Visitors to the Caribbean are often amazed at the extraordinary diversity, beauty, and complexity of this distinctive linguistic and cultural sub-region of the Americas. When speaking of the Caribbean, Caribbean scholars today speak of five Caribbeans. Over the last five centuries this distinctive sub-region has blended Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East into a potpourri of Creole cultures. This is the part of the world where five European countries—Spain, France, England, Holland, and Denmark—encountered Africa, India, and East Asia in the process of creating a new Atlantic world.
Comparatively, Caribbean demographics are quite small. With a population of over thirty million, the Caribbean is scattered across some thirty small, developing states in the middle of the Atlantic, encircled by the Caribbean Sea. The lush, tropical environment of this sub-region of the Americas makes the Caribbean an exotic place; however, beneath its exotic appeal lie some fundamental challenges. One Caribbean leader once described Caribbean life and society as a “struggle in the periphery.”
Challenges Facing Caribbean Christianity
Since the early sixteenth century, waves of European missionaries representing Catholic and Protestant forms of Christianity have made their mark across the region. Christianity is the dominant religion of the region, fifty-nine percent of which is Catholic, twenty-five percent Protestant, fourteen percent Afro-Caribbean religions, one percent Hindu, and one percent Islam and Judaism. Christian churches exist in every Caribbean country. An annual Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) provides an important trans-regional forum for Roman Catholic Bishops and Archbishops to guide the mission of the Church in the region. The AEC has been quite strong in its advocacy of a preferential option for the poor and works diligently among the poor and marginalized, even while seeking to renew the spiritual life of parish missions.
The Evangelical Church, on the other hand, has a strong regional organization, the Evangelical Association of the Caribbean (EAC), whose declared vision is to work toward ensuring that “every church is empowered to transform Caribbean society through biblical discipleship, so that poverty is reduced, peace (wholeness) is increased, public justice is ensured, and national righteousness develops.” Since 1984, a decade after the first Lausanne Congress in 1974, the EAC has hosted a biennial Caribbean Congress on Evangelization (CONECAR) which has grown from strength to strength. This has given greater organizational leadership and stronger ministry presence to evangelical churches in the region.
Today, Christianity in the Caribbean faces many challenges. Recently, several leaders identified key challenges facing the Caribbean Church:
- Discrediting of the gospel and the Church through failure of leaders
- Need to address nationhood under God
- Refusal, resistance to voices of warning, and counsel to repent
- Decline of biblical knowledge and biblical influence
- Need for a theology of social justice and spiritual engagement
- Weak networks
- Failure to engage the Caribbean Diaspora
- Lack of theological depth
- Weak praying Church
In addition to these concerns, the leaders also identified several challenges affecting evangelism in the region:
- Failure to live the gospel
- Threat of Islamization of the Caribbean
- Unwillingness to change, renew, and repent
- Growing influence of Rastafarian religion
- Failure of the Church to attract men
- Refusal to tap into newer evangelistic strategies, like sports evangelism
- Increasing secularisation, influenced by North America and Europe
- Perception of Christianity as European
- Failure of the Church to inform believers of Caribbean’s role in world evangelization
- Lack of clarity and theological understanding of the gospel (a lop-sided gospel)
- Lack of evangelism training
- Lack of passion for evangelism
These challenges arise from other factors, like the ones listed below, at work in the region:
- Deepening social crisis. There is a deepening social crisis in Caribbean societies caused by being mainly small, open, highly export-dependent economies. These societies are very vulnerable to external conditions of world trade, plus internal impacts of seasonal natural disasters such as hurricanes, droughts, and volcanic activities that have intensified in recent years. Manifestations of this crisis are seen in increasingly high levels of crime and violence; high levels of unemployment and underemployment; growing production and trafficking of illegal drugs; and human trafficking. According to UNAIDS, the Caribbean now has the reputation of being the second largest area in the world for the spread of HIV/AIDS. In fact, HIV/AIDS is one of the leading causes of death among people aged twenty-five to forty-four in the region, causing twenty-seven thousand deaths in 2006 and eleven thousand in 2007.
- Persistent poverty. Despite vigorous poverty reduction strategies by state and para-state actors, poverty persists in much of the Caribbean. Although there are some improvements in living standards in several sections of the region, living conditions for many remain well below acceptable poverty levels. While Caribbean poverty is rooted in historical, social, and economic structures, belief systems, values, attitudes, and social practices also contribute.
- People’s participation. Most Caribbean states have achieved independence from various European colonial masters over the last three to four decades. However, so far, the failures of post-independence politics to deliver much of the expected benefits of national sovereignty, self-government, and decolonisation have impacted negatively on people’s faith in politics and participation in their own society. The rate of external migration from the region is extremely high. Although the economic benefits from remittances back to the region are significant, the negative impact of migration on Caribbean family life is a threat to social stability and sustained participatory democracy.
- Biblical and theological reflection. The increasing secularisation of Caribbean society is not matched by a corresponding increase in biblical and theological reflection. A Caribbean theology project that emerged in the early 1970s collapsed within a decade. Today, there is no developed Caribbean theology from either the Roman Catholic or the Protestant Church communities. While increasing secularisation and de-Christianization are part of a global trend toward descralization of society, their impacts on the Caribbean are extremely noticeable. Church attendance might be above average in many places; however, the impact of the gospel is less visible. In fact, in many parts of the Caribbean there is waning confidence in the Christian gospel. After centuries of Christian presence, shifts in contemporary Caribbean values, marked by importation of external values principally from North America, are taking a toll.
The Future of Caribbean Christianity
These challenges pose formidable threats to the future of Christianity in the Caribbean. How should the Church respond?
- New wave of evangelization needed. It is of interest to note some current trends in Caribbean society and Caribbean Christianity. While confidence in the gospel is down, crime and violence in society are up. While interest in traditional evangelistic crusades has waned, cultural festivals have increased. The Caribbean is now saturated with a Carnivalesque culture. Where will a new wave of evangelization come from? From within the Caribbean itself. If more young evangelists are trained, encouraged, and supported, and if non-traditional forms of evangelism are encouraged and embraced, a harvest for God can be reaped in the Caribbean. Among the wonderful promises in Isaiah 55, God says that his word will not return to him empty (v. 11). There are sufficient numbers of Bible and theological institutions within the region from which a new generation of evangelists could be developed.
- Renewed confidence in the gospel needed. A Caribbean theologian has described the Caribbean Church as a “potted plant,” not yet transferred and firmly planted in Caribbean soil. The Caribbean theology project that rose and fell must be revisited and renewed. A theology for the Caribbean that addresses the underlying search for identity and meaning among Caribbean peoples is urgently needed. Such a project must be rooted in the vitality of scripture and in the history and rhythms of Caribbean life. It must address the social crisis now engulfing the Caribbean. After five centuries of Christian presence in the region, the time has come for the Caribbean Church to be firmly planted in Caribbean soil. A deep cultural engagement of the Caribbean, tackling the deep issues of Caribbean reality, is needed. This engagement must include the realities of persistent poverty, the rich cultural pluralism, the innate search identity and meaning, the impact of global warming, the consequences of environmental degradation, and the longing for true freedom and redemption. The challenge is not to look backward with nostalgia, but to look forward with innovation and change. The phenomenal growth of the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostal churches in the region are pointing the way.
- Increasing influence of movements such as the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE) are needed. So where does a movement such as LCWE fit in? When asked, Caribbean leaders suggested there was a role and place for the Lausanne Movement in the Caribbean. The LCWE has generated a wealth of cross-cultural resources that churches could benefit from immensely. Such a role could be to:
- Enable leadership, helping our top-level leaders to build greater networks
- Foster greater unity to counter the propensity for fragmentation (there are over six hundred denominations in Jamaica alone)
- Commission papers for study and action relevant to the Caribbean context
- Facilitate discussion and cooperation, enabling working together, inter/intra denominational dialogue and action
- Provide opportunities for theological discussions, biblical understanding, and renewal of a vision for world evangelization
The Caribbean Church looks forward with eager anticipation to the historic 2010 Lausanne III Congress in Cape Town, South Africa. Our prayer is that God would use that moment to launch a new wave of evangelization for all peoples, and stir such concern for the peoples of the Caribbean.