It is interesting to reflect on this piece of writing approximately ten months after I wrote it. I later adapted this essay for the application to Princeton Theological Seminary, the school at which I am currently attending in pursuit of a Master of Divinity degree. I hope that by sharing it with others here that others may benefit from hearing my perspective on why I decided to come to seminary in case it may help them in their own walks in life.
In his article “Liberating Word,” Philip Jenkins describes how globally Christianity is facing dramatic change due to a variety of social, economic, and political forces. The long-standing view of the Christian world as mainly based in North America and Europe is being challenged by the tremendous growth of Christianity in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, the global South. Jenkins points out that Catholic, Evangelical, Pentecostal, and independent Protestant churches in the global South tend to be more conservative in comparison to northern Christian denominations, especially in terms of beliefs and moral teaching. Furthermore, many Christians in the global South tend to interpret the Bible more literally, as scripture often mirrors realities of subsistence life. To many of the poor and marginalized social classes in the global South, the Bible speaks directly about confrontation with established elites and offers hope of future prosperity. Given dramatically higher birth rates and the rapid growth of Christian churches in Africa, Asia, and Latin American, Jenkins asserts that the “center of gravity of the Christian world” is shifting away from mainline northern Christianity. In light of the highly interconnected nature of today’s world, he predicts that the global Christian community will likely see a greater level of interaction and conflict between the northern liberal denominations and the more conservative Christians of the global South.
According to Jenkins, the surge in the growth of conservative Christianity within the global South can be understood by considering a number of social factors. Over the course of the past few decades, a dramatic population shift has been occurring with large numbers of people moving from rural areas to cities. As the mass migration from rural areas to large cities in the global South continues, many Christian churches have adapted to the changes by offering an alternative source of community and fellowship to those who no longer live within close proximity of extended family networks. The growth of new denominations in urban areas has often challenged the long-standing association between the church and the state that has existed in the Third World. For example in Latin America, the close association of the Roman Catholic Church with the elite and the state has been gradually deteriorating, and this has opened space for new denominations to grow, such as the Pentecostal church. The growth of the Pentecostal church among the urban poor is evident by the fact that it accounts for 80 or 90 percent of the overall Protestant/Pentecostal growth in Latin America (Jenkins 63). The success that the Pentecostal church has had in drawing new believers derives significantly from the promise that God intervenes directly in the world and by the promise that members will gain “prosperity and financial breakthrough” (Jenkins 65). By appealing to the social needs of the new urban poor, new Christian denominations are able to build a strong network of believers.
The emphasis in the Bible on the value of the individual and on the importance of human rights offers an incredible source of hope and inspiration for individuals who are discriminated against by race, gender or social class. Many of the newly converted Christians in the global South are women and Christianity is especially appealing to those living in misogynistic traditional societies where women are often treated as objects and only valued for their ability to bear children. Jenkins asserts that the rapid growth of the Pentecostal church in the global South can be partially attributed to the fact that many of its converts in Latin America are women (Jenkins 75). Numerous biblical passages relating to suffering speak directly to Christian women in the global South where disease and famine often lead to the high mortality rates of children. Furthermore, the new expressions of Christianity within the global South place a greater emphasis on male responsibility and chastity, thereby strengthening the family and helping to improve the domestic lives of women. In many areas of the global South, Christians view the authority of the scripture as an important guide for a moral code of behavior and the Old Testament is often highly regarded as an inspired text. Jenkins stresses that perhaps one of the most distinctive aspects of Christianity in the global South is the fundamental belief in supernatural forces, which are revealed in sickness, poverty, and repression. The belief in Jesus as a powerful force to overcome evil is a predominant theme in many Christian churches of Latin America and Africa, and many biblical passages speak directly of the battle to defeat evil. These beliefs stand in contrast to the northern churches, which emphasize a faith in secular healing institutions over supernatural healing. In the global South, the appeal of charismatic strains of Christianity, such as Pentecostalism, becomes apparent, as they address critical social issues.
Jenkins points out that the vast majority of the population in the global South is very poor in comparison with the standards of living in North America and Europe. Poverty, disease, and starvation, which are the prevalent living conditions of so many people in Africa and Latin America, are often strikingly similar to those described in the Bible. Because it is so easy to identify with the harsh living conditions portrayed in scripture, Christians in the global South often tend to read biblical passages literally. Biblical stories about famine and hunger are highly relevant to those who daily face the lack of adequate food and water. Biblical passages, such as in the Book of Ruth, where the characters carry out faithfully their familial obligations, offer comfort to those living in poverty. The prevalent biblical theme of the transience of life also speaks directly to people living in poverty who are all too familiar with loss from starvation and disease. From a denominational perspective, some African independent and Pentecostal churches stress the supernatural elements of scripture, such as healings, direct prophecy, and miracles, which appeal to those suffering from economic hardship. From the African perspective, healing activities in churches continue to play a pivotal role by stressing the central Christian symbol of Christ overcoming demonic powers. Jenkins’s description of some of the economic contrasts between the North and the South clearly relate to the global problem of socioeconomic inequality, which is one of the most critical issues facing the world today.
According to Jenkins another defining characteristic of Christians in the global South is a growing widespread lack of faith in political and secular institutions. Too often dictators in the Third World have made hypocritical and empty promises to provide growth and improvements to those living in poverty, when in reality they corruptly spend exorbitant sums of money on their lavish life styles. Many Christians face cruel persecution by other religious groups, such as is currently happening with Coptic Christians in Egypt. Biblical passages, especially in the New Testament, frequently address the issue of deliverance from persecution, and these texts offer immense comfort to those facing this type of suffering. Churches in the global South have for many decades carried the message of reform and revolution to the disadvantaged and poor. From the perspective of Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church was often considered to be a tool of the state and the elite to maintain the status quo. During the Argentine crisis of the 1970’s and 1980’s, Catholic Church authorities often gave in to the state’s use of violence (Jenkins 143). In direct response to the state violence in Argentina of the 1980’s, the Pentecostal Argentine Revival movement emerged (Jenkins 208). The movement promoted a spiritual warfare against the demonic forces that were said to pervade society and promoted a strong belief in the integrity of prayer networks where believers prayed for their neighbors. From the Argentinian example, it is apparent how Christianity in the global South often adapts to the evolving political climate. Christian denominations that address direct spiritual involvement in the world appeal to a population living in oppressive political environments.
While Jenkins’s ideas offer insight into some of the differences in belief and practice between Christian denominations in the developed and the developing world, his model of the North/South divisions can also help explain how social change has occurred within individual countries, such as the United States. Largely as a result of the legacy of social, economic, and political inequality resulting from the institution of slavery in the United States, northern European-American churches remain largely independent of southern African-American churches. For decades, African-American religious leaders have been at the forefront promoting social, economic, and political change. Jenkins points out that Black American political rhetoric has often been inspired by biblical thought and rhetoric. However, just as in the Third World, tremendous socio-economic inequality between European and African Americans still exists.
An important question that this article raises relates to the issue of how communication and the balance of power between mainline northern and southern Christian denominations will evolve in the future. Dialogue between members of the global North and South Christian churches may serve as a point of ideological friction or as a way to help resolve social, economic, and political differences between these two parts of the world. For example, the Anglican Church, which spans from wealthy northern parts of Europe and North American to regions in southern Africa, has struggled repeatedly over the issues of gender, sexuality, and women’s ordination. North/South dialogue will continue to be complicated by the fact that northern Christian leaders tend to “judge scripture by the standards of the world,” and southern “conservatives claim to set an absolute value on scripture and religious sources of authority” (Jenkins 202). Jenkins opens his article “Liberating Word” by describing one example of a serious breakdown in communication, which occurred recently between a northern and a southern Anglican Church leader at a worldwide Anglican Communion. In this incident not surprisingly the bishop from the United States stressed the need for biblical text to be interpreted in light of modern social behavior, whereas the African bishops stated his confidence in a literal interpretation of scripture. After the appointment of the first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, many Anglican bishops from the global South openly stated their opposition to this action and reiterated their belief in the orthodox biblical teaching with regard to human sexuality. The World Council of Churches, a fellowship representing a Christian population of some 590 million people in nearly 150 countries in all regions of the world, serves as an excellent example of how interdenominational cooperation can begin to address challenging social, economic, and political issues. While Jenkins tends to focus on the ideological differences between the global North and South, interdenominational dialogue can serve as an important way for people from different social and economic backgrounds to come together through the unifying aspect of a shared faith tradition. Through social justice and doctrinal unity initiatives, greater cooperation may gradually occur between Christian churches in the global North and South.
Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
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