On average, I take four international trips a year.  For example, I’ve just returned from Spain, where I spoke at a conference of youth pastors.  My travels have given me a snapshot glimpse of the church in some eighty different countries.

I remember my first Russian Orthodox service, designed to express mystery and majesty.  The typical service lasts three to four hours, with worshipers entering and leaving at will.  No one invites congregants to “pass the peace” or “greet the folks around you with a smile.”  They stand—there are no chairs or pews—and watch the professionals.

I did not understand a word, and I learned that no one else did either: Russian services are conducted in Old Church Slavonic, which only the priests understand.  Likewise, in Egypt I attended a service conducted in a Coptic language that none except the priests could speak.  Whereas publishers in the U.S. bring out a newly readable version of the Bible every six months or so, in much of the world worshipers can’t understand the text read to them from the pulpit.

Global variations of faith are striking, somewhat like the stages in a marriage.  Some places are enjoying a “honeymoon” phase.  There, the gospel sounds like fresh good news that we should act on.  A woman I met in the Philippines read in the New Testament that we need to care for widows and orphans.  “I know some orphans,” she said, and over the next month invited 32 street urchins into her home; soon she organized a school to educate them.  In many African countries, prisons do not provide food for inmates, so the church organizes feeding programs.  In Brazil, poor villagers who have never heard terms like “social justice” or “liberation theology” find their economic status rising as the converted breadwinners stop drinking, show up for work on time, and start behaving like responsible citizens.

segovia-cathedralOther nations have declined into a “divorced” phase.  In Spain, as in much of Europe, the main church stands out as the most impressive building in town, but you’re more likely to find Japanese tour groups than worshipers in those ancient sanctuaries.

Still more nations have settled into a mature marriage phase.  In the United States, nearly half of us attend church on a given Sunday, and politicians running for office compete with each other in appealing to the religious constituency.  The church, though, may seem to operate more like a corporation than a living organism.  We appoint committees and hire others to take care of the orphans and visit the prisoners; we pay professionals to lead the worship.  To return from a church in Brazil to one in the U.S. is like moving from a down-home county fair, where everyone gets to pet the cows and chase the pigs, to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, where you pay a fee to watch the beasts from behind a barrier.

As Western culture abandons its Christian heritage, others reclaim it.  Asians stock our symphony orchestras, collect our art, and in some cases embrace our faith.  A teacher friend on Chicago’s north shore tells me her Jewish and WASP students no longer recognize such biblical names as Samson and Daniel; she has to call on Korean students to identify them.

Christians in developed Western countries now represent only a third of believers worldwide.  Nevertheless, the US church still seems to set the style.  One of the most successful evangelical churches in Spain follows our lead: the pastor dresses in jeans and an untucked shirt, and a rock band plays familiar “worship” tunes, their lyrics translated and projected on a large digital screen.

I have learned to see strength, as well as confusion, in the diverse worship styles.  Some missionaries criticize the Russian service for its distant, impersonal style.  Yet under a communist regime that had no place for God, the Orthodox Church managed to survive the most determined atheistic assault in history.

How strange we must appear to outsiders trying to comprehend our faith from such disparate clues.  All these churches, from the sacramental to the user-friendly, have their own internal logic—my Coptic guide offered a vigorous defense of worship procedures he could barely understand—and all strangely trace back to a Palestinian rabbi who spoke mostly in synagogues or in fields of grass.

My travels have left me with a few lasting impressions:

1) Christianity may show its best side as a minority faith.  I sense more unity and creativity in the shrunken churches of “post-Christian” places such as the United Kingdom and Australia, where Christians have little hope of affecting culture at large and concentrate instead on loving each other and worshiping well.

2) The seduction of churches charmed by state power comes with a heavy price.  The Catholic establishment in Spain bears the stain of the Inquisition and its later alliance with the dictator Franco, and as a result the younger generation tends to avoid all churches.  American Christians tempted to cast their lot with the latest fawning politician should take heed.

3) God “moves”—in the most literal, change-of-location sense—in mysterious ways.  To visit the burgeoning churches of the Apostle Paul’s day, you would need to hire a Muslim guide or an archaeologist.  Western Europe, site of the Holy Roman Empire and the Reformation, is now the least religious place on earth.  In Latin America, the saying goes, while the Catholics preached God’s preferential option for the poor, the poor exercised their preferential option for Pentecostalism.

My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.  That’s a scary thought in a country like the United States, home to so many entertainment and electronic distractions.

Meanwhile, the greatest numerical revival in history has occurred during the past half-century in China, one of the last officially atheistic states and one of the most oppressive.  Go figure.

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11 responses to “God on the Move”

  1. Lorne says:

    This is actually a response to your message at Wall St tonight – not this post (I don’t see a contact button?).

    In your talk you showed a slide describing the rapidly falling reputation of the Christian community, and expressed confusion about why that is. It’s simple. We as a species continue to grow in empathy, compassion, joy, and understanding. For thousands of years, Christians have fought that change.

    You provided a good example tonight when you expressed your desire to control other peoples choices, your desire to enslave teenage girls, and your desire to see children grow up knowing they were never wanted.

    This is just one example. This is hate. This is why we as a species are slowing turning against the religious. This generation can see farther in space and time that any previous generation. It puts faith in perspective.

    But what’s the root cause of the hate? Why did the church denounce and burn the music the was bringing joy to millions (and later adopt that music themselves). Why will they almost certainly victimize the coming wave of those who choose Polyamorous Relationships? Why did they victimize the man who gave electricity to the entire species? Why …(The list is endless)

    It took me a while to figure this – but once you understand, it’s also simple. Christians choose to make decisions based on faith rather than reason, discussion, and research.

    They say a marriage depends on communication, I think everything does. But you can’t communicate with a person who has beliefs. The conversation is over before it starts. You can’t explain to a suicide bomber that what she is doing is wrong, because she “believes” that she is making the world a better place.

    C Polyamorous Relationships are wrong
    A Why?
    C Because they are immoral
    A But if three people love each other why should they be kept apart or treated differently from regular couples who love each each other? Isn’t that hate?
    C No it’s sin
    A What’s sin?
    C The bible says it’s wrong, so if you do it, that’s sin
    A What sort of research did the bible do before drawing that conclusion? Perhaps we should re-asses?
    C No you can’t change the bible?
    A Why?
    C Because the bible says so.
    A Why is the bible important?
    C Because I believe it is.

    No progress was made – no real communication. The Christian is saying “I value my belief’s more than the well being of the species or any other person”.

    This is also why christian couples are dramatically more likely to divorce, and why people involved in ministry are almost certain to cheat on their partners (I’m sure you already know those numbers).

    But my intent in writing was not really to explain all that.

    You are inquisitive, you have seen the world outside your town, you are not afraid to look at statistics. You are on the path to enlightenment. I would like to tell you from experience, that when you finally come out of the closet – take that step – leave your faith behind. It will be excruciating yes, but it will be the best step of your life. Much like leaving an abusive relationship.

    And we will be waiting for you. We have support groups, we have new and intelligent voices to hear, we are working to make the world a better place.

    But perhaps most importantly, we who have moved beyond religion don’t say “God loves you” we say “I love you”.

    And I do man – I totally do.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I’m glad you are open-minded enough to attend a church event. I wonder, though, what on earth I might have said that you interpreted as “your desire to control other peoples choices, your desire to enslave teenage girls, and your desire to see children grow up knowing they were never wanted.” –Philip

  2. Scott Herr says:

    Thanks, Mr. Yancey… I have loved your incisive analysis and compassionate perspective over the years and appreciate the fact that you continue to travel and share your wisdom with the larger global church.

    Whenever you’re ready to come and speak at the American Church in Paris, we are waiting to welcome you with open arms! In the meantime, we will pray for your continuing work.

    Grace and peace to you.

    In Christ,
    Scott Herr

  3. Julia says:

    I’m so glad to find this blog site. Thanks Mr Yancey!

  4. Eddie Chu says:

    Well put. However, when I observe how the world treat refugees, most, but not all, originates from Syria, I can’t help but to see the contrast between the “post-Christian” Europeans and North America, and especially the U.S.A. Germany alone took in over a million. Granted, the easy accessibility of EU countries increases the volume and there are objections within the EU population, but, overall, EU countries take on these refugees with much more compassion and acceptance than countries who seem proud of their Christian culture. This make me wonder: If the expression of compassion for the marginalized is an outcome of our eternal relationship with Christ (Matthew 25:31-46), whether Europe is more “post-religious” than “post-Christian”.

  5. Jeanette Kibler says:

    Sounds like an experience of the DIVINE MOSAIC, a great book!

  6. Cathy says:

    So true! Philip– I’m an American who grew up overseas seeing first hand the church in minority oppressed environments– the Middle East, Indonesia; and in places where it was common place — Latin America, the US, and declining — Spain. You are so right; God does go where he is wanted, sometimes even where those people don’t quite know who He is. The last time I was in Greece, I had the opportunity to attend the main cathedral in Athens on a Sunday. Just like the Russian Orthodox ceremony you described, people came and went, walked about the sanctuary, made offerings at reliquaries and stopped to ask blessings from priests who where in the congregation; all while the bishop and his attending priests were saying the 3-4 hour long mass. I was overcome by the feeling that this was a hint at what the constant atmosphere of worship would be in Heaven.

  7. Udhaya says:

    Chances of living the life of biblical Christianity is inversely proportional to the number of generations of Christians in any given culture and country. ….

    One more embarassing truth….

    That too the honeymoon period in India….?…. where Thomas the apostale shed his blood….we first generation christians enjoy a wonderful walk with Jesus while vexing over the politics of hardly a century old churches of our country….may be they zoomed into the divorce phase soon after the foreign missionaries left…. prosperity gospel prospers along with so called conversions based on socio economic reasons rather than spiritual ones…. Indian christians are already lukewarm ….the morally strong indian culture with strong family ties and humility is not much awed by christianity it seems…. so christianity is equivalent to another caste and culture. ….still…Holyspirit works in mysterious ways….we may not make it to the front in numbers….but those who hold on….hold on for sure….knowing and tasting that Jesus is good….better than the best of all embracing Hinduism….and the promise of eternal life is the one that makes all the difference. ….

  8. Dorothy King says:

    Sound thinking from a man a lot of us respect. I too feel the way he does and loved this piece of writing he did. Makes me feel connected with the world still even with the mess going on. God is still alive in the world; it’s the world that changed. I have been a Christian a long time yet He is new to me every day. I open my heart to the mystery of life and yearn for the greater shore. Thank you Mr. Yancy for your writings; I stumbled upon you through FB recently and wonder why I didn’t before. We love your writings on grace and that you are a man who connect us with a mystery we often forget.

  9. Celeste says:

    This is Celeste. I would like to add the following to the above comment.

    There seems to be a strong inclination in this society to put people in boxes. Unfortunately for our third culture family, we don’t fit into any prescribed boxes. The love and grace of God’s family which we experienced in the previous international churches in Asia completely escaped us. The indifference towards us was painful and it’s the last we expected from a church which proclaims to be evangelical and mission focused. Perhaps it’s easier to give and care for those who don’t dwell among us.

    The church experience in Australia almost destroy my faith. I survived by reading your book ‘Vanishing Grace’.

    Thank you for keep challenging us in our faith and in our walk with Christ.

  10. Celeste says:

    It would be ideal if your impression on the churches in Australia was true.

    From my own experience, the church can be extremely cliquey, at least at the church which I attended. It’s impossible to break the invisible glass bubble they comfortably enclosed themselves, with exceptions to those who passed the rite of passage.

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