Understanding the Differences Between the Expansion of Christianity and Islam

Nineteenth-century Christian missions exploded across the globe with the general expectation that the gospel would penetrate the whole world, and that the evangelism of the world would conceivably be completed within a century or so. That sense of optimism is not so prevalent today, probably in part because of the decline of Christianity in parts of the world that were at one time the fountainhead of Christian faith. A review of the past century reveals that regions in which Christianity had at one time taken root have not always remained Christian for long (think Europe). In contrast, Islam’s progress has tended to be more stable, rarely giving up territory once it has been claimed.

In his book, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (T&T Clark, 2002), Scottish historian Andrew Walls explains the difference between the expansions of the two major religions:

Islam can point to a steady geographical progression from its birthplace and from its earliest years. And over all these years it has hitherto not had many territorial losses to record. Whereas the Jerusalem of the apostles has fallen, the Mecca of the prophet remains inviolate. When it comes to sustaining congregations of the faithful, Christianity does not appear to possess the same resilience as Islam. It decays and withers in its very heartlands, in the areas where it appears to have had the profoundest cultural effects. Crossing cultural boundaries, it then takes root anew on the margins of those areas, and beyond. Islamic expansion is progressive; Christian expansion is serial (p. 13).

If Walls is correct, this raises some troubling questions. Why does Christianity wax and wane so consistently, while Islam rarely experiences the same fluctuations? Why do the faithful of Christianity possess what seems to be a more tenuous faith?

Walls asks and answers some of his own questions to provide some answers:

Do the resiliency of Islam and the vulnerability of Christianity reflect something of the inherent nature of the two faiths? Does the very freedom of response inherent in the Christian gospel leave it open to ultimate rejection? Is the Christian impact durable only when there is sustained, unceasing penetration of the host culture? Christianity has no culturally fixed element, as is provided by the Qur’an fixed in heaven, closed traditions on earth, perfection in law in shari’a, single shrine in Mecca, and true word every where in Arabic. If the acts of cultural translation by which the Christians of any community make their faith substantial within that community cease—if (if one may use such language) the Word ceases to be made flesh within that community—the Christian group within that community is likely to lose, not just its effectiveness, but its powers of resistance. Most cultures are in frequent change or encounter with others, so the process of translation is endless (p. 13).

In other words, Islam survives in a given culture because it remains unchanged and sees itself as embattled against cultural difference or change. As a result it can remain monolithic and isolated from the culture. In a world distressed by the culture-destroying power of technology, secularization, urbanization, and other such forces, the unchanging nature of Islam provides a rare sense of security and stability. There is no need to contextualize or adapt. Americans, who have grown up in a constantly changing culture, often forget that not everyone in the world embraces cultural change or the overturning of traditional practices to the same extent that they do.

On the positive side, Christianity has thrived in many parts of the world precisely because the gospel is a message to every tribe and tongue, and while the message must remain the same, the medium and the method are readily adaptable to other cultures.

Walls explains further:

This vulnerability [of Christianity] is also linked with the essentially vernacular nature of the Christian faith, which rests on a massive act of translation, the Word made flesh…Christian faith must go on being translated, must continuously enter into vernacular culture and interact with it, or it withers and fades. Islamic absolutes are fixed in a particular language, and in the conditions of a particular period of human history. The divine Word is the Qur’an, fixed in heaven forever in Arabic, the language of original revelation.

For Christians, however, the divine Word is translatable, infinitely translatable. The very words of Christ himself were transmitted in translated form in the earliest documents we have, a fact surely inseparable from the conviction that in Christ, God’s own self was translated into human form (p. 29).

A charitable reading of Walls reminds us that the success of Christianity throughout history in so many cultures has been the gospel’s ability to reach people in any culture while maintaining the positive aspects of common grace in that culture. The vernacular nature of the Christian faith presents a temptation and an opportunity. The temptation is to contextualize the message of the gospel, and thereby to lose it. For this, Christians are rightly criticized by Muslims. The diluted gospel of much of

Steel girder cross at Ground Zero

evangelicalism and fundamentalism under the guise of being relevant or old-fashioned, respectively, bears constant witness to this tragedy. The temptation, however, is not necessary, and Christianity can be adapted to various cultures successfully, without compromising the message. Walls concurs:

Christian faith is repeatedly coming into creative interaction with new cultures, with different systems of thought and different patterns of tradition; that (again in contrast to Islam, whose Arabic absolutes provide cultural norms applying throughout the Islamic world) its profoundest expressions are often local and vernacular. It also means that the demographic and geographical centre of gravity of Christianity is subject to periodic shifts. Christians have no abiding city, no permanent sacred sites, no earthly Mecca; their new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven at the last day (p. 30).

At least two implications arise from these distinctions between Christianity and Islam. First, all of us, not just missionaries, need to translate the faith into the local vernacular in which we find ourselves without compromising the gospel. Christianity is not Islam, and so is not culturally monolithic. Second, rather than seeing the expansion of Christianity as a necessarily universal progressive missionary certainty, perhaps we ought to realize that the spread of the faith will probably always be influenced by the currents of culture and the degree to which Christians in a particular location remain faithful. The survival of the gospel in a particular area is not assured apart from the faithful preaching and teaching of the Word. This is an especially poignant reality for the church in America where attention and commitment to sound doctrine has fallen precipitously, and simultaneously, Islam has expanded exponentially. If Islam is hardly ever dislodged once it is established in a region, the only hope for the spread of Christianity is the wholesale commitment of the church to the centrality of the gospel.

Every Person Possess a Clear and Distinct Knowledge of God

One of the most fundamental truths of Christian apologetics is that every person is born with a clear knowledge of God. I don’t mean that every person has knowledge of a God, but that each individual knows the God who created him. This idea seems counter-intuitive, for we all know or know of people who are atheistic, or at least agnostic, and would deny even belief in a God, let alone knowledge of one. Even many religious people would be hesitant to say that they know God. Yet Romans 1:18-21 tells us that God has revealed himself to every person, that such knowledge of God is plain because God has shown it to them, that the divine attributes are clearly perceived, and finally, that people know God, yet suppress that knowledge. We can conclude, therefore, that every person is either in a relationship of wrath with God, or a relationship of grace. Theologians call this knowledge of God the sensus divinitatis, or sense of divinity. This knowledge of God is implanted into every human being and confirmed by creation and providence.

So when we encounter someone who denies belief in God, or rejects knowing him through Christ, we are dealing with a person who is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. This suppression takes many forms, from outright denial to bitterness against God; from false and pagan notions about God to pious attempts to make God in one’s own image. Yet, every day that clear and distinct knowledge of God bubbles up within the unbeliever, and to make it through the day, he must push down that rising sense of God.

John Calvin described it this way:

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will. (Institutes, 1:3:1)

And later:

[God] not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken, but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe.  As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. (Institutes, 1:5:1)

This truth has profound implications for the gospel. First, I do not need to prove the existence of God when speaking with an unbeliever. What I do need to do is discern ways that he is suppressing the knowledge of God in his life. Most unbelievers absolutely reek with suppression in some form. That is where I begin to shine the truth of the gospel. Second, although I need to understand the unbeliever’s belief system to some degree, ultimately every unbeliever shares some basic similarities regarding their need of the gospel. Third, although I may use different evangelistic and apologetic strategies in presenting the gospel, I can rest assured that the gospel, as simple as it may seem, is universal enough to be the one message that I will ultimately stress with any unbeliever.

I have found this truth to be liberating to my evangelism. I can approach any unbeliever confidently knowing that when I talk about God, I am telling him things that he already intuitively knows, even though he may reject it. Between this implanted knowledge of God and the perceived creation, he is a person in active rebellion against God. By presenting the gospel as revealed in Scripture, I am applying the one cure to his depraved heart. Though he may reject the gospel, I know that he knows it is the truth and that he needs it.

The sensus divinitatis reminds us that we are dwelling in a world of truth suppressors who desperately need the truth to be presented over and over again to them. With this truth firmly embedded in our hearts we can boldly share the gospel with anyone we meet. May God grant us a firm and unbending grasp of this truth!

The New Tolerance is Intolerance: Why the Rest Hates the West, Part 2

Where the old tolerance allowed hard differences on religionand morality to rub shoulders and compete freely in the public square, the new variety wishes to lock them all indoors as matters of private judgment; the public square must be given over to indistinctness. If the old tolerance was, at least, a real value, the new, intolerant “tolerance” might better be described as an antivalue; it is a disposition of hostility to any suggestion that one thing is “better” than another, or even that any way of life needs protected space from its alternatives.

Meic Pearse, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage (IVP, 2004), 12.

How does this affect the distinctiveness of a certain culture? It muzzles and destroys it. I experienced this first hand a few years ago while taking a doctoral class in philosophy at a Catholic university. After stating my objections to language games and irrationality in postmodern philosophy, I was informed by the Goth female sitting next to me that my dogmatism was oppressing her. If I could just view the world from the bottom of the ladder, as she had to from her post-colonial and feminist perspective, instead of the top of the ladder as a white man, then I would understand why my insistence that truth was better than falsehood was tyrannical and oppressive.

How does this relate to global rage? Peoples around the world have seen an influx of this kind of culture-destroying tolerance coming from the West.

With this shift, the threat to distinctness becomes greatly exacerbated. It is not just totalitarian ideologues who will come into conflict with us Westerners; anyone who cares about their culture, and has enough exposure to us and our way of doing things to be affected by us, will feel threatened (p. 12-13).

This passage by Pearce reveals one reason why there is global rage–the intolerant tolerance of the West erodes the distinctions of culture. And for people that greatly value their culture, this constitutes a threat to be fought.

The next essay from Pearse’s book will address American Common Sense, and how foreign our common sense is to the rest of the world.

A Call to Missions If Ever There Was One

American Christians have, for a long time, thought of Christianity primarily through American eyes, often viewing America as the center of the world since the 20th century. As a result, the burden for overseas missions represents only a drop in the bucket of our concern, efforts, and consideration. Most American Christians could not conceive of living anywhere else in the world, for if they did, how could they achieve the American dream? It is, after all, an American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, we see few of our young people intending to give their lives to foreign missionary service, and even fewer adults selling all they have to emigrate to a foreign country for the purpose of spreading the gospel. Also as a result, missionaries spend 2-3 years (or more) traipsing across America begging churches to support them so they can get to a field before the next generation of natives dies without Christ. The rest of the world just seems so far away, and most of them don’t speak English, so it’s a bit of a bother to expend too much effort in that direction. We are glad to see the missionaries when they come home on furlough and ask how they can stand living in that awful place, but then quickly forget them when they return abroad.

This pessimistic account is not entirely inaccurate. The truth is, when we think of Christianity, we tend to think only of American Christianity. When we think of heaven, we tend to think of people just like ourselves numbering in the millions, worshipping God around the throne. What we don’t often think about is the fact that there is a whole world of Christians in other countries that don’t think of America as the center of the Christian world, won’t ever be American, and may not even desire to be so. In fact, in some places of the world, the Christian church is actually quite a bit healthier than it is in the U.S. and more populous.

In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins documents the shift of Christianity to the southern hemisphere of the planet over the past one hundred years:

We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of “European Christian” civilization…

Over the past century, 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. If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manilla.” Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South—not just surviving but expanding (p. 1-2).

While Jenkins’ comments reveal some disdain for American Christianity, and his figures make no distinction between Evangelicals, Catholics, and other types of “Christians,” his point stands nonetheless. The “average” Christian in the world is not a middle class white man (or woman). Population booms and religious shifts have made the world a different place than it was as short a time ago as the 1980’s. By 2015 none of the most populated urban centers in the world will be on American soil. And with the exception of the U.S. and China, all of the most populated countries in the world will be in the global South.

This reality has a number of implications for the work of missions. First, at the present mission work seems to be moving more to a teaching, educational model than a church planting model. Many missionaries have learned that an American pastoring a church of nationals in a foreign country is counterproductive in the long run. The most effective missionaries today seem to be those who go with the intent to raise up a college or seminary for the training of national pastors, and eventually work themselves out of a job as those very men take over the institution. The seminary where I teach has already done that in several countries in Eastern Europe and South America. This trend should compel more and more missionaries to obtain seminary and advanced degrees before going to the mission field, or else they will find themselves unable to train nationals to a level necessary to run their own schools.

Second, there are many countries of the world closed to American missionaries. Yet these very same countries are wide open to people of other nationalities. One missionary I know in Eastern Europe trains men to go into the Muslim “stan” countries such as Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan that are closed to American passports. A similar phenomenon is happening with Asian Christian working in Middle Eastern countries, many at the risk of persecution or death. Rather than giving up on closed countries, we need to continue to seek creative ways to get the gospel into them through believers of other ethnic heritage.

Finally, in the very near future, the tide may change in some countries where Americans find missionaries from Africa, Asia and Latin America knocking on their doors in Anytown, U.S.A. to evangelize Americans. Jenkins notes,

Great Britain today plays host to some 1,500 missionaries from fifty nations. Many come from African countries, and they express disbelief at the spiritual desert they encounter in this “green and pagan land”…Announcing a new missionary endeavor, the Anglican primate of Brazil declared that “London is today’s field of mission. It’s so secular we have to send people for their salvation” (p. 205).

Be prepared to be evangelized by a foreigner!

Revelation 7:9 speaks of a multitude without number from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and the Lamb. What a glorious day that will be when a countless sea of faces from every corner of the earth will raise their voices like a mighty wave of praise to God! If God designed a global redemption to culminate in such a scene, how much more should we already be thinking of Christianity in such terms? How much more should we be encouraging our children to think naturally about foreign missions? How much more should churches be sacrificing to speed missionaries to the field? How much more should those preparing for missionary service be adequately preparing for long-term effective ministry? And finally, a little closer to home, how much more should we be reaching our own neighbors right next door?