The anthropologist Nigel Barley wrote a couple of very informative and amusing books about his studies in Africa. In one of them, A Plague of Caterpillars: A Return to the African Bush, he refers to a French Jesuit priest who, having finally worked out that the Dogon people in Mali didn’t share the same culture as the French, then proceded to treat all Africans as if they were Dogon, despite the fact that the Dogon are culturally pretty unique.
People, Christians included, have a hard time appreciating the incredible variety of human culture and we tend to settle into easy stereotypes – very often going no further than dividing the world up into people who are like me and people who are not like me. You get this in church circles when people make statements such as “the global church is X” (whatever X is) as if it were possible to sum up hundreds of millions of believers all around the globe in one simple phrase.
Let’s just lower our sights for the moment. It isn’t unusual to come across generalisations about the church in Africa for example, the church in Africa is vibrant or the church in Africa is riddled with the prosperity gospel. The problem with phrases like this is that they make no allowance for the vast cultural and historical differences which have shaped Africa and which shape African Christianity. Southern Africa is different from East Africa, which is different to West Africa and they are all very different from Africa North of the Sahara. Anglophone Africa and Francophone Africa have very different experiences and Ethiopia which was never colonised by any European power is distinct from either. There are undoubtedly similarities across the continent a common “African-ness”, but there are very big distinctions, too. Even though Sierra Leone and Senegal are very close to each other, they have very different experiences of Christianity; the one has had an active Christian witness for 200 years and the other is a majority Muslim country where the church is only just finding a foothold. Or take the country of Nigeria; the huge cities of the south of the country have massive churches where thousands of people meet for long, enthusiastic gatherings every Sunday, while in the North, there are far fewer Christians and their meetings are often semi-clandestine affairs because of the threat from the majority community. You cannot make simple, broad generalisations about the church in one African country or region, much less across a whole continent.
What about Europe? We would admit that there are similarities that tie Europe and European Christianity together, However, most Brits would be reluctant to see all European Christians lumped together. However, we need to realise that Europe is far smaller, far less culturally diverse and, crucially, has a much more unified Christian experience than Africa.
The diversity of Christian experience in Africa can be multiplied across Asia, Latin America and the Pacific. When we try to generalise about the World church and say that it is “X”, we are actually saying far more about ourselves and our own ethnocentrism than we are about anything else. This is particularly the case when we are criticising the rest of the church, for example saying that there is a “theological famine” around the world. When our rhetoric suggests that Christianity in the West is normative (non-X) and everyone else is different (X), we are displaying a degree of arrogance and cultural blindness that should have no place in the church.
This is not to say that the church around the world is perfect, it isn’t. The church in every neighbourhood, city, region and country has its strengths and weaknesses, but they don’t all have the same strengths and they don’t all have the same weaknesses. Nor am I saying that the church in the West has nothing to offer to the church around the world, we do, but that will vary from place to place and, crucially, we have just as much to learn as we have to give. And, if we aren’t ready and willing to receive, then we actually have nothing to give.