Diaspora Factor in Christian Expansion: Progressive, Serial or Parallel

With the exception of the first century, the twentieth century may be the most extraordinary century in the history of Christianity. At the beginning of the twentieth century more than four-fifth of the professing Christians lived in Europe and North America, while by the end of the century more than three-fifth of the Christians live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. At the beginning of the century, almost all missionaries came from the Western world, while at the beginning of the twenty-first century nearly half of missionary force comes from the non-Western world. This led many mission scholars to believe that center of Christian world has shifted from the northern hemisphere to the southern.

Over the last century, Christianity has become more global than ever before and more than all other religions. Its spread and growth has been explosive and unmatched with any era in history. But not everything has been steady and triumphant. Historians like Kenneth Scott Latourette pointed out that there have been periods of advancement and periods of recession. Places like that were once nerve-center of Christianity has been obliterated completely (e.g. Jerusalem and Asia Minor). Regions where Christianity once thrived have been wiped out entirely in few decades or centuries (e.g. Yemen and North Africa ). Churches have been converted to museums, night clubs and mosques (e.g. Turkey and England). The brightest examples of devotion and scholarship have been snuffed out without any trace of its existence (e.g. Syria and North Africa). There are no signs of germination from places where much blood has been shed by Christian martyrs! (e.g. Iraq and China).

Professor Andrew Walls has suggested a helpful way to understand the history of Christian expansion when he stated that ‘the spread of Christianity has not been progressive, but serial.’[1] In mapping the world religions, Prof. Walls sees a distinctive pattern:

The history of the great religions of the world displays different types of expansion. In India religious expansion has been unifocal, absorbing and reformulating influences from many quarters but maintaining one geographical focus for its great religious activity. Iranian religion has been catalytic, profoundly influencing other religious traditions but leaving only small communities to embody its own. Islamic expansion has been progressive, steadily spreading out from its original center (which retains a cosmic significance), claiming the allegiance of the whole world and, with few exceptions, maintaining the gains it has made. By contrast, Christian expansion has been serial. It has not maintained a single cultural or geographical center; it has always retained a substantial separate identity; it recedes as well as advances, declines or dies out in the areas of its greatest strength and reappears, often transformed, in totally different areas of quite distinct culture. Christian history is a series of cross-cultural movements, which result in a succession of different Christian “heartlands” as the geographical and cultural center of Christianity has changed. Changing patterns of world order are thus integrally linked to religious history.[2]

Though Hinduism has spread its wings through migration to far-flung places of the world and survived over many generations, it is still a landlocked religion and fails to decisively make inroads into those host nations of its migrants. Cross-cultural diffusion and adaptation of the religion is not encouraged as faith expressions are linked to cultural preservation and seen as a source of identity and communal cohesion. Islam spread more through progressive expansion, both numerically and geographically and its center still remains where it began even after centuries. Muslims all over the world are expected pray in the direction of the Holy City of Mecca, and pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the Five Pillars of the faith. Quran cannot be translated into other languages or form. Thus, the cultural and geographical center of the faith has remained the same. The Buddhist expansion can be combination of progressive and serial. On the contrary Christian story is serial in nature, each center moves from place to place. No one place or church can be said to be perpetual custodians of the faith. An imagery that will help us to understand the historical trend of progressive expansion is ripples in a pond and serial expansion is domino. The center-margin analogy is also helpful. When Christian faith withers in the center, it begins anew at the margins. But we need a new metaphor for Christian expansion for 21st century.

Parallel Expansion: Multiple Centers of Christianity

The world is moving from an era of geographically concentrated hub to one characterized by multiple centers of missionary thinking and activity. In the twenty-first century, the Christian expansion could be seen as parallel. In a multi-polar world that we live in, Christian influence will ebb and flow from everywhere to everywhere. We will have more than one center of Christianity and missionary influence will emerge from the entire global church and extend toward every habitable corner of the earth. A poly-centric Christian world will bring tremendous momentum and force to Christian expansion as well as create unprecedented problems, including rivalry between them.

The Christian mission will no longer be one-way street of Western Christendom exporting its faith and ecclesiastical expressions as the rest of the world emerges as new representatives of Christianity with remarkable engagement in global mission. Christianity does not look Western anymore in many parts of the world and it is beginning to be seen as a truly world faith. The de-centering of the West on account of recession of Western Christianity will give rise to non-Westerner missionaries in the West. Christianity is becoming a multi-stranded faith, where each thread can transform this ancient historic mono-cultural faith into much more colorful, richer, stronger and global faith.

The translation principle of Christianity also led to diversity of its expressions. At the beginning of twentieth century, Christianity was mainly conceived in terms of Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Church, but at the beginning of twentieth century Christianity has evolved into many forms and shapes that some of them might not seem to have anything in common with other! In fact, now there are more than 38,000 denominations in Christianity and on a typical Sunday morning Christians worship in thousands of dialects. Bible continues to be the most translated book in the world and also interpreted in countless different ways.

The emergence of a world characterized by missional thinking, activity and resources flowing from the entire global church will be an exciting period in its history. Even seemingly poor Christians will contribute their ‘mite’ to the cause of the Great Commission that will delight the Master of the Harvest greatly. Non-economic resources will come to play a crucial role in the future of missions. Increased independence and multilateral partnerships will characterize missions in the twenty first century. Mission will collaborate with other mission agencies, secular charities and non-governmental organizations. Diaspora population will be critical linkage between nations and the world. Parallel expansion of Christianity may be messier than we think!


Most of us might not be around when 21st century ends. But if the patterns history is any guide, we can safely conclude that the Kingdom would continue to advance forcefully beyond ways and our understandings. Christian faith will flourish in places where we least imagined and might have different flavor and feel to it. Finally in this century, we will see the Whole Church taking the Whole Gospel to the Whole world. How exciting that will be. Are we ready for this new world of Christianity?

Here are some questions going through my mind:

  1. Do Western Christians understand the rapidly changing religious landscape of the world?
  2. As a non-Westerner living in the West, what is my role in bridging the gap? What is your role?
  3. What did Jewish Christians do when they were overwhelmed by the growth of Christianity among Greek & Romans in the first century? Will that help Western Christians now?
  4. Will non-Western Christians revive Christianity in the West? How do they collaborate with the remnant Christian expressions of the West?
  5. What healthy relationship between the old and the new representative Christians in the world would look like? (North and South, East and West)
  6. How do we grieve over demise of old centers and recognize new emerging margins with potential to become a new center?
  7. What happens when poly-centric Christianity goes in divergent ways and do not wanted to be stranded together?