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Autumn 2007 | Volume 30, Number 2 | Features

Global Christianity

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Illustration of a church by Leon Zernitsky
Illustration by Leon Zernitsky

"Give We Sense”

Two summers ago, my wife and I and some friends visited fellow Christians in Sierra Leone, West Africa. It was an unforgettable visit, sweet with fellowship and poignant with the recognition of all that these people had endured in recent years.

In Kabala, an up-country town far to the north, we heard a sermon by Mr. M.B. Jalloh on the text of 1 Kings 3. Its title in Krio, the Leoneans’ English-derived Creole tongue, was “Give We Sense.” Mr. Jalloh told his people that just as God wanted to know the desires of Solomon’s heart and to grant him his deepest request, God wants to know our hearts and wants to give us what we need. Like Solomon, he said, we should be asking God for “sense,” for wise and discerning hearts. It was a message I will never forget, made all the more profound by the context.

With bright sandy beaches and lush green peaks and plains, Sierra Leone can look like paradise. But in recent years, the country has been a living hell. From 1991 to 2000, it was wracked by a brutal and meaningless civil war, fed by illegal drug and diamond trading. A British invasion finally ended the rebellion, and for the next five years, a sometimes-corrupt U.N. peacekeeping force occupied the country.

Now, seven years after the end of the fighting, the country still struggles to recover. With a ravaged infrastructure, overcrowded schools, and woefully inadequate health care, the strain of staying alive is evident on people’s faces. The average life expectancy is approximately 40.

If you were in their situation, what would you ask God to give you? Surely, people of faith in Kabala pray, fervently, for their daily rice, for the rain and seed and health and strength to raise it, for medicine to heal their sick children, for protection from harm. Yet Mr. Jalloh pled with his hearers to ask God for a discerning heart, for the wisdom to distinguish what is right from what is wrong — all for the sake of justice and good order in the land. If we ask and receive that from God, he said, then God promises that the rest will follow.

In a land where the task of rebuilding is so immense, and the daily struggle to survive is so challenging, here were Christian brothers and sisters, some of whom could not read and write, asking for wisdom and discernment. This was big-picture thinking of an amazing quality. Indeed, it was thinking born, I believe, out of extreme distress by people who had learned to have radical trust in God.

The Task of Global Christians

The Leonean Christians prayed “give we sense” — not simply “give me sense.” Rather than focus on their individual needs, they prayed in collective terms. They know what we need to rediscover: that we are in this struggle as agents of God’s kingdom together.

I am too much the novice and the foreigner to know with any certainty what wise and discerning people should decide to do in up-country Sierra Leone to make things better. But I saw what these Christian people were doing to provide widows and orphans with shelter, to send children to school, to dig wells and latrines, to provide adult literacy classes, and so much more. Africa is now one of the great heartlands of global Christianity, and the people we met there are now the world’s average Christians.

There is a cliché making the rounds, even repeated by some African spokesmen, that the church in Africa is “a mile wide and a foot deep.” African Christianity has its problems, but usually when I hear this phrase, I think it applies more closely to Christianity here in the global North and West. If only we could make half the difference in our societies today that we saw God’s faithful doing in up-country Sierra Leone that summer.

“Lord, give us sense.” And what would some God-given sense show us? I am still praying for it myself, so I can’t presume to say for certain. But a discerning heart and mind, one that is attuned to God’s worldwide activity and purposes, would surely show us these three things:

First, that the way things are in this world is not the way things are supposed to be. That is starkly evident to a visitor in Sierra Leone, although it may be more difficult for us to keep in mind here. The Bible makes it clear that we inhabit a world that was created for good by God, but which has become distorted and subverted by sin and rebellion. Our call is to be agents of Christ, working in advance of his return for the world’s redemption and renewal.

Second, God is moving in this world. Remarkable things are happening for the kingdom of God, but we may have to adjust our angle of vision and categorical lenses to see them. In secular terms, America is the cultural and economic capital of the world, the political and military superpower. But God seems to do his main kingdom work in ways that are radically different, using “the weak things of this world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:29). He is using the “average Christians” of Sierra Leone, South India, and El Salvador to change the world.

Third, God has things for us to do in this world. To whom much is given, Jesus said, much will be required. It is tempting to believe that we can’t make a difference. Yet in comparative, world-Christian terms, we Northern and Western Christians have enormous privilege, and therefore enormous responsibility. In partnership with our brothers and sisters, we are called to push beyond what is comfortable and easy, to find out what an astonishing world we live in, and to ask that God make us wise — for the sake of his kingdom on earth.

—By Joel Carpenter, Director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity, Calvin College
—Illustrations by Leon Zernitsky

Joel Carpenter is a professor of history and the director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was the keynote speaker for SPU’s fifth annual Day of Common Learning in October 2006, where he facilitated a campus discussion of globalization. Carpenter is co-editor of The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World.

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