Introducing Our Global Families
Todd M. Johnson and Cindy M. Wu
Anyone who is married will tell you how challenging it can be to get along with the two different extended families of the bride and the groom. While the groom puzzles over the strange behavior of the bride’s relatives, the bride is likely to enlighten him about irregularities in his own family. While we have learned to navigate family dynamics in our own journeys with our spouses, we’ve also been pondering how to navigate the expanding and shifting dynamics in the wider context of our two “global families.”
We were born into the human race—one of our global families. As only two of more than seven billion individuals, we are increasingly aware of both the joys and the challenges of getting along with this unfathomable mosaic of peoples, languages, ethnicities, religions, and cultures.
We also claim membership in another global family—the global Christian family. The global Christian family is made up of 2.4 billion people—about a third of the global human family—found in every country of the world. This year 45 million babies will be born into our Christian family, 22 million of us will die, 16 million will join us as adult converts, and 12 million will defect, most to agnosticism. As a result, there will be a net gain of 27 million Christians. That’s a lot of new family members to become acquainted with!
Over the past 115 years, the complexion of this global Christian family has changed dramatically. In 1900, Christians were over 80% white, but now they are over 60% nonwhite. Today, Christians belong to 45,000 different denominations and speak over 3,000 different languages. The gospel has spread across Africa, Asia, and Latin America (the Global South) so that the majority of Christians now live on those continents. Meanwhile, the Global North is becoming more secular, yet it is also more religiously diverse due to migration. Overall, the world is becoming more religious and more religiously diverse.
Increasing diversity arouses questions of identity: How do the shifts within the religious landscape impact the way Christians view themselves and one another, both as members of the global Christian family and as members of the global human family? Is our primary Christian identity our local identity or our global identity? How can we be faithful to our own beliefs while being generous and engaging with others, especially when it comes to working for the common good?
Answering these questions requires a new approach to identity—one that emphasizes the universality of Christian community and common humanity. But the world and the church seem to lead people in the direction of emphasizing difference instead of similarity.
We as Christians—especially North American evangelicals—need to be challenged in our loyalties and our boundaries in order to navigate today’s changing world. As Christian diversity increases globally, there is a greater need to emphasize the similarities of our shared faith. We need a broader sense of Christian identity as we attempt to express our faith within the myriad of Christian denominations and traditions worldwide. We also need to be better informed about other religions and to build significant friendships with people of other religions.
So what needs to change or adapt? First, it is a matter of identity as members of the global Christian family. If we identify ourselves first as followers of Christ and second by our nationality, denomination, and other distinctives, we will provide a stronger witness to our common faith with Christians around the world. Second, it is a matter of participation in the global human family. If we identify as global citizens, we will think differently about our role in the world. In both cases, we will recognize and respect difference but be quicker to look for commonality.
One thing is for certain: we can’t be content as Christians if we separate ourselves from either of our global families.
Valuing common identity above that of any specific ethnic, linguistic, national, or social identity is a Christian virtue. And this might very well be a missing dimension in humanity’s attempts to overcome its greatest global challenges. As followers of Christ we can do no less than to faithfully follow Jesus’s example of loving our neighbors enough to get to know them and identify with them. Imitating Christ in our relationships with both global families is one of the great opportunities of the twenty-first century.
Todd M. Johnson (PhD, William Carey International University) is director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity and associate professor of global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is also visiting research fellow at the Institute on Culture, Religion, and World Affairs at Boston University. Johnson is coauthor of The World’s Religions in Figures and the World Christian Encyclopedia, and coeditor of the Atlas of Global Christianity.
Cindy M. Wu (MA, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) has served in church-planting contexts in China, Mexico City, Houston, and Boston. She lives in Houston, Texas.
For more information on Our Global Families, click here.