Some of us Christians in the West are claiming grave concerns about religious liberty and/or the decline of Western society. And we Christians are clearly losing the influence we once had. A lot of Christian commentary and ‘cultural analysis’ is coloured with these anxieties. What’s the world coming to? Are we on our way out?
A global perspective gives us another angle on the situation.
At the beginning of From Times Square to Timbuktu, Granberg-Michaelson explains that historically, Christianity has always gone beyond the bounds of geopolitical constraints. For example, the very point at which a politically-bound Christianity was crumbling, a more organic expression was taking shape:
Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, [was] the political and spiritual center of the Byzantine Empire until its fall to armies of the Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 — just two years before the Gutenberg Bible displayed in the Library of Congress was printed. So while the fall of Constantinople was a devastating geopolitical blow to Christendom, Christianity continued to move, adapt, reform, and even flourish during the next century in ways that could never have been imagined. (196)
This ability to adapt is not just a historical feature, says Granberg-Michaelson, but something inherent to our faith:
The astonishing ability of Christian faith to embed its truth in the life of widely diverse and endlessly changing cultures is the key to its growth, durability, and vitality through time and across geographical space. Christianity rests on the conviction that God became flesh and blood in Jesus. This incarnational foundation projects Christianity into an ongoing pilgrimage, constantly asking how it finds expression and vital witness in the world’s changing history and cultures. (171)
In reality, the Western churches are not coming apart quite like Constantinople, but there is certainly some natural displacement going on. Granberg-Michaelson sketches the two momentous shifts that have been taking place over the last century, (1) the explosive growth of non-Western churches and (2) the massive decline of Western churches. (See the book for the facts and figures.)
So while we Western Christians have to some extent recognised our decline, there’s something else we must face up to: we are going to have to make room for other Christians. We might be a minority in our societies — a large, powerful and noisy minority — but we are also a minority within our own faith, globally speaking.
It’s as if, in order to make room for all the new people in the house, we’ve been moved out of our spacious en-suite bedroom and into the loft. The view is good up here, but it might feel a bit pokey.
The good news is that, whatever the extent of decline and opposition being faced by Western expressions of Christianity, we can be quite certain that the lifeblood of our faith is not confined to these expressions — and may be more easily found elsewhere.
However, while the explosive new diversity is exciting, Granberg-Michaelson warns that harmony is not an automatic outcome:
The future course of Christianity’s ongoing pilgrimage, then, is not only marked by the excitement of the Spirit’s new and creative possibilities. Like any pilgrimage, it can also lead down paths of potential conflict, danger, and division. That is why it is so important to journey together with one another as we embrace a future yet to be fully revealed, but to be discovered through our commitment to be united with one another, as one body. (328)
Western Christians are used to being the elders. A lot of the thinking, denominations and networks that we’ve created do not reflect the new global makeup of the church. We’re not in the habit of sharing ‘our’ space. This may be even harder if we’re already feeling on edge.
In light of this, the challenge before us is not self-preservation, but enlarging our sense of self.
Note: All page numbers are Kindle locations
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.