The Challenge of Independent Christianity Print
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 01 May 2007 08:59
Posted for Sherry W:

At the end of 2005, I spent several weeks writing a 10,000 word article about the dramatic rise of a new kind of Christianity – sometimes called Independent Christianity – which already makes up 20% of all Christians in the world. I wrote the piece for Dom Bettinelli, who was then editor of the Catholic World Report but in the end, it didn’t get published.

I can’t really see another Catholic magazine publishing a unique 10,000 word piece like this but it incorporates one of a kind information made possible by my unusual background and it seems important that it be published in some venue. So I decided to post it (in several installments!) on ID for your web reading pleasure. Here’s installment number one.

Twenty years ago, as a young evangelical Protestant preparing to become a missionary, I spent some time on the West Bank. One of the things that forcibly strikes anyone who visits that part of the world is how incredibly difficult it is to sort out whose history, whose view of the situation, is real. You could listen to impassioned stories from Palestinians about Israeli atrocities and be utterly convinced that you understood what was happening. Then, all you had to do was hear Israeli horror stories about terrorism and all your certainties crumbled. How could such mutually exclusive understandings of the same recent history co-exist? I was stranded between alternate universes that were hermetically sealed off from one another by diametrically opposed communal narratives.

A few years after returning to the US, I entered the Church. Since then, the mission ad gentes – in both its evangelical and Catholic guises - have remained a kind of private passion and I’ve done my best to keep up with the global missions scene. My current work in lay formation hasn’t called upon my rapidly vanishing knowledge of Arabic but the lessons on negotiating profoundly different worldviews have proved invaluable. I think of myself a bi-cultural Christian. I “speak” both Catholic and evangelical Protestant fluently and spend a lot of time translating concepts and terms from one tradition to the other. Over the years, I have discovered that the biggest gap between these two forms of Christianity is not covered in the classic debates about the authority of Scripture or salvation by faith alone. The biggest gap, the one I still struggle with, is a chasm of imagination.

My missionary past and Catholic present collided when I came across Peter C. Phan’s article “Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom, by Whom, with Whom, and How?” (www.sedos.org/english/phan.htm). Phan’s title intrigued me and I started to read eagerly, only to be stunned by the first few paragraphs:

But now things have changed, and changed utterly. The change from the enthusiasm and optimism of the World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910—whose catchy slogan was "The evangelization of the world in this generation"—to the discouragement and even pessimism in today’s missionary circles, Catholic and Protestant alike, is visible and palpable. . . .To the consternation of Western missionaries, the shout "Missionary, go home" was raised in the 1960s, to be followed a decade later by the demand for a moratorium on Christian missions from the West.

In addition to the political factors, the collapse of mission as we knew it was also caused by the unexpected resurgence of the so-called non-Christian religions, in particular Hinduism and Islam. The missionaries’ rosy predictions of their early demise were vastly premature. Concomitant with this phenomenon is an intense awareness of religious pluralism which advocates several distinct, independent, and equally valid ways to reach the Divine and therefore makes conversion from one religion to another, which was considered as the goal of mission, unnecessary. [emphasis mine]

I was incredulous. I knew that the last word one could use of the Christian missionary enterprise at the beginning of the 21st century was “collapse”. Once more, I was standing on the edge of an unbridgeable chasm of experience that yawned between this prominent American theologian and the world I had known. I couldn’t help but wonder if Peter Phan inhabited the same planet as the evangelicals with whom I had lived and studied. Discouragement? Pessimism? Evangelical missionaries have faced the same historical and cultural realities as Catholics since 1960. But they believe that they have been privileged to be part of the greatest expansion of Christianity in history and are absolutely exuberant about the future of missions.

I was reminded of this again last week when my twin brother told me this story: Last summer he accompanied a team of volunteers from his evangelical church to build a house in an extremely poor Indian village in southern Baja. My brother is an experienced chiropractor who has pioneered new techniques and traveled around the world teaching them. Gary was treating local people when a frail woman was brought in who had suffered from a serious and very painful dislocation of the elbow for 3 years. Gary hesitated. There was no way to obtain an x-ray. Treating such a neglected injury in a woman who was already fragile without proper diagnostic tools is very tricky and he was afraid that he would hurt her. As he struggled to decide what to do, a local Protestant pastor suggested that he pray. Gary did so, asking that the bones align themselves properly.

My brother said that the woman’s arm started to quiver and then, with a loud pop that was heard all over the room, the elbow slipped into place by itself. The woman had full strength almost immediately. The visiting team asked the woman to share her healing with the teen-agers on the trip so that they would know that they could expect great things from God. My brother joyfully summed it up this way: “The whole experience was what church should be like.”

What do you think? Does my brother’s story sound too “out there”, too dramatic or perhaps too presumptuous? If so, I have some folks I’d like you to meet. My brother and the missionaries that I knew in my Protestant days are part of an explosive global movement that most Catholics, even missiologists like Peter Phan, apparently don’t yet know exists. This new kind of Christianity is growing like wildfire, expects signs and wonders to occur on a regular basis, and is “separated from, uninterested in, and independent of historic, denominationalist Christianity” (World Christian Encyclopedia, p. 28).

To be honest, I have both longed and hesitated to write this article. I longed to write it because Catholic ignorance of this emerging form of Christianity is distorting our pastoral and theological discussions. More immediately, millions of Catholics around the world are already part of the movement or are being significantly influenced by its beliefs and practices. I have hesitated because trying to explain this kind of Christianity to conservative Catholics is a bit like trying to describe life on Mars. It is exactly the sort of thing that gives many traditionally minded Catholics hives. All I can ask is what the average Cineplex blockbuster asks of you: the willing suspension of disbelief and the active engagement of your imagination.

Part two tomorrow!

Click here to jump to Part II.