By Gavin Bissessar
As recently as 1950, roughly 85% of Christians lived in Western Europe and North America (the West) whilst the massive ‘global south’ remained largely unreached by the gospel. Fast forward to 2021 and those figures have nearly reversed. The church is growing rapidly in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia (including China) whilst in the West, Christianity is seemingly in rapid decline and secularism is on the rise. One question that summed up this reality for Newground was asked a few years ago by David Holden, has God forgotten Europe?
A cursory glance at the mainstream media suggests this question isn’t out of place. A recent BBC News article described the ‘established church’ in the UK as in “precipitous decline,” it further predicted the disappearance of Anglicanism itself by the mid 2030’s.
Even in those parts of the Western world where churches are growing, for example in London; most of the increase in attendance is as a result of immigration (both first and second-generation immigrants) from the ‘global south.’ In fact, in London, 13% of the general population is of African and Caribbean heritage yet 60% of church attendance on a Sunday is from that group! Whilst the stats may not be as stark in other cities across the UK and Europe, it’s a simple fact that immigration is fuelling church growth. I remember visiting a church in Rome some years ago that was full of African brothers and sisters worshipping together – though sadly there was not a single white Italian insight. I was shocked but not surprised. Where were all the Italians? Why is the church in Europe heading in a different direction? And more importantly, why was the ‘African church’ that I saw in Rome not able to connect with European Christians in the same city?
To be honest, the picture above isn’t too dissimilar in the UK and in the US it’s even more pronounced. President Obama once referred to Sunday morning as being the most segregated hour in American life and we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought it was much better in the UK and Europe. Why do we still, largely worship in segregated communities? Why are some of our churches more segregated than our local schools and offices? There are many answers, some obvious, some less so but perhaps that’s a discussion for another day.
There are diverse churches that buck the trend described above and are making an intentional effort to learn from and engage with people and issues that affect minority communities. I’ve had the privilege of witnessing this first hand here at Crown Church, We’ve worked hard on issues of race and diversity, visibly engaging on challenges such as leadership representation, how we do sung worship and undertaking social action to name a few. We’re a non-white majority now, something I wouldn’t have imagined just a few years ago and the arrival of so many from other nations has no doubt enriched us greatly. But there’s still a long, long way to go when it comes to us ‘doing’ diversity and dealing with issues of race as well as we’d like.
The face of Christianity in the West is changing, it looks a lot different than it did 10 years ago. We can’t ignore it. It should inform our conversations on what it means for us as a church to be something that is of, from and to the nations including the nations on our doorsteps.
The body of Christ is one body, not several – there isn’t a separate African, Asian, Latin American or European body; and with the body of Christ, we need each other. Ephesians 4:16 shows clearly that the life and health of the body depends on the exchange of the members of the body so this means that what God is doing in His church in Africa (or among African majority churches in the West), isn’t just for the Africans, it’s for the rest of the body and that means it’s for Europeans and Asians and others, too! We all have something to give and to receive, we can learn from each other, this is what makes the body function well.
“A guest comes with a sharp pen-knife” Malawian proverb
We need the perspectives of outsiders to help us process the present. We cannot always see the flaws in our own cultures and worldviews but sometimes the insight and help of a stranger can help us see our blind spots. But first, we need humility to welcome, accept, give space to and affirm outsiders who may have much to offer in terms of our helping shape our faith and it’s outworking. If the church is in decline in the West yet in Africa, Asia and Latin America (and among those communities in major Western cities) it’s growing rapidly, maybe Western churches can learn something?
“The subject of multicultural Christianity is new to most of us. Our theologies, missiologies, and ecclesiologies are yet to catch up with the reality of the culturally diverse world that surrounds us.” Dr Harvey Kwiyani
I put the very concept of listening and learning into practice when I recently joined one of our former elders, Andy McCullough to interview Dr Harvey Kwiyani of Liverpool Hope University. Harvey is a theologian and lecturer in African Christianity and Theology from Malawi and has also church planted in Europe and the US. We had a fascinating discussion about the issues in this blog and Harvey spoke alongside Andy, David Devenish and a whole host of others at the Unreached UK conference which was held online last month, do check out the interview here as well as the Unreached website here, which contains links to the talks from that weekend.
As many believers from the ‘global south’ make a home in the West, they may need to adjust to different expressions of Christianity than the ones they might have been familiar with ‘back home;’ however, there is much we can learn from each other. A starting point for this should be the church in the UK and Europe better realising its call and potential to cross-cultural barriers of various types – race, colour, language, age, social class. It’s not only in far-flung places that God is taking the Gospel into places it has never been before, but right here on our doorstep, and praise God that our churches in the UK and Europe can be a full part of this.
Originally posted on the Crown Church Blog