A growing church is a good thing. A global growing church is even a better thing. One century after its foundation, the Church of the Nazarene is experiencing unparalleled growth and opportunities across the globe and such fast growth of the denomination is a tribute to its firm commitment to fulfilling the Great Commission. However, growth brings many challenges. With new believers in more and diverse cultures, a growing denomination is often required to face the emerging realities of a global movement: unbalanced growth, doctrinal inconsistencies, cultural diversity, and even diverse governance models.
Unbalanced growth: The growth of the global church and the success of denominationalism
In his 2002 study of the growth and development of global Christianity, Philip Jenkins introduced the concept of “the next Christendom.” Jenkins believes that the world is on the verge of a transformational religious shift. As he explains, Christianity, which has traditionally been strong in the Western world, is rapidly expanding south into Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where most of the growth of Christianity is being recorded. Jenkins predicts that by the year 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasian. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in Western nations. Over the past fifty years, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America.
This is especially true for denominations. Mainstream denominations in Europe and North America have faithfully fulfilled their share of the Great Commission over the last century, and most of the growth of Christianity outside in Europe and North America has resulted from the systematic denominational support to the missionary enterprise. On the home front, however, denominational efforts have seen a steady decline in the number of members from the founding culture. In fact, in most Western countries, the growth of denominations is primarily connected to “immigrant and multicultural congregations.”
This challenge, however, gives denominations the opportunity to proactively shift from “national denominations with an international focus” to intentionally “global denominations” that welcome, embrace, and favor, the richness of the global Christian family. Global denominations practice the Apostle Paul’s “exchange model” of Romans 15: 26-27 whereby, regardless of their economic and social condition, Christians share from their spiritual and material wealth from all corners of the world to all corners of the world.
Such “global exchange” also suggests a strong commitment to “unity” instead of “uniformity.” Because the culture of church is so diverse (in the West as it is outside of the West), denominations need to foster and empower the various organic expressions of church so that they can exist within these cultures, generations, and nations even at the expense of homogeneity. Since UNITY IS NOT UNIFORMITY, successful global denominations foster UNITY in PRINCIPLES and DOCTRINE while allowing DIVERSITY in form.
Doctrinal inconsistency and theological reductionism: The two extremes of denominational age.
Throughout its history, the Christian church has faced the question of doctrinal orthodoxy in the midst of growth. The further the church grows from the doctrinal center, the harder it has been for movements to maintain doctrinal orthodoxy and consistency. As the church grows faster and further away from the centers of theological orthodoxy, the risk of losing doctrinal identity becomes more apparent. The unbalanced and rapid growth of denominations outside of the West has resulted in “indigenous, vernacular expressions of faith,” some of which are more syncretistic than biblical. One of the biggest challenges of global denominations that experience exponential growth, and which do not have the adequate mechanisms to facilitate theological teaching and orthodoxy is the loss of doctrinal identity and coherence.
In North America and Europe, on the other hand, denominations are facing the challenge of theological reductionism. The influence of discounts and reductions in society have impacted the life of evangelical denominations, Arthur Evans Gay Jr., former president of the National Association of Evangelicals stated in 1996 that, “in the evangelical community—in America—we are challenged by reductionism. Reductionism in its simplest definition is taking a high and accepted truth and discounting it to a lower value. In this view of Christianity and society, one can have Christian faith but must not display it. One may believe in Christian truth but must not integrate it into the way decisions are made. One may practice Christianity but may not act on it. One may pray in a Christian way but not talk about it. Simply keep your faith in appropriate boundaries and do not display enthusiasm or zeal.”
Theological depth is perhaps the biggest emerging challenge for global denominations. Without proper systems for theological affirmation and teaching, rapidly growing churches in the “mission fields” may encounter themselves with scores of “generic Christians” who cannot properly articulate the most basic theological tenets of the denominations they apparently embrace, while in the home field, denominations may end up like a conglomerate of eclectic congregations that have embraced a rather “discounted” doctrine and theology.
To face this challenge, denominations are given the opportunity to affirm, embrace, and promote their core values and core doctrines in ways that are deliverable to all cultures and all generations in all nations. Because of the cultural and generational complexities, denominations cannot afford to state and promote their core values and doctrine in forms and languages that are only connected to a specific culture, generation, or educational level in the world. Global denominations that successfully navigate the extremes of syncretism and reductionism are those that balance the doctrinal core and the contextual language.
A growing church is a good thing. A solid, global growing church is a better thing. The Church of the Nazarene has the unique opportunity to continue fulfilling the Great Commission and to do so well. The spiritual richness of the former mission fields could be used to re-energize new and old mission fields. The church should be ready to foster a global exchange of ministry models and organic expressions of church from all corners of the earth without compromising the solid and sound doctrine that holds us together.
by Gustavo Crocker
Regional Director, Eurasia Region