I have loved studying church history and global Christianity for well over 30 years. This passion has been fed by my thirty-year friendship with Scott W. Sunquist, a gifted scholar who now serves as a Dean at Fuller Theological Seminary. While God led Scott into PhD work and seminary teaching, God led me to pastor a local church. Yet our different paths, along with our common passion for Christ and His mission, have served as an “iron sharpening iron” experience over the years for us.
Scott recently released an important book entitled – The Unexpected Christian Century – that captures some important insights as we consider the work of God today. Consider the following image:
The graphic illustrates the following:
- Christian faith has deep roots going back to Creation and the work of God in Israel over the centuries.
- What holds The Church together is Jesus (God incarnate who has entered our world as a human being), our commitment to Scripture as God’s Word, our recognition of His ongoing work in the Holy Spirit, and our eagerness to proclaim Jesus to the world.
- Only one church exists in the world (consisting of all true believers in Jesus Christ). And this church has 4 main branches. While their branches intermingle in many ways (e.g. we have liturgical Protestants, evangelical and charismatic Roman Catholics), each looks to a different, primary source for their authority. Protestants look to the Bible; Roman Catholics look to the Curia; Orthodox churches look to the liturgy; and the Spiritual churches find their inspiration directly from biblical witness and the Holy Spirit. (Yes, there is overlap here also).
- A fourth branch emerged in the 20th century – in Africa, China, and Brazil – and is powerfully changing the face of global Christianity. In fact, “they are the main story in the transformation of the world Christian movement in the 20th century” (Sunquist, The Unexpected Christian Century). Africa, for example, had 10 million believers in 1900, 144 million by 1970, and over 400 million by 2012. 53% of Africans now consider themselves Christians and they are now planting large churches in Europe, North America, and beyond.
One of these new Spiritual/Pentecostal churches was founded by an African Christian prophet named Simon Kimbangu (1889-1951). Born in the Congo, he received a direct vision of Jesus. So powerful was his healing/preaching that within 5 months a mass movement had started. He was arrested, however, after only 5 months, given 120 lashes, and sent 1000 miles away for next 30 years to prison until he died. Yet, the Kimbanguist Church is the largest of more than 8000 African Independent Churches (AIG’s).
What might all this mean? First, may you and I be listening to the Holy Spirit and how He wants to extend the mission of Jesus in our day! Secondly, let’s be prayerful and loving towards the whole church. We are part of a larger church in the world that is much larger and more diverse than we could ever imagine. May we increasingly focus on our unity in Jesus (Jn.17:20-26). And thirdly, we have much we can learn from our brothers and sisters who are so very different than us.
Yes, the Roman Catholics, Orthodox and these newer Spiritual/Pentecostal churches have plenty of problems. Remember, however, that we too have our own “dirty laundry” and blind spots. Martin Luther intensely disliked Jews and wrote essays against them that the Nazi’s cited; Zwingli condoned the drowning of Anabaptists because they believed in baptism by immersion. Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield were slaveholders. The secularism and materialism of the American church is a scandal to the rest of the world. The list goes on.
I love our Protestant, evangelical branch within the global church. We have a great deal to offer. But may we not forget that we have a lot to learn from other Christians in the Body of Christ, i.e. the much larger “tree” that God is growing around the world.