By Muthuraj Swamy
The phrase “World Christianity” is relatively a new expression to describe Christianity’s presence and growth, but the idea that Christianity is a world religion has always been present in its history. Throughout the centuries, this idea was accompanied with the theme of world mission — the idea and practice not to confine the Christian gospel to one particular place or culture (“not only in Jerusalem,” Acts 1:8), but to spread the message to the other parts of the world. This expansionist vision has drawn millions of people from various cultures toward Christ. At the same time, some of what has been part of this enterprise has done damage to other cultures, especially where mission went hand in hand with imperialist ventures. Some of this can be seen in early European expansion, later in the British Empire, and in more recent times in some aspects of North American mission. There have been instances when missionaries supported violence and exploitation, although often the missionaries raised their voices against such evils. There was also unhelpful condemnation and rejection of other cultures, which did not aid in any way the witness to Christ.
For some people outside the Christian world, World Christianity may sound like another totalizing power. But in the second half of the 20th century, World Christianity started to acquire a new meaning, particularly against the context of the demographic shift of Christians from the West to what is generally called the Global South. With the work of pioneering scholars such as Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Philip Jenkins and many others, attention was drawn to the growth of Christianity in the non-Western world. The idea was to focus more on Christianity in the context outside the West, as mostly Western Christianity has been privileged in theology, research, and resources. This has encouraged non-Western scholarship in mission, theology, and doctrine and enabled numerous Global South theologians, researchers, and church leaders to articulate their theology and mission rooted in their local contexts, and their visions for the Church rooted in local cultures. Nevertheless, one limitation with this approach to World Christianity is that it began as a Western interest in the non-Western world, and for many still, “world” in World Christianity and “non-Western” seem to be synonymous. In my conversations with some Christians in the West on World Christianity, a question often asked of me is, “which part of the ‘world’ are you implying: Africa, Asia, or Latin America?”
In the 21st-century context of increasing tensions and divisions — among Christians, and in the wider world — and increasing persecutions against Christians and other religious minorities in different countries, the task of World Christianity is to connect. The word “world” in World Christianity stands for connections — not merely expansion, or as a synonym for “non-Western.” In Acts 1:6-8, just before his ascension, Jesus declares to his disciples: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Given the hostility between Judea and Samaria, witnessing to Christ and sharing the gospel with others is not simply about expanding in terms of adding, but it is about connecting, healing, and reconciling.
In the 21st Century, World Christianity needs to focus on connections in at least three areas.
First, Christian unity and solidarity. On the one hand, we see Christianity growing numerically in many parts of the Global South while declining numerically in parts of the North. But we also see tensions between different denominations, dividing Christians, whereas Christians actually need to come and work together responding to the many challenges facing the world. The 20th century saw a great renewal in ecumenical reconciliation between various church denominations, thanks to Edinburgh 1910 and various ecumenical movements since then, but at the turn of the 21st century, as several theologians and church leaders have pointed out, and as is evident, ecumenism is decreasing, at least formally speaking.
This creates a new challenge: how to engage the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement, for example, and other Christian movements that do not find the ecumenical structures attractive. The vision of the last century for Christian unity needs to be articulated in new ways. It is important for world Christians to stand together, supporting each other and raising their voices together in the midst of the challenges facing them. There is a need for more unity, partnership, and coming together among Christians — across denominational boundaries, among those who live in different geographical contexts, and among who share different theological perspectives. As we see in Paul’s missionary journeys, his journeys were not only about taking the gospel to the Gentiles, but they also often involved visiting and connecting Christians, encouraging them to stand with and support fellow Christians and Christian communities in different geographic and cultural contexts.
The second challenge is Christian engagement to work for better societies. World Christianity is about inviting Christians to engage in societal contexts where justice is lacking, and to seek social transformation, rather than attaining political power or aligning with political forces to gain more power as happens in some political contexts today. The political instabilities, the rise of autocratic and authoritarian governments, and the onslaught of neo-liberalism which promises to improve human life and to close the gap in inequality but actually exacerbates it — these all need responses from Christians. Because many of these problems are becoming global and indeed are already global — we see how one autocrat learns from another so quickly — the response needs to be global. Dialogue with each other and learning about how Christians in another context respond to these problems locally, as well as sharing of resources, are highly important in these areas.
Thirdly, World Christianity as connecting Christianities has many implications for work in reconciliation. Today communities in many countries are becoming multicultural, and they no longer can live in an insular world. In Europe, many of the largest churches are now composed of those whose roots are in the Global South, a phenomenon sometimes known as “reverse mission.” While there is a great deal of openness among many sections of Christian communities in some parts of the world toward other religions and cultures, we continue to witness in multicultural situations racism, xenophobia, and hostile attitudes toward other religions. In such a context World Christianity cannot be understood and promoted without understanding how local Christianities exist in the context of many other religions, cultures, and traditions. Christians, coming together as global Christians, can learn valuable lessons from each other about how to respond to these challenges, and learn to exist together with our neighbors from other religions.
World Christianity is not to make a universalized Christianity or a homogenized form of Christianity, but to work on a framework that invites people to see the importance of the connections among Christians, and between Christians and rest of the world. Contextual, postcolonial, and local theologies have created an opportunity to challenge the West and its domination. The Black Lives Matter movement among African-Americans and many others throughout the world relates to this. Such fresh approaches need to continue, so that the power and resources in Christianity are shared, rather than monopolized by the North. In such a context, what is important is a critical interrogation and engagement with the West by the Christians in the Global South and a self-critical engagement among Western Christians. There is the possibility of mutual learning, so that we as world Christians together can respond to the global challenges. Both Global North and South Christians need to appreciate that as Western Christianity alone cannot be World Christianity, non-Western Christianity alone also cannot be World Christianity.
This is the vision of the Cambridge Centre for Christianity Worldwide (CCCW) where I have been director since 2018. We are currently involved in conceiving a multi-year project on “Connecting World Christianity,” involving research, partnerships, and knowledge dissemination through various forums. To start with, we are inaugurating an annual Summer Institute on the theme “World Christianity and Global Challenges” to study and understand how many challenges impact Christians and our wider communities locally and globally, how we respond to them, and how a wider engagement with our fellow Christians, other religions, and the wider society can strengthen our responses. The Institute will bring together a small group of Christians from diverse backgrounds — theological educators, theological students, and “ordinary” Christians interested in learning about World Christianity — and from different parts of the world, in residence for a week to have conversations, formal and informal.
The first Summer Institute is organized July 18-22, 2022, in Cambridge, UK, in collaboration with the Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, and the Rose Castle Foundation. The challenge we focus on this year is the pandemic: “Grief, Hope and Resilience Amid the Pandemic.” Our hope is that conversations and friendships develop, and the action-at-home projects, reflected on and developed collaboratively with the participants, will contribute to the health of the world Church.