This guest post is written by Kate Harveston, a writer and political activist from Pennsylvania. She blogs about culture and politics, and the various ways that those elements act upon each other. For more of her work, you can follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.
To know God, and through that relationship live the best life one can lead, is at the centre of many religions. As one of the prominent religions on the planet, Christianity has evolved into different expressions of faith across all points of the globe.
Two places that are geographically close can have incredibly different outlooks on spirituality. Marshall Shelly, director of Denver Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry program, recently set out to explore the way that people from all over the globe differ in their expressions of Christianity relative to the brand of faith seen in the United States.
For Christians and non-Christians, Shelly’s findings are an eye-opening and refreshing reminder of how nuanced the topic of faith is, and how easy it can be to forget that your approach to religion isn’t everyone’s.
Surveying the globe
Shelly spoke to pastors from Mongolia, Korea, Guatemala, and Africa who have immigrated to the United States and practiced the faith. His reflections on what they had to say offer a diverse pallet of Christian practices and outlooks, which he shares in “What Christians in the US Can Learn from Immigrant Pastors.”
What becomes apparent when you read Shelly’s thoughtful piece is that American Christianity has, in some ways, neglected the parts of Christianity that encourage believers to challenge themselves. Accepting some of what these immigrant pastors shared might require some followers to step outside of their comfort zone, but isn’t that worth a closer relationship with one’s faith?
The importance of community in faith
Young people are leaving organized Christian churches these days. To get them interested again, pastors are changing their approach, adopting a take that focuses more on doing good in the community and building relationships. It’s the antithesis of the megachurch culture that has influenced many American Christian organizations, turning them into informal pot lucks where no one actually knows one-another.
While big faith isn’t necessarily informal, Mongolian pastor Mojic Baldandorj, who now practices at Colorado Mongolian Church, contrasted the arms-length relationships of US churches with a system in Mongolia that clings to expressions of respect for the church, but also fosters stronger interpersonal bonds.
In Mongolia, for example, it’d be awkward to hear a pastor encouraging people to attend an event simply because it should be fun. Instead, the focus of a church event should be its value as a means of becoming closer to one’s faith.
The focus on relationships was echoed by Endashaw Kelkele, pastor of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Denver. To consider attending a funeral for someone you had never met seems alien to Americans. In Ethiopia, it’s thought of as very appropriate — a Christian lost has an impact on the entire community, and part of observing one’s faith is to help fellow Christians lift that person up.
The gospel around the globe
Another area of faith that Shelly’s research sheds light on is the approach to the gospel in the United States.
Mandy Smith, a pastor from Australia, shared with him that “it’s hard for the gospel to feel new here. Most people have heard some form of Christianity (from cultural references to it in the media). But they’ve often heard a perversion of it. So the resistance isn’t to the gospel as often as it’s to some misrepresentation of it.”
Smith’s point is easy to follow.
The misuse of organized religion has led to people to associate gospel with some kind of racketeering; a means to an end. In places like Guatemala, where respect for spirituality is heavily integrated into the culture, you see the evangelical side of Christianity more freely expressed, often in the form of people preaching the gospel. For example, a follower might share the gospel on a city bus or train, and there’s nothing awkward about that.
Grace and understanding
Practicing extroverted evangelism in the US might evoke different responses than it does in Guatemala, but the topic of grace is something American Christians can change their approach on at a personal level.
More than one of the pastors that Shelly interviewed cited an unwillingness to accept the self-critical side of religion in American Christians. As Shelly puts it “Resting in God’s grace is quite different from “work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).”
But these things are healthy to discuss, and less than they’re negative, they’re informative. In Christianity, there’s still room for balance, not everything is perfect, and practicing Christians have to be honest with themselves about that. It’s through this lens that Shelly’s observations become developmental, rather than critical.