When you think of ‘church’ what comes to your mind? A building, an institution, a local congregation or a multitude of believers spanning the world? Your perspective of the church will have a great influence on how you view her future.
If you believe all you hear in the media, you could conclude the church is ineffective, irrelevant and a dying institution. However, nothing could be further from the truth. While the church in the Western world is facing challenges, the demise of the Christian faith is a long way from an actuality. Try suggesting the church is dying to Christians in Seoul or Nairobi . . . they would wholeheartedly disagree with you!
Throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America, the church is experiencing tremendous growth. At the start of the 1900s about nine per cent of Africa was Christian. During the 1960s, the proportion of Christians surpassed that of Muslims for the first time, and today about 50 per cent of all Africans are Christian.
This amazing growth in different parts of the world is bringing a shift to the demographic centre of Christianity. Since the Day of Pentecost the centre of the church has resided in the northern hemisphere, but soon the centre of influence will move from the northern hemisphere and places like Rome, Paris, London and New York, to the south and cities like Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, Seoul and Nairobi.
This move south will bring changes in the way Christians express their faith. Some Christians in these developing countries express their faith in different ways to our traditions and their faith can look strange to our Western eyes. Yet, despite these differences, many who make up the church in the southern hemisphere are quite biblical, sometimes more so than we are. They take the supernatural – prophecy, spiritual healing, dreams and visions – seriously, and they are enthusiastic and charismatic. In fact, projections suggest that by 2040 the number of Pentecostal Christians will exceed one billion.
How should we respond
One of the most important things we should do is to choose to look at the bigger picture of what God is doing rather than just our immediate context. God is at work in the world, there is no doubt about that. The questions is, are we aware of it?
If we believed the media reports that the church in Australia is backward, archaic and in danger of falling over, we can easily be left feeling despondent and despairing. However, looking at the bigger picture of what God is doing around the world can change all that. Despair is replaced with hope and we’re strengthened. We begin to see our context within God’s overall strategy. It gives us the strength and will to persevere and stand against the false images and expectations the media serves us.
Jesus said he would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. (Matt 16:18) Despite the challenges we face, this remains true and the growth of the church across the world proves it. So let us not lose hope with our current situation, but be encouraged and spurred on by all God is doing around the world.
What are your reflections on the nature of church growth in Australia?
Stephen L Baxter