Why you should care

Because the West is about to get a taste of its own spiritual medicine.

When Pastor Simon Khaemba visited the United States, he was shocked. As a leader of Kenya’s Quaker community, he was excited to visit fellow “Friends,” as they are known, in North America. But instead of elation, he felt discomfort. Why were they worshipping in silence? (His services include live music and singing.) And why on God’s green earth did they allow gay people to marry? (Kenyans won’t even consider it.) “Sometimes,” he says, sitting in his cramped basement office in Nairobi, “I think we should send evangelists to Western countries.”

He’s not the only one. The world is witnessing a surge in missionaries from the global south. In fact, a report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity calculated that back in 2010, approximately half of the 400,000 international missionaries came from countries such as South Africa, the Philippines, India or Nigeria. But one of the authors, Albert Wayne Hickman, says the number is likely much higher now “and will likely continue to grow.” And by 2050, according to the Pew Research Center, North America will have less than half of Africa’s Christian population; European Christians’ numbers are plummeting too. The major exception: the United Kingdom, where Pentecostalism — imported from West Africa — is on the rise.

So as the centers of Christian power shift, so too does the age-old missionary balance. Time to ditch the image of the Bible-bearing Brit shouting the word of God to bewildered Australian pagans. But the new missionaries now look like Nigerian pastors-turned-evangelical superstars. Or teenage Colombian Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to remind the West that we have strayed in our ways. “Southern churches” — referring to the global south — “are aggressive in their evangelism,” says Nimi Wariboko, member of the Center for Global Christianity & Mission at Boston University.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, the Redeemed Christian Church of God, which was founded in a shantytown in Lagos, now has missions in more than 100 countries. And the Pentecostal United Church of Colombia has missions in more than a dozen developed nations, from Switzerland to Japan. And they have much to teach Christians in Europe or North America. Sunday services in Nigeria and Kenya are often loud, packed and joyous, while churches in England or Ottowa struggle to attract more than a handful of increasingly elderly followers. “The West has taught us a lot, but now it is their turn to learn from us,” says Pastor Patrick Kuchio, head of missions for a Nairobi-based church with a branch in Washington, D.C.

And what might those lessons be? Many denominations triumphing in some of these countries — from Pentecostal to Catholics — are more socially reactionary than those in developed nations. Take homosexuality. The Pope may say that God loves us all, but 130 million Catholics in Brazil feel very differently about the issue and they, together with countries such as Chile or the Democratic Republic of Congo, are now the majority. “Of course, the power of the Church could move to Buenos Aires or Lagos without the earth spinning out of its orbit,” Wariboko says, “but the West can keep its symbolic, foundational position because the Christians in the south will ever be grateful to it for its historic service.”

The burgeoning presence of African cultures in Christianity will change Christianity itself, says Robert Beckford, professor of theology at Canterbury Christ Church University in the U.K. For one, Africans tend to take a hard line on anything pre-Christian, for instance — they fully disavow traditional practices “to show they are anti-witchcraft.” This at a time when Christians the world over are becoming more syncretic, allowing things such as Zen Christianity or Universalism. Beckford adds that these churches may also emphasize healing and social justice alongside a structure of the church as a business venture. It’s that sense that the church is an “enterprise, the belief that a church is more than just a place to pray” — but a place for justice, helping the poor, making business and building a life. “That is what the Western churches seem to be copying now,” he says.

Daniel Flechsig, a pastor in Berlin, agrees, and talks of how missionaries from the West experience their visits to developing nations as a bit more like cultural exchanges. “We are actually trying to copy what the African churches do because it’s obviously working.” Specifically — in Africa, attendance at church is no big thing. Not the case in the U.S. He says he went to Africa for three years, but “they didn’t need my help. We just learned from each other.” Now Flechsig tries to apply some of these lessons — such as having kid-friendly masses or playing pop music — to his small white chapel in a middle-class neighborhood of Germany’s capital.

And of course, the nature of mission work changes as the missionaries themselves change. It’s not like people in San Francisco are receiving housing aid from Colombians.

It’s hard to say how this will play out, whether the headquarters of the Catholic Church will one day move to Medellín or the Pentecostal Church in Nigeria will split ties with the north and become a fully independent entity. But change is certainly afoot inside one of the world’s oldest and most powerful institutions. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” says Pastor Khaemba, “but it’s going to be interesting.”

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