The Latino and Hispanic Voice in Global Christianity

This past weekend was the dedication of the Justo Gonzalez Center at Asbury Theological Seminary (Orlando). For those who may not know, Justo Gonzalez is the author of the multi-volume, A Story of Christianity, the premier survey of church history from a Latin American author. I read his church history volumes first in 1981, thirty years ago, as a young student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. I studied church history under Dr. Nigel Kerr who was not only a wonderful scholar, but a missionary from Latin America who first opened my eyes to the amazing vibrancy of the Latin American church. These were the days when Gestavo Gutierrez published his landmark book, A Theology of Liberation (still in print today!). The mainstream evangelical world in N. America didn’t like it, mostly because it exposed how much we had domesticated the gospel in North America. Of course, looking back, liberation theologians had to learn the lesson that liberation and justice themes are better built on Biblical than Marxist grounds. Nevertheless, I learned to see the Bible differently – and church history differently because of Gonzalez and Gutierrez.

Nigel Kerr at Gordon-Conwell told us not to write the Latin Americans off, but to listen carefully to them. He said, “Just wait, because in thirty years they are going to be the leaders of the next generation of the church.” I never forgot that. It is now thirty years later, and the Latin American voice is rising – 50 million in the USA alone, not to mention the explosion of Pentecostal Christianity in Latin America, finally breaking the shackles of Christendom. It was in Nigel Kerr’s class that I first read Gonzalez’ church history volumes. Gonzalez, born in Cuba, was the youngest graduate to earn a PhD from Yale University and has over the decades been one of the most potent voices encouraging the development of Latino scholarship and helping Latinos to find their theological and ecclesiological voices. This would include Asbury’s own church historian, Zaida Perez, who serves on the Orlando campus and is the dean of our School of Urban Ministries.

Asbury worked hard to bring Justo Gonzalez into a relationship with Asbury, provide a research center and, in general, create a bridge between Asbury and the Hispanic world. This past week Dr. Gonzalez came to Asbury and hosted over a hundred Christian leaders from all over the world. At the ribbon cutting and conference we celebrated this new partnership. Major figures in the Western academy were there such as Dan Aleshire, President of the Association of Theological Schools and Michael Gilligan, President of the Luce Foundation, as well as major Hispanic leaders such as Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Jesse Miranda, Stan Perea, Alvin Padilla, as well as, of course, Justo Gonzalez himself. Delegates from our sister seminaries arrived as well as leaders with decades of experience serving in Latin America such as Chuck Van Engen from Fuller Seminary and Leeland Eliason from Bethel. I could go on, but it was a major step forward for Asbury Seminary. From across the nation many eyes turned to Asbury Seminary and they are seeing that we are stepping up to the plate saying, yes, we know that there are 50 million Hispanics in the United States. Yes, we know that they are the fastest growing demographic in N. America. Yes, we know that they are leading some of the most rapidly growing congregations and communities in America. Yes, we are here to serve, to partner and to explore together how we can best equip, train and learn from this dynamic sector of the Church.

Thirty years ago Nigel Kerr told me to keep my eyes open and my ears attentive to what God was doing among Hispanic believers. Now, we all see what he saw. Thanks be to God!

Timothy C. Tennent 2011

The Quiet Revival

Christianity Today reported a few years ago that eighty-five percent of the members of Yale University’s Campus Crusade for Christ chapter are Asian, whereas “the university’s Buddhist meditation meetings are almost exclusively attended by whites.”[1. “Go Figure,” Christianity Today 47, no. 7 (June 2003): 13.]  There is an important lesson in this. It is often stated that Christianity in the Western world is in decline. It is true that, on average, every day there are approximately 7,000 fewer Christians in the West. Statistically, it has been as high as 11,000 fewer per day. However, this is only part of the story. While we are witnessing the dramatic decline in Christianity among Caucasians, the Western world is, at the same time, witnessing the dramatic growth of newly emerging ethnic congregations. The Chinese, Hispanic, African and Korean congregations, in particular, are experiencing unprecedented growth.

This weekend, for example, I had the privilege of speaking at the Rutgers Christian Community Church. It was planted only thirty years ago by a handful of Chinese students from Rutgers University. Today, it is a thriving Christian community with several thousand members. They have English, Mandarin, and Cantonese congregations and are in the middle of a major building program to build a new sanctuary.

Prior to my coming to Asbury I lived in the Boston area. Boston is the home of a major spiritual awakening. More people have come to Christ in Boston in the last three decades than during the Great Awakening, but it has largely gone unnoticed, because it is occurring primarily among African, Chinese, Korean, and Hispanic peoples. There are over 50 different African congregations in Boston and, indeed, on any given Sunday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, more people worship Christ in a language other than English than in English. It has been called the “quiet revival.”

I am convinced that the greatest source of renewal in the North American church will be found in these emerging ethnic churches. Pastors across this country should begin planting ethnic congregations in their facilities and nurturing their growth. Boston already has more shared-facility churches than any other city in the country. May this trend continue.

Last night I worshiped in a sanctuary packed with Chinese Christians. The congregation sang, in Mandarin, Chris Tomlin’s excellent hymn, We Fall Down.  I don’t know if Chris Tomlin realized when he wrote this hymn, among others that he has written, that he is playing a significant role in stimulating the global Christian community. Indeed, when we fall down and worship Christ today and look to our left and to our right, we will increasingly be worshiping with Christians from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The globalization of the Christian faith is no longer a theoretical point we affirm, rather it will be, increasingly, the living experience of Christians in the West. So, whenever I am prone to discouragement about the state of Christianity in the West, I think about Rutgers Community Christian Church, and a thousand like it. They are the living demonstration that Christ is building his Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!

Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination?

This past week there was a huge political flap about a Baptist minister named Robert Jeffries over his claim that Mormonism is a cult and that Mitt Romney should not be considered a Christian.  The remark set off a firestorm because this was the ground for encouraging people to not vote for Mitt Romney. All of the major GOP rivals for the nomination immediately released statements that they regarded Romney, and fellow Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members, as Christians and that religion should not be an issue in the GOP nomination.

My own view is that whether a candidate is a Christian or not is only one of a myriad of considerations which one must weigh in an overall decision to vote for or against a candidate.  I would never say that someone being a Christian carries no political weight for me at all. However, I would also not say that someone being a Christian or not carries the entire weight in my decision.

The more interesting part of the discussion has to do with whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be considered a cult or just another denomination or branch of Christianity such as Methodism, Lutheranism or, for that matter, Eastern Orthodoxy. What makes all the diversity of denominations or branches of global Christianity share a “family resemblance” despite our differences is that we are all built on a common confession rooted in the Council of Nicea and, in particular, the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene affirmation is the ground of unity upon which the entire global church is built.  This is why it is known as an historic, ecumenical creed.  It is, of course, true that there are dozens of churches (especially those who identify with fundamentalism) which boldly proclaim that “we have no creed but the Bible” and would not recite the Nicene creed in their services.  However, if you look carefully at their church covenants or statements of faith, they fully resonate with Nicea.  Furthermore, as Protestants, they trace their heritage back to movements which fully resonate with Nicea.

This is why Arianism back in the fourth century was declared a heresy or a “cult” at the Council of Nicea in 325 even though they ardently claimed to be Christians.  They, like modern day Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons, do not fall within the “family” of Christianity primarily because they rejected orthodox Christology.  The Arian claim that “there was a time when he was not” is, of course, the same stumbling block which is fallen over by both Jehovah Witnesses’ and Mormons.  The former (JW) is a closer version of Arianism (though JW deny the personality of the Holy Spirit which Arius accepted), whereas the latter (Mormons) is a more complex, nuanced view due to the insertion of the Book of Mormon (rather than merely the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).  Suffice it to say here, Mormons do not believe in the eternal pre-existence of the eternal second person of the Trinity.  Mormons believe that He existed eternally only in the way that generic “matter” is viewed as eternal.  Any movement that does not affirm the eternal pre-existence of the second person of the Trinity is sub-Christian, regardless how fervently they declare that Jesus is God and that He is the sole savior of the world.  At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man.  Thus, Mormonism has, quite rightly, not been considered a Christian movement.

Never Read Your Bible Alone

The most recent edition of Christianity Today (Oct. 2011) highlights the issue of “How we read Scripture.”  The front cover of the journal boldly declares, “How to Read the Bible.”  There is a also a little callout on the cover which stands as a kind of subtitle, “Why leading evangelical scholars are arguing for a new way to interpret scripture.” When I read the article I quickly realized that what is being advocated by several theologians (e.g.  Joel Green, Kevin Vanhoozer, John Webster, Todd Billings, Stephen Fowl, etc.) is not actually a “new” way of reading Scripture at all.  It is calling for a theological reading of the text which is quite ancient. In other words, we read our Bible in light of the apostolic witness and the collective witness of the Church through the ages.  To put it bluntly, we never really read the Bible alone. That is an important point which we often fail to emphasize enough in our teaching and preaching. Even if we read the Bible in a room by ourselves with the doors all shut and the window shades pulled, we are still not reading the Bible alone. The Bible is always read in the presence of the Risen Christ and in the company of the saints who have gone before us.  We are the recipients of an Apostolic witness which has been tested by history, died for by martyrs, preached on in the world, and received with joy by sinners.

The re-emergence of this theological reading of Scripture is a response to the explosion of quite bizarre, so-called “evangelical” uses of Scripture which have emerged in recent years.  For example, there are those who have gone through the Bible and created a new dieting guide called the “Bible diet” which is “based on the Bible.”  Others have used the Bible to create financial planning manuals, to build construction guides, and even to try to show evidence for extra-terrestrials and to unlock hidden meanings and decipher future history with the use of “biblical” numerics and Bible “codes”.  A little theological perspective shining down on some of this wouldn’t hurt, would it?

What was really revealing is what lay on the inside cover of this issue of Christianity Today.  Just inside the cover was an ad for the NIV Life Application Bible.  The ad shows a young woman, with an open Bible on her lap, sitting on the edge of a dock with her feet dangling in the refreshing water, overlooking a beautiful solitary scene of a sparkling lake surrounded by distant trees…  She embodies the solitary reader of our day.  The ad declares, “no matter what you’re dealing with, the Bible offers answers to any question.”  In this era of the silent, solo reader of the Bible, we might do well to remember that before we bring all our questions to the text (and we have many important questions), and before we regard the Bible as yet another commodity that offers to meet our needs, we should first remember that the starting point of the Biblical revelation is this, God addresses us first.  We are addressed by God through his Word and we receive His Word in the company of the saints.  When we encounter Scripture this way, we will not be so quick to see the Bible as the proverbial tool bag, how-to manual, or secret map.  The Bible does, of course, speak to many of the endless issues which we face in our day to day lives.  However, God knows that we have deeper needs and issues which go way beyond anything we are able to fully articulate or understand. To use an analogy, we have come to recognize that our high priced sun chair on the upper deck of a large ship on its maiden voyage is no longer sitting straight.  God knows that the Titanic is sinking.  His “list” is always better than our “list.”

What 21st century American Church Planters can learn from Church Planters in India.

One of the joys of my life has been the privilege of training young ministers of the Gospel in the USA and in India.  Prior to coming to Asbury to serve as President, I taught at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for 11 years, and, prior to that, Toccoa Falls College in Georgia. One of the biggest differences I noticed in teaching students in India and teaching students in the USA was their perspective on church planting.  My American students thought very little about church planting.  Starting new churches for them was a kind of exotic idea which a few brave souls might try, but certainly not part of the normal expectations of someone called into full time ministry.  My American students fully expected to graduate, be hired by a church, and be given a salary, pension plan and parsonage.  In contrast, my Indian students couldn’t even imagine such a prospect.  They knew that they would have to graduate, go to a village, start preaching and evangelizing and, over time, plant the church that they would then pastor!  Why this difference?  Because in North India there are very few churches and the Christian percentage of the overall population is less than 1%.  In N. India, pastoral training is evangelistic training, since there are so few Christians.  Evangelistic training must lead to church planting since there are so few existing congregations. In India, to “plant” a church has little to do with buying land and building buildings. To plant a church is to gather new communities of believers who unite themselves together for prayer, worship, witness, and service.

This contrast between India and the USA helps to illustrate the major challenge that is facing the churches of North America. Even if you grant that our seminaries are doing an excellent job producing great pastors and teachers, this will not be enough. In the midst of our increasingly secularized society, we can no longer simply produce pastors and teachers.  We need to learn from the lessons of the Indian church. We need to also train evangelists and church planters!  We need to train and equip men and women in the skills and practice necessary to effectively evangelize a whole new generation in the USA who know little to nothing about Jesus Christ, the Christian message, and the revelation of God’s Word.  We need to train leaders who can oversee dozens of new lay led, bi-vocational churches.  In other words, our seminaries must not only train pastors and teachers for established churches, but also train evangelists and church planters for the teeming millions in America who have not heard the Gospel and will likely never enter into the doors of an established church.  We must recalibrate our thinking to see ourselves as living in 21st century north India, rather than in 1950 United States.  Interestingly, we will also be learning what it was like to be a Christian in the 1st century.  And those 1st century Christians brought the mighty Roman Empire under the sway of the Gospel through faithful preaching, evangelism, and church planting!