Two books on the changing face of the global (and western) church

Jehu Hanciles: 'Beyond Christendom: globalization, African migration and the transformation of the West' (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2008)

Soong-Chan Rah: 'The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity' (Downers Grove: IVP, 2009)

Reviewed by Stuart Murray Williams

Together these two books offer fresh perspectives on the growth and significance of non-western congregations in western societies. Written by an African American and a Korean American, they both concentrate on the American scene, which is different from the British or European context, but there are many transferable elements. Both books are hopeful in tone, encouraging readers to recognise the huge potential of immigrant congregations and their missionary leaders for the evangelisation and transformation of post-Christendom societies.

Both authors are also highly, and justifiably, critical of the tendency of western church leaders and writers to remain locked into western ways of thinking in their understanding of contemporary missional realities. Hanciles castigates Philip Jenkins for employing the loaded term ‘the next Christendom’ in his survey of Christianity in the global south; Rah suggests that the term ‘emergent church’ might better be applied to the burgeoning non-western congregations that are spreading across western culture than to the very limited reconfiguration of the white western church to which it normally refers. Both recognise the persistence of racism, as well as the pervasive influence of materialism, in western churches as hindrances to mission in western societies and partnership with immigrant congregations.

Rah’s book is much the easier read – not only shorter but more focused – but trenchant in its critique of the cultural captivity of western evangelicalism. Hanciles offers a wider angle of vision, exploring various aspects of globalization, tracing the close but generally unacknowledged relationship between migration and mission, providing a wealth of data about contemporary patterns of migration, and drawing on detailed interviews with the leaders of African churches in America. Together they present a very powerful case for moving beyond old cultural and ecclesial paradigms and discerning a new move of God through non-western congregations that has the capacity to re-evangelise the West.

Neither book, however, offers a persuasive argument that immigrant congregations will soon find ways to impact the indigenous population in post-Christendom societies. There are indications, especially in Beyond Christendom, that several congregations and their leaders are deeply committed to such cross-cultural mission and are becoming aware of the challenges involved. And there are some examples of progress towards authentically multicultural churches. But, despite the remarkable impact of immigrant congregations in evangelising within their own ethnic communities and in some other immigrant groups, it seems that it will require a new generation of African and Korean Christians raised in the West to embrace the challenge of reaching secular, materialistic westerners and to learn how to cross in reverse the cultural barriers that western missionaries encountered in the past in Africa and Asia.

In the meantime, however, Rah and Hanciles challenge western paradigms and biases, inviting us to recognise that the world and the church are experiencing a profound shift in orientation and that we simply have to stop thinking in outmoded Christendom, colonial and blinkered western categories. These are very welcome additions to the expanding literature on contemporary mission written by non-western scholars and practitioners