2022 TRENDS AND OPPORTUNITIES
“Trend watching” (not to be confused with prophecies) is probably one of the most neglected disciplines in Christianity. The economic, political, technological, and scientific world understand this non-negotiable principle for growth and development, but sadly the Christian world, with a clear view of eternity, often lacks the ability to identify trends. When Jesus spoke to His disciples in Mark 13, He encouraged them to be “Trend Watchers”. Nine times the Lord repeats the concept of “watch (vs 5, 9,33,35)”, “be on your guard (vs 23), “when you see (vs14,29)”, “when you hear (vs 7)…” before He finally concludes with (vs 37) “What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch!”
It, therefore, seems to be a divine spiritual duty to observe trends and identify opportunities. This discipline is not only reserved for journalists and theologians but for all who seek to advance the Kingdom of God and spread the message of redemption.
There are many trends to observe that shaped 2021. Here are 9
COVID-19 IN 2022
Mike Burnard – Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS
A comprehensive study was recently carried out by 15 separate teams of investigators in Germany and Poland who predicted the incidence of COVID-19 one to four weeks in advance. The only conclusion the studies eventually came to was that meaningful case forecasts are only feasible at very short horizons. It is still, after 21 months of a global pandemic, impossible to predict long-term trends for the virus.
It would therefore be a futile exercise to predict any COVID-19 outcomes for 2022. As Christians, however, our security is not found in prophesies or predictions about the future, but in the One who holds the future. One thing we do know: His mission is redemption, and His vision is eternity. And this combination of providing certainty when the world is at a lost, creates opportunities that is not often repeated in history. Here is what we know today:
Today, on 14 December 2021, 222 Countries and Territories around the world have reported a total of more than 270 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus COVID-19 that originated from Wuhan, China, and a death toll of more than 5,3 million deaths. 8.5 billion doses of vaccines have been administered across 184 countries, according to data collected by Bloomberg. The latest rate was roughly 42 million doses a day. (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/covid-vaccine-tracker-global-distribution/)
The human toll of COVID-19 far outstrips that of any other viral epidemics in the 21st century. The two pandemics coming closest to COVID are the COMMON FLU and AIDS:
- COMMON FLU: The COVID-19 toll has often been compared to that of seasonal flu, which accounts for between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths worldwide every year out of around five million serious cases.
- AIDS: AIDS is by far the most deadly modern epidemic: since 1980 almost 36.3 million people around the world have died of the disease. Retroviral drugs, when taken regularly, have helped bring down the death toll from its peak in 2004 of 1.7 million deaths to 680,000 in 2020, according to UNAIDS.
The main trend of the COVID-19 virus in 2021 was its ability to constantly mutate into new variants, trying to become more efficient at spreading to new ones while evading immune system defences administered through various vaccines. Since it was first discovered in Wuhan, China, in 2019, more than 30 variants of the virus have been identified around the globe but only 15 have received simplified names to aid health officials in explaining the new variant to the public.
WHO has assigned simple, easy to say and remember labels for key variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, using letters of the Greek alphabet. On 26 November 2021, WHO designated the latest variant, B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and named it OMRICON – the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet and therefore the 15th strain of interest.
Disasters have always been platforms to change the course of history for better or for worse. Throughout history, disasters have also been platforms to change the course of faith. We often fail to recognise the important role that tragedies play in shaping faith and expanding the church. In his blog “living in plague times”, Philip Yancey refers to sociologist Rodney Stark who wrote (in The Rise of Christianity) that one reason the church overcame hostility and grew so rapidly within the Roman empire traces back to how Christians responded to pandemics of the day, which probably included bubonic plague and smallpox. When infection spread, Romans fled their cities and towns; Christians stayed behind to nurse and feed not only their relatives but their pagan neighbours. Their proffered comfort drew others to the God of all comfort.
In many ways disasters, pandemics, and tragedies have always been the conduits that Christ-followers used to impact communities. In recent times we have witnessed how the Church in the Arab World responded with hope to the uncertainties during the Arab Spring, how the Church in Syria responded with love in a season of war, how the Church in China responded with courage in Wuhan during the start of the outbreak… and many many more.
How COVID-19 will compare against such pandemics of the past will only be seen by the next generation – but for the Church, the planning starts now. Now is the season to pro-actively contemplate the future of missions in a world that will have new normals and expanded opportunities. Simply being reactive could prove to be fatal.
MISSIONS IN A POST-COVID WORLD
Gary Hempel – Mission Developer at dia-LOGOS
In January 2020 life, and the world as we know it, began to change. Events were already set in motion but on the 30th day of this first month of the year, the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. Nearly 2 months later, on the 11th March, Covid was declared a pandemic. Life has not, and never will be the same!
What are the implications and opportunities for the Church and missions in a post-Covid world? There are many – too many to deal with in a short article but below perhaps find some worthy of consideration. Any great challenge should be viewed through the lens of great opportunity! The Church has an unprecedented opportunity, this word “unprecedented” defined as “never known or done before,” to turn a terrible disaster into a triumphant deliverance!
Assistance to the Poor, Displaced, and Marginalized
Economies have crashed. Unemployment is at record highs in most countries. The frailties and shortcomings of the world economic system have been laid bare. The Church has an unprecedented opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the poor, marginalized, displaced, distressed, and those who do not believe in the One we do.
The Church as a Resource to the Community and Government
Instead of seeing its premises as more than a Sunday gathering for the saved and sanctified, Churches and faith-based NGOs are making their resources available to serve as soup kitchens and vaccination centres. In addressing unemployment, Churches have the incredible opportunity to mobilize their human resources to upskill and equip people to be trained and find work. Often these opportunities lead to contact with people from unreached nations.
Increased Opportunities for Professionals
The shortcoming of many countries’ health care systems has been exposed. Medical missions will be in demand. BAM (Business and Missions) opportunities will grow as countries look to bounce back, grow economies and encourage investment. Reduced income from Churches will require greater creativity for missionaries to be sustainable on the field, including the need for more tent-making opportunities.
Moving from Pioneering to Facilitation
Sending individuals and families to pioneering missions opportunities will become more and more unsustainable as Church budgets are reduced and staff salaries and local, less expensive, ministry opportunities take priority. New opportunities to reach the unreached need to be created through short-term missions trips where Church specialists train local believers and leaders to train their own people, encouraging the principle of multiplication.
A Renewed Focus on Technology
The pandemic has forced us to discover new ways to meet and communicate. Already out there are scores of “Zoom-missionaries” making use of technology to reach the unreached like never before. Although never a substitute for face-to-face, Covid has hit the “reset” button, moved us out of our comfort zone, and compelled us to be creative in the way we do missions.
Stefan van der Berg – Ministry leader at dia-LOGOS
Christian persecution around the world is one of the biggest human rights issues of this era and is in parts of the world at near “genocide” levels.
Persecution is generally defined as the systematic mistreatment of an individual or group by another individual or group. While Christian persecution takes many forms, it is described as any hostility experienced because of identification with Jesus Christ. From Sudan to Russia, from Nigeria to North Korea, from Colombia to India, followers of Christianity are targeted for their faith. They are attacked; they are discriminated against at work and at school; they risk sexual violence, torture, arrest, and much more.
This year has seen the highest levels of persecution ever recorded in history with a sharp rise, especially in Africa. We are entering a season where the numbers, the role-players and the methods of persecution are ever-evolving as seen in countries like Mozambique where Islamist militant attacks have left more than 2,500 people dead and 800,000 displaced since 2017.
- 13 Christians are killed because of their faith.
- 12 churches or Christian buildings are attacked.
- 12 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned.
- More than 340 million Christians (one in every seven) face high levels of persecution.
- There was a 60% increase in the number of Christians killed compared to the previous year.
A prominent trend in 2021 was how the global Coronavirus pandemic highlighted and exacerbated existing social, economic, and ethnic vulnerabilities of millions of Christians worldwide. The underlying systemic discrimination and the unequal treatment of Christians, who are refused emergency aid in many countries also came to the forefront. Christians at times have been denied emergency Covid relief in minority-Christian countries including Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan, where some Christians were told “your church or your God should feed you”.
The lockdowns also meant that many Christians couldn’t work and were confined in spaces with those who are hostile to their faith.
Covid-19 has also legitimised increased surveillance and restrictions by authoritarian governments in countries such as China and India, using the need to contain the pandemic to increase their control.
History has proven that persecution has always played a key role in the expansion of the Kingdom. In Acts 8:3 we read how Saul tried to destroy the church; going from house to house, he dragged out the believers, both men and women, and threw them into jail. But verse 4 gives the glorious account of how the Church responded: The believers who were scattered went everywhere, preaching the message. They were like seed scattered, as the word ‘diaspora’ rightly indicates
This is not only a theological truth but a practical reality. In Western nations, with high levels of freedom, the Church is declining while in countries where Christians are persecuted, the Church is growing. Iran and China are home to two of the fasted growing Churches globally but also two of the most restricted nations in the world.
Persecution presents opportunities and we need to contemplate this truth. The blessing of being persecuted because of righteousness’ sake, is directly related to the calling to BE the salt of the earth. (Matthew 5:10-12). Persecution comes with the blessing that it will produce flavour. It is not a curse that will consume us. When the disciples heard the call to be salt, they understood that seasoning and flavour are only produced when salt is poured out selflessly and scattered mercilessly. Jesus just finished His dialogue about suffering, slander and sacrifice and He then looked at them, just like He looks at us today, and basically said “This is YOU. Like me you will be insulted, persecuted, slandered, falsely accused and mocked – Now go! Like salt poured out for flavour, scattered all over, go and transform your communities for the sake of the Kingdom. Live a life to be forgotten so that Christ can be remembered”.
Christians can only produce flavour once it is scattered. Salt is a useless commodity if it remains in a container. It still has flavour in itself but it does not produce any flavour outside the container. By being scattered we find the reason and the purpose of the crosses we carry and the Christ we display
A further opportunity that presented itself in 2021 was the restrictions on movement because of COVID-19. Many people in closed countries turned to Christian satellite television offering live programs as well as telephone counselling services, and social media interactions. These broadcasters have reported record-breaking numbers of audience engagements during the past year.
In countries where religion takes on a political dimension, it results in a religious dictatorship and people are deprived of democracy, permissible freedoms, and choice. The rulers end up making all the decisions. It is seen in countries like Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Sudan, Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia as well as others where religion and politics are intertwined. This has led to a great dissatisfaction and distrust in the government and laid the groundwork for people to take refuge in Christ.
- Christian persecution ‘at near genocide levels’ – BBC News
- Persecution Blog: Muslims are Coming To Christ
- Christian Persecution | Statistics & Solutions | Open Doors – Open Doors USA
- Mozambique: Dozens dead after militant assault on Palma – BBC News
- PreVision Seminar Notes by Mike Burnard
TERRORISM IN SUB-SAHARA AFRICA
From January to November 2021 more than half of all terrorist attack-related deaths worldwide were in sub-Saharan Africa. A total of 392 people died in just 6 terrorist attacks. Burkina Faso experienced the most deaths in a single attack in June when insurgents laid siege to the village of Solhan in Yagha province, bordering Niger, killing 174 civilians1. According to Verisk Maplecroft2 (leading global risk analysts), seven of the ten highest risk countries in the world are now in Africa. Burkina Faso, Mali, Somalia, Cameroon, Mozambique, Niger, and DR Congo are all considered counties where terrorist attacks are most likely (Nigeria is ranked 11th). Boko Haram is largely responsible for the brunt of these attacks that are burdening West Africa and the Sahel region.
A relatively peaceful Southern Africa was shocked earlier this year when Islamic insurgents, allied to the Islamic State, attacked the coastal town of Palma in Mozambique. Over a period of twelve days more than 100 people were killed, including several foreign nationals3. According to the United Nations4, an estimated 800 000 people have now been displaced throughout the North of Mozambique as a direct result of the Islamic insurgency that started in 2017. Thousands of people are fleeing their homes daily as a result of ongoing terrorist attacks in sub-Saharan Africa, with countries like Mali and Somalia creeping to the verge of possible total collapse under the weight.
For the past two decades, the fight against global terrorism was centred on the Middle East and Central Asia. A gradual shift is now taking place with more and more foreign militaries stationing troops in Africa. Officially, the motivation behind foreign deployment in Africa is to counter threats to international peace, deter terrorist groups and pirate activities on Africa’s Eastern coast. This also includes the training and arming of state militaries in countries where terrorist attacks are more prevalent. Apart from the United Sates and France who have the most troops stationed in Africa, estimated at 8,000, 11 other countries including the United Kingdom, Russia and China have active military personnel on the continent5. Assuming their purpose is to take the fight against Islamic terrorists to Africa, where extremist groups have found a safe haven after being hunted for more than twenty years in the middle East, is only half the truth. The Horn of Africa has in many ways become the epicentre of foreign militaries in Africa, with 11 military bases that serve various interests. The Horn of Africa is also used as base from where countries like the United States can launch attacks on the Middle East via drone strikes. France, a previous colonial power in West Africa, has been involved in counter terrorism activities in the Sahel since 2012. In 2013 France played a decisive role in helping Mali defeat Islamic insurgents who nearly captured all of Mali6. Since then, France and the United States have helped train national armies from Nigeria to Mozambique in counter-terrorist operations.
According to the Global Terrorism Index7 there is a noticeable decrease in terrorist activities in the Middle East and a rise in Arica. What is even more frightening, is that there seems to be a move from extremist groups towards the South – Mozambique being the most recent example. Christians should take special note of this Southwards move, as it could indicate a future confrontation with Islam. As a religion, Islam has a global ambition that involves a global submission to the faith. Islam has for years seen much success in Africa, over time converting the majority of Northern Africa and establishing firm foundations elsewhere throughout the continent. Christianity has the exact same global ambition (to see all the world saved through Christ Jesus) and has clashed with Islam for hundreds of years across the 10th parallel line that separates the Muslim north from the Christian South (excluding Europe and the Americas). Although the majority of Muslims condemn the violent terrorism committed in their name, the fact that Islamic terrorism is an effective way of gaining ground, cannot be denied.
The worst-case scenario, if Islamic terrorism is not deterred to the point of defeat, is that millions of people throughout sub-Saharan Africa will become refugees and internally displaced. 800 000 have already been displaced in just four years in Mozambique. Imagine if the Islamic State insurgents responsible for the Palma attacks move over to Zimbabwe and cause another 800 000 to flee? Will the church see this as a disaster or recognise it as an opportunity? A universal truth is that people flee from fear and run towards hope. When European churches started sending fewer and fewer missionaries to the Muslim Middle East, God had to intervene on behalf of the millions that still needed to hear the Gospel. The Arab Spring and the ensuing wars in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq caused more than five million refugees to flee. These Muslim refugees fled to countries like Lebanon, Egypt and Europe (1 million) where Christians could share the life-saving words of God with them without fear of persecution. Islamic terrorist attacks are increasing at an alarming rate in Africa and will most likely start taking place in more Christian majority countries throughout the South, in the future. Could this be an indication that the church in majority Christian Southern Africa has neglected its calling to preach the Gospel to their Muslim neighbours in the North, and that God has to intervene for the sake of the millions that still need to hear?
There has been much fruit amongst refugees in the Middle East, with hundreds of thousand having converted to Christianity over the past ten years since the Arab Spring revolution started. Yet a revolution would not have been needed if the church simply acted. What will the church in Southern Africa do when more than 900 people groups, an estimated 388 million people, remain unreached? Terrorism in sub-Saharan Africa should serve as a wake-up call to the church, to meet Islam head-on, and save as many as they can before another trigger is pulled. Using a terrorist to build God’s church is not plan A. The church is plan A.
- 1 List of terrorist incidents in 2021. Wikipedia.
- 2 7 of 10 highest risk countries now in Africa. Verisk Maplecroft.
- 3 Mozambique Palma Attack. News24.
- 4 Violence continues in Cabo Delgad. United Nations.
- 5 Africa’s growing foreign military presence. Institute for Security Studies.
- 6 French troops help drive back Mali rebels. News24.
- 7 Global terrorism Index 2020.
Mike Burnard – Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS
In the first half of 2021, millions more people were forced to flee their homes due to armed conflicts, generalized violence or human rights violations. The UNHCR estimates that global forced displacement has now exceeded 84 million by mid-2021, a sharp increase from the 82.4 million reported at end-2020. This indicates an increase of more than 1,6 million displaced people in 6 months, an average increase of 9,000 newly displaced individuals every day of the year
Internally displaced persons (IDP): By mid-2021 the number of internally displaced persons had risen to nearly 50.9 million. Intensifying violence led to significant new displacements in Afghanistan, the DRC, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar, South Sudan, among other locations.
Refugees and asylum-seekers: By end of June 2021, the number of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate had surpassed 20.8 million, which is 172,000 people more than at the end of 2020. More than half of new recognitions were from five countries: the Central African Republic (71,800), South Sudan (61,700) Syria (38,800), Afghanistan (25,200) and Nigeria (20,300). In the same period, there were 92,100 newly displaced Venezuelans.
Relative to their national populations, the island of Aruba hosted the largest number of Venezuelans displaced abroad (1 in 6) while Lebanon hosted the largest number of refugees (1 in 8), followed by Curaçao (1 in 10), Jordan (1 in 14) and Turkey (1 in 23).
More than two thirds (68%) of all refugees came from just five countries: Syria 6.8 million, Venezuela 4.1 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million, South Sudan 2.3 million and Myanmar 1.1 m
Returning home in safety and dignity based on a free and informed choice remains the preferred solution for most of the world’s refugees. In the first half of 2021, an estimated 126,700 refugees returned to 23 countries of origin from 41 countries of asylum. Most returnees in the first half of 2021 were South Sudanese returning primarily from Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda:
In many respects, the Bible is a series of variations on the theme of displaced people, used by God in unique and mysterious ways to expand His Kingdom and draw people into His plan of redemption. From Adam and Eve leaving Eden to Moses in the land of Midian; Elimelech, Naomi, and Ruth herself, and, most importantly, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in Egypt. Yes, the teachings of our Saviour were based on the status of a refugee, not as a privileged citizen. In Acts 8 we read of the early Church that was persecuted and displaced, scattered like seed in fertile ground, and how many were added to the Kingdom of God.
Displaced people have always proven to be fertile ground for the message of salvation and, it seems, God’s preferred way of revealing Himself as a Compassionate Father.
In an interview with Dr Detlef Blöcher (Previous Director of the Christian Relief and Missionary Work DMG, in Sinsheim, Germany) a critical observation was mentioned. Dr.Blocher noted that the receptiveness to the Gospel by refugees and the probability of conversion is much higher during the initial stages of fleeing, compared to when refugees finally settle down in a host country. In essence, refugees are more susceptible to the Gospel while on the move, than when they are settled. According to Dr Blocher, more than 50,000 Muslim refugees have become genuine followers of Christ during the past five years with thousands more being exposed to the Gospel.
One thing is clear, however, that none of these converts would have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, and accept Christ without fear, if they had remained in their countries of origin (Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq – all countries where conversion is punishable by death).
Dr Bloecher noted that refugee converts have become the necessary “blood infusion” for the indigenousness German church, which would have reached a point of non-existence in the near future as the German population becomes more and more secular.
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-) perfectly represents the cries of the displaced and presents us with three options (taken from a post by Hill Carmichael, Executive Pastor at Canterbury United Methodist Church)
The first option is that of the robbers, whose ethic suggests that “what is yours is mine at whatever cost”. And the robbers will take whatever they need through violence, coercion and whatever means necessary. These are the people who will leave displaced people physically, mentally and emotionally beaten and bruised along life’s road.
The second option is represented by the priest and the Levite, whose ethic suggests that “what is mine is mine and I must protect it at whatever cost”. They aren’t bad people. Both the priest and the Levite are deeply respected in their communities. They very likely follow all the societal rules and norms. And if we’re all being honest, this is probably how most people view displaced people.
Then there is the Samaritan, whose ethic is love. And along one of the most dangerous roads in all of history seems to live by a code that says “what is mine is yours…if you have need of it”.
The priest and the Levite likely asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”. The Samaritan likely asked a very different question – “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
So, we have some choices to make regarding the opportunities presented by the 84 million displaced people globally . We can choose to make our decisions with an ethic of fear. And for a time, choices based on fear have a way of making us feel safe, but that is fleeting at best.
However, only one will carry the approval of the Lord.
Mike Burnard – Analytical Strategist at dia-LOGOS
One of the major geopolitical events of 2021 was the fall of Afghanistan back under the control of the Taliban. For the people of Afghanistan another nightmare started but, just like the Arab Spring more than a decade ago, God’s plan of redemption also came into motion
On 15 August 2021 the Taliban encircled Kabul, diplomatic missions scrambled to evacuate officials and President Ghani fled the country. In a statement shortly after, Ghani admitted that the insurgents have “won”.
On 26 August 2021 the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, attacked the airport and the Taliban, a radical Islamic movement itself, encountered their first face-off with another radical Islamic movement. ISIS-K is the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State terror group who sees the Taliban as not devout enough.
On 30 August 2021, the last US soldier left Afghanistan after the longest US war in history. More than 200,000 people are evacuated , one of the biggest evacuations in human history.
The world watched in horror as images of persecution, terror and fear gripped the nation, especially for minorities, the vulnerable and those who opposed the Taliban during the US occupation.
Christians have historically comprised a small community in Afghanistan. The total number of Christians in Afghanistan is currently estimated to be between 10,000 and 12,000 according to International Christian Concern, and almost all of them are converts from Islam.
The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan does not recognize any Afghan citizen as being a Christian. Afghan citizens are not legally permitted to convert to Christianity; although there are no explicit laws that forbid evangelizing by non-Muslims, many authorities and most members of Afghan society view its toleration as contrary to the practice of Islam. There is only one legally recognized Christian church building in Afghanistan, the Catholic chapel at the Italian Embassy which has been operational since the 1930s.
Afghanistan remains the second-highest country on the World Watch List of Christian persecution, and persecution is only very slightly less oppressive than in North Korea. All Christians in Afghanistan are extremely vulnerable to persecution.
ISIS and the Taliban continue to have a strong, violent presence in Afghanistan, with the Taliban now in control of the nation. There is no safe way to express any form of Christian faith in the country. It is impossible to live openly as a Christian in Afghanistan. Leaving Islam is considered shameful, and Christian converts face dire consequences if their new faith is discovered. Either they have to flee the country or they will be killed.
BUT … God is never caught by surprise and a shift in cultural Christianity could provide the first opportunity for believers in Afghanistan to be exposed to the Gospel of Christ. As Western “Christian” forces left Afghanistan, another force moved in and replaced an old “foe” with an old “neighbour” and a new “friend”: CHINA.
Afghanistan is neighboured by six countries.
- Pakistan – 96% Muslim
- Iran – 99% Muslim
- Turkmenistan – 96% Muslim
- Tajikistan – 94% Muslim
- Uzbekistan – 85% Muslim
Afghanistan lies at the heart of the unreached Muslim world in Central Asia and it seems like an impenetrable region. All 6 nations feature on the list of the top 33 countries most closed to the Gospel. Humanly speaking there is no way that the Gospel of Christ can penetrate a region so closed, so radical and so anti-western
But Afghanistan has one more neighbour. CHINA
- A non-threatening, non-Western neighbour who is willing to invest and build
- One of only three countries that kept their embassies open
- The only non-Muslim neighbour of Afghanistan
- One of the fastest growing Churches in the world
- A Church with a theology of persecution and a fearless willingness to share the Gospel at any cost
- On the silk route that forms part of the Back to Jerusalem mission-vision of the Chinese underground Church
There is no doubt that God’s plan of redemption will come from China – not just for Afghanistan but for the whole region of Central Asia. This is the greatest opportunity for reaching Central Asia with the Gospel of Christ. The harvest is ready, and the labourers are willing, waiting and wanting
THE ISLAMIC DIVIDE
On Sunday 6 December 2021 Jeddah hosted the first-ever Formula1 Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, the bastion of Islamic religious conservatism. Few events highlighted the divide within Islam as clearly as when the world’s biggest, richest and most secular sporting event met with the world’s most strict, controlled and conservative religious nation on earth. It was a divine event that cannot be reversed
The Islamic divide can be viewed from different perspectives. Firstly, a physical divide within the religion itself between its two main factions, Sunni and Shia. This purely doctrinal divide has defined the chasm within global Islam for millennia and has to its credit the two hearts of Islam, Saudi Arabia who governs the Sunni world, and Iran that governs the Shia.
This divide, stemming from the death of Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, and his successors, is so great that Iran (known for its anti-America rhetoric and military threats) has designated Saudi Arabia a greater enemy to the future of Islam than western vices.
A second divide within Islam can be seen in the acts of a minority and the defence of the majority. Radical vs Moderate Islam. From peace-loving states like Lebanon to demonic caliphates like the Islamic State, this interpretive divide between those who interpret Islam as peaceable and those who interpret Islam as a religion worth radical defence against outside influences, has in many ways labelled Islam in the eyes of the non-Muslim world – mostly negative.
As a religion, Islam accounts for more than 1.8 billion1 people who adhere to its teachings worldwide. From loose interpretations that would scarcely turn heads in the West, to radical extremists that bleed religious duty, Islam has not only become the second-largest religion in the world, but also a formidable contender to the growth of worldwide Christianity.
Taking Africa, as an example, the spread of Islam has been unparalleled in the way it has gained ground, especially considering the fact that an alarming number of converts come from unreached people groups. Why is this a concern? Simply because it points to the failure of Christianity in reaching the nations with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. By focussing first on the physical rather than the spiritual needs of a people, Islam has grown in leaps and bounds, not only in Africa but elsewhere throughout the developing world.
There is a third divide that threatens the future of Islam. A divide between the modernizing realists and the old guard that is unwilling to accept change. In 2017, a watershed moment occurred when Prince Mohammed bin Salman2 said, “I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam”. Saudi Arabia, as the guardian of Sunni Muslims worldwide, has for years tried to remedy its broken image as the perceived sponsor of terrorism and the enforcer of harsh Sharia Laws that range from hacked off limbs to stoning as a punishment for certain crimes. Prince Salman’s claim to return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam is therefore worth noting, especially when considering the future of the church in a harvest field of 1.8 billion potential converts.
What is “moderate Islam” you might ask? In the words of Crown Prince Salman, who is the driving force behind the re-make of Saudi Arabia, moderate Islam is “life in which our religion translates to tolerance”2. What this translates too for the rest of the world is that Saudi Arabia, once one of the most closed, restricted, and religious persecuting countries in the world, is now open to the world. From empowering women that are now allowed to travel and marry without harassment, to bars and nightclubs that openly serve alcohol, Salman’s moderate Islam is opening a door for the Christian church. When China opened its doors3 to western business in 1978 it also loosened its hold on the church that was persecuted under Mao Zedong. Although Christianity in China did in fact grow despite the harsh persecution, it was not until the opening of China that the church experienced exponential growth to the more than 100 million strong it is today. Could Prince Salman’s opening of Saudi Arabia offer the church the same opportunities that have now caused even the Chinese Communist Party to take notice of the church, which already has more members than the communist party, and is estimated to be the largest body of believers in the world by 2030?
It is within this third divide, modernists vs the old guard, that battle lines have been drawn that will decide the future of Islam. The theological divide that sees Sunni pitted against Shai has already inflicted the first wounds of the battle. Iran accused Saudi Arabia of selling out Islam to the West, prostituting Islamic values in the name of modernizing. The interpretive divide, that separates the majority peace-loving from the minority radical extremists, is inflicting further wounds as Islamic terrorist groups throughout the world continue to forcefully push Islam on impoverished societies and spread fear elsewhere. All the while the majority of Muslims that abhor the violent acts perpetrated in the name of Islam, try and beg the forgiveness of the West that tend to label all Muslims under the banner of the few black sheep. Prince Salman’s attempts at re-making Saudi Arabia is yet to stand the test of extremists that would rather die than see Islam adapt to a changing world.
The re-make of Saudi Arabia is doublespeak for the re-make of Islam. No confessing Muslims, moderate or radical, would stand for a reshaping of Islam that would see its pillars shaken to the tune of Western advancement. Prince Salman knows that the Islam of yesterday is not compatible with the world of tomorrow. Oil reserves will run dry, and once it does, the princes of Saudi Arabia will be forgotten. This is already happening with the green movement away from fossil fuels. Saudi Arabia has for decades used its vast oil wealth to help spread Islam worldwide. If Islamic world dominance is at all in Prince Salman’s future planning, it would make sense that he would move Saudi Arabia away from oil and into another more sustainable source of income, to safeguard the future growth of the religion. This could work if radicals don’t interfere, and Iran stays away. Prince Salman however has one blindside, the Christian church. From communist China to the deserts of Africa, once you allow a people to taste freedom their desire for more will ultimately overthrow whatever stands in its way.
Saudi Arabia is opening up to the world. The only question worth asking is whether the Christian church is getting ready for its application to be processed?
- 1 Countries with the largest Muslim populations. Pew Research Center.
- 2 Crown prince says Saudis want return to moderate Islam. BBC.
- 3 China Open Door Policy. Wikipedia.
CULTURAL TRENDS FOR 2022
Richard Baird – Church and Culture at dia-LOGOS
Cultural Marxism and its offspring Critical Theory, and especially Critical Race Theory with its demands for wokeness, has continued to make its presence felt. Consider how even sporting events are becoming the place where ‘kneeling against racism’ is expected to take place.
This trend is expected to continue in 2022, but not without some resistance, as we see various scholars and mainstream voices starting to point out the dangers and weaknesses of this worldview.
Chuck Colson was fond of saying how ideas have consequences, but that bad ideas have victims. The worldview of Critical Theory has been applied primarily to race, gender and sexuality, but given its capacity to hone in on oppression (both perceived and real), it may well be that new forms will be identified.
As Christians, discernment is needed. As Christians we gladly agree that all forms of oppression are wrong. We cannot condone racism as an example, but the tools offered by Cultural Marxism and Critical Race Theory are not Biblical tools to deal with racism. You cannot solve racism by seeing it everywhere; you solve it by getting to grips with the doctrine of the Imago Dei, the understanding that all people are made in the image of God and therefore need to be treated as such.
Discernment is further needed as terms which are part of the Christian language (justice and freedom for example) are re-defined to mean new things.
In terms of opportunities for the church, one thing in particular comes to mind: to be ready to lovingly receive casualties of this worldview. Worldviews like this hurt its subscribers, as it simply cannot fill the void that only God can fill. I do believe that the ideas promoted by this worldview will ultimately implode.
In terms of proactive response, I would really encourage parents and church leaders to teach the Christian worldview to especially the younger generation (GenZ), showing how it makes sense of the world and how we can find meaning by being a part of the Great Grace Conspiracy that God is engaged in. Of course not only must we teach it, we must live it too.
POST-ELECTION SOUTH AFRICA
Cheryllyn Dudley – Political Analyst at dia-LOGOS
Politics can be described as activities aimed at improving someone’s status or increasing power within an organisation but is most often associated with the governance of a country or area, especially the debate between parties having power.
When it comes to predictions I am once again reminded of words spoken by David Hume, a Scottish philosopher, born in 1711: “When Men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly most mistaken…”.
Life as most of us have experienced it is both predictable and unpredictable. Having some understanding of history, current events and politics can be helpful in preparing to face the future but the curve balls are many. The many agendas inspired by our ONE enemy (the deceiver) are constantly in play as he tries to prevent human beings from spending eternity with their CREATOR. Single predictions of the future are therefore not helpful and an indication of arrogance and over-confidence. We cannot afford to be dogmatic precisely because we are human, we can be wrong and yet we are susceptible to pride and playing God!
Then we have possibilities and we read in all the gospels a version of Mark 10:27: where Jesus said, “With people it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”
READING THE PRESENT INTO THE FUTURE
The one significant trend that defined 2021 in South Africa was the long-awaited ‘ANC dropping below 50%’ at elections. This was some encouragement for the many opposition parties who underperformed in their own estimation, having boldly declared before elections that bringing down the ANC was high on their agenda. So as things stand most analysts reasonably expect the ANC to get anything between 45% and 55% of the vote in 2024.
Getting above 50% will allow them to govern on their own in national government. Getting below 50% will necessitate some form of power-sharing. The ANC, having already dabbled in sharing power during its time in national government while no necessity dictated, is not entirely new to this. A show of good faith at the time is most probably a testing ground with regard to bridging the gap between the majority and minority voices. The National Party and the IFP, the National Freedom Party, the Freedom Front Plus, Azapo and even the Good Party have all had deputy ministers and ministers being appointed by ANC presidents over the years. While forming a coalition with one single party would seem to make sense the recent positions taken by parties regarding working with the ANC suggest this is unlikely. Smaller parties may be more amenable, however. Cabinet positions, for small party leaders are a double-edged sword, on the one hand empowering the party financially and growing individual leadership, on the other diluting the party’s image as compromises would be both assumed and made. This takes its toll when supporters next go to the polls.
What we do know from recent coalition efforts is that the likelihood of opposition parties being able to form a coalition themselves, especially one that would make any sense is out of the question as things stand. In the aftermath of the recent local elections, there are still no formal coalition agreements to govern administrations in hung councils. In most of the metros – Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, eThekwini, Ekurhuleni and Joburg – there are no administrations at all, only elected mayors and Speakers.
Uncertainty is God’s Opportunity. It breeds people desperate for help from heaven—and perseverance grows stronger where a future hope abides. The opportunity the current political atmosphere offers to believers in South Africa is PRAYER
For many reasons, including the likelihood of the ANC being at the helm in one way or another as long as God allows, our prayers for the ANC leadership and members especially those in ANC contest for power within the party – whether for positions in the top six national leadership, in the provinces, or in local and provincial government – are essential.
We can also pray for a strengthening of commitment to what the party calls “renewal” and the courage and wisdom for those well placed to implement the necessary decisions and processes. As we pray for unity in our diversity and against more division in our country it would be wise to include praying for greater unity in the ANC on issues of sustainable development and good governance. Infighting in the ANC which results in weaker policy direction, and delivery at all levels of government is not in my view a worthy pass time.
This does not mean we do not pray for other parties but we pray for God’s will to be done, for Him to raise up the leadership of His choice for His purposes, and for the ability to discern our role in His plan.
The old saying that “while so much changes, so much stays the same” comes to mind. Change is however inevitable and our willingness to be where God places us and be who He intends us to be is key. Challenging our assumptions and mindsets on an ongoing basis is in my view necessary if we really want His will and not just our own to be done.
The other saying that comes to mind is “the only thing worse than bad government is no government”. Coalitions are of course no walk in the park and can themselves result in chaos and chaos is a well-known tool of our ‘one enemy’. Politics is a minefield and every step taken has as much chance of setting off an explosion as not. It will take prayer, courage and discernment to navigate just as it does in every other minefield in life (relationships, careers etc).
If not impossible it is at least foolish to imagine we could predict with any absolute certainty what the future holds but as Christians we have the gist of things to come and can build on our confidence that our future is in His hands. Our focus must be on sharing that confidence in word and deed while we still have the chance here on earth.