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Because I recently traveled to Africa for the first time, I am keenly aware that when going to a place that is completely new, it is vital to have an experienced guide. When it comes to navigating global Christianity, I am in territory that is at least somewhat unfamiliar to me. But no worries: Wesley Granberg-Michaelson knows the terrain from Times Square to Timbuktu and can serve as a more-than-knowledgeable exploration leader. In his new book, Granberg-Michaelson spans the globe in his assessment of the present state of the Christian faith even as he zooms in on particular locations for a closer look. What this book reveals is much more than just a snapshot of this moment in history — it provides a prophetic call for how the future should unfold.
The premise of the work is summed up in the subtitle, as Granberg-Michaelson, the recently retired general secretary of the Reformed Church in America, ponders what it means for the largely post-Christian West of Europe and North America to encounter the robust growth of the Christian faith in the global South. Early on, the author gives two framing questions for the book: How will attempts to build the unity of the church be affected by the shift of Christianity’s center of gravity to the global South? And, because migration patterns are already bringing the global South into direct contact with the West, how will the congregations of the West handle the influx of new believers?
As authors such as Philip Jenkins have made clear in the past twenty years, the shift of Christianity to the global South is as dramatic as it is undeniable. In the century since John Mott’s great call to evangelize the world in 1910, the worldwide population of Christians has nearly flipped: Europe has gone from being the home of 66 percent of Christians to just 22 percent, Africa has grown from being the home to 2 percent of Christians to 25 percent, Europe and North America combined have gone from holding 80 percent of the world’s Christians in 1910 to 40 percent today.
The Christian faith is on the move in dramatic ways, but Granberg-Michaelson is a sufficiently astute observer to recognize that the prospects for unity across the global church may be hampered by a slew of factors. Among the difficulties is the post-Reformation proliferation of denominations, now estimated to be just shy of forty-four thousand worldwide. Generational shifts also are posing challenges both within and across established denominations as young people become more interested in church as organism than as organization. Further, established ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches are finding it difficult to stay fiscally afloat in seeking wider unity across the denominations with which they have already been working, making prospects for expanding the work into new venues challenging at best.
Even so, Granberg-Michaelson notes that offshoots of the WCC such as the Global Christian Forum are bearing good ecumenical fruit and that there is at least some future promise as new ecumenical organizations are formed with the stated goal of connecting in unity the global South to the global North. But as this book goes on to note, it seems likely that migration patterns from south to north will force Western churches to encounter sisters and brothers from other traditions sooner rather than later, whether ecumenical agencies are trying to foster the contact or not. Granberg-Michaelson notes that in most Western cities today, there is a sharp rise in churches composed primarily of immigrants from Ethiopia, Mexico, the Philippines, El Salvador, Korea, and many other nations.
But in Granberg-Michaelson’s phrase, these immigrant churches tend to exist “below the ecclesiological radar” for most Western congregations. Western churches tend not to be aware of other congregations nearby and are unsure how to interact with them once they do become aware of their existence. An unwillingness to change traditional ways of doing things combined with a somewhat condescending attitude toward any theology that is not deeply stamped with a Western ethos make meaningful interactions challenging. Granberg-Michaelson frequently employs the image of pilgrimage in this book, but optimistic though the author is about the prospects for that pilgrimage as north and south journey together toward unity, there is no denying it will be a long journey.
Nevertheless, Granberg-Michaelson’s optimism is fueled by his frequently stated conviction that there are so many places where we can start out in unity. Several times in this volume he encourages believers of diverse traditions to focus on singing together, sharing stories of faith journeys together, engaging in service projects together, and attempting (though this one can become a fraught matter) to celebrate the sacrament of communion together. Worship, service, and fellowship have far greater chances to unify the global North and South than any focus on potentially knotty theological questions.
One issue Granberg-Michaelson specifically flags as “the wrong place to start” is the matter of homosexuality and, in particular, the West’s growing acceptance of gay members over against most global South communions that regard homosexuality as antithetical to Scripture. The author is almost certainly correct that this would be the wrong place to begin. It might, however, prove difficult to prevent this from being a divisive point precisely because in the view of many, a great deal of theology and of one’s attitude toward Scripture generally are tied up with the issue. The more people of the global North insist this not be the focus of conversation, the more the people of the global South may wonder what is being swept under the carpet.
In my limited experience with students from different parts of the world, other similar issues often crop up, including in some places the global South’s assessment of the role women may play in ordained ministry as well as the way science is embraced and the implications that an integrated theological-scientific worldview have on questions about the origins and age of the universe and how best to interpret Genesis 1–2. Even within a denomination like my own Christian Reformed Church, there is a fairly broad spectrum of opinion on such matters. Yet most North American communions are many, many more miles down these roads than are many communions in the global South. The related tensions are unlikely to fade anytime soon.
Even so, Granberg-Michaelson’s dreams for unity and his concrete calls for some of the first steps we can take with one another to join hands as sisters and brothers from all over the world are both lyric and necessary. As the author concludes, if the church is to take a pilgrim’s journey from Times Square to Timbuktu and back, then this is a journey that the Holy Spirit most assuredly beckons us to join.