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Word Made Global: Stories of African Christianity in New York City. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011. 368pp. $30.00..
Diaspora missiology represents a discipline of increasing significance in a world where populations are constantly shifting. The need for creative strategies, dynamic theological reflection, and ethnographic research is not only apparent but imperative if we are to engage our world as it is today.
In Word Made Global, Mark Gornik effectively responds to that need. He offers a rich ethnography that brings together a dynamic convergence of globalization, urban ministry, and immigrant studies. He approaches the city as an anthropologist, displaying a portrait of churches representing New York City’s most recent African diaspora. Gornik conducted a number of interviews while visiting these churches, and nearly every chapter offers a “thick description” of church activity reflecting his experiences as a participant observer. He includes photographs connecting the reader visually with the churches he studied. For the average ministry leader or seminary student who has limited contact with New York’s immigrant communities, the added visual illustrations provides additional texture.
Throughout the study, Gornik follows three African congregations in New York City. By studying a mainline congregation, Presbyterian Church of Ghana in Harlem, a congregation from the Pentecostal tradition, Redeemed Christian Church of God in Brooklyn, and a congregation from the newly emerging African Independent Churches, Church of the Lord (Aladura), he provides a sweeping profile of African Christianity on the North American landscape. However, by focusing on only these three, he also is able to provide for the reader an in-depth description of their faith practices.
In his introductory chapter, Gornik points out the significance of the global city and its dynamic relationship to African Christianity as a transnational movement of faith. Since there has been such little work done in the way of studying African Christianity in North America, his work makes a marked contribution to both missiological and anthropological studies. In addition, his emphasis on the global city as a signpost for both present and future movement of the church cannot be overemphasized. The movement of African Christianity is important to understand not only for the student of New York City or of globalization; African churches are being established in Providence, Atlanta, Houston, Washington DC, and beyond. Gornik correctly points out that New York City is the global hub, but African Christianity is getting a foothold all over North America.
Gornik organizes his reporting into three sections. In the first section, “Formations,” he discusses the pastoral leadership and the liturgy of these three African churches. Reading the chapter profiling their pastoral leadership, I was not surprised to find that the pastor of each of these churches carries a significant authoritative position, but I was also encouraged to read how ministry is distributed amongst the members in these churches. Because leaders are so busy with the demands of urban life and ministry, delegation is imperative and results in an active congregation. Gornik’s description of the pastor as a cultural broker or mediator is compelling. In a diaspora community, leadership moves beyond simple clerical duties to address all aspects of life including immigration concerns.
In the second section, “Engagements,” Gornik describes the prayer life, the Bible reading, and the witness of these three congregations. It was these chapters that I found most encouraging and challenging. In my experiences interacting with African friends in New York City, I am constantly struck by their understanding of prayer as our complete dependence on God in every aspect of life. I was reminded of this reality again in Gornik’s description. If there is a gift that African Christianity has for the American church (and I think there are many), it is teaching us once again to pray. In addition, their all-of-life understanding of faith and dependence on God through prayer may pose a helpful challenge for Western believers.
As a missiologist, I also approached the chapter on witness with a great deal of personal interest. From my own observations on the street, I wonder how effective these diaspora congregations are at connecting with the more indigenous North American culture; but while reading this chapter, I realized that I was applying the metric of my own American worldview. These African churches, Gornik points out, do not measure their success by how many non-Africans are in their assemblies. Rather they see their witness as an all-of-life experience and their workplace as their primary mission field. The emphasis is on their own act of witness rather than upon increased church attendance. While I wonder how their methodologies may adapt to the Western landscape, they are currently acting as bold witnesses. What I found conspicuously absent was any mention of their engagement or desire to engage with unreached people groups in New York City. These churches apparently have a desire and a bold vision to evangelize the United States—which should be applauded. However, there was little mention of interaction with other immigrant communities and especially any mention of engagement with unreached peoples, especially those arriving from other West African nations. I’m left wondering if such missional engagement is outside of the vision of these churches or was simply left out by the ethnographer.
In the final section, “Directions,” Gornik discusses the dynamics of relocating sacred space and the spiritual nurture of the second generation. African congregations stemming from movements within African Christianity recreate events they once held dear in their African homeland. These seem to be more an extension of the original events with ambassadors of their denomination in attendance rather than an imitation. I was surprised and encouraged by the chapter on the second generation in African churches. In my observations, immigrant churches often struggle with how to care for the spiritual formation of their youth who are caught between their parents’ home culture and their new host culture. Indeed, this theme is reoccurring in diaspora missiology. While the youth groups in Word Made Global represent small samples, their Christian identity is being forged despite enormous obstacles. I believe further research on the second generation in African churches would be a significant missiological contribution.
Overall, I found Word Made Global to be a great contribution both to missionary anthropology and to the body of Christ in general. The flow of Christianity in the global city offers a glimpse into the present and the future, and connecting this flow to African Christianity draws on a rich global history.
Global City Mission Initiative
Bronx, New York, USA