Sunday, June 19, 2016

Everything Old is New Again

Attended a fascinating breakfast this morning, hosted by the Presbyterian Foundation (thank you, friends). The guest speaker was Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor. He's the author of several books, perhaps most famously The Next Christendom.

Listen to this: he said that in 1900, there were 10 European Christians per every African Christian. At the start of the 21st century, there are now 10 African Christians per every European one. Christianity is not dying - except for the Christianity we thought we knew. Around the world, it's flourishing. 

He shared a map that was drawn in the 1500s. Imagine a three-leafed plant, with Jerusalem at the center. The three leaves emanating from it are the places where the Gospel had spread at that time: Europe on the left side, Asia on the right side, and Africa below. (There was also a ship in the sea which was perhaps a salute to some of the development that was going on in that crazy place across the Atlantic, but otherwise we were not a player.) Jenkins maintained that Christianity is not dying - "it's just going home."

He told story after story of the church in Africa, and the numbers were staggering. The twelve million Ethiopian Christians of 1900 are now 170 million strong. (He also noted that Ethiopia was Christianized before the Roman Empire). It's an indication in his eyes that it's not just demographic changes, but a fundamental change of conscience which indicates a new Reformation.

And here's the best part. One of the marks of the previous Reformation that's happening again today is this: people in Africa and elsewhere are READING the Bible

Short history lesson: one of the reasons the Reformation took off was its pairing with the Renaissance, in which the printing press was invented. The less-than-educated did not have easy access to the scriptures because they were only available to the highly-educated clergy, and only available in Latin. Because of that, stained glass windows were used to teach the stories and serve as an oral history for worshipers. So Martin Luther posted his suggested "reformations" for the Church on the door of the sanctuary in Wittenberg, Those suggestions captured the imagination of the people, who were able to read it in their own (German) language, and the printing press allowed those suggestions to be multiplied and circulated at an astonishing rate.

Fast forward: today, Jenkins noted, we in the US are a society of many books, one of which is the Bible. We may feel a deep connection to it, but it is not our only source of reading material. Imagine a world of only one book - a society where books are quite the luxury and so there is not immediate access to a variety of them, even a library. He notes that in Uganda, the word for "Christian" is the same as the word for "Reader." If one converts to Christianity, he said, one has the ability to read the texts in one's native tongue, whatever it may be. And if they don't have it in your language, he said, don't worry - they'll have it for you by Tuesday.

Listen to this: "the original language of the Bible is translation." 

Another mark of the Reformation is a major increase in activity around hymn composition. "To write the history of Christianity spreading around the world," Jenkins said, "study its hymnody." He noted that the hymn is the heart and soul of East African Christianity - and they are not being written down or collected into hymnbooks. He said you can be somewhere in eastern Africa, hum a few bars of one of their familiar hymns, and before you know it you've got a choir going. This I believe: the words of scripture go into our heads, but set them to music and they take root in our souls. 

One last similarity with the previous Reformation: church growth. Churches in Africa are growing like topsy. We Presbys have been known to wring our hands and lament the end of the Eisenhower era, when we (especially Southerners) didn't just ask "Where are you from?" and "Who are your people." The third question was usually "Where do y'all go?" That's no longer a presumption we have the luxury of making.

Jenkins noted a conversation he had with a Ghanian pastor. The pastor confessed to him, "Every night I go home and pray, Please God, don't send us any more converts. We can't handle them!" They too see small churches as a "problem," because they don't have any.

My Takeaways: 

It's not time to give up on the church. It's time to reconnoiter. What are we doing to engage ourselves and others with the basic, the text?

Just because the church doesn't look like it always has, doesn't mean that the church is dead. Maybe we're the ones who need a little resuscitation.

Don't underestimate the power of hymns. Commit some of your favorites to memory, if you haven't done so already. Encourage your congregations and friends to do the same. Let them work their magic on you.

We have a lot of learning to do, we who are by far the most affluent and best resourced. Historically, it was we who took the missionary effort to countries around the globe. Some of the countries we evangelized, for example Korea as well as Africa, now in my opinion have more to offer us than we have to offer them. Jenkins noted that there is deep gratitude for our (and their) forebears who were evangelists. But, they've moved on in the faith, and so should we. A good dose of humility, and a sincere interest in walking with and learning from our brothers and sisters in the Christian community, might just help us take part in the new Reformation too.

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