Christianity’s Eccentricity: A Religion without an Ethnic Centre

While people used to think Christianity was a European religion, and today its more accurately a faith centred in the Global South, it truly has no geographical headquarters. It has been said that the sun never sets on God’s church at prayer. Its another way of saying that the church is a transnational worldwide community, made up of almost every ethnic group, each praying in their indigenous language but focused on one Lord, Jesus Christ, who is our connection to God, the mystery of life and healing and joy.

The sun never sets on the church at prayer. (Photo by Maria Stewart)

Yet even this Lord is constantly on the move. Christians serve an eccentric Messiah I recall Institute of Christian Studies professor George Vandervelde saying many years ago–a Messiah who constantly decentres himself, giving himself for the sake of others, pointing to God and his kingdom of love and light. Eccentric literally means off-centre, and more conventionally, it means being non-conformist, not following the status-quo, and at times, being perceived as odd in the eyes of the world.

Unlike other religions that have a sacred language or sacred city or sacred people, Christians at their best see their faith as most essentially a matter of contextualization, embodiment, localization–fashioned after the model of Christ himself. Jesus Christ, being in very nature God, did not consider such status something to cling to, but instead incarnated himself as a human being, a servant, who gave his life healing, teaching, delivering people from their demons, and forgiving sinners, especially those off-centre–on the periphery of the dominant social groups (Phil. 2).

Jews have Hebrew and Jerusalem, Muslims have Arabic and Mecca, and the Hindus claim India, but Christians have no central language, city or nation. The Vatican and Latin are representative sacred aspects of one branch, the Roman Catholics, but the catholic church (small “c”) has no capital city. Jesus himself spoke Aramaic, wrote no books, and had his words translated into Greek. Wikipedia reports that at least some significant portion of the Bible has been translated now into some 3,384 languages. Theologian Andrew Walls said the essence of Christianity is translation, the translation of the love of God in Christ (“good news”) to all nations, a fulfillment of the promise God gave to Abraham that through him “all nations would be blessed.”

A Musical Example

This is the vision of Global Scholars Canada, as we try to be a picture of such a multi-ethnic transnational network. Recently Global Scholars’ founder, Danny McCain sent me a music video that gives such a colourful window into the church universal–as a Nigerian song was internationalized by the Global Resonance Multicultural Worship Collective. I have to admit, I could not recognize many of the languages–or the musical instruments!

Being and Becoming Cosmopolitan

Being multi-cultural is not only the essence of the church, it is also something it strives to become. Our churches can be ethnic enclaves, nationalistic institutions, and sometimes resist the social change that Biblical cosmopolitanism requires. Recent dramatic events in the United States have prompted many to re-examine themselves and the institutions in which they serve to assess just how multi-ethnic they really are, and whether they truly embody the hospitality of God’s “all nations” redemptive plan. This means first of all confessing where we have failed, where prejudice, discrimination, small-mindedness, ethnocentrism, and racism have blinded us to God’s multi-coloured community of love and peace. Then, in light of God’s forgiveness and call, renewing our efforts for the transnational mission and the ecumenical nature of Christ’s body, the church.

“I looked; and there before me was a huge crowd, too large for anyone to count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” Rev. 7:9 (Image from MetsikGarden)

Where does this leave other religions in the Christian vision? Although our record with other religions is also checkered, the invitation is always open for dialogue and mutual accountability. Christians need people outside its household of faith with which to share the good news of Christ’s localization of love and peace. Christians also need others to hold them to account–to challenge them to live up to their Lord’s eccentricity. Finally, Christians need opportunities to listen and learn, as this is often the first demonstration of the love they profess.

More practically, how do Christians live into this eccentric vision in a world of borders, prejudice, and self-protectiveness? To be truly multi-cultural, we need to insist that this will be done differently in different contexts. There are creative ways to show the multi-ethnic character of the church in China, Rwanda, Brazil, and Canada, and while they all demonstrate love, welcome, and justice, its locally embodied, locally led. Many books have been written on the multi-ethnic mission of the church (see the writings of Soong-Chan Rah, Mark DeyMaz or Douglas Brouwer). This music video above is one good example that I hope can inspire others.

The heart of the triune God is love, and this love calls, challenges, and motivates Christians to cross boundaries, make odd friendships, and make amends for the wrongs that have been done. If that is eccentric, that’s what we hope to be and become, following our eccentric Lord.

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