Take a minute and think about the “typical Christian.” Where do they live? How old are they? Are they male or female? If you’re like many Westerners, you probably thought of a middle-aged white man living in Nashville, Tennessee or London, England. According to the missions website, “The Traveling Team” (www.thetravelingteam.org), that description would have been accurate in 1907, but in 2007, just one hundred years later, the portrait has drastically changed. The “typical Christian” is now black, African, female, and around the age of 28!
Philip Jenkins in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, traces this shift in Christianity’s center of gravity to what he calls the “Global South.” If current trends continue, Christian churches found in Western countries like the United States, France, Italy and the United Kingdom will see further decline, in part due to low birth rates and strong secular trends. At the same time, a rising tide of conversions to Christ and higher birthrates on three continents – Africa, Asia and Latin/South America – means that Christianity will continue the explosive growth that began in the 20th century. By 2025, Jenkins estimates that there will be 2.6 billion Christians in the world. Of this figure, 66% will be living in the Global South. Likewise, by 2050, for every two Muslims worldwide, there will be three Christians (Jenkins, 2-3, 6).
II. “Lafricasian” Christian worldview: The importance of power
Some have referred to the Global South by the term “Lafricasia” – Latin/South America, Africa and Asia. But whatever label may be given to this area, it is important to try to understand the Christian worldview of fellow believers living in these places. To describe their outlook, Philip Jenkins uses three adjectives: traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural (Jenkins, 9). On the third point, Paul Hiebert has spoken of the “flaw of the excluded middle,” of the Western tendency to explain all events only in naturalistic (scientific) terms (Hiebert, Perspectives, 416). Yet in many parts of Africa, for example, there is a greater awareness of the reality of the unseen world, including ancestors, ghosts, and demons. A cosmic battle between the forces of darkness and forces of light rages, and humans are caught on the battlefield. Christianity is attractive in large part because it provides a powerful means of protection from malevolent forces.
As Wesleyans, what do we have to contribute to such a discussion? First, as William Greathouse has taught, we believe that Christ is victorious over the power of sin. He is the Christus Victor! As we preach the message of sanctification, we must cloth it in language that resonates with Global South listeners. Secondly, we should acknowledge that our Wesleyan spiritual ancestors, including Charles Wesley, used powerful imagery when speaking about physical healing and deliverance from Satan’s power. Finally, as Nazarenes, we should tap elements of our doctrine – such as Article of Faith 14, “Divine Healing” – that emphasize God’s concern for us both spiritually and physically. Our teaching must be holistic. While there are charismatic excesses in Lafricasia, the remedy for false doctrine is not no doctrine but sound doctrine tailored to the everyday needs of people living in areas noted for grinding poverty and oppressive regimes. As always, a delicate and biblical balance is needed. Rather than speaking only of “power,” which neglects righteous living, or only of “holiness,” which can seem abstract and lacking dynamism, we must speak of the “power of a holy life.” We must refuse to separate what God and Scripture have always joined together, as any reading of the book of Acts makes obvious.
To help us understand the moving of the Holy Spirit in the Global South, let us turn our attention to three case studies. The first two – Benin and Bangladesh – will look at Nazarene church growth in two countries of Africa and Asia. The final section will share the story of a young Nazarene from the United States who is investing herself through “Extreme Peru.”
III. In the cradle of Voodoo: Spiritual breakthrough in Benin (West Africa)
Benin (pronounced buh-NEEN) is a country of 8 million people located to the west of Nigeria on Africa’s western shore. Historically, Benin is known as the cradle of Voodoo, an animistic religion with a magical emphasis promoting worship of various territorial gods and goddesses. The work of the Church of the Nazarene officially began in January, 1999, with the arrival of pioneer missionaries Greg and Amy Crofford and their two young sons. Much of the first period was given to theological education, equipping the handful of pastors who would lead the church into God’s bright future. When the Croffords said their goodbyes in June, 2003, they counted four organized churches with a total membership of approximately 350. In a tag-team effort, the Croffords were followed first by Russ and Donna Lovett and later by Matt and Sonya Price. Under the capable direction of the Lovetts and Prices, expansion beyond the coastal city of Cotonou progressed rapidly, with the anointed and visionary leadership of Moïse Toumoudagou, the first Beninese District Superintendent.
As the church has grown, so has spiritual opposition. Disgruntled former members have unsuccessfully attempted to hijack leadership posts in the church by going to court. Village leaders have on occasion stirred up local opposition to “Jesus” film teams, chasing team members away or temporarily confiscating equipment or motorcycles. But despite these measures, Beninese Nazarenes have remained faithful to the Lord, pushing ahead in evangelism using multiple means including the EvangiCube and youth camps. District Assemblies become joyous occasions of prayer, dancing and celebration as pastors report new preaching points, sinners converted and believers established in their faith. The Institut Théologique Nazaréen (Nazarene Theological Institute) is also active, grounding pastors and lay ministers through courses in Bible, theology, and practical ministry.
A highlight in March 2011 was the arrival in Benin of a 13 member Work and Witness team from the East Ohio District. They worked tirelessly alongside Beninese Nazarenes in the northern town of Tanguieta, braving 100 degree days to help construct a district training center. A one day VBS in the neighboring village of Dassare was a great success, as was a friendly soccer match against the NYI from three nearby Nazarene churches. Missionary Tim Eby reported that though the East Ohio visitors lost the match, they won the hearts of the local people.
From those modest beginnings in Benin, God has done great things! The latest available statistics (from June 2009) show a membership exceeding 11,000 scattered among approximately 570 congregations. Most churches have no building but meet in empty schoolrooms or other rented locations (source: http://www.awfcon.org). Please pray that the Lord will continue to protect our leaders both physically and spiritually as they travel from place to place. Ask God to sanctify new believers and to keep the holiness witness shining brightly in a country where too often spiritual darkness is pervasive.
IV. Bangladesh: Historic Ordination Caps Innovative Start
From the western short of Africa, journey east to another location in the Global South. Nestled between Burma and India with the Bay of Bengal to the south, Bangladesh often makes the news in connection with flooding. Yet flood waters are not the only thing overflowing in this largely Islamic country of 142 million people. The tide of the Holy Spirit is coming in and the work of the Church of the Nazarene is on the rise.
In an April 2010 article at Engagemagazine.com, Gina Pottenger chronicles the non-traditional beginnings of a strong Church of the Nazarene in Bangladesh. Rather than starting with outside missionaries, the church began through an invitation by letter sent in the early 1990s to the Eurasia Regional Office by Luigi Faumi, a Somoan living in the capital city of Dhaka. When Regional Director Franklin Cook later discovered the letter, which had been mistakenly filed away, he went to Bangladesh with Steve Weber, head of Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM). There they met Nathan Biswas, who was head of another relief agency. God would use Rev. Biswas – now district superintendent – as a key person to quickly register the church and lay solid foundations, all without the resident help of ex-patriate missionaries. This was a radical strategy for beginning a new work, but from the beginning, it has fostered a heightened sense of ownership of the church by local leaders. Regular visits from outside Nazarene missionaries such as Hermann Gschwandtner, head of NCM in South Asia, have given them a connection to the larger Nazarene family. Theological education provided by the many extension centers of South Asia Nazarene Bible College has assured that pastors in Bangladesh share our Nazarene DNA with a passion for holiness of heart and life.
March 24, 2010 was an historic day for the young Church of the Nazarene in Bangladesh. At the close of the District Assembly, the young church celebrated its first ever ordination, with 193 ordained as elders. Of those, 30 were women. To date, it is the largest ordination ever held in the denomination. Earlier in the Assembly, the district superintendent reported a total of 38,000 members and 1,220 organized churches. In addition to its new elders, seven hundred received district licenses.
Will you pray for Rev. Biswas and the leadership team in Bangladesh? Truly, the Lord is doing something remarkable.
V. Extreme Nazarene: Mobilizing a new generation for radical missions
Like Africa and Asia, Latin and South America are burgeoning with new churches and enthusiasm for the cause of Jesus Christ. Though the number of traditional, long-term Nazarene missionaries serving in the nations of that continent has gradually declined, there still is a need for short-term missionaries to come alongside local Nazarenes and assist in strategic ways. At the 2009 General Assembly in Orlando, Florida, many visitors walked through the “Extreme Peru” display, a trailer segmented to resemble remote Peruvian villages (For more information, visit http://www.extremenazarene.org).
One person who visited the trailer was Cailyn Stevens. A member of a Nazarene congregation in the Cincinnati area, Cailyn had sensed a call to missions from the time she was 7 years old. As a teen, she remembers attending a concert where she heard this quote: “No one has the right to hear the Gospel twice before everyone has heard it once.” Her exposure to the “Extreme Peru” opportunity crystallized that call in a new way. At the time of writing this lesson, she has finished a two year term of service in Peru and has signed up for two more.
Cailyn spent her first 27 months as a 40/40 church planter. When asked to share a story of how God had changed someone’s life, Cailyn wrote:
Pascuala is a single mom of three teenage daughters, who we met after her youngest daughter, Camila, attended a movie we showed at the church. When we visited her house, she told us she was eager to learn more about the Bible, because she had begun listening to a Christian radio station, and knew that God wanted to change her. Pascuala had struggled with alcoholism, and had not always been there for her daughters, but that all changed. She began attending church weekly, and inviting others in her community to come with her. She stopped drinking, and started speaking about what God had done in her life to all around her. Her daughters can also attest the fact that she has changed, and they have begun the same change.
When asked what advice she would give to someone considering a call to missions, Cailyn responded: “Be sure of your call. Rest in the Lord. Be guided by the Holy Spirit. And there is nothing better than sharing the love of the Liberating King.” Will you pray for Cailyn and the many others who are stepping out in faith to build the Kingdom of God in this portion of the Global South?
Whether in Africa, Asia or Latin/South America, the Holy Spirit is moving in mighty ways in the Global South, the cutting edge of Christianity. The growth of the Church of the Nazarene in places like Benin, Bangladesh and Peru is exciting to see. Whatever part of the globe we live in, we can be grateful to the Lord that we are living in a time of exciting advance for the Kingdom of God.
This essay by Dr. Crofford is part of a four part series of lessons developed by Greg and Amy Crofford for Nazarene Missions International (NMI).
Photo credit: Interpares