The summer storm clouds of 2020 overshadowed parts of the United States and the so-called Western world with a tempest of self-recrimination. Ardent believers in a secular ideology of antiracism—guided by a desire for human equality—toppled statues of historic figures, defaced long-established monuments, called for the removal of employees who uttered or Tweeted offensive things, and began rewriting curricula for lower and higher education. Yet elements of this supposedly secular antiracism seemed to be religiously significant.
What exactly is going on? Do the images of kneeling protesters, reciting a litany of guilt, represent a new “liturgy” of antiracism? In these seemingly secular protest events, are we witnessing the emergence of a new postmodern and post-Christian religiosity? And can there be such a new religion taking shape, if the name of God is never invoked? The Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, who is Black, offers a fascinating reflection on antiracism as “our flawed new religion.” (1) In their essay on “The Great Awokening,” Bo and Ben Winegard interpret the ferment that began on college campuses—and then spilled into the streets and parks of our major cities—as a secular revivalist religion, with its own circuit-riding preachers, gospel message, altar calls, conversion experiences, and confessions of sin. (2) Viewed in biblical perspective, “The Great Awokening” preaches a fierce message on moral evil, but it fails to say how people (and especially white people) can overcome the guilt, taint, and power of their own bias and bigotry. Since this secular religion lacks a savior, and a once-for-all accomplishment of salvation (as occurred for Christians at the cross), its adherents are caught in the bind of being told that “you must do better” and yet that “you can never do better.”
What does any of this have to do with contemporary World Christianity? Actually, quite a bit. For the existence of World Christianity as a local and global phenomenon of startling diversity and overarching unity, is itself an argument for an approach to human differences that is markedly different from that taken in secular antiracism. While secular antiracism with its concepts and jargon conveys the insular intellectualism of a university classroom, World Christianity is a grassroots phenomenon rooted in the local soil of innumerable localities. It is a reality and not a book or someone’s bright idea. Comprising two billion people from every nation on the planet, worshiping God in thousands of languages, and employing the widest diversity of verbal, musical, liturgical, artistic, choreographic, and architectural styles, World Christianity incorporates all these expressions of praise to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ. If somehow it were possible on a gigantic split screen to watch the simultaneous worship occurring at any given moment throughout the Christian world, then who would fail to be impressed by such an amazing display of unity in diversity? So many expressions of praise to God are all declaring that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Toward the end of this essay, I will return to this theme, indicating how Christian or gospel multiculturalism offers the prospect of uniting humanity in one community, without, however, suppressing the legitimate diversity of human cultures, languages, races, or peoples.
The Recent Rise of World Christianity
The worldwide impact of Christianity that made it the religion of societies and cultures emerging outside the European heartlands came into greatest prominence in the post-World War II and subsequent postcolonial periods. The scale of this post-Western resurgence was surprising, as was its timing. The retreat of Europe from its colonial territories was not, contrary to prevailing predictions, accompanied by the decline of Christianity, while nationalist mobilization and its mixed fortunes in the post-independence aftermath failed to halt the religion’s momentum. Behind the forces of nation building and integration into the global community, Christianity was expanding its reach and strengthening its appeal, thanks to the effects of vernacular Bible translation and the accompanying cultural adaptation that gave the religion the advantage of indigenous credibility.
For the first time, societies and cultures that had been non-Christian had their idioms and ways of life increasingly penetrated by Christian ideas and values, commencing an internal process of reorientation and the recasting of the central symbols of worship, ethics, and the aesthetic life. These changes gave new meaning to the pace and significance of the numerical expansion. It was not simply that membership had increased, sometimes exponentially, but that the meaning of being a Christian had undergone radical change from its Western heartland connotation. In the setting of primal societies where old attachments and plural loyalties continued to carry weight, conversion created an intercultural process of ongoing reciprocal exchange. The old vocabulary was given new promise of meaning and purpose in a fast-changing world, the kind of fulfillment that challenges and assures at the same time. This was a demonstration of Christianity’s character as a world religion that is not tied to Western cultural delineations and that thrives in the multiple idioms of the adopted societies. The churches in non-Western societies are not the heirs to Western Christendom, despite the legacy of colonial rule.
Without abandoning their distinctive character, these societies joined the Christian movement on terms amenable to their self-understanding and aspirations, whatever the common overlapping themes with Europe’s own contested heritage. Christianity in ancient Palestine coalesced with diverse cultures in the Mediterranean world and beyond, with Jewish, Greek, and Roman influences converging with Coptic and Ethiopian materials to create an expansive movement. Today, we see Christianity manifested in stunningly diverse ways and set in conditions of life that defy any single uniform rule or standard. As a religion with a worldwide following, Christianity has embraced a kaleidoscopic spectrum of peoples and tongues in Asia, Africa, and Europe, drawing from the urban ethos of Roman civilization, as well as from the desert and hinterland orientations of Egypt and Ethiopia, a vision and an outlook that are worldwide in their scope. The formative period of hellenization has its parallels in equally formative movements of indigenization and adaptation elsewhere and in other times.
While in the year 1900 nearly 80 percent of all Christians were European and North American, by 2001 the figure had declined to 40 percent, and by 2013 the percentage had further dropped to 34.5 percent. As a result of these developments, Christianity is no longer confined to its old Western heartlands or, indeed, to any one geographical region. Though not many people are cognizant of this, cultural adaptations and developments in the Christian world are continuing today at an accelerating pace all around the world. World Christianity in 2020 is different not only from what it was in 1990 but also from 2000 or 2010. An obvious change is the rapid growth of Christianity in global regions that formerly had only a small Christian population, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and parts of Latin America, and the corresponding statistical stagnation or decline in the traditional heartlands of areas in Europe, Britain, North America, Australia, and New Zealand. With only a million Christians in 1949, China may have 120 to 125 million Christians in 2020. During much of the last decade, conversions to Christianity in China were occurring at a rate of around 3.3 million per year, or an average of 9,000 per day. In the twentieth century in sub-Saharan Africa, the Christian population mushroomed from about 9 million to 335 million—and the number is at present well over 400 million, with the pace not slackening. In Latin America, evangelical Protestantism and Pentecostalism have competed with Catholicism to be the dominant tradition in many regions. During the past two decades, millions of Dalits in India have converted to Christianity.
These recent developments have revealed even more starkly what is true of Christianity from its origin as a religion characterized by diversity of form, style, practice, and territorial spread. The first disciples accepted the mandate of the Great Commission in the terms that embraced the whole world (Matt. 28:18–20) and all tongues (Phil. 2:11). The time of the final consummation shall be when the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of Christ (Rev. 11:15). The Christian movement resembled what one scholar called “a patched wineskin filled with mixed wine.” The religion bore the imprint of an eclectic cultural heritage. As the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus of the second century put it,
The difference between Christians and the rest of humankind is not a matter of nationality, or language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities of their own, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life. . . . For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.
Irenaeus, the second-century church father of Lyons, declared that “as the sun remains the same all over the world . . . so also the preaching of the church shines everywhere.” Justin Martyr, a second-century Palestinian born of settlers in what is now Nablus, assured his contemporaries that the gospel can boast of witnesses in every race, ethnicity, and mode of existence in which prayer and devotion continue to be made to God in the name of Jesus Christ. The early Christians believed that Christianity is a worldwide faith from the outset, that it is not a faith bound by territorial limits or by language and race. The current surge only serves to make that claim all the more credible now.
In 1924, Hilaire Belloc said that “Europe is the faith and the faith is Europe.” Yet the Europe-centered world wars left Europeans wondering about the fate of Christianity. By the end of World War II, Archbishop William Temple noted that the worldwide appeal of Christianity was “the new fact of our time.” Yet this was not how his Western contemporaries viewed the religion’s future. The ravages of war had taken a toll on morale, and Europe was in no mood to give any thought to the fortunes of a religion that had neither attenuated the causes of conflict nor prevented the disaster that followed. To be sure, Christianity has not ceased to be a Western religion, but evidence shows that its future as a world religion is being decided and fashioned at the hands and the minds of its non-Western followers.
Eight Themes in Studies of World Christianity
World Christianity is a focus of intensive research by innumerable scholars working in the cultures and languages of various global regions. What follows here is a short summation of recent scholarship, derived in large part from the collection of essays in the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity (2016). (3)
1. Missionary Agency and Indigenous Impetus
There is no way to tell the story of World Christianity without giving full attention to mission and missionaries. Yet one must hasten to add that the missionaries of World Christianity include many people who were never acknowledged or recognized as such. In Africa, there were many regions in which European missionaries barely touched the hinterland communities, and the great task of evangelization fell to the lot of the many catechists—some known to us by name, others not—who set out for rural centers to spread the Christian message. Unfortunately, much of the older missionary literature gave little attention to local contributions to Christian mission. This requires today’s researchers to search out new sources of information, or else to read the old sources in the light of local initiative. The open access online database of the Dictionary of African Christian Biography (DACB) at Boston University School of Theology (https://dacb.org) contains information on the names and stories of more than two thousand individuals—men and women—many of whom were leaders of the Christian movement in their societies.
2. The Long Encounter of Christianity and Islam
Contact between Islam and Byzantium began with the birth of Islam in the seventh century and continued beyond the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE. Byzantine Christians generally viewed Islam as a Christian heresy and Muhammad as a false prophet. For their part, Muslims claimed that Christians were tritheists and that they had expunged references to Muhammad from the New Testament. By the late ninth century, Byzantines had access to Greek renderings of at least certain portions of the Qur’ān, thus allowing for polemical responses to the text. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, Christianity and Islam both showed extraordinary dynamism, penetrating regions they had never before reached, winning new adherents, and thus coming to merit the name of “world religions.”
The rise of Islam in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has raised a host of new issues for Christian-Muslim relations. In predominantly Islamic regions, the issues for Christians are not just theoretical but concern their basic personal and political freedoms. In the middle belt and northern regions of Nigeria today, an anti-Christian genocide is well under way—in full view of the other nations of the world. With support from Islamist groups such as Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and ISIS, armed Fulani herdsmen—with the connivance of local or national leaders—attack and slaughter unarmed Christian villagers. Their aim is not only to inflict death and damage, but also to trigger a Christian migration in Nigeria toward the mostly Christian southern region and to facilitate the imposition of Islamic Sharia law over larger portions of the country.
The deterioration of Christian-Muslim relations globally was also signaled by the decision in Turkey under President Recep Erdoğan in July to convert the leading church building of the Byzantine era, Hagia Sophia, from being a museum and cultural center (as it has been since the 1920s) into a place of Islamic worship. Many Greek Orthodox Christians regard this as nothing other than a second conquest of Constantinople, and so it bodes ill for the future of the region and perhaps for Christian-Muslim relations generally.
3. Slavery and Anti-Slavery
One of the important though neglected stories of modern abolitionism was that of the slaves who fought on the British side in the American Revolution. Their lives and experiences established a link between Enlightenment philosophy, radical social ideals, and evangelicalism. In 1792, they went on mission to Sierra Leone, before any British missionary society had been founded, with the intention of establishing a new society under the influence of the Christian gospel.
Throughout the Americas, European settlers and colonialists opposed the evangelization of slaves, because they feared that missionaries would preach abolitionism. In the context of the early nineteenth-century religious awakenings in the United States, Finneyite revivalism became closely associated with abolitionism and antislavery, temperance, and women’s rights. Oberlin College became a stronghold of abolitionism and advocated civil disobedience as runaway slave laws were designed to force slaves to return to their masters. In Jamaica, abolitionist Baptists founded Calabar College as an institute for theological training. In the nineteenth century, women began to play a prominent role in the abolitionist movement. A number of Anglicans were abolitionist leaders: Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and Olaudah Equiano. Abolitionists opposed the politics of British Whigs, who advocated a gradualist approach to abolishing slavery. In fact, it was only in the evangelical and nonconformist world of the British Empire that abolitionist beliefs led to mass mobilization for suppressing the slave trade and abolishing slavery.
4. Colonialism and Postcolonialism
The European colonial project had its European detractors at every stage. The sixteenth-century Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas wrote an impassioned defense of native souls in which he condemned Spanish enslavement of natives as a sin against Christian charity. Contrary to popular belief, there was no obvious improvement in attitudes toward non-European peoples and cultures on the part of European colonizers from the 1700s into the 1900s, and it was arguably the interwar period—i.e., the 1920s to the 1930s—that was marked by the most blatant examples of the permeation of missions by imperial attitudes and ideology.
By the mid-twentieth century, when it became clear that colonial power in Africa and Asia was in its twilight, European church leaders responded in different ways. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many Western Christian leaders viewed the rising tide of African and Asian nationalism with alarm, while others—such as Max Warren and Stephen Neill—called for Western Christians to discern the hand of God behind the non-Western nationalist movements. One of the surprises of the late twentieth century was the staying power of Christianity that followed the end of colonialism. Many observers of the end of empire in the 1960s offered dire predictions that Christianity, except possibly in the form of the African Independent Churches, would not long survive the era of decolonization. During the 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) turned the church toward the world and especially toward the poor. In the years following the Vatican II Council, movements for social justice and liberation would find inspiration in this document.
5. New Ideologies and Social Teachings
In the sociological study of Max Weber, capitalist economics is identified with Protestantism, and especially with Reformed or Calvinistic Christianity. But because the shift to a market-based economy did not take place at the same time around the world, the effects of global capitalism have been uneven, have taken place at different times, and have led to different responses. With the full-blown emergence of industrialization in England and in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, a counterreaction followed.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church sought to address the concern raised by Marxism while also rejecting the Marxist view of society. Similarly, the Dutch theologian, politician, and eventual prime minister of the Netherlands, Abraham Kuyper, developed his theological Calvinism into a worldview in which political and social questions could be addressed, criticizing unchecked capitalism but not sanctioning socialism. In North America, Christianity was a “carrier” of modern individualism, democracy, and capitalism from this continent to other parts of the world. In Australia, workers sought to civilize capitalism, first by industrial power in unionism, and then by political power in the formation of the Labor Party. In 1968, when sixty Catholic priests gathered in Golconda, Colombia, and committed themselves to revolutionary action against imperialism and to setting up a socialistic society, they ushered in Liberation Theology as a critique of Western imperialism and capitalism.
6. The Ambiguous Status of Latin America
How does Latin America fit into the larger narrative of World Christianity? In one sense, Latin America can be viewed as inheritor of the heritage of European Christendom. As an extension of “Christendom,” churches and other Christian institutions were founded among indigenous peoples of the New World beginning in the 1500s. In another sense, the rise of evangelical and charismatic forms of Christianity since the 1960s brought a readjustment of perspective concerning the long historical experience of Catholic Christianity in Latin America. The still-debated questions are as follows: Was this Latin America ever truly evangelized in the earlier period? Or was only a small segment of the populace superficially “Christianized”?
7. Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Vernacular Christianity
The intense prayer, evangelistic fervor, and openness to the miraculous that characterize Pentecostals, who number well over 600 million adherents in 2020, might help to set the long-term direction for Christianity around the world. Mission by churches outside the West has been an increasing trend in statistical reports. Korean, Brazilian, Chinese, and African missionaries have been setting out to evangelize Muslims and Buddhists and to preach to secular Europeans, in what Philip Jenkins has called “the empire strikes back.” In 2013, there were reportedly some 20,500 South Korean missionaries serving in over 160 countries. An important reason for the relative success of new charismatic groups is their openness to globalization and their ability to employ emerging technologies of communication. In recent years, charismatic Christianity has developed a well-connected network of leaders and preachers.
Writers call attention to a variety of religious development they describe as “vernacular Christianity.” In the first two generations or so, when Christianity came into contact with indigenous cultures in Africa and Asia, a new, fluid situation developed, characterized by a lack of fixed structures in worship, doctrine, and decision-making. This stage of conversion is similar to what occurred in the ninth century among the newly converted Christian Vikings, a process that has more in common with emerging twentieth-century churches than with the later Gothic cathedrals and the institutionalized religion of the High Middle Ages. The concept of “vernacular Christianity” helps us to see that Christian cross-cultural adaptations—perhaps into wholly new forms—are not a thing of the past, but very much a matter of the present time.
8. Continuing Debate over Secularization
During the 1960s, the issue of global secularization and the future of world religions was a major debate, initially through the work of the sociologist (and Anglican minister) David Martin. By the 1970s, a number of social theorists and cultural observers had second thoughts about secularization. At present, some of them see secularization as a process bound to affect all global cultures (e.g., Steve Bruce), while others adopt a more nuanced position that European secularity might not be the normative standard but rather a global exception (e.g., Jose Casanova, Charles Taylor). What Europe has lost certainly includes faith, church attendance, Christian morality, and perhaps an attitude of basic civility toward one’s neighbors. Yet scholars today are also reassessing what Europe has kept. Whatever the verdict of this inquiry, the heritage of “Christendom” is still with us, however widely contested the notion might be. While in 1900 the word Christendom was often used in a triumphalist way, today some use the term to denote a tragic episode in the history of the Christian faith, marked by a church-state alliance with all the compromises that required.
Philip Jenkins has suggested the possibility of a “new Christendom” among Christian nations that would eventually form an African and Latin American axis where faith becomes the guiding political ideology. Yet, other observers question whether there is any evidence for this beginning to happen or for the creating of new “Christian” nations or states in the Global South. Generally speaking, World Christianity seems unlikely to generate the necessary conditions for a return to a long-lost Christendom. The twenty-first-century challenge is to chart a course for church and society beyond the notion of political entitlement.
Human Differences and the New, Secular Antiracism
Let me begin to move toward a conclusion to this essay by stating a thesis:
In any increasingly interconnected and globalized world of diverse cultures, Christians of all backgrounds need to know more fully—and affirm more fully and visibly—the diverse cultures of their fellow Christians.
This kind of enlarged self-knowledge is no longer a luxury for the scholarly few but is fast becoming a necessity for the Christian many. Today, there is need not only for better understanding but also for visible manifestations of Christian unity, despite all differences. As believers, how should we expect the nonbelieving world to know how to get along, despite their differences, if Christian people do not show the way and demonstrate that such a thing is possible? Ancient Roman pagans were said to have seen nobles and slaves worshiping together and to have been astonished at the sight, exclaiming, “How they love one another!” This mutual love among believers, as Jesus said, is the means whereby “all men will know that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). In the same gospel, he prayed to the Father to unite his followers “that they may all be one . . . that the world may believe” (John 17:21). The oneness to which Jesus here refers cannot mean an otherworldly or eschatological plane of reality, since this oneness is something visible to nonbelievers, provoking them to believe in Jesus.
In The Social Sources of Denominationalism (1929), H. Richard Niebuhr argued that a church that simply mirrors the natural divisions that already exist in the society around it cannot be the manifestation of a supernatural God. Too often the church has followed a path of least resistance. One finds “country-club people” in a given locality, and so there are “country-club churches” to make them feel at home. The “urban gang-bangers” have their own congregations—and so do white people, Black people, Asian people, people who fight for social justice, recent immigrants, people who vote Republican, people who vote Democrat, and so on. (In rural Missouri, I recently drove past a self-described “cowboy church”!) The church thus does not look much like a supernatural community, divinely called out into existence. Instead, it seems another instance in which “birds of a feather flock together.” Niebuhr spoke of “the ethical failure of the divided church.” That many of us so readily accept this state of affairs indicates a failure of imagination and perhaps a lack of faith. God’s purpose has always been to “break down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14) not only between Jews and Gentiles but also between all the other dividing walls of race, region, culture, opinion, generation, and gender.
For rather obvious reasons, the currently fashionable secular antiracism is incapable of breaking down these dividing walls. The long-term influence of such thinkers and authors as Ibram Kendi (author of How to Be an Antiracist and Stamped from the Beginning), Reni Eddo-Lodge (Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race), and Robin DiAngelo (White Fragility) may be to erect new walls of separation or to strengthen those already in place. Well-intentioned Christians who wish to stand against racism may be unaware of these authors’ underlying assumptions. Two ideas rejected in this literature are “individualism” and “universalism.”
In her cowritten book with Ozlem Sensoy, Is Everyone Really Equal? (2012), Robin DiAngelo repudiates “individualism” as “the belief that we are each unique” and that “group memberships are irrelevant.” She adds:
The ideal of individual autonomy that underlies liberal humanism (the idea that people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate) . . . [is] a mechanism for keeping the marginalized in their place by obscuring larger structural systems of inequality. In other words, it fooled people into believing that they had more freedom and choice than societal structures actually allow. (4)
DiAngelo denies the assumption that “people are free to make independent rational decisions that determine their own fate.” This idea of individual choice is a ruse, used by those in power for maintaining power and excluding others from power.
The other rejected idea, as noted, is “universalism,” or the idea of a shared humanness that unites all human beings. In the work cited above, Robin DiAngelo and her coauthor acknowledge that “biologically we are all humans,” but they go on to say that “socially we are members of hierarchically organized groups” and “are taught to see our perspectives as neutral, objective, and representative of a universal reality; our group is the standard for what it means to be normal.” (5) Rather than seeing oneself as a member of the human race, one must see oneself and others in terms of “dominant” or “minoritized” group membership. James Lindsay explains:
Identity politics . . . requires centering human experience entirely in group identity. . . . This requires it to reject both the biggest and smallest measures of humanity: the universality of human experience and the atomic individualism that defines each of us as we actually are, in favor of something in between: group identity. (6)
Thoughtful Christians may accept the notion that “group identities” play a role in human life. Yet a moment’s reflection will show the theological problems that come with rejecting “individualism” and “universalism.” The problem is twofold, and it can be simply stated: The gospel announces a universal savior for all human groups, and it calls for individual decisions of faith and repentance. As soon as one denies a universal humanity, it becomes difficult for us to understand how Jesus could be the savior for all human beings. If the original followers of Jesus had been well schooled in the teachings of Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, then perhaps they would have insisted that Jesus was a savior only for the Jews, and that the various Gentile peoples needed to have one or more saviors of their own. We might then have needed an Asian Christ, a Latin American Christ, an African Christ, and so on. Following a similar logic, some feminist scholars have called for the replacement of God the Father with a Mother Goddess, or for Christ to be demoted or to be complemented by a female savior or “Christa.” By contrast, early Christian writers insisted that there was such a thing as universal humanity (Lat., humanitas) and that the eternal Son of God, in taking on or “assuming” this humanitas, made possible the rescue from sin and death for all human beings without exception.
If the lack of what James Lindsay above calls “the universality of human experience” creates a problem for the biblical gospel, then the challenge to individualism presents a second and equally insuperable problem. For Scripture teaches that I cannot believe for anyone else nor can anyone else believe for me. Social and contextual factors will invariably shape a person’s faith decision, and yet the element of individual choice cannot be ignored. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20 implies both of the rejected notions just mentioned. There is a message to “all the nations” (Gk., ethne), thus implying a multiethnic and multicultural proclamation to all humanity. There is also a call for people to be baptized and to become disciples, which suggests an inescapable decision by individuals to follow after Jesus and to learn to walk in his ways.
Why Gospel Multiculturalism is Just What the Doctor Ordered
Does this line of argument against secular antiracism imply that Christians today should ignore “group identity” in thinking about themselves and other people? Not at all. But we need a sharp scalpel, not a meat cleaver, to make distinctions. Social analyses based solely on “race” are often insufficiently specific. Are we to assume that a Nigerian-born villager today shares the same way of thinking, acting, and feeling as the resident of inner-city Chicago, simply because both are “black”? Of course not. No one who has traveled or experienced much of the human world will be likely to think this so. When applied across the centuries or millennia, racial categories as analytic tools are even less helpful. The category “white” would seem to include some ancient wanderers near the Caucasus mountains, the philosopher Socrates, a medieval Viking, William Shakespeare, the czars of Russia, and Pope Francis. Might we then presume a common way of thinking, acting, or feeling among these persons? Of course not.
There are good arguments for using “culture” as the lens through which to examine differences. Lamin Sanneh—who was born as a Muslim of royal lineage in The Gambia (West Africa), converted to Christianity, and served as a faculty member at Harvard and Yale Universities—made it his lifework to interpret the entire history of Christianity as “translational” process. [Sanneh died unexpectedly of a stroke in 2019.] Even prior to the completion of the New Testament writings, argued Sanneh, the original Palestinian, Aramaic-oriented gospel message was already being refashioned by the apostle Paul in a way that made it comprehensible to Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles. For two thousand years, this gospel message has been retranslated repeatedly into new cultural contexts.
As suggested by the title to this essay, the gospel distinguishes, unites, and evangelizes. In Acts 13, 14, and 17, the apostle Paul preached to three audiences: to the Jews in Pisidian Antioch, to the backcountry and less-educated pagans in Lystra, and to the sophisticated pagans in Athens. The texts show that the apostle adapted his message and preached differently in each place. Yet the congregations he founded were nonetheless all part of a single, translocal movement, and they all shared in the worship of one Lord. We see then that the gospel distinguishes in taking local cultures into account, unites in bringing diverse peoples into an international and multicultural body of believers, and evangelizes in calling people to decisions of faith and repentance.
What sets gospel multiculturalism apart from secular antiracism is that its scope extends across the entire scale of human experience—from microcosm to macrocosm. It begins from the individual human in all of his or her individuality. (Think of just how differently Jesus responded to the different individuals who approached him!) It gives full consideration to intermediate forms of group identity, and to all the particularities of cultural difference in tens of thousands of local communities everywhere.
And, finally, in affirming Jesus as Lord, it arrives at a universality that neither minimizes nor suppresses any of the particularities of the individuals or cultures just noted. This is the genius of the gospel; and if we as twenty-first-century Christians can embody in our congregations and manifest to others the fullness of this gospel multiculturalism, then our evangelistic prospects in the decades ahead should be bright indeed.
Michael McClymond is professor of Modern Christianity at Saint Louis University. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (2012), cowritten with Gerald McDermott; the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to World Christianity (2016), coedited with the late Lamin Sanneh; and his most recent, The Devil’s Redemption: A New History and Interpretation of Christian Universalism, 2 vols. (2018). He served as co-chair of both the Evangelical Studies Group and the Pentecostal-Charismatic Movements Group in the American Academy of Religion (AAR). An Anglican layman, McClymond has been a leader in Global Day of Prayer, Habitat for Humanity, and Stepping into the Light (a substance abuse recovery ministry in St. Louis).
4. Cited at https://newdiscourses.com/tftw-individualism-ideology.