Can the Churches Be Saved?

“PEOPLE in Britain still believe in God but don’t want to make the commitment to Christ,” says Stephen Tirwomwe, a Ugandan clergyman. Some 20 years ago, he survived the violent purges of his church in Uganda. Today, he preaches in men’s clubs in Leeds, England, making his ten-minute speech before bingo steals his audience.

Across the Atlantic, the recently organized Anglican Mission in America struggles with a similar spiritual crisis. “The United States is now home to the largest population of un-churched and spiritually disconnected English-speaking people in the world,” says the mission’s official Web site. “We are becoming the mission field.” Frustrated with failed efforts to change their church from within, the new mission broke with tradition and joined Asian and African leaders to begin “a missionary outreach to the United States.”

Why, though, are African, Asian, and Latin-American missionaries ‘saving souls’ in the professedly Christian lands of Europe and North America?

Who Is Saving Whom?

For more than four hundred years, a steady stream of devout European missionaries closely followed the advancing flood of colonial expansion into Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and South America. They set out to bring their religion to the so-called heathens in those lands. In time, the American colonies, supposedly founded on Christian principles, joined and then eventually outpaced their European counterparts in establishing their own evangelical missions throughout the world. Now the tide has turned.

 “The center [of nominal Christianity] has changed,” says Andrew Walls, founder-director of the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World. In 1900, 80 percent of those who claimed to be Christians were either Europeans or North Americans. However, today 60 percent of all professed Christians live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. A recent press report states: “Catholic churches in Europe rely on priests from the Philippines and India,” and “one in six priests serving in American Catholic parishes is now imported from abroad.” African evangelicals in the Netherlands, largely of Ghanaian origin, see themselves as “a missionary church in a secular continent.” And evangelists from Brazil now hold crusades in various parts of Britain. One writer observes: “Christian missionary traffic has gone into reverse gear.”

A Gathering Storm

Missionaries may well be needed on the increasingly secularized European and North American continents. “In Scotland less than 10 percent of Christians regularly go to church,” notes one newsmagazine. Even fewer in France and Germany do. When surveyed, “about 40 percent of Americans and 20 percent of Canadians say they go to church regularly,” notes another press report. In contrast, attendance in the Philippines is said to be nearly 70 percent, and it is similar in other developing lands.

Even more significant, churchgoers in the Southern Hemisphere tend to be much more traditional than those in the Northern Hemisphere. For example, when Catholics in the United States and Europe are polled, they consistently express a growing distrust of clerical authority and argue for greater lay participation and equality for women. Catholics in the Southern Hemisphere, on the other hand, overwhelmingly embrace the church’s traditional stand on these issues. As the demographic shift in the church continues southward, the basis for future confrontation is already being laid. Philip Jenkins, a scholar of history and religion, predicts: “It’s very likely that in a decade or two neither component of global Christianity will recognize its counterpart as fully or authentically Christian.”

In view of these trends, Walls says that an urgent question is “how African, Asian, Latin American, North American and European Christians can live together in the same church, authentically expressing the same faith.” What do you think? Can the churches survive in a divided world? What is the basis for true Christian unity? The following article will present the Scriptural answers, along with clear evidence that a united Christian community is already flourishing worldwide.

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This former church is now a music café

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AP Photo/Nancy Palmieri