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Polycentricity and New Ecumenical Terrain: Transnationality, Race, and the Pluralization of Power

This article argues that non-Western immigrant Christianity is decidedly polycentric in its ecclesial identity, structures, and missionary outlook. It begins by briefly describing the religious transformation of the West—catalyzed by massive south to north migrations—as a way of framing reconfigurations in the ecumenical universe.1 It outlines two issues of particular import, and in so doing, it hopes to provide an arena for doing theology and ecclesiology in the future, which includes sociocultural considerations. First, the article situates polycentric ecclesial identity within the wider context of the immigrant experience of marginalization, rejection, and discrimination vis-à-vis American society. These experiences are magnified in immigrant encounters with majority White Christianity—inclusive of individuals, communities, and structures—making it one of the most formidable and intractable ecclesial challenges faced by immigrant churches. The argument that unfolds suggests that immigrant Christianity is essentially viewed and treated as a “new religious other,” a phenomenon that is impossibly hard to disentangle from racism and paternalism. Second, it contends that a migrant ecclesial existence mirrors the multidirectionality and reciprocity of globalization and, as such, is marked by transnationality, decentralization, and network authority. Towards that end, migrant ecclesial maps invariably challenge longstanding traditional denominational structures, assumptions, and values as they are disrupted, bypassed, or reconfigured in order to mirror the priorities of immigrants themselves.

Polycentricity, the Religious Transformation of the West, and New Spaces of Encounter

It is a most extraordinary historical coincidence that the momentous shift in global Christianity’s demographic and cultural center of gravity to the southern continents is occurring at the same time as the equally momentous reversal in the direction of international migrations (from south to north). This is significant because, as in the previous five centuries, global migration movements match that of the heartlands of the Christian faith and the primary sources of missionary movement. Thus, in the same way that unprecedented European migrations from Christianity’s old heartland provided the impetus for the new European missionary movement, phenomenal migrations from Christianity’s new heartlands (in Africa, Latin America, and Asia) have galvanized a massive non-Western missionary movement. This latter movement points to the West as a critical religious laboratory for transformations of the Christian faith, a new frontier of global Christian expansion, which represents a major turning point in the history of the Christian faith.2 Andrew Walls writes, “The missionary movement is the terminal by which Western Christianity was connected to the non-Western world . . . it was . . . the principal sense organ by which Western Christianity itself felt the impact of the non-Western world.”3 Today, once again, the migration of Christians has become the terminal and primary sense organ by which non-Western Christianity experiences its Western counterparts (and vice versa). As was the case with Western Christianity’s encounter with the non-Western world, a relatively new congregation-centered missionary movement—from Africa, Asia, and Latin America—is the primary medium by which the post-Christian West encounters the non-Western church (and vice versa).

Just as the centers of global Christianity have become more diffuse, so too have the places for potential ecumenical encounter and ecumenical relations. Perhaps in no place are these dynamics more evident than in the US, where its history as a definitive migratory nation, its majority Christian composition, comparatively high levels of religiosity, and steady flows of international migrants—two-thirds of whom self-identify with the Christian faith—situate it as an intersection of such realities. Thus, the migration of Christians has conflated territorial boundaries so that the “global church” is no longer outside Western religious geographies but an integral part of them. These transformations in the American religious landscape are what enable major urban centers—such as New York, Houston, and Los Angeles—to hold within them an astonishingly vivid and almost fully representative presence of world Christianity.4

Immigrant Christianity as “Religious Other”: Discounting Ministerial Calling, Competency, and Capacity

While these new realities function as an impetus and opportunity for examining what constitutes the larger Christian “we,” research suggests that geographic proximity seldom translates into sustained or substantive engagement.5 For example, many majority White evangelical congregations in Los Angeles spend enormous amounts of resources on short-term mission trips to Tijuana, Mexico, or Guatemala City, Guatemala, when there are scores of congregations from these countries in their neighborhoods, even renting spaces for worship in their own buildings! Moreover, when rare opportunities for contact do occur, they are often fraught by tension, misunderstanding, discord, and hostility. The reasons for these tensions are complex, but invariably involve issues related to difficulties in cross-cultural communication, the intensity of neo-Pentecostal spirituality and its attendant devotional expressions, and fundamentally different organizational structures and biblical hermeneutics.

Paradoxical and contradictory views of immigrants abound. Often dismissed by White, Western Christians as a mere social safety net for despondent strugglers in a strange land, immigrant Christianity represents a form of the faith that, if noticed at all, is mostly perceived as foreign, transient, and a minority phenomenon. While in need of protection and support from their indigenous “hosts,” their presence and their faith is not deemed as having any potential impact on majority Christianity.6 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu contends that, viewed with distrust and regarded as a liability, African immigrants in particular embody a Christianity that is “biblically suspicious” and “theologically deficient,” and as such, is treated as culturally and religiously “other.”7

At the same time, favorable views often herald immigrants as the saviors of Western denominations facing decline and decay. However enthusiastic many Western Christians are to embrace them, the long arc of the immigrant experience suggests that warm and jubilant attitudes function as a thin veil for deeply entrenched racist and paternalistic views, expressed in forms of objectification that range from exotification to subordination. More to the point, in their encounters with individuals, communities, and structures in various majority White ecclesial settings, Christian migrants discover that their ministerial character, callings, competencies, and capacities are either implicitly ignored and neglected or outright challenged and resisted.

As heralds of Western salvation, immigrant Christians come to realize that they are treated as token saviors. They come to a jarring realization that what is particularly intriguing for their White counterparts are their exotic cultural artifacts (traditional dress, food, worship, etc.). Thus, for example, a Nigerian pastor may be asked in public settings to “worship and pray” but he is never asked to “teach and preach”; a Korean church planter and evangelist participates in regular church planting conferences organized by his denomination, but is baffled that he is never asked to lead any of them, despite the fact that he mentors and supervises three church plants in Georgia, as well as two in China and three in Brazil. A Salvadoran pastor serves multiple terms on an ordination credentialing committee, but when it is his turn to chair it, the position is mysteriously handed to a White counterpart.

Moreover, inclusive public rhetoric, increased representational diversity, and invitational organizational apparatuses in many Western evangelical and Protestant seminaries do not translate into access to structural power. It is not uncommon for a center for Latino studies, for example, to contribute to a school’s mission to train pastors and cross-cultural workers to serve globally, while this same center is excluded from or not fully represented in executive leadership and decision making. Moreover, while the center may be upheld for generating “cutting-edge” projects and initiatives,  its academic programs are often deprived of resources, despite the fact that members are overrepresented in institutional marketing and recruitment efforts for faculty and students. Likewise, an Asian studies program is prized for contributing to the theological, denominational, and demographic diversity of the institution as well as the construction of new theological thought, scholarship, pedagogy, and praxis, but is consistently overlooked by those who hold the power to make decisions about theological content, curriculum, and faculty.8

Polycentric Structures: Transnationality, Decentralization, and Pluralization of Power

The European missionary movement emerged outside the existing church structures, operating almost exclusively through separate mission boards, extra-ecclesial missionary orders, or voluntary societies, and relied on specific trained specialists. This arrangement produced an entrenched church/mission dichotomy in both missiology and mission praxis. Despite the fact that many old categories have dissipated, the Christendom shadow looms large, evidenced in centralized structures, unidirectionality, and territorial church polity. Lastly, current Western missionary maps are constitutive of relationships, organizational links, and financial flows—often reflecting patterns of dependence—which were largely fashioned during the modern missionary movement.

In contrast, the ecclesial existence of the non-Western movement mirrors the multidirectionality and reciprocity of globalization, as it is decidedly polycentric, marked by transnationality, decentralization, and network authority.9 Essentially a lay-led initiative with the congregation functioning as the hub of mission for receiving and sending, the need for a mission agency is often eclipsed altogether. Their deterritorialized approach to mission is evident in the fact that immigrant churches are as likely to re-evangelize their fellow Americans, including Christians in their midst, as they are Muslims in their countries of origin. Toward that end, in church polity, geographic diversity and presence are viewed as an asset, not a liability.

As a result, churches embody a ministry motif whereby geographic locations rarely mirror the scope of ministerial responsibilities, strategies, and outlook. Migrants, both individuals and congregations, function as transnational ecclesial actors who represent nodes or nexuses of intersectionality, linking them to a dizzying array of other actors in a multiplicity of other locales. For example, one pan-African congregation of approximately 75 members I researched in Los Angeles had established five transnational ministries: a church plant in Tokyo (forged through relationships at ESL classes in Pasadena), three church plants in northern Nigeria, an orphanage in central Nigeria, and a health clinic in Beirut, Lebanon. In addition, 20 members (two-thirds of its adult membership) had created ministries in their homelands and beyond.

Organizationally, what emerges are structures that pluralize centers of power and, as such, privilege no single governing center, centralized hub, or command center. Marked by a plurality of decision-making locales, each center is fully operational and independent yet simultaneously interconnected and interdependent. The multiplicity of centers employs a form of governance characterized by network authority, whereby each transnational ecclesial agent operates with a sanctioned authority and hence is able to sustain existing initiatives and make decisions regarding new ventures without the constraints of a centralized structure.

The networks of authority and of cooperation facilitate a multilayered ecclesial universe, where the connections and linkages forged between transnational ecclesial agents within the professional and entrepreneurial networks they inhabit often translate into collaborative efforts and participation in one another’s ministries. These independent transnational circuits function as a primary source of exchange of ideas, shared expertise, material support, and ultimately partnership, without having to establish formal ties through a central ecclesial governing body. Its essential hallmarks—flexibility, scalability, and survivability—permit a high degree of functionality in contexts faced with weakened civil infrastructures, unreliable institutions, and precarious resources. As such, institutional creativity and innovation enable immigrant ministries to resist multiple attacks, interruptions, and intrusions that might otherwise halt organizational life.

Finally, this polycentric ecclesial existence challenges longstanding traditional structures, assumptions, and values as they are disrupted, bypassed, or reconfigured in order to mirror the priorities of immigrants themselves. Old categories are scrambled and new ones configured. Toward that end, assessing the wide range of sociocultural issues that emerge in these encounters would go a long way in both reframing and expanding ecumenical relations.

Written By

Matthew J. Krabill (PhD ’20) and his wife, Toni, are codirectors of the Paris Mennonite Center in Paris, France. He is the editor of the journal Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue. He and Allison Norton (Hartford Seminary) are currently working on a book tentatively titled Migrant God, Migrant Faith (IVP Academic). Matthew received his PhD in Intercultural Studies in 2020 from Fuller Theological Seminary.

This article argues that non-Western immigrant Christianity is decidedly polycentric in its ecclesial identity, structures, and missionary outlook. It begins by briefly describing the religious transformation of the West—catalyzed by massive south to north migrations—as a way of framing reconfigurations in the ecumenical universe.1 It outlines two issues of particular import, and in so doing, it hopes to provide an arena for doing theology and ecclesiology in the future, which includes sociocultural considerations. First, the article situates polycentric ecclesial identity within the wider context of the immigrant experience of marginalization, rejection, and discrimination vis-à-vis American society. These experiences are magnified in immigrant encounters with majority White Christianity—inclusive of individuals, communities, and structures—making it one of the most formidable and intractable ecclesial challenges faced by immigrant churches. The argument that unfolds suggests that immigrant Christianity is essentially viewed and treated as a “new religious other,” a phenomenon that is impossibly hard to disentangle from racism and paternalism. Second, it contends that a migrant ecclesial existence mirrors the multidirectionality and reciprocity of globalization and, as such, is marked by transnationality, decentralization, and network authority. Towards that end, migrant ecclesial maps invariably challenge longstanding traditional denominational structures, assumptions, and values as they are disrupted, bypassed, or reconfigured in order to mirror the priorities of immigrants themselves.

Polycentricity, the Religious Transformation of the West, and New Spaces of Encounter

It is a most extraordinary historical coincidence that the momentous shift in global Christianity’s demographic and cultural center of gravity to the southern continents is occurring at the same time as the equally momentous reversal in the direction of international migrations (from south to north). This is significant because, as in the previous five centuries, global migration movements match that of the heartlands of the Christian faith and the primary sources of missionary movement. Thus, in the same way that unprecedented European migrations from Christianity’s old heartland provided the impetus for the new European missionary movement, phenomenal migrations from Christianity’s new heartlands (in Africa, Latin America, and Asia) have galvanized a massive non-Western missionary movement. This latter movement points to the West as a critical religious laboratory for transformations of the Christian faith, a new frontier of global Christian expansion, which represents a major turning point in the history of the Christian faith.2 Andrew Walls writes, “The missionary movement is the terminal by which Western Christianity was connected to the non-Western world . . . it was . . . the principal sense organ by which Western Christianity itself felt the impact of the non-Western world.”3 Today, once again, the migration of Christians has become the terminal and primary sense organ by which non-Western Christianity experiences its Western counterparts (and vice versa). As was the case with Western Christianity’s encounter with the non-Western world, a relatively new congregation-centered missionary movement—from Africa, Asia, and Latin America—is the primary medium by which the post-Christian West encounters the non-Western church (and vice versa).

Just as the centers of global Christianity have become more diffuse, so too have the places for potential ecumenical encounter and ecumenical relations. Perhaps in no place are these dynamics more evident than in the US, where its history as a definitive migratory nation, its majority Christian composition, comparatively high levels of religiosity, and steady flows of international migrants—two-thirds of whom self-identify with the Christian faith—situate it as an intersection of such realities. Thus, the migration of Christians has conflated territorial boundaries so that the “global church” is no longer outside Western religious geographies but an integral part of them. These transformations in the American religious landscape are what enable major urban centers—such as New York, Houston, and Los Angeles—to hold within them an astonishingly vivid and almost fully representative presence of world Christianity.4

Immigrant Christianity as “Religious Other”: Discounting Ministerial Calling, Competency, and Capacity

While these new realities function as an impetus and opportunity for examining what constitutes the larger Christian “we,” research suggests that geographic proximity seldom translates into sustained or substantive engagement.5 For example, many majority White evangelical congregations in Los Angeles spend enormous amounts of resources on short-term mission trips to Tijuana, Mexico, or Guatemala City, Guatemala, when there are scores of congregations from these countries in their neighborhoods, even renting spaces for worship in their own buildings! Moreover, when rare opportunities for contact do occur, they are often fraught by tension, misunderstanding, discord, and hostility. The reasons for these tensions are complex, but invariably involve issues related to difficulties in cross-cultural communication, the intensity of neo-Pentecostal spirituality and its attendant devotional expressions, and fundamentally different organizational structures and biblical hermeneutics.

Paradoxical and contradictory views of immigrants abound. Often dismissed by White, Western Christians as a mere social safety net for despondent strugglers in a strange land, immigrant Christianity represents a form of the faith that, if noticed at all, is mostly perceived as foreign, transient, and a minority phenomenon. While in need of protection and support from their indigenous “hosts,” their presence and their faith is not deemed as having any potential impact on majority Christianity.6 J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu contends that, viewed with distrust and regarded as a liability, African immigrants in particular embody a Christianity that is “biblically suspicious” and “theologically deficient,” and as such, is treated as culturally and religiously “other.”7

At the same time, favorable views often herald immigrants as the saviors of Western denominations facing decline and decay. However enthusiastic many Western Christians are to embrace them, the long arc of the immigrant experience suggests that warm and jubilant attitudes function as a thin veil for deeply entrenched racist and paternalistic views, expressed in forms of objectification that range from exotification to subordination. More to the point, in their encounters with individuals, communities, and structures in various majority White ecclesial settings, Christian migrants discover that their ministerial character, callings, competencies, and capacities are either implicitly ignored and neglected or outright challenged and resisted.

As heralds of Western salvation, immigrant Christians come to realize that they are treated as token saviors. They come to a jarring realization that what is particularly intriguing for their White counterparts are their exotic cultural artifacts (traditional dress, food, worship, etc.). Thus, for example, a Nigerian pastor may be asked in public settings to “worship and pray” but he is never asked to “teach and preach”; a Korean church planter and evangelist participates in regular church planting conferences organized by his denomination, but is baffled that he is never asked to lead any of them, despite the fact that he mentors and supervises three church plants in Georgia, as well as two in China and three in Brazil. A Salvadoran pastor serves multiple terms on an ordination credentialing committee, but when it is his turn to chair it, the position is mysteriously handed to a White counterpart.

Moreover, inclusive public rhetoric, increased representational diversity, and invitational organizational apparatuses in many Western evangelical and Protestant seminaries do not translate into access to structural power. It is not uncommon for a center for Latino studies, for example, to contribute to a school’s mission to train pastors and cross-cultural workers to serve globally, while this same center is excluded from or not fully represented in executive leadership and decision making. Moreover, while the center may be upheld for generating “cutting-edge” projects and initiatives,  its academic programs are often deprived of resources, despite the fact that members are overrepresented in institutional marketing and recruitment efforts for faculty and students. Likewise, an Asian studies program is prized for contributing to the theological, denominational, and demographic diversity of the institution as well as the construction of new theological thought, scholarship, pedagogy, and praxis, but is consistently overlooked by those who hold the power to make decisions about theological content, curriculum, and faculty.8

Polycentric Structures: Transnationality, Decentralization, and Pluralization of Power

The European missionary movement emerged outside the existing church structures, operating almost exclusively through separate mission boards, extra-ecclesial missionary orders, or voluntary societies, and relied on specific trained specialists. This arrangement produced an entrenched church/mission dichotomy in both missiology and mission praxis. Despite the fact that many old categories have dissipated, the Christendom shadow looms large, evidenced in centralized structures, unidirectionality, and territorial church polity. Lastly, current Western missionary maps are constitutive of relationships, organizational links, and financial flows—often reflecting patterns of dependence—which were largely fashioned during the modern missionary movement.

In contrast, the ecclesial existence of the non-Western movement mirrors the multidirectionality and reciprocity of globalization, as it is decidedly polycentric, marked by transnationality, decentralization, and network authority.9 Essentially a lay-led initiative with the congregation functioning as the hub of mission for receiving and sending, the need for a mission agency is often eclipsed altogether. Their deterritorialized approach to mission is evident in the fact that immigrant churches are as likely to re-evangelize their fellow Americans, including Christians in their midst, as they are Muslims in their countries of origin. Toward that end, in church polity, geographic diversity and presence are viewed as an asset, not a liability.

As a result, churches embody a ministry motif whereby geographic locations rarely mirror the scope of ministerial responsibilities, strategies, and outlook. Migrants, both individuals and congregations, function as transnational ecclesial actors who represent nodes or nexuses of intersectionality, linking them to a dizzying array of other actors in a multiplicity of other locales. For example, one pan-African congregation of approximately 75 members I researched in Los Angeles had established five transnational ministries: a church plant in Tokyo (forged through relationships at ESL classes in Pasadena), three church plants in northern Nigeria, an orphanage in central Nigeria, and a health clinic in Beirut, Lebanon. In addition, 20 members (two-thirds of its adult membership) had created ministries in their homelands and beyond.

Organizationally, what emerges are structures that pluralize centers of power and, as such, privilege no single governing center, centralized hub, or command center. Marked by a plurality of decision-making locales, each center is fully operational and independent yet simultaneously interconnected and interdependent. The multiplicity of centers employs a form of governance characterized by network authority, whereby each transnational ecclesial agent operates with a sanctioned authority and hence is able to sustain existing initiatives and make decisions regarding new ventures without the constraints of a centralized structure.

The networks of authority and of cooperation facilitate a multilayered ecclesial universe, where the connections and linkages forged between transnational ecclesial agents within the professional and entrepreneurial networks they inhabit often translate into collaborative efforts and participation in one another’s ministries. These independent transnational circuits function as a primary source of exchange of ideas, shared expertise, material support, and ultimately partnership, without having to establish formal ties through a central ecclesial governing body. Its essential hallmarks—flexibility, scalability, and survivability—permit a high degree of functionality in contexts faced with weakened civil infrastructures, unreliable institutions, and precarious resources. As such, institutional creativity and innovation enable immigrant ministries to resist multiple attacks, interruptions, and intrusions that might otherwise halt organizational life.

Finally, this polycentric ecclesial existence challenges longstanding traditional structures, assumptions, and values as they are disrupted, bypassed, or reconfigured in order to mirror the priorities of immigrants themselves. Old categories are scrambled and new ones configured. Toward that end, assessing the wide range of sociocultural issues that emerge in these encounters would go a long way in both reframing and expanding ecumenical relations.

Matthew Kraybill

Matthew J. Krabill (PhD ’20) and his wife, Toni, are codirectors of the Paris Mennonite Center in Paris, France. He is the editor of the journal Evangelical Interfaith Dialogue. He and Allison Norton (Hartford Seminary) are currently working on a book tentatively titled Migrant God, Migrant Faith (IVP Academic). Matthew received his PhD in Intercultural Studies in 2020 from Fuller Theological Seminary.

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