Since Amy over at Open Book has linked to my Monday post on Christianity in Asia, I thought it would make sense to repost a relevant excerpt from that 10 part article on Independent Christianity posted originally in early May.
The Debate over Dominus Iesus & the Validity of Contemporary Missions
There is a chasm the size of the Grand Canyon between the Independent reading of Christian fortunes in Asia and that of theologians like Peter Phan. Phan asserted, in an article titled “The Next Christianity” (America, February 3, 2003), that at most Christians in Asia make up only 3% of the population after 500 years of evangelization and strongly implied that the missionary enterprise was a bust. Meanwhile, David Barrett gives a figure that is three times larger (9%), and which represents a fourfold growth in Asian Christianity since 1900. Indeed, Barrett estimates that Christians will outnumber Buddhists in Asia before 2025!
At first, I was flummoxed. How could two experts in the field come up with figures that were so far apart? The answer came when I discovered that both Barrett and Fides, the communication arm of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, put the number of Asian Catholics in 2002 at 110 million or 2.9% of the total population. (Sherry’s note: David Barrett’s updated 2005 figures estimate that there are nearly 123 million Catholics in Asia.)
I realized that Phan must be using the word Christian as a synonym for Catholic. But there are twice as many non-Catholic Christians as Catholics in Asia. When I added in the numbers of Asian Protestants (57 million), the Orthodox (13.6 million), and the huge numbers of new independent Christians (179 million), the gap between 3% and 9% was easily bridged.
This is not just statistical nit-picking. Our understanding of the state of global Christianity is shaping our theological discussions. For example, John Allen’s September 23, 2005 summary of global Catholicism in The Word From Rome, states:
There's a sense in which Asian Catholicism is to the Catholic church today what Latin America was in the 1970s and 1980s, that is, the frontline of the most important theological question of the day . . . Today, it's over what theological sense to make of religious diversity, meaning whether or not we can say that God wills religious diversity, and if God does will it, what does that do to Christianity's missionary imperative? In Asia, the social reality of Christianity as a tiny minority surrounded by millennia-old religious traditions such as Hinduism and Buddhism makes this an urgent, and inescapable, theological challenge.
Sherry’s note: the emphasis is mine.
Once again, we are being told that one of the primary reasons to rethink historic Christian belief and practice regarding the mission ad gentes is the failure of that mission. And once again, the dramatically different experience of non-Catholic Christians, who comprise two thirds of Asian Christianity, is not being taken into account when discussing this issue.
It is sometimes said that Catholics have a “big battalion” mentality. Is being a small but growing minority evidence of a failed mission? This would seem to imply that “success” involves the rapid conversion of the majority and the establishment of some kind of “Christendom”. In contrast, Independent Christians expect to be a minority and have no use for Christendom. They accept “outsider” status as the normal situation in which Christians live in this world and in which evangelization and mission occurs. For them, minority status is not evidence of mission failure. What matters is, “Are people becoming intentional disciples of Jesus Christ?”
The conversion of 1% of the population of a hitherto completely non-Christian people would be regarded by Independents as a giant breakthrough. But viewed through the lens of the “Christendom norm,” it could be used to “prove” the futility of missionary activity.
Nepal is an excellent case in point. Until 1951, Nepal was completely closed off to all missionary work. In 1960, there was only a handful of known Nepali Christians. The big breakthrough occurred in the early 60’s when two lay evangelists from India crossed the Himalayas to share the Gospel.
By 1970, there were about 7,450 Nepali Christians in an illegal underground movement led by teenagers who were tortured and imprisoned for their faith. In the early 80’s, I remember hearing an evangelical woman missionary just back from Nepal describing the marks of torture still visible on the hands of the young leaders. By the turn of the millennium, there were almost 600,000 Christians in Nepal, most associated with indigenous, New Apostolic movements.
Nepali Christianity is growing so fast that Barrett estimates that the Christian population topped 768,000 by mid-2005 and now makes up 2.8% of the total population. 582,000 or 76% of Nepal’s Christians are Independents. There are only 6,626 known Catholics in the country.
“At least 40 to 60 percent of the Nepali church became Christians as a direct result of a miracle," says Sandy Anderson of the Sowers Ministry. "Most times the people do not know what we are talking about when we preach the gospel. That's why it is very important to demonstrate the gospel. We preach. Then God heals the sick when we pray. The gospel is not only preached but demonstrated in Nepal." (The Church at the Top of the World, April 3, 2000, Christianity Today).
So what’s the verdict? Are the Christians of Nepal a failed and beleaguered minority, or a success story that sounds remarkably like the first century church? How different the evangelical imperative looks if we stop assuming that creating another Christendom—the ultimate big battalion—is the measure of validity.
Independents aren’t the only Christians who have experienced dramatic growth in recent years. Catholic growth alone - outside the west - has sometimes been spectacular in the past century. As John Allen points out:
Africa in the 20th century went from a Catholic population of 1.9 million in 1900 to 130 million in 2000, a growth rate of 6,708 percent, the most rapid expansion of Catholicism in a single continent in 2,000 years of church history. Thirty-seven percent of all baptisms in Africa today are of adults, considered a reliable measure of evangelization success since it indicates a change in religious affiliation.” The Word from Rome, September 23, 2005.
How can we simply dismiss Catholic missions as a failure? If we look at the overall picture of Asian Christianity, Christians are likely to outnumber Buddhists in less than 20 years. How can we call them a “tiny minority”?
Here the contrast between Catholic and evangelical interpretations of mission history since 1960 is that of night and day, winter and summer.
What does it mean for the debate about Dominus Iesus and multiple economies of salvation if a significant portion of global Christianity is experiencing dramatic, unprecedented growth as a result of vigorously proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord?
In what ways should the very different experiences of non-Catholic Christians challenge our current practice in this area?