Philip Jenkins has written some outstanding books on the emergence of the new Global South and East; what he calls “The Next Christendom.” Well this weekend I encountered it firsthand. And I like it. A lot.
I was called to preach at a retreat for the Reformed Church of Newtown, Queens, New York. The retreat was held at DeSales University in the beautiful Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania. Amidst the green cornfields and Pennsylvania stone farmhouses, Chinese Christians were preparing to bring the Gospel to this land. Indeed, there were three different congregations present: Taiwanese, Cantonese, and English speaking Asians (mostly East Asians). These were young professionals, very polished and bright, enthusiastically conservative and unashamedly evangelistic, whose questions, at the conclusion of my messages, revealed a great hunger for growing deeper in the Word of God.
I was tired, from my time at the PCA General Assembly and the EPC General Assembly, but that fatigue was soon put on the shelf for a few more days as I grew excited and humbled and honored to be among these fine young first and second generation Asian Christians. To see them, in three languages, with their children, all gathered in worship, at this retreat center, was extraordinarily moving to me. I consequently felt great freedom in preaching and believe that the Lord visited us in a unique way. Well, I preached until 9:30 at night and then I and their pastor, Rev. Jim Long, drove back to the New York. I wearily pulled in to the hotel in Manhattan, checked in, read over my sermon for the next day (ditched it and believed that the Lord had called me to preach another one), put my Bible and papers down and fumbled for the light. I looked at the neon radio clock next to the bed. It was one o’ clock in the morning. I fell asleep praising the Lord for what I saw: godly, young Christians coming into our nation, bringing the Gospel, bringing vision for the kingdom of God, zealous to share Christ with others, and committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the priority of the Great Commission and deeply appreciative of the Reformed faith.
The next day I joined the pastor for the noon service. I was surprised, pleasantly so, at how very liturgical the service was. But it was so rich in Scripture that by the time I was to preach, I was soaked to my soul in the Spirit-breathed Word from another world. Two other services were held that morning, ministering to other language groups. I preached, in this church founded in 1731 (the present building, which is the second building that was erected over the first in the early 1800s), and sought to encourage them, from Philippians 1.6 and 1 Peter 4.10 to see that God, who gifts us for service in the Church, also “qualifies” us by his grace, and that God will use what He starts in our lives “until the Day of Jesus Christ.”
The Lord blessed this service, I think. But more than anything I began to see the future vibrant faith of our nation, and of the Western Church. And what might that future be? Those who were converted in earlier centuries by missionaries from America (and Britain and the Netherlands and France and German) are now returning to convert us. That is not the future. That is today.
At the end of the service, a lady expressed her heart’s comfort and hope, from the Bible’s message, and she embraced me in Christian love. A young person caught it on digital film. And that is the lead-in picture on this essay. An older Western Christian, bringing the heritage of two thousand years of mission, to a young person from Taiwan, moved by the Holy Spirit, to use her God-bestowed gifts, to share Christ with others. That is the real picture.
I don’t want to naively paint a picture of Eden restored in Asian Christian communities. There are challenges that are big. And those who minister in this community, like Pastor Jim, need our prayers not just our awe. But all in all, I believe that I saw the Next Christendom in this community.
One postscript: at the end of the day, I was in my hotel room taking a call from a seminary student from RTS Charlotte. We were discussing sermon planning versus sermon preparation, and how that relates to the “preaching the whole counsel of God.” As I was talking the housekeeper came in to clean my room; a middle aged black woman. I invited her in and continued talking as I conversed with the student. As she spoke I could discern, by that distinctive Creole accent, that she was Haitian. After I got off of the phone I told her, “I apologize for talking while you were working!” She replied, “Well, Sir, it is your room!” I smiled. She then paused and addressed me, “Sir, from listening to you talk on the phone it sounds like you are a pastor. You were talking about the Word of the Lord. I love God’s Word. I too am a Christian.” We talked, about her church, her son, her service to Christ, and finally to her gifts of music. I asked her if she knew the hymn that had been on my heart of recent days, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”? She did. I asked her if we could sign. And so we did. She sang in French and I sang in English:
“There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilt stains, lose all their guilty stains.
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”
We finished and laughed. And then she left (yes, I tipped her!).
And so ended a day of multi cultural ministry. I think I am, indeed, witnessing, first here in New York, what may well (I pray) spread around the nation: the next Christendom, right here in America.