(ABP) — Sounds of laughter, tambourines and native instruments reverberate through a tiny apartment as a small group of Christians gathers for fervent worship. Despite oppression under Islam and the Soviet system, these Central Asian Christians dance and sing with joy with the freedom they have found in Christ.
Their relationship with Christ is more important to them than their own lives. The gospel is not just a story to study, but is their daily connection to hope and the message to share with their community.
This is contemporary Christianity.
During the last few years, Christian scholars, such as Philip Jenkins, author and professor of religion at Pennsylvania State University, have noted the center of global Christianity has shifted to the Southern Hemisphere and other developing nations that missiologists often refer to as the “Global South.” The center has left the United States and Europe and headed to Latin America, Africa and Asia, where churches have seen unprecedented growth despite persecution and opposition.
The number of Christians in North America is smaller than the number of believers in Africa, Latin America and Asia. By 2050, China, Brazil, India, Mexico, Nigeria, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Uganda will dominate the list of the 10 nations with the largest Christian populations, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity.
World events outside the United States and Western Europe have served as catalysts for the shift, said a mission worker in Central Asia, whose name cannot be published for security reasons. After years of oppression and poverty, people are finding freedom and hope through a relationship with Christ.
“When you look over the past 100 years, one of the most deadly ideologies that killed more people during the 20th century was communism,” the worker said. “Yet, today in places where communism existed, we have seen some of the greatest advance of the gospel over the past 15 years.
“Today, radical Islam is having a similar effect in certain locations in the Muslim world. People have grown weary of living under the oppression of Islamic fundamentalism and are starting to turn to Jesus in places that we can’t even report right now.”
Billy Kim, former pastor of the 20,000-member Suwon Central Baptist Church in Suwon, South Korea, said people feel like they have to rely on God in areas with widespread poverty and persecution.
“As you go to affluent Europe, the United States and Australia, churches seem to decline,” Kim, who served as president of the Baptist World Alliance, said. “But when there are problems of war, tragedy and poverty, like in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church is growing and people are looking for hope.”
Now that Christianity has penetrated these societies, Christians are taking the gospel into the community, meeting people where they live instead of expecting them to come to a church building to experience a programmatic approach to religion.
Stan Parks, strategic catalyzer for Southeast Asia with the Global Connection Partnership Network, said that South Korea is now the second-largest missionary-sending country in the world. India, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines and China launch the next-largest missionary efforts, even sending missionaries to the United States.
Christians who “come out of these areas have an enthusiasm, vitality, confidence and joy because they know why they are here, where they are headed and they know the message they have to share,” said David Coffey, the current BWA president.
With the influx of missionaries to the United States and Europe, church leaders are re-evaluating where the Western church stands. As stories of dramatic church growth in developing nations appear more frequently, the decline of Western Christianity becomes more evident.
Scholars cite many reasons why the West has shifted from the Christian center, and all agree new approaches must be taken for the West to turn around.
Rob Sellers, the Connally professor of missions at Hardin-Simmons University, a Texas Baptist school, attributed much of Christianity's decline in the West to growing secularism. However, he added, it is "more complicated than simply a matter of a 'secular-versus-sacred' bent in society.” He pointed to postmodernism — with its rejection of absolute answers and its receptivity to spirituality — as an overarching cultural phenomenon.
“Postmodernity as a cultural phenomenon in the West has influenced the way that people perceive and accept systems of thought — be they religious, political or otherwise — that claim to have the ‘definitive answer’ to the problem,” Sellers said.
“A lot of people in the West are much more likely to validate different religious, political or social ideas than our parents — and certainly our grandparents — were apt to do. [They] are disenchanted with the established church. They perceive the church to be rigid, legalistic, formal, out of touch, superficial and old-fashioned.”
Sellers called for Christians to engage in holistic ministries that seek to enhance and sustain life. "If Christian people and churches were to set up their commitment to addressing human needs around the world, I believe more 'secular' people in the West would take notice and be more likely to participate,” he said.
Amidst the evident decline in church attendance in the West, pastors and church planters are hopeful, believing change can come through the Holy Spirit’s leading and through prayer.
If change happens, it will have to come through non-Western ways, some insist.
“We’ll keep doing what we are doing until we run out of money, but it will slow down,” said Bob Roberts, church planter and pastor of Northwood Church in Keller, Texas. “We will then get desperate enough to try something different and learn from those outside of the U.S.”
In the West, the church does not teach people to be self-feeding in their spiritual life, said Curtis Sergeant, a church-planting strategist with e3 Partners, a church-multiplication organization that equips, evangelizes and establishes connections with churches across the world.
Christians need to be praying, reading Scripture and involving themselves in church life so that they can practice all of the Bible’s “one-another” commands and use their spiritual gifts, he said.
The Western church has created disciples who are dependent, not capable of reproducing disciples themselves, Sergeant added.
“Church in essence is a movement of the Spirit,” said Bob Garrett, professor of missions at Dallas Baptist University.
“It’s a conversion of a mindset, a complete change. [Church growth] has little to do with institutions and buildings and programs. It’s happening by people going out and helping their neighbors with life problems and sharing Christ. It is a contagious element that people catch.”
For growth to happen, Coffey said, Western churches must be more urgent and intentional in their approach to evangelism and be led by missionary-hearted leaders in order to recover their zeal.
“While there are stirring examples around the world of those who are engaging creatively in mission and evangelism, I am discovering that many Baptists are unsure about how to preach the good news to the poor of our day,” Coffey said.
“The changing cultures alarm them, and many have lost their confidence to communicate the gospel. My conviction is that whenever there are changes in cultures, this constitutes a fresh call from the missionary God. We need to realize that a Christian mission has never evangelized a culture by avoiding it. Perhaps the starting point is a greater dependence on the strategic guidance of the Holy Spirit, who is able to lead us into places we may fear to go.”
The West has a giant task ahead, but Coffey added, “Don’t write the West off just yet.”
“Christianity does not seem to plant churches that last forever,” he said, explaining that churches experience a cycle of death and birth.
“While the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, the local and cultural expression of the community of Christ has no divine right to survival.”