The Shift of the Christian Center (Lausanne/Cape Town 2010 Memo #13)

Where is the center of the Christian world?  I remember having a conversation with my dad about this back in the 1980s.  At the time, he was serving as the president of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.  I was studying overseas.  Under his leadership, Moody was having a huge impact on the evangelical church in the United States. It was the heyday of American evangelicalism.   But I said something to my dad that he did not like.  Now of course, he had poured his life into Moody, and was immersed in its many ministries.    So I understand his reaction.  What I said was, “you know dad, Moody is not the center of the Christian world.”  This was not something he wanted to hear, and I am sure he thought his son was losing it. 

Where is the center of the Christian world?  Throughout church history many have offered answers to that question.   At one time, the answer would have been Jerusalem.  Some time later people would have said  Antioch.  In time, others  would have said Alexandria, Egypt.   In the early second century some would have answered Asia Minor, where the seven churches of the  book of Revelation are located.   Later the church in Rome made a claim to be the center.  Then the church in Constantinople.  Later, the church in Moscow made the claim!  During the Reformation, I imagine Germans in Wittenberg felt that they were the center.  Perhaps the many refugees in Geneva, gathered under John Calvin’s influence thought the same thing about their city.  The same thing may have happened to Scottish Christians at the time of John Knox.

In the United States, there were moments in the American church story when Christians thought they were the center of the Christian world.  When the first Great Awakening broke out in New England, and the Eastern colonies, some thought the center of the Christian world was there.   When the second great awakening swept over Kentucky, New York and Chicago some thought its center was there.   When Billy Sunday picked up the mantle of evangelical  leadership in the 1920s, and some honestly thought its center was in Winona Like Indiana! When revivals broke out at Wheaton College, in Illinois  as the evangelical Vatican city.   Since that time,  others have claimed it was in Pasadena, California, Colorado Springs, or Dallas Texas.

Where is the center of the Christian world?  Some have thought it was where there ministry was located.   Was it at Westminster Seminary?  Azusa Street in Los Angeles?  Moody Bible Institute?   Minneapolis, Minnesota where Billy Graham had his headquarters for years?  Dallas Theological Seminary?   Focus on the Family?  Southern Seminary in Louisville?  Masters? RTS?

Where is the center of the Christian world?  Missiologists tell us that the center has shifted.
Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, reminds us that the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all North America.  He says it was overwhelmingly white and Western.  But the center of gravity in the Christian world, he says, has shifted southward to Africa and Latin America and Eastward to Asia.   The largest Christian communities are to be found in Africa and Latin America.   If we want to visualize a typical contemporary Christian, Jenkins says, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian Favela.   The centers are no longer Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila The center of Christian dynamism has shifted. Lausanne III here in Cape town has validated much of what he says.

Christians in the West will be quick to qualify all this and say—“don’t count us out.”  Even thought there is a huge decline in the European church, and a plateauing of the American church, they still exercise a powerful influence as is seen in the motivating leadership of Lausanne itself.  George Verwer, founder of Operation Mobilization told me, “If we think Christians in other nations are more trained or on target than we are in most areas, then we have got the wrong picture.” He was pointing out the need for strong Biblical churches faithfully preaching the whole counsel of God.   

There is always a danger, whether we are “the old Christendom” or the “new Christendom,” in thinking that WE are  the center of dynamism in the Christian world.   It is tremendously shortsighted.  In so doing we overestimate how much God needs us and underestimate what God is doing elsewhere.

Where is the center of the Christian world?  The truth is, although the center has shifted time and time again, it cannot be tied down to a ministry, or a city, or even a place.  Christianity is a global, transnational movement.  The word of God is not bound.   That is because the center of Christianity is a person—the person of Jesus Christ, who is exalted over time and place, but who continues to make his presence known all over the earth.  He will continue to do so until he comes again and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of the Lord and his Christ.

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