Christians Urged to Adapt to Fluid World

Agios Andreas, Greece - Mainstream Christian churches must adapt to the powerful forces of the new century — including the rise in African and Asian congregations and tensions with the Muslim world — or risk losing their relevance and ability to help shape world affairs, religious leaders said Tuesday.

The messages to a global conference on spiritual trends underscored the sense among many Christian pastors and scholars that churches need to sharpen their mission in an age of fast-paced economic restructuring and growing instability, such as the widening gulf between the West and Islam.

"The consequences of globalization, terrorism and the war on terror require that Christian churches rediscover their prophetic voice ... to raise their voice and be on the side of peace," the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, told the gathering of more than 700 Christian leaders, theologians and activists.

The general secretary of the World Council of Churches — the organizers of the weeklong conference — also noted the "demographic center" of Christianity is shifting into the southern hemisphere, led by explosive growth in African and Asian congregations and rising populations in Latin America.

The Rev. Samuel Kobia encouraged churches to seek new ideas to make Christianity meaningful to cultures unfamiliar with European traditions and to avoid "insensitive" methods that undermine local languages and customs.

"Christianity's center of gravity ... continues to migrate southward," said Kobia, a Kenyan. "Our vision must undergo a corresponding conversion."

Failure of the established Christian denominations to respond could further open the door to charismatic preachers and evangelical enterprises such as the Rev. Billy Graham's movement or the German pastor Reinhard Bonnke, who promotes himself as one of the fastest-growing Christian missionaries in Africa. The World Council of Churches conference did not include representatives of the evangelical powerhouses.

Kobia warned that charismatic movements could "likely cause conflict in the 21st century" because of their often dismissive views on other faiths.

He added: "As we seek to overcome tensions between North and South, we must also be converted to a new sense of unity joining East and West." He urged a "major step forward" in Christian-Islamic contacts during a World Council of Churches interfaith gathering in Geneva next month.

Contacts with other faiths may also be raised during a planned meeting in June between Kobia and Pope Benedict XVI.

Christodoulos also warned that old models of Christian attitudes and missionary work are becoming obsolete as cultures and faiths increasingly intermingle.

"The growing effect of globalization — as a cultural and not as a financial phenomenon any more — the opening of national frontiers and the increasing move of populations from one place to another puts our Christian witness in a totally different situation than that of the past," Christodoulos told the conference at a seaside venue 18 miles northeast of Athens.

"This is even more urgent now, in the post-Sept. 11 world, than in earlier times," he added, urging a "more humble ethos" among Christian churches and rejection of the "overoptimistic tones" of some missionary groups.

Christodoulos' comments struck some of the major hurdles facing the conference — which draws together Christians from nearly every tradition.

Small evangelical churches, which have sharply raised their profile in Central Asia and Africa in the past decade, may resist appeals for less aggressive outreach. The gathering also will grapple with the galloping pace of globalization and its effects on traditional economies and religious life. Also on the meeting's agenda are ways to enhance dialogue with moderate Muslim leaders and control AIDS.

The Vatican has a delegation at the conference, although it is not a full member of the World Council of Churches. The organization includes more than 350 member Christian churches and is one of the major forums for interfaith talks and efforts to improve Christian cooperation.