A CONVERSATION WITH MY GRANDMOTHER
OF 100 YEARS AGO (PART 3)
By Dr. Riley B. Case
A Time magazine cover in December called 2020 the “Worst Year.” Time, obviously, is not referencing religion in that observation—they are concentrated on politics, social issues and world affairs, but the comment made me ponder the state of what I feel is really important, the state of religion, particularly our Christian religion, and more particularly, our United Methodist Church. To get a perspective on this I am going back 100 years, to 1921, and having a conversation with my grandmother. If I explained our faith situation in 2021 would she think our situation the best of times or the worst of times? I have already explained to her the problems we have in America with fewer and fewer people identifying as Christian and more people identifying as atheist or agnostic, or simply “nothing.” But then I also explained that groups not a part of our progressive religious establishment—Pentecostals, independent ministries, and even the Amish—seem to be thriving in these later years.
But now it is time to bring an even larger perspective—world Christianity. I am going to explain to her that God is doing some amazing things that even our “religious experts” find hard to believe.
“Grandma,” I would say, “how is your Evangelical Church doing in its missionary program?” “Very good,” she would answer. “Just last Sunday we had a missions emphasis. We sang the hymn, We’ve a story to tell to the nations That will turn their hearts to the right….”
“Grandma, that is great! It sounds like your Evangelical Church is in the tradition of our great Methodist heritage. John Wesley said, ‘The world is my parish.’ Francis Asbury said, ‘O America, America, God will make it the glory of the world for religion.’ Christianity, and especially Methodism, in your time is a blessing to the world but it will be even more so in years to come. However…”
“What’s the matter?” she would ask.
“We’re having to make up for some past sins. Colonialism, for example, and a horrible attitude of white superiority. World War I hurt us greatly, Grandma. Our side wanted to fight a war to make the world safe for democracy, but it doesn’t happen. We will have neither a safe world nor widespread democracy. Our idea of democracy and civilization was to make the world like us. It will do some good but cause harm as well.”
I would have to explain that the European nations carved up for themselves all of Africa (Berlin Conference 1886) and sought to “help” Africa by colonizing and dominating (and exploiting) it. As for the Americans, we made slaves out of Africans. Then, after the Civil War brought emancipation, our nation practiced segregation.
Grandma would insist that Evangelicals and Methodists are different.
“Yes, and no” I would tell her. “Methodism was a force for great good when we sought out the poor and the marginalized. Methodism in England became powerful when Wesley preached to miners and to people in the streets. Methodism in America became powerful when it entered the cabins of poor persons on the frontier. Methodism became successful in reaching blacks when it included all persons, including blacks, in its camp meetings. The message was not to become respectable and civilized, but to be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Methodism 100 years before your time, in 1821, included in its membership 21% who were black, many of whom were even slaves. God blessed Methodism so much that by 1850 one-third of all church members in America were Methodist. The poor among us did not own slaves but some of the rich did, even bishops whom identified with the rich. By the time of the Civil War, seven out of every ten black Christians were Methodist. But things soured. Our Methodist message seemed more interested in reaching respectable people than those marginalized. Methodism in my day in America will talk about reaching the poor and persons of other races. It will preach about racial justice and inclusion but we who once claimed that 21% of our numbers were black will have to record that fewer than 5% of our members will be black. Meanwhile, in lands where Methodism will carry a message based on a Biblical frame of reference, Methodism will thrive.
“What do you mean, a Biblical frame of reference?” she would ask.
“In the Bible persons believed the name of Jesus had power over evil spirits, over sickness, over despondency; people spoke of signs and wonders and experiences with the supernatural; prayer was answered. In America this will be the message not of regular Methodists but of the grandchildren of Methodists, people like the Pentecostals. In a secularized culture where science rules out the supernatural, where truth is not what the Bible teaches but what my group wants it to be, where morality is not God-revealed but what sociology and psychology declare it to be at the moment, Methodism influenced by that culture will have little to offer. Other mainline churches will also have little to offer. In your day 60% of the world’s Christians live in Europe. By my day it will be fewer than 20%. Meanwhile, Pentecostals or charismatics or Spirit-directed Christians will total over 1.1 billion adherents in the world, or one-third of the total.”
“O dear,” I can hear her say. “I don’t know whether this is good news or bad news.”
“In a few years, Grandma, there will be more United Methodists in Africa than in America. In one forty year period (1956-1996) Methodism (all Methodists, not just United Methodists) will grow by 449%, but not in America. South American Methodists will grow by 783%; Asian membership will grow by 690%; European and British membership will decrease by 41%; American membership will decrease by 4%. The same pattern will be true for all denominations. In my day there will be more Presbyterians in Korea than in America; there will be more Anglicans in Uganda than in England. In a few years China will become communist and try to stamp out Christianity. But without missionaries and without European or American influence, by my day we will believe there are 50 million Christians in China. The biggest growth will be in Africa. Grandma, when you were a teenager there were 10 million Christians in Africa. By my day there will be 500 million. In your day the average Christian was a 45-year old male living in America. By my day the average Christian will be a 24-year old female living in Nigeria. 60% of all Christians will live in Asia, Africa or South America.
“What else?” she would ask.
“Mega-churches—huge churches with satellite locations and local churches bigger than some denominations. A church in Seoul, Korea will worship 480,000 weekly. A church called Deeper Life Ministry in Lagos, Nigeria will have weekly attendance of 75,000. A church called New Life, in Mumbai, India will have 70,000 attendees. Nine of the ten largest churches in the world will be in places other than America or Europe. Furthermore, some of Europe’s largest churches will be pastored by Africans. In London on a typical Sunday it will be said that half of all churchgoers will be African or Afro-Caribbean blacks. It is reported that of Great Britain’s largest 10 mega-churches, Africans will pastor 4. Paris will have 250 ethnic Protestant churches, most of them black African. The Ukraine-based ministry of Nigerian evangelist Sunday Adelaja will open more than 300 churches in 30 countries in 12 years and will claim 30,000 (mostly white) followers.
Grandma might wonder if the kingdom is coming after all.
“We wish. But like we said, when God works Satan works to deceive. I know this seems confusing, Grandma. I tell you good things and then I tell you about problems. Unfortunately, a lot of churches in my day will lack maturity. We will be vulnerable to false teaching. I told you earlier that in my day there will be 42,000 different denominations or groups. That is good and yet not so good. Many of those groups will be in Africa where false prophets will lead people astray, creating confusion and disunity. A popular teaching will be called the “prosperity gospel” which, instead of preaching servanthood, will preach that God wants us all to prosper and be rich. We won’t have enough good schools to teach good theology. Strong leaders, instead of being servants of God, will seek more power. Far too many Christians will tie their Christianity to political leaders.
Grandma would be so saddened by this.
“And yet, Grandma, it will be a wonderful time to be alive. In America, we will still be sending missionaries; in your day 11,000 full-time missionaries and in my day 50,000 missionaries. We will work with persons all over the globe to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Our Time magazine called 2020 the worst year. In terms of our faith, we say ‘not so.’ Perhaps we would call it ‘the most exciting year.'”
“That gives me some hope,” Grandma might say with a hesitant smile.
“One last thing, Grandma. Take care of that little boy of yours so that when he grows up he can meet my momma, and I can be born.”
(The next Happenings article will use these conversations with Grandma as a basis for observations on the absolute necessity for amicable separation within the United Methodist Church so that the new Global Methodist Church can take root and minister to all people.)