American History

Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century with Wes Granberg-Michaelson

Wes Granberg-Michaelson served as the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years. He is the author of “Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century.”

Wes Granberg-Michaelson served as the General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America for 17 years. He is the author of “Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21st Century.”

Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and your book?

Raised in a strong evangelical home near Chicago, I began my career working for U.S. Senator Mark O. Hatfield, an early opponent of the Vietnam War.  My time in Washington D.C. included engagement in many international issues, but eventually I followed a call to seminary and the ministry.  This resulted in work with the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland, and then serving as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America, the oldest Protestant Denomination in the U.S.

“Future Faith” is the seventh book I’ve written and comes out of a lifetime of interaction with the Christian church around the world.  I’m convinced churches in North America have much to learn by what is happening globally in world Christianity, and I’ve identified 10 challenges which I believe are central.

Who is Jim Wallis and what impact has he had on who you have become as a person and your understanding of the gospel?

Jim Wallis is the Founder and President of Sojourners Magazine and its related ministries today.  His impact on Christianity in the U.S. has been remarkable.  We have been close friends for 45 years, and his understanding of the gospel’s call for radical discipleship rooted in biblical faithfulness, and addressing the issues of justice in our day, has shaped my own journey.  He would add that this has been mutual.

Richard Mouw wrote that your book “disturbed me as it informed me.” Is this the kind of reaction you are hoping readers will have? Why?

Yes, this is the sort of reaction I was hoping for.  Rich has long been a friend, and I respect his leadership, including the role he has played in dialogue with leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints.  The challenges presented by faith as it moves from mostly a Western to non-Western cultures in the global South are disturbing.  But in the end, they are hopeful, which is exactly what Rich described in his reaction to the book.

You identify today’s shifting demographics within Christianity as being so important as to rank with other watershed moments such as the conversion of Constantine and the Five Theses of Martin Luther. How have other scholars of Christianity responded to your claims? Do you find this argument is mostly accepted—or mostly debated?

My argument has not been “mostly accepted” by others.  It hasn’t been widely noticed, to tell the truth.  However, among those scholars who have given attention to the dramatic shift in Christianity’s global demographics—Phillip Jenkins, Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Dana Robert, Kenneth Ross, Todd Johnson, and many others—they would readily agree.

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Should theological truths be stronger than the prevailing societal beliefs of today–or any generation? What is it about contemporary America that threatens Christian morals and why is the Christian response often less-than-loving?

Theological truths should also be stronger societal beliefs, or else theology would simply be determined sociology.  But the relationship between gospel and culture is complex, and always an ongoing dialogue.

Contemporary American society is becoming, in some respects, more secular, at least among certain groups and opinion leaders.  For some Christians this opens opportunities for creative interaction and evangelical outreach.  For others it creates defensiveness, fear, and tribal loyalties.  Those who respond in these latter ways become unloving because they define themselves, and their versions of faith, as “against” others.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has recently made a widely publicized push to eliminate usage of the word Mormon and focus on the full name of the church. What challenges and opportunities might this present in today’s soundbite culture?

While that’s hard for me to answer with wide experience, my sense is that this will make it more difficult to communicate with those who are not members.

In the popular culture, many understand well the group known as “Mormons.”  Very few know what “The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints” is. To be more precise, how would a newspaper editor instruct a reporter to describe Mitt Romney if the reporter were not to use the word “Mormon?”

I understand compelling theological and ecclesial reasons for wanting this change.  But your question asks me to respond at a practical level, which I have.

The membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is now more heavily concentrated in the Southern hemisphere. How does this demographic reality mirror the demographic changes facing all of Christianity?

This shift mirrors the demographic change facing all of Christianity very well.  But this is about more than demographics, as my book “Future Faith” explains.  This is about a shift in mind-set, and in the prevailing cultural context for living out faith.  My question would be whether these changes are being understood and felt by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as it journeys into the future.

What factors contribute to America becoming more secular while the world at large becomes more religious?

The reasons are full of complexity, but generally have to do with the “progress” of Western culture which leads to a growing detachment from an underlying trust in the spiritual dimensions of life, while non-Western cultures, which also are not as economically developed, have more intrinsic openness to spiritual realities.

This plays out in all kinds of ways, but this is at least a starting point for thinking about this question.

What do you mean by “de-Americanizing” the gospel and how can Americans overcome the innate challenges associated with this?

The message of the gospel faces the constant temptation to become captive to the views of narrow nationalism and cultural superiority which conflate allegiance to God and country in ways which do damage to both.  God is made into a chaplain of the state, and the nation assumes that it has God’s blessing whether right or wrong.

The current version is “America First,” which, in all honesty, is a theological heresy.  This temptation is overcome by understanding that the biblical message is always in tension, at various points, with any nation’s actions and ambitions.

Listening to the voices of the Christian community outside of the United States is also a helpful way of overcoming this challenge and learning how to “de-Americanize” the gospel.

How can Christians have a discussion about individualism separate from political discussions in which individualism has distinctly Democratic or Republican overtones?

It’s important to take the discussion about individualism out of the partisan debate in our country.  The point I make in the book is that most all Americans, regardless of political party, begin with the assumption that the individual is the center of political policy, cultural norms, and religious belief.

My argument is that this is not a biblical perspective, for far more importance is placed upon our belonging to a community, and for Christians specifically the body of Christ.  Western culture enshrines individualism, and we take this for granted.  Non-Western cultures, which now hold the majority of Christians, generally have a different starting place.

If you could have a conversation with the Apostle Peter about the challenges facing Christianity today, what would you most want to discuss and how do you think he might answer you?

To be honest, I’d love to know how he felt after his encounter with the risen Christ on the shore of the lake at breakfast, and how that affected him.  This is one of my favorite stories in the Bible.

But regarding the challenges facing Christianity today, I’d want to ask him which Christians today, in what regions and circumstances, are the most important in shaping a vibrant global Christian witness in the 21st century.

My guess is that he would not say, “white Christians in the U.S.”  He would be more likely to say, in my view, Christians in poorer communities especially in large urban areas in the global South, Christians experiencing rapid growth in China, and Christians from Asia, Africa, and Latin America who are immigrants to North America and Europe.

But Peter might surprise me with completely different answers.  I hope not to hear these any time soon.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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