by Bo Sanders (from Everyday Theology)
I have recently moved to Southern California (from the Pacific Northwest and the NorthEastern United States before that) and I have been thinking increasingly about three themes that I wrote about in my master’s thesis. First a story .
My nephew and I went to church our first week here. We were two of the five white people at the service. It was primarily a Japanese and Korean congregation with some Hispanic and a few Blacks. I had a wonderful talk with my nephew on the way home about A) the future of America and B) the irony of him being from Montana where the white/non-white split may actually be at exact inverse proportions to our church service.
I also started a new program in Practical Theology (sound like an oxymoron to most) at a school that is preparing for the future by taking a bold look at religious diversity, inter-faith engagements and the future of pluralism.
All of this got me thinking about these three things that will play major roles in our lifetime:
– the shift toward the global south
– the changing demographics of North America
– and the post-modern shift in thinking.
Shifting Global Realities
Philip Jenkins in his book The Next Christendom outlines a global demographic shift towards a southern hemisphere expression of Christianity based in Asia, Africa, and South America. “By 2050, only about one fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites” (p. 3). These changes will alter not just population centers but levels of influence as well – at least they will create a new pressure. This shift away from the north Atlantic remnants of Christendom houses significant implications, the foremost of which applies to frameworks and expressions based in Enlightenment philosophies embodied in notions of ONE right way to do things (European) – which is really cultural imperialism. “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning” (p. 3).
The ramifications of this global shift southward will be immense, though one can anticipate the epic nature of such a change – especially when in partnership with the changing demographics inside the traditionally Christian countries of the north Atlantic.
Shifting Demographics in North America
Soong-Chan Rah entitled his book The Next Evangelicalism as a nod toward Philip Jenkins’ seminal work (p. 12-13). The author then takes those statistical analysis that Jenkins built his work upon in order and illustrates that the changing demographics were not merely foreign but were illustrative of a shift happening locally as well. “The unavoidable reality is that, by the year 2050, projections point to a nation without an ethnic majority. America will no longer be a Eurocentric, white nation” (p. 74). He goes on to assert that the “nonwhite” makeup within Protestant churches will be realized sooner than the population as a whole due to the composite nature of Evangelical, Charismatic and Pentecostal denominations.
This phenomenon referred to as “the Browning of America” (p. 184) is a demographic reality that will instigate unprecedented ramifications in both theology and, I assume, church practices. This shift will also provide an unparalleled opportunity to embrace diversity and mutuality – instead of just tolerance (Randy Woodley asks “who wants to be tolerated?”).
I may sound like a dreamer, but if we are willing to wake up and see what is coming and the get on board (ahead of the curve) and embrace this… we could experience and demonstrate the relational nature of the Gospel in a way that has seldom been realized in history.
I’m always saying that all content happens in a context.
This is our context (at least partly).
These shifts – the growth of the global south & the changing demographics of North America (as well as the postmodern situation) – will obviously bring new people to the conversation, it will bring changes to the people involved in the theological endeavor, alterations to the perspective of those people involved, as well as changes to the very philosophical frameworks and expectations of what they are engaged in.
Many writers, such as M. Thomas Thangaraj, look at the unprecedented rate of change in our time and the radical nature of those changes and remind us of that fact that all humans are embedded in histories. That is important because the changes in populations that we talked about earlier, post-colonial perspectives, and global frameworks provide a formidable convergence of factors that we can expect to alter the theological landscape. Thangaraj looks at the past 30 years with the political changes in Eastern Europe (think about the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War !), religious and political developments in India and Sri Lanka along with “the arrival of cable TV, the Internet, and other modes of communication” (written in 1999 p. 43).
Contextual theology, holds that all theology is essentially contextual, and prepares us for the radical adjustments that will be brought to the theological arena in our era. Stephan Bevans reminds us:
“The contextualization of theology – the attempt to understand Christian faith in terms of a particular context – is really a theological imperative. As we have come to understand theology today, it is a process that is part of the nature of theology itself.” ( Models of Contextual Theology p. 3)
The implications of the these shifts when partnered with the expectation that contextualization brings of recognizing diverse cultural perspectives and expressions looks to deliver Christian theology into a new era.