Church in a Time of Change

I find myself settling back in upon our return from our pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  It feels good to be back in the routine of episcopal life in the Central Texas Conference.  Wednesday afternoon I drove down to the South District office and met with Rev. Rankin Koch, the South District Superintendent and Rev. Tom Robbins who chairs the District Superintendency Committee.  Look for an announcement on the incoming (at Conference) South DS on the Conference website Monday. Today I am driving to Eastland to meet with Rev. Carol Woods as we review ministry in the West District together.  Eastland UMC is engaged in some exciting outreach ministry (as are other churches throughout the Conference).  It does my soul good to be “on the ground” in our local churches. Changing subjects just a bit; at our last Council of Bishops meeting we had a Powerpoint presentation from Dr. Hendrik R. Pieterse, Associate Professor of Global Christianity and World Religions at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary entitled “Being Church in a time of Change.”  Some those insights stick with me in a deep way, and I pass them on for your reflection. We are living through three major shifts: 1. From Christendom to World Movement 2.  From Religiously Segmented to Religiously Pluralistic World 3.  From Denominational Preeminence to Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation Dr. Pieterse quoted Andrew Walls.  “Christianity began the twentieth century as a Western religion [and] ended the century as a non-Western religion, on track to become progressively more so. . . . The demographic transformation of the church. . . faces us with twin challenges: a post-Christian West and a post-Western Christianity.”  On a more personal level, our recent Holy Land pilgrimage reinforced just how worldwide and diverse the Christian movement is.  There are a growing number of Asian Christians on pilgrimage to the Holy Land!  The implications of this change were deeply felt in the UMC at our last General Conference (and hence affected local churches in Central Texas!). Consider the following statistical data which Dr. Pieterse quoted form Dr. Phillip Jenkins:
  • In 1900, two-thirds of all Christians lived in Europe.
  • Today, less than one-fourth of Christians reside in Europe; and by 2025 it will drop to under 20 percent.
  • Today, more than 65 percent of Christians live outside the West.
  • Between 1900 and 2000, the Christian presence in Africa increased from 10 million people to over 360 million.
  • Africans and Asians already make up about 30 percent of Christianity around the world.
  • By 2025, half of all Christians on the planet will live in Africa and Latin America.
  • By 2050, non-Hispanic whites will make up only about one-fifth of the world’s projected 3 billion Christians.
Or reflect on the following insights he offered from a variety of sources:
  • Christianity should enjoy a worldwide boom in the new century, but the vast majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American.”1
  • Today, a typical Christian is not a White Methodist or Episcopalian living in an upscale suburb of New York or Atlanta, but a poor woman struggling to survive in a village somewhere in Nigeria or in a favela in Brazil. (Jenkins)
  •  “Christianity today is largely a movement of the “poor, the powerless, and the persecuted.”2
  • Christians make up a significant percentage of the 2.8 billion people worldwide struggling to survive on pennies a day.
  • Of the 1,090 million people who live in absolute poverty, 260 million are Christians—13 percent of all Christians.
  •  Approximately 100 million Christians live in the world’s twenty-six poorest countries.
He offered some insights and implications for our North American (and hence Central Texas) context.  Consider: A Growing World Church in Our Midst:
  • “Immigrant congregations represent the fastest growing segment of American Christianity across all traditions. . . . [E]very Christian migrant is a potential missionary.1
An Emerging Landscape of Ecclesial Ferment and Experimentation:
  • “[T]he forms of legitimacy that shaped the twentieth century have been disappearing in a process of rapid and discontinuous change.”
  • “A crisis of legitimacy occurs when discontinuous change occurs in the overall environment and is not matched by corresponding responses within the organization.”
  • “[D]enominations face questions of identity and legitimacy. . . . [T]hey are confronting a legitimacy crisis and will be unable to become missionally shaped systems unless they understand the dynamics of this crisis.”
  • “[D]enominations tend to address the crisis at the levels of organizational structure and role identity. . . . Changing them will not address the legitimation crisis. The core issue facing a [denomination] is at the level of culture, or identity.”2
There is a lot to chew on here, and I invite the reader to prayerfully chew away with me.  In the midst of our change I see great opportunity.  The Holy Spirit is at work in our world!  Here in Central Texas these insights are being reflected in our congregations.  For instance, one of our new churches is made up of Ghanaian immigrants; we have a large Korean Methodist contingent in the Central Texas Context; as with all of Texas (& America) responding to Hispanic ministry growth is central to our future.  The list could go on but you get the drift. These are exciting and changing times!  God is working in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  It is my joy to share in ministry with folks in Central Texas!