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A changing face of Christianity

[from ]

Subject: A changing face of Christianity
   By Kennet L. Woodward  Newsweek, April 16, 2001
   April 16 issue -  It is Sunday morning in Agbor, a remote village
   in southwest Nigeria, where chickens peck at rutted roads and
   bicycles outnumber cars. All morning long women in brightly
   colored dresses, wide-eyed children holding hands, men in white
   Sunday shirts and dark pants stream toward the churches.
   THERE ARE MORE than 20 of them within a square kilometer. Some
   are clearly Roman Catholic, Anglican and evangelical
   Protestant-the fruit of Western missionaries. But most are of
   purely African origin like the Celestial Church of Christ,
   Miracle Apostolic Church and The Winners Chapel. And so it goes
   all across the African subcontinent, where Christianity is a 24/7
   experience. On decaying asphalt highways the backs of trucks and
   buses proclaim Christian slogans: IN HIS NAME, ABIDE WITH ME, and
   GOD IS GOOD. Inside urban malls, the lilting pop music carries an
   upbeat Christian message in Ibo, Twi or Swahili. Even the signs
   above storefronts bear public witness: THY WILL BE DONE HAIR
          This is the heart of contemporary Africa. And south of the
   Sahara, at least, that heart is proudly Christian. Pope John Paul
   II has visited Africa 10 times-more than any continent outside
   Europe-and for good reason. Here among the Ashanti and Baganda
   and the thousand other tribes who occupy the world's second
   largest continent, Christianity is spreading faster than at any
   time or place in the last 2,000 years. Among the most prominent
   African Christians is an Ibo from Nigeria, Cardinal Francis
   Arinze, a Vatican official now regarded as a prime candidate to
   become the first black pope.
   In 1900, the beginning of what American Protestants christened as
   "the Christian Century," 80 percent of Christians were either
   Europeans or North Americans. Today 60 percent are citizens of
   the "Two-Thirds World"-Africa, Asia and Latin America. "The
   center of Christianity has shifted southward," says Andrew Walls,
   an expert in the history of Christian missions, at the University
   of Edinburgh, Scotland. "The events that are shaping 21st-century
   Christianity are taking place in Africa and Asia." Europe itself
   is now a post-Christian society where religion is essentially an
   identity tag. In Scotland less than 10 percent of Christians
   regularly go to church, but in the Philippines the figure is
   nearly 70 percent. In Nigeria alone there are seven times as many
   Anglicans as there are Episcopalians in the entire United States.
   The Republic of Korea now has nearly four times as many
   Presbyterians as America.
          Not only is the flood tide of non-Western Christians
   altering the map of world Christianity, it is also reversing the
   flow of influence within the Catholic and Protestant worlds. A
   month ago the presiding bishops of the worldwide Anglican
   Communion met in North Carolina amid a rift between the liberal
   churches of the West and the eruption of more conservative
   churches in Africa and Asia. On Feb. 21, the pope expanded the
   College of Cardinals to a record 184; of the 135 eligible to
   elect the next pope, 41 percent are from non-Western nations. And
   as Christianity becomes a truly global religion, theologians from
   India and other parts of Asia are developing new and often
   controversial interpretations of the faith based on their
   contacts with Hindu and Buddhist traditions.
           The emergence of non-Western Christianity has many
   converging causes. In Latin America, the faith that arrived with
   the conquistadors in the 16th century is now expanding in part
   because the population is exploding. In India, the growth is
   mainly among the outcasts, who find in Christianity hope and
   dignity denied them by the rigid caste system. In China,
   Christianity answers problems of meaning that Marxism fails to
   address. But wherever it spreads, Christianity is also seen as
   the religion of the successful West-a spiritual way of life that
   is compatible with higher education, technology and
   globalization. American missionaries have never been more active
   in the developing world, providing health and education for the
   poor and-through television-reaching into the most humble homes
   with messages of miracles and salvation.
   As a result, for the first time in its history, Christianity has
   become a religion mainly of the poor, the marginalized, the
   powerless and-in parts of Asia and the Middle East-the oppressed.
   Its face has also changed. "Christianity is no longer a white
   man's religion," says Larry Eskridge of the Institute for the
   Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois.
   "It's been claimed by others."
          Christians in the West are already experiencing the
   effects of this massive demographic shift. Countries that were
   once considered Christian homelands have become the mission
   territories of the new millennium. Evangelists from Latin America
   and Africa now hold crusades in cities like London and Berlin.
   The effects on Catholicism are especially pronounced. One in six
   priests serving in American Catholic parishes is now imported
   from abroad, and among native-born Catholic seminarians a
   disproportionate number are of Asian background. In Rome,
   seminarians from former mission countries are now as numerous as
   those from Europe and North America. The United States used to be
   the Jesuits' primary source of new recruits. Today India is the
   largest supplier.
           But to millions of Christians in Africa and Asia words
   like "Protestant" and "Catholic" inspire little or no sense of
   identification. According to David B. Barrett, coauthor of the
   World Christian Encyclopedia, there are now 33,800 different
   Christian denominations. "And the fastest-growing are the
   independents, who have no ties whatsoever to historic
   Christianity," he says. In Africa alone, the collapse of European
   colonialism half a century ago saw the wild proliferation of
   indigenous Christian cults inspired by personal prophecies and
   visions. Throughout Nigeria, there are thousands of "white
   garment" congregations like those of the Celestial Church of
   Christ-a name that founder Samuel Bibewu Oshoffa saw written in
   the sky in 1947. In the vision, God told Oshoffa what true
   believers should wear and why they should go barefoot during
   services-as Moses was commanded to do when he approached the
   burning bush.
           As in the past, today's new Christians tend to take from
   the Bible whatever fits their needs-and ignore whatever fails to
   resonate with their own native religious traditions. The Chinese
   have no tradition of personal sin-much less the concept of an
   inherited original sin-in their bedrock Confucian background. But
   they have a lively sense of "living ancestors" and the obligation
   to do them honor. On the Chinese New Year, says Catholic Bishop
   Chen Shih-kwang of Taichung, Taiwan, "we do mass, then we
   venerate the ancestors"-a notion that is totally foreign to
   Western Christianity. In India, where sin is identified with bad
   karma in this and previous lives, many converts interpret the
   cross to mean that Jesus' self-sacrifice removes their own karmic
   deficiencies, thus liberating their souls from future rebirths.
          In parts of Africa where urbanization has dissolved the
   old tribal morality, many new Christians have replaced it with
   the rigorous "purity code" governing personal behavior they find
   outlined in the Book of Leviticus. On the other hand, in
   officially Catholic Brazil, many Christians still appease the old
   tribal deities brought from Africa by slaves four centuries
   ago-albeit under different names. Thus in Bahia they may honor
   Saint George the dragon-slayer at mass in the morning and at
   night venerate the same patron of the hunt as the Afro
   spirit-deity Oxosi. "I don't think there has been a more dramatic
   moment of trying to define Christ since the fourth century, when
   the Council of Nicaea was convened to decide what was orthodox
   and what was not," says Martin Palmer, director of the
   International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture, in
   Manchester, England.
           From the very beginning Christianity has been a migratory
   religion, seeking to plant the Gospel at the center of whatever
   foreign culture its missionaries could penetrate. In the process,
   the Gospel has not only been transplanted but also repeatedly
   reinterpreted. But in its developed forms (especially the Roman
   Catholic), Western Christianity has also emphasized the
   importance of maintaining doctrinal orthodoxy. Now that
   Christianity is becoming a truly global religion, the problem is
   how to decide which elements of Western thought and culture are
   essential to the faith.
                                                           Just last
   fall, the Vatican published a highly controversial document aimed
   at curbing what the pope considers compromising attitudes among
   some Asian bishops and theologians toward other world religions.
   In "Dominus Iesus" the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
   reiterated the uniqueness of the Catholic Church as the
   privileged path to salvation. But the main concern of the
   9,000-word document was the Vatican's fear of syncretism-mixing
   religions-among Catholic missionaries influenced by Asian
   spirituality. All religions are not equal, the Congregation
   insisted: "Catholics must be committed to announcing the
   necessity of conversion to Jesus Christ."
           "Dominus Iesus" was immediately criticized-even in
   Rome-by mission scholars who have labored long to find a way of
   presenting Christ in terms that Hindus and Buddhists can
   understand. "The church cannot disregard the Spirit of God
   working in other people, in all cultures and religions," insisted
   Father George Karakunnel of the Pontifical University in Aluva,
          Rather than demand that Indian converts accept Jesus as
   Westerners conceive of him, some missionaries today offer a
   Christ who is congruent with native spiritual traditions. Thus,
   in many Indian churches, as well as various Christian ashrams,
   priests have adopted the dress and rituals of the Hindu majority.
   The mass may begin with "Om," the sacred sound of the Vedas, and
   at communion the priest sometimes distributes traditional Hindu
   prasad (consecrated fruits and sweetmeats) along with the
   Eucharistic bread. But the identification of Christianity with
   Indian traditions often goes beyond externals. At the Jeevan
   Dhara Ashram in the Hindu holy city of Rishikesh, Vandana Mataji,
   a Catholic nun, sings bhajans (devotional songs) in praise of
   Jesus and of Krishna four times a day, eats strictly vegetarian
   and meditates in silence with retreatants. "Christians do not
   have a monopoly on Christ," Vandana Mataji teaches. "Nor is their
   knowledge of him exhaustive of his full reality."
           For most Asians, however, what makes Jesus attractive is
   his identification with the poor and the suffering. "If you're an
   untouchable in India, meeting this Jesus for the first time is
   powerful stuff," says former Protestant missionary Scott
   Sunquist, of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. But more important,
   says Father Karakunnel, Asian Christians themselves must witness
   to Christ through "the liberation of the impoverished and
   downtrodden." That, in fact, was precisely what the late Mother
   Teresa of Calcutta did-let Christ speak through her own works of
   mercy instead of proselytizing others.
           What many U.S. Christians fail to realize is that when
   Asians convert to Christ it requires enormous courage. Converts
   typically are ostracized by family and neighbors-and often
   targeted for persecution. Over the last six months, Chinese
   communists have demolished some 1,500 houses of worship-most of
   them Christian-whose members refused to accept direction from the
   state. In officially secular India, scores of Christians have
   been murdered and their churches trashed since the rise of
   militant Hindu groups. On Christmas Eve, churches in nine
   Indonesian cities were bombed, killing at least 18 believers and
   wounding about 100 more. An additional 90 Christians were
   murdered for refusing to convert to Islam, and some 600 more are
   still being forcibly detained on the island of Kasiui.
          If any continent holds the future of Christianity, many
   mission experts believe, it is Africa. There they see history
   doing a second act: just as Europe's northern tribes turned to
   the church after the decay of the Roman Empire, so Africans are
   embracing Christianity in face of the massive political, social
   and economic chaos. Plagued by corrupt regimes, crushing poverty,
   pandemic AIDS and genocidal wars-as in Rwanda and Sudan-Africans
   find the church is the one place they can go to for healing, hope
   and material assistance from more fortunate Christians in the
           But there are cultural factors operating, too. Africans
   have always recognized a spiritual world within the empirical,
   and there is much in tribal religions that makes adaptation to
   Christianity easy. But the traditional African world view also
   includes witches and spirits of every kind-especially those of
   the tribal ancestors. All these presences have power to work good
   or evil on the living, and so must be placated or warded off
   through fetishes. Even today, says Buti Tlthagale, Catholic
   archbishop of Bloemfontein, South Africa, "African Christians are
   closer to their cultural roots than they are to Christianity. If
   there is a death in the family, even priests and nuns will cut
   their hair and wash their faces in the bile of an animal
   slaughtered for that purpose. What this says to me is that we are
   still living in both worlds."
           But many African theologians insist their tribal heritage
   is part of a Biblical tradition. They say there were black
   Africans among Jesus' disciples at Pentecost, when the church was
   founded, and that they carried Christianity to Africa long before
   it arrived in Northern Europe. "The problem," says Catholic
   Archbishop Peter Sarpong of Kumasi, Ghana, "is not how to
   Christianize Africa"-the old missionary approach-"but how to
   Africanize Christianity."
          In fact, much of what Western missionaries once opposed as
   tribal witchcraft and idol worship more tolerant churchmen now
   regard as the spadework of the Holy Spirit-a tilling of the soil
   for the planting of an authentically African church. The idea
   isn't new: some early fathers of the Western church saw "pagan"
   Greek philosophy as divine preparation for the truths of
   Christian revelation. In the same way, many African theologians
   insist that the old tribal religions are more Christian because
   they are less skeptical of the supernatural than the
   post-Enlightenment Christianity of the modern West. "Africans are
   much closer to the world of Jesus" than are Western Christians,
   argues Protestant theologian Kwame Bediako of Ghana. What is
   really happening in Africa today, he believes, is "the renewal of
   a non-Western religion."
           Yet from the evidence of what actually goes on in local
   churches, something very different is taking place. When Africans
   read the Bible or hear it preached, they see that Jesus was a
   healer and an exorcist, and controlling evil spirits has always
   been a primary function of tribal shamans. As a result, the most
   powerful and pervasive form of African Christianity today is
   Pentecostal faith healing-imported directly from the West. Last
   November, for example, nearly 6 million Nigerians jammed a park
   in Lagos to experience the miraculous healings of Reinhard
   Bonnke, a Florida-based evangelist. Those are numbers even Billy
   Graham might envy. Every night in cities like Accra, Ghana,
   thousands of Africans seek out evening Pentecostal "prayer
   camps." Most are women who can't find husbands or wives suffering
   from infertility, but others come because they've found no job.
   The diagnosis in every case is past association with tribal
   witchcraft. One by one, victims are sent rolling and moaning on
   the floor as freelance Pentecostal preachers "deliver" them from
   evil spirits in the name of Jesus.
           Even the Catholic Church-still the largest body of
   Christians in black Africa-now provides healing services that are
   indistinguishable from the Pentecostal. It's a defensive measure:
   "These churches are getting most of their members from us," says
   Archbishop John Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria, the young leader of
   Nigeria's Catholic Church.
          Africans also embrace Pentecostalism because-again like
   tribal religions-it promises material abundance in this life. The
   best-attended churches are supported by relatively well-off,
   educated Africans who do not want to lose their precarious
   prosperity. "In the U.S., people can get a mortgage to buy a
   car," says Michael Okonkwo, founder and self-appointed bishop of
   the Redeemed Evangelical Mission in Lagos. "But in Africa, if I
   want a car, I have to pray to God to give me the money to pay
           Indeed, throughout sub-Saharan Africa the Christian
   ministry is now regarded as the fastest career path to upward
   mobility. Catholic priests are better educated-and better
   recompensed-than other members of their families. Moreover, since
   anyone can claim anointing by the Holy Spirit, anyone with a
   charismatic personality can start a200 new churches are launched
   each month-many of them with literature and instructions provided
   by evangelical organizations in the West. "Christian missions are
   perhaps the biggest industry in Africa," says British scholar
   Paul Gifford, who is currently teaching at a new Pentecostal
   university in Ghana. And given the political and economic chaos
   of most African countries, they are often the best conduits of
   Western influence and financial investment.
          Although Christianity's future may lie outside the West,
   Western influence is still decisive wherever the Gospel is
   preached. In religion, as in other international affairs,
   globalization means that superpowers remain dominant. For the
   world's poor, Christianity often appeals just because it is seen
   as the religion of the most successful superpower, the United
   States. Nonetheless, as the world's most missionary religion,
   Christianity has a history of renewing itself, even in the most
   culturally inhospitable places. That is the hope that hides
   behind the changing face of the church.

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