When Americans and Europeans look toward Africa, Asia, and Latin America, they see Christians doing many good things like digging wells. Closer to home, however, Western Christianity looks like a doughnut. Not healthy.
Early Christianity enjoyed success by working from the center of society outward. It embraced the “four-chapter” gospel – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration. The human job description was “making cultures.” Since cultural analysts say cultures change from the center out – rarely if ever from bottom-up or top-down – the church’s strategy proved impactful. By starting in the middle, impacting elites and influentials, early Christianity was better resourced to serve the marginalized.
Starting with elites isn’t snobby. It’s sound history. It is sometimes true that political revolutions occur from the bottom up, but in the long term, they are almost always short-lived. Sociologists would say that, by starting in the center, the early church wasn’t a marginalized faith.
For example, by the 3rd century, Christians were influential advisors to emperors, including Julius Africanus, a Greek polymath from Palestine. “Far from being a socially depressed group, the Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities.”1 Origen of Alexandria went to Rome to help the emperor set up a library in the Pantheon. By AD300, over 50 percent of the Roman Empire population had converted to Christ.
John Adams said facts are stubborn things. The fact is, early Christianity wasn’t a religion of mostly under-privileged, uneducated people. “What is certain is that there is no room for the later romantic myth of Christians as a perpetually hounded minority. Nor is there truth to the modern myth that presents the advancement of Christianity as the rise of a religion of the underprivileged.”2 The early church started with the privileged and influential, extending outward to the underprivileged.
By the early 19th century, however, American evangelicalism began embracing “two-chapter” gospels (fall and redemption), what Dallas Willard calls “gospels of sin management.” The focus was on conversions more than cultures. European and American elites ignored these gospels, dismissing Christianity as a drug for the distressed, the down-and-out. Pushed to the periphery, Western Christianity became populist.
Historian Nathan Hatch writes that populism is the deepest impulse of evangelicalism. It is suspicious of institutions and elites (i.e., influentials). Populism believes in the power of everyday people to change the world “bottom-up.” It dismisses the need for cultural capital, so cultural elites in Europe and America dismissed the evangelical gospel.
Sensing this, evangelicals turned their attention overseas, sending out missionary waves. Two-chapter gospels are easier to sell to the down-and-out overseas than to influentials back home.
The result looks like a doughnut. When Western Christians look at a map of the world (most feature the US in the middle), Christianity has a hole in the middle. It looks like a doughnut. This is a problem, but it also presents an opportunity.
What problem? Modern Christianity’s “two-chapter” gospels explain why, on a global scale, Western Christianity is spreading south, into Africa, Asia, and Latin America.5 It is helping the down-and-out in Philippine barrios. But it can’t get a foot in the door in Philippino boardrooms. We’re replaying our 19th-century mistake in 21st century Asia, Africa, and Latin America. 19th-century Christianity, which became a doughnut here, is becoming a 21st-century doughnut there. The doughnut hole is growing.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the entire doughnut could one day disappear, taking with it “two-chapter” gospels. That would be good, but we shouldn’t overlook an opportunity here.
What’s that? There’s a new generation of younger believers who recognize you can’t solve a problem inside the frame that created it. We have to reframe the problem. Good news: it only requires returning to pre-Enlightenment, pre-19th-century understandings of the gospel. We don’t have to be original, don’t have to invent anything, don’t have to clever. Just have to stop making doughnuts.
1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (HarperCollins, 1996), 30.
2 Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, (Blackwell, 1996), 24-25.
3 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity, (Crossway, 2004), 73.
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (HarperCollins, 1998), 54.
5 Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2002).