planning that includes an in-depth evaluation of its missions programs, this book was of particular interest to me, our elders and our missions-committee members. Bakker thoughtfully studied the wide diversity of goals that originally motivated members of these congregations to form these partnerships – partnerships that were largely started as a grassroots movement by laity, not as a program created by denominational leaders.

Bakker conducted extensive interviews with the leaders and participants in these sister-church efforts, and they testified that the relationships with Christians in the global South changed their lives. She reported that congregational members “found themselves stretched and comforted, convicted and graced.” Meaningful cross-cultural relationships were formed, and church members recounted how these friendships became transformational – although Bakker points out that transformation is hard to document or quantify.

The strength of Bakker’s study is its honesty and candor. She does not romanticize the sister-church relationships, and she frankly discusses the challenges and tough issues that emerge as churches try to connect to each other despite major economic, social and theological differences. Troublesome personalities, logistical nightmares, material inequality and cultural barriers were problems with no easy solutions.

Overall, however, Bakker concludes that sister-church relationships, when characterized by respect and humility, provide a “promising platform for mission in the contemporary world.” Participants in sister-church programs learned to appreciate the changing shape of global Christianity and got excited about what they were learning. They became advocates within their congregations and recruited others to join them. They learned that Christianity was spreading to the developing world but that indigenous leaders were in charge and were incarnating the gospel in their local cultures.

I hope that Bakker follows this book with another one that studies sister-church relationships from the perspective of the churches in the global South. The benefits to churches in the global North outweigh the problems and challenges that inevitably arise as lay leaders form these partnerships. Now it would be helpful to know how our brothers and sisters in the South view these same relationships. This inspiring book is important reading for North Americans who are unaware of these remarkable trends in global Christianity.

John A. Bernbaum has served as president and chief executive officer of the Russian-American Institute in Moscow for more than 20 years. He also has worked with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.