The Changing Questions

The Changing Questions

Missiologist Dr. Darrell Whiteman, in a lecture to the Accra Missionary Community[1], said “The center of Christianity is shifting to the Global South[2].” Whiteman quotes data from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Center for the Study of Global Christianity.  The Center concludes:

Over the past 100 years, Christianity has experienced a profound southern shift in its geographical center of gravity. Whereas in 1900 over 80% of all Christians lived in Europe and Northern America, by 2005 this proportion had fallen to under 40%, and will likely fall below 30% before 2050.[3]

According to Whiteman, over that same period Christianity in Africa grew from 9% (or 8.7 million) in 1900 to 48.9% (350 million) in 2006.  Latin America, India and China (since 1951) experienced similar explosive growth.  Overall, Christianity, as a percentage of the population, has remained almost constant,  33.4% in 1900 and currently 33.3% in 2006. Even though Christianity has declined in Europe and North American, it is growing in the Global South.  But Whiteman also warned that “if this explosive growth is not disciplined, we’ll have a very weak church. Without discipleship, the church will fall into nominalism and mediocrity.”  He adds  “decisions for Christ are easy; disciples for Christ are more difficult.”[4]

As the center of Christianity shifts, the questions that guide its witness are also changing.  The answer remains the same, Christ, but who is asking it, the context in which it is being asked, and the implied need within the questions are all changing.  Missionary John Taylor observed in 1963 that “Christ has been presented as the answer to questions a white man would ask, the solution to the needs that western man would feel”[5].   With this new center of Christianity, there will be different questions, ones that are not framed out of a Western mindset, pointing toward solutions, a developed world would expect.

It is not only the questions that are changing, but context they are being asked is from.  Globalization is changing the context.  For example, in Ghana our second year, we hired a driver; Eric is his English name.  Eric has the equivalent as of a 9th grade Ghanaian education. He finished Junior Secondary School, but did not continue in Senior Secondary School.  Ana, one of the Fulbright Student Scholars who stayed with us left Eric her laptop, when she returned to the states. My son, Fox who stayed in Ghana to graduate high school, taught him the basics.  I had taken Eric to an internet café and introduced him to the world of the internet, and now with his own laptop, and WiFi access, we correspond weekly on Facebook.  Globalization.

The needs that drive these new questions are also changing, influenced by a Global South worldview, along with the other world religions that enter into that conversation.  In our part of Africa, Muslims coexisted well with Christians, in fact when we had student gatherings at our house, it was not uncommon for students who were Muslim to pray for us, and do so in the name of Jesus.  Current thinking about how to reach Muslims[6] suggests not asking them choose between Christ and their cultural identity that came with their Muslim upbringing, but to offer Jesus Christ into the mix, and disciple them in his teaching, slowly incorporating all that He brings to a believers life.  It is indeed a beautiful thing to watch a—and I hesitate calling them a convert—but rather a new believer to continue to bow down and pray five time a day, and abstaining from food and water during the daylight hours of Ramadan, and do so in the name of Jesus.   Christ is still the answer, but the questions are changing, along with the context they are being asked from, and the needs behind them.

After two years away from the States, I notice that the questions here are changing too, influenced by an increasingly smaller world, one that the West does not control as it once did.  We think of Globalization as something that happens to them, there, but it is also changing us, here.  I suspect there has also been some cultural drift in the answer.  John Wesley is remembered for saying “Offer them Christ,” but I realize that the church I once led, was offering a lot more than Christ, and not all of it helpful.  Recall what Missionary John Taylor observed about the African Missionary Churches in 1963, that “Christ has been presented as the answer to questions a white man would ask.” I wonder if that applies to us in the American church, if we are seeking solutions that meet “the needs that western man would feel,” when what people need is to be offered Christ.  I wonder what would happen if our church mindset changed to be a missionary mindset  (or International Church mindset).  Because church like an extension of society, one that ultimately meets the needs of the society, regardless of people’s individual needs.   What perhaps almost burned me was not knowing that Society’s needs can never be met completely. People’s can, however, when you offer them Christ, and Christ alone.


[1] Whiteman, Dr. Darrell, Being and Doing Missions in a Post Colonial World, lecture  

[2] Global South meaning: Africa, Asia, India, South and Central America.

[3] Johnson, Todd  M, Christianity in Global Context: Trends and Statistics, webpage

[4] Whiteman, powerpoint from the lecture to Accra Missionaries

[5] Taylor, John V., The Primal Vision – Christian Presence in Buganda (London SCM Press).

[6] Decker, Frank, Sermon at Asbury Dunwell Church, Accra, Ghana. March 2008.  

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