Beyond Christendom

June 18, 2011 — 5 Comments

3509766.jpg

Jehu Hanclies' Beyond Christendom is an important book for anyone concerned about the future of global Christianity. Divided into three parts, Hanclies deals in turn with globalization, international migration, and the effects both of those have on the spread of Christianity. Central to his thesis is the notion that "every Christian migrant is a potential missionary" (8, 378) and that it is the steadily increasing migration from the global South to the global North that will have a radical impact on Christianity in the North in the years to come.

Hanclies does not envision a new Christendom with a Southern bent. On the contrary, he goes to great lengths to expose the lingering concept of "Christendom" as an unhelpful Western construct of secular humanism which has diverted focus toward a fantastic notion a once-and-future Christian utopia, and away from the very real post-1965 migratory spread of Christianity from Africa to destinations north (133, 383). At one point in the book, he takes Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom (which I reviewed a few weeks ago) to task. That argument was of particular interest to me.

Hanclies praises Jenkins for his description of the "new contours" of Christianity in the global South, but is quick to temper this by observing that Jenkins' treatment is "seriously marred by an approach that makes the Western Christian experience a definitive template or roadmap" (132). While Jenkins does spend some time in his book discussing the limitations, even danger, of Western intellectual snobbery, Hanclies' assessment is that Jenkins' falls prey those very pitfalls:

[Jenkins] prognosis duplicates the quintessential secularist premonition of an otherwise bright future sabotaged by medieval-like clashes of belief, missionary armies, and rampant religious conflict. He anticipates the possibility that the massive religious upsurge in the South will implode with bloody conflicts (engendered by population growth and attitudes to religious conversion) between the Christians and Muslims. This understanding grotesquely tags "Southern Christianity" as a destructive force within the new world order; it is all the more striking, given the nature of current global conflicts (including the "war on terror"), that he makes no reference to Western nations in this prognosis. (133)

Hanclies goes on to argue that the Christendom idea won't hold water because of the diversity of cultural-political forces at play in the massive upsurge of Christianity in the South. There is no empire, no emperor, no pope under which the new emerging Christian populations are united. There can be no unified movement from South to North analogous to empiric growth of yesteryear. To try and describe what is happening with the same vocabulary, therefore, is stifling.

Many terms that derive their freight of meaning from the Western Christian experience and perspective–including 'Christendom,' 'fundamentalist,' 'conservative,' 'liberal,' and 'postmodern'–have limited applicability and often undermine full comprehension when indiscriminately applied to non-Western realities. … The forms of Christianity that now flourish in the non-Western world are not only post-Christendom, they are anti-Christendom. (134, 135, emphasis in the original).

 

So what does Hanclies observe is coming on the horizon, if not a new kind of Christendom? He describes a decentralized, migratory spread of Christianity from South to North. Initially this movement will fly under the radar of Northern/Western countries as the influx of Southern Christianity will be largely confined to the immigrant communities. Indeed, this has already happened in most major American metropolitan areas. Hanclies' Mobile Faith project set out to study these communities and their churches. He devotes several chapters at the end of the book to an overview of what he found.

Eventually, however, these immigrant Christian communities will turn outward, evangelizing their new host countries. The Christianity that emerges from this proselytization will be unlike the remnant Christianity that is currently trying to maintain a handhold in America. It may be different enough as to be missed altogether in its early stages. What remains to be seen is how "mainstream" American Christianity will respond to a growing tide of immigrants who have it on their hearts to turn America toward Christ.

It will be tempting to try and categorize any new movements into old wineskins (conservative, liberal, modern, post-modern, institutional, organic). Much of the writing on church in the Western world bemoans the demise of Christendom, points fingers and liberalism and secularism, then attempts to respond via insulation or accommodation. It is easy to project these woes and responses on Christianity the world over. This is one of the lingering effects of Christendom and Manifest Destiny. We still think we're on the leading edge of things, even when that edge means decline.

It might just be that the leading edge has shifted South and is starting to surge North. If true, Christians in America need to prepare to eat a big helping of humble pie as it becomes more and more clear that the Spirit is moving in more clearly evident ways outside the West than inside it.  We need to open our eyes to what God might be doing through the millions of Christian immigrants who arrive in the Northern Hemisphere each year. Otherwise, we may find ourselves like the man who found himself in a quickly rising flood.

The waters rose so high that one man was forced to climb onto the roof of his house. As the waters rose higher and higher, a man in a rowboat appeared, and told him to get in. "No," replied the man on the roof. "I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me." So the man in the rowboat went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters rose higher and higher, and suddenly a speedboat appeared. "Climb in!" shouted a man in the boat. "No," replied the man on the roof. "I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me." So the man in the speedboat went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters continued to rise. A helicopter appeared and over the loudspeaker, the pilot announced he would lower a rope to the man on the roof. "No," replied the man on the roof. "I have faith in the Lord; the Lord will save me." So the helicopter went away. The man on the roof prayed for God to save him.

The waters rose higher and higher, and eventually they rose so high that the man on the roof was washed away, and alas, the poor man drowned.

Upon arriving in heaven, the man marched straight over to God. "Heavenly Father," he said, "I had faith in you, I prayed to you to save me, and yet you did nothing. Why?" God gave him a puzzled look, and replied "I sent you two boats and a helicopter, what more did you expect?"

Anderson Campbell

Posts

  • Tim Buechsel

    #dmingml I also was fascinated why Hanciles critique of Jenkins. I found it insightful that our cultural categories (old wineskins) are not fitting for perceiving the new thing that God is doing in our world. I do wonder if the Christian migrant communities will play as significant of a role as Hanciles thinks. I know that there is a lot of talk about migrant workers in China and significance of this for the spread of Christianity.

  • Tim Buechsel

    #dmingml I also was fascinated why Hanciles critique of Jenkins. I found it insightful that our cultural categories (old wineskins) are not fitting for perceiving the new thing that God is doing in our world. I do wonder if the Christian migrant communities will play as significant of a role as Hanciles thinks. I know that there is a lot of talk about migrant workers in China and significance of this for the spread of Christianity.

  • Glenn Williams

    #dmingml I think more than merely recognizing that God is doing something incredibly transformational and significant with people groups outside of the North America, is understanding why in the West we find this hard to believe? There is an arrogance here that would seem to question God’s wisdom if He wants to do something with somebody else rather than us. Incredible really: Ultimately in the West many of us reject God’s sovereignty, but then struggle to understand why he would exercise that somewhere else.

  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,Great post, The Church that Tiffany and I came from in Alabama had a Hispanic service, this service usually ran 100 people and met on Sundays at 3:30. They would sing and preach the word in Spanish and saw great growth. The on thing that always stood out was how they were a community. Being foreigners and living in the U.S. brought with it both blessings and challenges. During the week they met each others needs, shared information and resources, and always had a grateful spirit. Maybe this is the beginning of what Jehu writes about? #dmingml

  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – as illuminating as always. The response of the western church to the demise of Christendom, and the rise of the church in the non-west and the migration of millions of people from the non west to the west is an interesting convergence of many non religious social/technological/economic dynamics [though one would be naive to think religion hasn’t and doesn’t influence and shape these dynamics]…and as these dynamics shape and influence non western cultures differently…so they will differently shape and influence the various western cultures [I don’t think of them as being monolithic]…including the churches [in various regions]…and how they respond to 1) their decline, 2) the rise of Christian churches in the non-west, and, 3) the arrival of Christians [or Muslims] into their midst [eg. Europe vs. USA vs. Canada]…there will be similarities…but also differences…just as ‘one size does not fit all’ concerning the non western church so the same for the western church and its response to that great work of the Spirit in the non west that Hanciles et al. speak of. #dmingml