Monday, March 12, 2007

What's Wrong in the Global Christian South?

Yes, I’ve been blogging on a daily basis, but I haven’t been sharing any deep thoughts. Lately, I’ve had some … deep thoughts, that is. I don’t know how profound, though – that’s for you to decide.

I’ve been thinking about the Global Christian South. That’s the topic of a lot of preachers and theologians lately. You know the facts – any day now, there will be more Christians in the southern and eastern hemispheres than in the northern and western. Christianity is rapidly growing in Africa, Asia and Latin America, while it is declining in Europe and Northern America. The statistics are pointing towards a momentous shift in the religious landscape.

When I first stumbled across this trend several years ago, I was excited. I thought it was pretty fascinating, and … well, here I am in the Global Christian South! I’m living and working here now! It has certainly been invigorating and eye-opening.

But my experience in Africa has also been a heady dose of reality. Because one should not simply say, “Hooray! Christianity in _____________ (insert region of the world here) is growing, therefore, we should be excited!” We don’t automatically praise a local church just because it’s growing. Numerical growth doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the work of Holy Spirit, or of Christian faithfulness. It can, but not necessarily.

One needs to ask, “What kind of Christianity is taking root? What kind of churches are these, what do they hope for and long to become, and what will they look like in the future?”

I’m not talking about denominational identity, nor am I referring to doctrines or theological notions.

I am referring to the underlying foundations and unspoken assumptions that lie just beneath the surface of popular Christianity that is practiced on Sunday mornings in thousands of churches in the Global Christian South.

There is one disturbing trend that I have discovered in Cameroon, and which I am guessing is true of many African Christians.

Let me begin by making a reference to a somewhat obscure Biblical text. Just after God gives the Ten Commandments to Moses, in Exodus 20, we are given a glimpse of the Israelites, who tremble in fear at the base of Mount Sinai. “They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’”

Moses tries to assure the people that God is not mad at them; he’s just testing the people, rattling his sabers to keep them in line. But verse 21 is what interests me the most: “The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.”

This is an emblematic picture of Old Testament religion; God as a distant, fearsome and awesome figure who can only be approached or appeased by a go-between, or some other intercessory figure. In this story, Moses is the chosen one; later, it’s the entire clan of priests, or specially-anointed prophets or kings. God is kept at arms’ length by the people, because he is simply too grand and overwhelming for the ordinary person to approach. And only a special person is permitted to approach this God on behalf of the common people – the shaman, priest, chief, or anointed preacher.

This approach to God is still alive, unfortunately. And it is alive in those contexts where the strong leader/chief/king paradigm is still alive, like Africa.

Thus, in many churches of the Global Christian South, the pastor is viewed as the chosen one designated to approach God on behalf of the people. Often, he (and it is usually a “he”!) is seen as having special powers, anointings, or spiritual gifts. This means that he is closer to God and has a special channel of communication with God, which grants him enormous power and influence in the community.

But is this “Christianity”?

I would argue – no! The entire book of Hebrews is written to make this single point: Jesus is the high priest who, by virtue of his life, death and resurrection, has broken down the enormous barrier between God and humanity. We no longer need a priest, chief, shaman, or holy man to approach God for us; we can do it ourselves! We can “approach the throne of grace with confidence” (some translations have “with boldness”), says Hebrews 4:16; later, the author of Hebrews goes on to say that we “have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place” and are permitted to “draw near to God with a sincere heart.”

This was also Jeremiah’s dream; he prophesied of a new covenant which would consist of a law written on people’s hearts and minds. “No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

And that time is now! A Christian is someone who “knows the Lord,” and has a living relationship with the Lord. He doesn’t need a priest or a pope to tell him what to do; he can read Scripture and meditate on God’s will himself. She doesn’t need a TV preacher to lay his hands on her to be healed, she can approach God with her own effective and powerful prayers.

Thus, I think we must be cautious about any church which creates a hierarchy of clergy, rules, or doctrine to protect, or moderate, access to God. This applies to all sorts of churches, liturgical and low-church, Episcopalian and Pentecostal, liberal and conservative, stuck-in-a-rut and emerging.

I am worried that, in the global Christian south, there is still a bottom-of-the-mountain mentality. People tend to want to elect a new Moses, or a new charismatic figure, or a new faith healer, or a new miracle worker.

But we can approach the mountain! We don’t have to huddle at the bottom, looking up in fear and pushing Moses up the slopes. God is for us, and with us, and in us.