The Global South And The Transformation Of Protestantism

In this chapter, we have sketched some of the developments taking place within Protestantism beyond the traditional heartlands of the West. A fuller analysis would consider many other regional developments, each fascinating and significant in itself, yet precluded from discussion owing to lack of space. The growth and transmutation of Protestantism in Hong Kong during its period as a British colony,32 in

China,33 and in Indonesia34—each has its proper place in the greater narrative of which this book can only tell part. Similarly, there is much that can be learned from the present failure of Protestantism to emulate such patterns of growth and development in other regions of the world, such as Japan, where many Protestant denominations and representative groups remain suspicious of Pentecostalism.35

So what can be learned? What conclusions can be drawn? The most obvious point is that a Darwinian restlessness is evident within Protestantism. New forms are emerging in response to rapidly changing cultures and environments and the religious and social needs of the moment. In Western cultures, where historical constraints—such as state churches or a de facto religious establishment—are operational, such developments can be controlled or marginalized. But in the global South, especially since decolonization, such restraints generally do not exist. Only in Islamic nations is such a degree of enforced political control of Christianity now possible.

The result has been an unprecedented outbreak of entrepreneurial adaptation, leading to the emergence of new ways of conceiving the gospel. And as traditional control mechanisms begin to crumble in the West, partly under consumerist pressures, new possibilities for "being church" are beginning to emerge. Many in the West are exploring the cell church model, despite the fact that it originated as an analogue of the family in a social context in which the family plays a much more significant social role than it does in the West.

Yet whether this specific model of the church finds wider acceptance or not, Protestantism in the global South is forcing a radical rethinking of Protestant theories of the church (ecclesiologies) in the West. As we noted earlier, the core elements of all such theories are the proclamation of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments. Everything else is negotiable. Yet over the years, certain habits of mind and action have led Protestant ecclesiologies to remain shaped by the assumptions and norms of long-dead leaders and long-past social contexts. Above all, they have been dominated by the assumption that the church's task is primarily educational, social, and pastoral. This was indeed the function of the church in an era when Christendom was still a plausible notion.

Protestantism in the global South has long since learned to work within a "post-Christendom" model of the church in which evangelism and the cultivation of discipleship are seen as integral to the mission of the church, alongside social outreach, pastoral care, and teaching.36 It has developed ecclesiologies that are adapted to the realities of their day and age, not to those of sixteenth-century Geneva or Elizabethan England. The basic aim has been to construct "local theologies" in which the "seed of faith is allowed to interact with the native soil, leading to a new flowering of Christianity, faithful both to the local culture and to the apostolic faith."37 As secularism continues to be a significant presence in the West, the retrieval of this kind of ecclesiology is essential to Western Protestantism's conception of its identity and tasks. What the church believes it is determines what it does as it shapes its priorities and agendas.

These developments are not geographically limited to the global South. Immigration from the south to the north has led to the emergence of these trends within Protestantism in its Western homelands. An excellent example is the arrival of the "new Pentecostal" African Initiated Churches in London, which have experienced significantly greater growth than older forms of black Pentecostalism. Of these, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) is the largest and most successful in terms of membership growth. The RCCG planted its first church in Britain back in 1985, with just four people attending the first service. Today it has fifty churches of varying sizes, with a membership somewhere in the region of 200,000—mostly in London and the Midlands, but also with sizable representation in a number of Britain's larger urban areas. In part, this growth may be put down to the historic need to provide social support structures in an alien culture.38 Yet the question remains: why this form of Pentecostalism rather than the older forms? And will the AICs penetrate the mainstream of British Christianity, or will they continue to be seen as a west African phenomenon? Many in these churches see themselves as missionaries to British culture as a whole, not simply to its immigrant communities.

The forms of Protestantism now emerging in the global South also pose a powerful challenge to traditional Western notions of theology. To Protestant leaders and pastors in the South, Western Protestantism has suffered from an overintellectualized theological tradition and a weakened spirituality. In their view, this has weakened Protestantism's capacity to transform individuals and society in the West; furthermore, its well-meaning efforts to impose the same approaches on emerging churches without regard to their very different situations may have undermined their capacity for growth.

The challenge to Western Protestantism at this point is clear. Since Christians outside of Europe and North America live their faith in different historical, political, socioeconomic, and religious contexts, the kinds of questions they are asking are substantially different from those asked in the Western tradition. As the great South African church leader Desmond Tutu once remarked, Western theology has some splendid answers—but they are answers to questions that no one else seems to be asking.

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