A shift in the numbers of Christians to the global south and what it means for the church in the United States were the primary topics of the first session of the Theologian-in-Residence lecture series Tuesday at Tusculum College.
Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, a visiting professor for ecumenical studies and global ministries at Louisville Seminary, led the session, focusing on the growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia, the new forms of expression that this growth has brought to the Christian community and the questions that it poses for churches in the United States. The Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College sponsor the annual series.
For American Christians the 21st century has brought a very new world, and if the church in the United States is to thrive, it will have to be mission-minded with that mission starting at the steps of the church, said Kirkpatrick, a former Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “We need to come to terms with how to live faithfully in a world of change.”
That change is a dramatic shift in the last 100 years of the center of the Christian world to the global south from the global north, the largest demographic change in the history of Christianity. Kirkpatrick, who has served as president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, noted that the demographic shift has occurred in part due to the growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia and a decline in Europe and to some extent North America.
“It is more than numbers, it is partly something dramatic God is doing in our time,” he said. God is working in amazing ways in places that the growth of Christianity would have not been predicted as very likely, such as communist China or war-ravaged Sudan, he continued.
The Presbyterian Church has grown more in Sudan than any other country in recent years, he said. Visiting Sudan about 10 years ago, Kirkpatrick recalled seeing people suffering from hunger and the physical and emotional wounds of war, but he also heard “a remarkable story of faith. What has emerged is, increasingly, that story has been played out around the world.”
In many countries, missionaries and other Christians have shared the story of the suffering of Jesus with those who are suffering, and those people identify with Christ, he added.
Kirkpatrick referenced two books that address changes in Christianity, “The Great Emergence” by Phyllis Tickle and “The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History” by Andrew Walls. Tickle says in her book that the Christianity experiences dramatic changes every 500 years and that it is experiencing one of those periods now. Walls describes the way Christianity has grown into regions and becomes a part of the culture rather than replacing it.
Christians in the United States should be excited and give thanks to God for the ways in which He is moving in Asia and Africa, Kirkpatrick said, but the church here is also faced with the challenge of identifying its role in this new dynamic.
Kirkpatrick outlined four areas that have emerged from Christianity in the global south that have resonance for American Christians and should reshape the ministry of the church in the United Sates.
One area is a fresh paradigm for the relationship between gospel and culture. He noted that in Africa, one of the reasons given for the growth of Christianity is that many of the native cultures have more in common with the culture found in the gospel than other religions. In the U.S., he said Christians should be sensitive to the need for the church to adapt with creativity to cultural change and be open to new ways of being a church.
Another area is the emergence of liberation theology, which emphasizes God’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed, and a call for the church to shape its life to share in God’s justice and liberation for the world. It is a call for American Christians to work for a better world and partner with the global church. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin America, and Kirkpatrick said one of the turning points of his life was a trip to Central America in which he spent time with people living it out in their lives.
A third area is a call for Christians to give witness of their salvation in Christ with people of other faiths while also seeking to learn from their religious experience and striving for reconciliation between religious communities. “Christians minister in a world of religious difference,” he said. “We are called to the witness stand and not the judge’s stand. We are called to seek reconciliation. We need to share our faith, but we need to learn from theirs if this world has a future.”
Many people may not know that the Islamic world has reached out to Christians for dialogue with a message noting that the two religions share a primary commandment, to love God and to love others as yourself, Kirkpatrick continued, which is a huge opportunity for Christianity that needs to be seized.
A fourth area is a new receptivity to the power of the Holy Spirit in response to the hunger for spiritual renewal and Christian community in the world. Pentecostalism, which emphasizes the power and working of the Holy Spirit and community, has grown tremendously in the past century, particularly in Latin America, Kirkpatrick noted.
Attendees of the lecture also formed small discussion groups about what the four areas meant for the local church in East Tennessee and were able to ask questions of Kirkpatrick during a question-and-answer period.
Kirkpatrick will return for the second session in the series on Tuesday, Feb. 8, when he will be addressing the future of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and other mainline churches in North America.
The session begins at 10 a.m., continuing through 1:30 p.m. Lunch is provided. There is no admission fee for the series, but reservations are required. For more information or to make reservations, please call 423-636-7304 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.