With all the talk of church missionaries affecting policy in Uganda and ties between African dioceses and churches that have left the Episcopal Church because of disagreements on gay bishops and marriage, Betty Rollins recently interviewed Boston University School of Theology professor Dana Robert for Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. As clergy and parishes in the Massachusetts Episcopal Diocese choose if and how to handle their right to perform gay marriages, more and more missionaries from other parts of the world are making their way to our shores to tell Americans how to worship.
Ms. Robert doesn’t see it that way. Different groups of immigrants have been making their way to America with church in tow since the Puritans first stepped foot on New England soil. Most new missionaries do not come to proselytize Americans to their way of thinking but to meld with other immigrants in their new country. That doesn’t mean their churches don’t influence mainstream churches here. It’s subtle, but some influence on religion does occur.
Asked about how the Nigerians affect us, Robert points out that “African immigrants are one of the most highly educated groups of immigrants, and with the technologies we have today their visibility is partly because we can see them on the internet.”
Why do immigrant churches look so different? Partly because the immigrants from Africa and Asia align themselves so much with the Old Testament—because they believe in spirits and the cosmos found in their traditional religions. Robert says, “Because if you come from a primal society, and you don’t do things exactly a certain way, you are not aligned with the spirits or with the cosmic forces, and you can’t succeed in life.” The purity laws of Leviticus are very important because they help man to align himself with the spirits and the cosmos. In the European form of Christianity, Jesus often violated the purity laws because they weren’t important to him. We have tended to follow the Bible that way.
African and Asian churches are growing, and not just in the Bible belt, but American Christians do not need to fear them. According to Robert:
. . .in Boston, a supposedly highly secular city, a new church has been founded every 20 days. Most people don’t realize this. They think New England is secular. These are immigrant churches, storefront churches. This is the American way of building civic society, coming together for voluntary groups, helping each other, and then growth becomes a way to be prosperous in this American connext of capitalism, competition, and so on.”
Part 2: Evangelism in a global society