We live in an age in which the churches across America are aging. Gray is not the more common color of hair -- not because we adore gray hair but because so many congregations have so few youth and young adults! This is certainly true across denominations but not across the world. True, what we see beginning here in the USA is already an accomplished fact throughout Europe. Yet it is a grave misunderstanding of the faith to suggest that the Church is or every has been predominantly white or Western. Though nearly every denomination has programs to encourage diversity in the pews here in America, the Christian world has always been filled with diversity -- not by our intent but by God's design!
The great missionary work of the last couple of centuries and even now among some groups would suggest that Christianity is somehow more native to white Westerners than to any other group. The mythology is that Christianity is a white, Western religion forced upon other cultures and that this faith is responsible for the destruction of native cultures and the introduction of slavery to a more egalitarian world. But that picture, as attractive as it might be for progressives and liberals, is a lie.
Westerners were and are certainly mission minded. The reality, however, is that Westerners are directly responsible for only a small number of converts and that the vast majority of the work of witness was accomplished by those converted who brought the Gospel home to their tribes and villages. To be sure, some of Western culture was woven into the Christian witness but the radical effect of the Gospel was not the Westernizing of the mission fields but the Christianity that has thrived even to the present day. This has especially benefited the status of women, worked for the breaking down of economic and tribal barriers, and brought hope to a people struggling against many forces.
It was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called “Christians” — Antioch which lies within the modern day borders of Turkey. So it is a lie to say that Christianity came from the West. Everywhere the Gospel was planted, the life and teachings of Jesus were a scandal and an offense and yet where this Word was spoken a Church was planted that has continued to thrive. Read Acts to find the diversity of a Church in which the Spirit was at work through the preaching and teaching of the Apostles to bring the Good News to every people “from every nation under heaven” (Acts 2:5). Though our maps of the Middle East look all Muslim, that is not how things looked for the first 600 years and Christianity has existed though hidden within modern-day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt.
Though the mythology is that white Westerners brought Christianity to darkest Africa, the reality is very different. In Acts we meet Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and find a path for the Gospel to reach Africa even before it ever had a chance to dominate Europe and the West. Africa has provided the Church with some of our greatest fathers, including Augustine of Hippo! Though we have seen in modern times Christians suffer worse than anyone the divisions of the Middle East, we might have forgotten that Iraq itself was home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world!
So today on All Souls Day it would be good to remember that Christianity is the largest and most diverse faith in the world, that Christianity is found almost equally in in Europe, North America, Latin America, and sub-Saharan Africa, and that nearly two-thirds of Christians today live in the Global South. Thus the center of gravity for the Church is moving more to the Global South and the Church will increasingly become less white and less Western but no less vigorous and even more faithful. For some denominations, their hope lies with these mission lands and for the faith that has flourished even under threat and amid suffering. On All Souls Day, it is a good time to reconsider what a Christian face has and will look like and to give thanks to God who bridges cultures and nations with a mightier force than sword or weapon, with the Word of God!