In his book, Theology in the Context of World Christianity, Timothy Tennent makes a profound claim. He says the contemporary church is currently living at a “seam of history.” These seams have occurred at various moments in the history of the church, and right now we are experiencing another one.
I think he is right.
Not too long ago, we witnessed an election that points out the cultural upheaval occurring around us. Issues of competing worldviews and values all point to the realities of this truth: This country is more diverse than ever and it is being stretched in this moment in time. My concern in this article though is the changing face of the North American church. Like our country, the church in the US is shifting because global Christianity is shifting.
I have written before about the fact that missions is changing, and that is just one piece of evidence concerning this seam. Tennent says it this way:
What started as a band of Jews living in Palestine eventually became the Roman religion. That transition did not stop. It shifted from Rome to Istanbul and then on to Western Europe and then the United States. If we are honest, most of us American Christians just think of our country as the home of Christianity. That, however, is not the case. Each time we hit one of these seams of history, the cultural center, the gravity of the religion, shifted and moved. Today, it is shifting again.
In other words, throughout history, the spread of Christianity has moved its mission field, and it has moved its heartbeat. This is not true of so many other religions. While religions spread, most maintain a geographic and cultural center. This is not so in Christianity. While our faith may have a historic geography (the land of the Scriptures and the places in our stories), it is not anchored to a home culture. Christianity is inherently translatable. For the first time in a thousand years, that center is moving east and not west.
This seam in history exposes to us North American Christians that we are no longer the majority in our religion. Let that sink it. White or African American, US Christians are now the exception not the norm when you take all of Christianity in the world. There are more Chinese, Spanish, Swahili, and Farsi-speaking Christians now than there are us “regular” ones. Now, the question is, why does that matter?
1. This should be a point of rejoicing for the American church.
Unfortunately, for many it is not. I have had more than one American Christian, usually white, get upset when I told them that we are no longer the strongest “Christian nation,” (whatever that means). If that is your view, you are missing the big picture here. Any American Christian who gets upset that there are now more Christians around the world than there are here may be more concerned about American exceptionalism than the spread of the gospel.
Fact is, the explosion of Christianity around the world demonstrates that God is doing what he said he would and using the church to make disciples of all nations. Yesterday, I had a former pastor from Iran in my office. He was once a Muslim and was telling me of his gratitude for the obedience of Western missionaries who came and told him the gospel. He was put in jail for that same gospel in Iran and now lives here in the US trying to reach Persians with that gospel. That is cause to celebrate.
2. Look out for the rise of international congregations in your community.
There are two significant factors going on right now that are worth noting concerning the state of the church in North America. First is this explosion of Christianity around the world. Second is the explosion of people migration around the world. The United States is far and away the largest receiving country in the world when it comes to immigration. I talk a lot about the unreached peoples that are coming here and our need to proclaim the gospel to them. Hear this though: there are more Christians coming than non-Christians. International congregations are cropping up all over North America right now to hold the swelling numbers of Southeast Asian, Central American, and African immigrants to our country. These congregations are being planted in a city near you. The face of American Christianity is changing, and that is not a bad thing.
3. We have much to learn from these other believers.
I wrote on this recently, but we have a gospel-centered responsibility to love these new congregations. Has your church ever checked to see if there were international churches cropping up in your community? Have you reached out to them, to welcome them, to partner with them? You should. Inevitably, these churches will challenge so much of our cultural understanding of Christianity.
They may ask why we worship the way we do. They may question why we do not leave room for the Holy Spirit in our worship, and they may wonder why our members do not have real community. They may ask us where our dependence on God is and why we trust so much in our own ability to support ourselves. These are good, legitimate questions for us to grapple with and lessons we need to hear.
Keelan Cook serves as Senior Church Consultant for Union Baptist Association and Instructor of North American Missiology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. His primary areas of ministry focus include urban missiology, church planting, church revitalization, and unreached people groups.