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.
Other 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.