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« Trends in Western Religions - III. American Christianity | Main | Trends in Western Religion: 1. Islam »

Trends in Western Religions -- II. World Christianity

The OLD Philosopher – John M. Miller 


The three major western religions are, in chronological order, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In the first presentation we considered Islam first, even though it is the most recent of the three western religions.

That choice was made for a particular reason. In the contemporary world, there are many trends within Islam, as there are in Judaism and Christianity. Only a few of them can be examined, and then only in a cursory manner. However, the primary trend regarding Islam comes from outside Islam, not from within. This external factor will affect Islam and the rest of the world for untold decades to come.

Wherever Christianity is the predominate religion, especially in Europe and America, there is a growing concern among many Christians and secular westerners that Islam is attempting to reduce or overcome western global hegemony, preferably by permanent political, economic, and cultural pressure, but also by force, if necessary. Conversely, and equally alarmingly, in the Islamic world there is a growing concern that the West and Christianity are attempting forcibly to crush Islam. Both perceptions are dangerously incorrect. Nevertheless, the perceptions are real, and they represent the strongest trend in the world with respect to Islam. That is why “Trends in Islam” was the first of these four presentations about trends in western religions. These two misperceptions should be of great concern to all thoughtful citizens of our planet.

Roman Catholicism

Having made that introduction, we now turn to world-wide Roman Catholicism. Roman Catholicism is the oldest and by far the largest and most influential branch of Christianity in the world. Therefore we begin with it in our summary of world-wide Christianity.

The word “catholic” comes from the Greek language (katholikos: universal, world-wide). The Roman Catholic Church is the only truly universal Church in Christendom. All the Eastern Orthodox Churches are nationally or ethnically based. Thus there are Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Rumanian, Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, Egyptian, Ethiopian, and American Orthodox Churches, among many others. And there are literally thousands of Protestant denominations throughout the world, but particularly in what may be the largest ethnic melting pot in the world, the United States of America. However, there is only one Roman Catholic Church. Every Roman Catholic congregation is related to every other Catholic congregation via the bishop of Rome, the Pope, who is the earthly head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Before examining trends in Catholicism at large, we shall take a brief look at Catholicism in Latin America, and at Chile in particular. It bespeaks factors with which the Mother of All Churches is confronted throughout the world. Latin America represents an enormous challenge to the Roman Catholic Church. This glimpse is not intended to suggest it is the most profound trend faced by Catholicism, because it is not. But it representative of a major shift in the religious culture of what has been “the most Catholic” section of the world for at least the past two or three centuries.

In January of 2018, Pope Francis made a visit to Chile. There are he encountered a nation much like the rest of Latin America, including his native Argentina. Latinobarometro is a Latin American polling organization. In 1995, they asked Chileans, “What is your religion?” Three quarters of Chileans answered that they were Roman Catholics. By 2017, that number plummeted to 45%. That is a huge shift in a very short time. It is numerical drop of 30, but a percentage drop of 40%. Ten percent of Chileans were evangelicals in 1995, and now 12% are. There are far more evangelicals in other Latin American countries. But in 1995 10% of Chileans said they had no religion; they were what are called “Nones: N-o-n-e-s.” Now almost 40% of Chileans are Nones. That it is numerical increase of 30, but a percentage increase of 400%. It is, by any measure, a jaw-dropping number.

In 1996 Latinobarometro took a poll in many Central and South American countries. They asked, “How much confidence do you have in the church?”, deliberately leaving the word “church” undefined. Almost 80% of Latin Americans in general expressed “a lot” or “some” confidence in the church, but by 2017 that number had fallen to 65%. In 1996 fully 80% of Chileans had a high degree of confidence in the church, but by 2017 that figure had dropped to 35%. It represents a 66% drop in only 21 years.

What happened? Why the calamitous plummet? Those numbers suggest an extremely alarming trend. This may be the main reason why the Pope went to Chile now.

In the past thirty years, there has been a major increase in the number of evangelical Protestants, especially Pentecostals, in Latin America. In some nations nearly half the church-going population are Protestants. That is a huge change in a relatively short period of time. Nevertheless, the fastest-growing percentage of the population in most Latin American states are the Nones. In Central and South America, as in most nations of the world, more and more people are dropping out of the churches altogether.


 Now we shall alter our focus on a very brief glimpse of Roman Catholicism in Latin America. We turn instead to Roman Catholicism in Rome, and to the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis I. The 2013 election of  Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was potentially if not actually one of the most momentous papal elections in Catholic history. Pope Francis was born in a location almost as far away from Rome as exists on this planet. He had a very minimal personal connection to Rome during his lifetime, unlike every other Pope in the history of the Church. Almost all of his ministry was spent in Latin America.

Francis is a Jesuit, the first Jesuit Pope in history. Jesuits are a highly educated, highly disciplined, and highly independent religious order. They have been and are among the most admired and the most vilified leaders in the Church, depending on the theological and ecclesiastical viewpoints of those who assess them.

Every Pope chooses a name for himself upon his election to the papacy. Cardinal Bergoglio selected Francis as his name, after St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was the controversial founder of the Franciscan Order in the early thirteenth century. Sometimes he was a thorn in the side of the Popes of his time, just as Francis I is sometimes a thorn in the side of millions of traditional Roman Catholic clergy and laity in our time.

Because his ties to the Vatican were relatively so slim, Pope Francis did not have many allies in the Vatican bureaucracy of cardinals, bishops, and priests. And because he was decidedly more liberal than most of the Roman ecclesiastical government workers, he has not fitted in very naturally to the culture of Roman Catholicism. He is an Argentinian who has lived through very disruptive times in his native country. He was a political rival to some of the leaders of Argentina during his years as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires. And he, more than anyone else in the Vatican, feels the immense pressures which have recently been felt by Latin American Catholicism.

Further, because Francis was in his mid-seventies when he became Pope, it is impossible to predict what will be the long-term effects of his papacy, if any. There is strong resistance to him within the Vatican. Nonetheless he is the Pope, and in Roman Catholicism, that personal influence is always great, if also accurately immeasurable during any given period.

Before becoming Pope, Francis I showed more lenient tendencies regarding traditional Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality. He has questioned the propriety of forbidding divorced Catholics from receiving communion, for instance, and he seems uncertain whether divorced people should be prevented from being remarried in the church. He also gives hints that he may favor a relaxed attitude toward birth control.

These more liberal ideas have put him in conflict with some conservative Catholic institutions. Before he resigned from the papacy, Benedict XVI appointed his fellow German cardinal, Gerhard Mueller, as the head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. That is the Vatican secretariat whose primary task is to maintain the purity of Catholic theology and practice. After observing the conservative conduct of three priests on birth control who were working within the Congregation, Francis ordered Cardinal Mueller to fire them. The cardinal tried to resist being ordered to fire the three priests, so the Pope fired him. It was one of the most publicized and controversial of the new Pope’s actions. Traditionalists within the Vatican and through the “Catholic world” (a term which is somewhat linguistically redundant) are up in arms.

Francis has also revamped the Theological Institute for the Marriage and Family Sciences. He wants the teachings he proposed in his 2016 encyclical The Joy of Love to become more prominent in official Catholic doctrines regarding issues involved in marriage. In his theological essay, the Pope referred to millions of Catholics living in an “imperfect” world of divorce, cohabitation, and remarriage. He urged the clergy and laity to become more merciful in their attitudes toward couples living in complex and difficult cultures with respect to traditional marriage and family values. His thoughts on these matters seem to be at odds with those of Pope John Paul II, who founded the institute on marriage.

In many respects the Pope is a gentle soul, but he is no pushover for his ecclesiastical adversaries. Another example of this is seen in his treatment of the Sovereign Order of Malta, the oldest chivalric group within the Catholic Church. It is a staunchly conservative organization of laymen, which has diplomatic relations with 106 states around the world, including the Vatican.

Fra’ Matthew Festing is the grand master of the Sovereign Order of Malta. Last December, Fra’ Festing dismissed Albrecht von Boeselager as the grand chancellor of the order. That position is the equivalent to foreign minister. The order said that Mr. Boeselager had concealed “severe problems” in the order’s charitable branch. Apparently the specific complaint is that condoms were being given to aid recipients in Myanmar, the former Burma, in opposition to long-standing Church policy.

The grand chancellor appealed his dismissal to the Vatican. A papal commission was formed to investigate, but the Order of Malta refused to cooperate in the investigation, saying that it was entirely an internal issue. After a private meeting with the Pope, the grand master himself resigned. American Cardinal Raymond Burke supported Fra’ Festing’s firing of Boeselager, thus expressing his continuing disapproval of the Pope.

The inner workings of the Vatican have always been something of a mystery, and this incident is another demonstration of that mystery. Whatever went on behind closed doors, it shows that a conservative-progressive struggle is underway on many fronts. But that too has probably always been a reality in the biggest branch of Christianity, if only because it is so huge. With more than a billion members, the Catholic Church is certain to have major theological and ecclesiastical differences within its ranks.

The largest political and ethical challenge Francis inherited on becoming Pope is the ongoing clerical pedophile and sexual abuse scandal. It continues to plague him, the Vatican hierarchy, and the Church hierarchy everywhere. Without question numerous priests guilty of the abuse of parishioners have been shielded by their bishops. Most Catholic laity want this matter settled as quickly as possible, but it is not possible for an institution as vast as the Roman Catholic Church rapidly to resolve the issues.

In 2016 Pope Francis named a seventeen-member papal commission to investigate clerical sexual abuse. That group has been plagued by internal strife since its foundation. One member of the commission, himself a victim of priestly sexual abuse, was dismissed for demanding more rapid action by the commission. They censured him with a no-confidence vote.

The commission wisely recommended a separate Vatican tribunal to judge bishops accused of protecting priests who had been accused of abuse. This became especially difficult after the Pope’s elevation of Juan Barros, a Chilean priest, to the episcopacy. Later Bishop Barros was accused of protecting the most notorious pedophile priest in all of Chile. In his visit to Chile, to which reference was made earlier, the Pope spoke out in support of Bishop Barros, further muddying the waters of this messy and tragic scandal.

All of this may point to the enormous questions beneath the surface of this ongoing saga, namely, clerical celibacy and/or the possibility of ordaining married priests. Neither of these changes would eliminate the problem of sexual abuse altogether. However, on the basis of Orthodox and Protestant experience, there seems to be less sexual abuse by the clergy when they are married than when they are supposed to be celibate.

It is virtually unimaginable that those issues shall be decided during the papacy of Francis I. Nonetheless he is constantly confronted by them all the same.    

An example of the Pope’s willingness to face awkward problems head on is that he has named a committee of advisors to assist him in making decisions regarding the needs and the rights of children who have been fathered by Catholic priests. In previous generations, these children have been shunted as far aside as possible, preferably out of sight. The Pope deliberately recognizes they are also children of God like everyone else, and they especially need the Church’s love and support. He insists that they deserve to be treated fairly, particularly by the Church.

The bishops of Ireland had already taken steps in addressing this sensitive and embarrassing issue, because Ireland historically has had some of the most glaring examples of priestly sexual abuse. The committee is adopting many of the recommendations the Irish Church accepted in its investigation.    

Two years ago the plane carrying Pope Francis to Mexico landed in Havana, Cuba. The purpose of the stopover was to meet Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. When Francis went to shake hands with and embrace the Patriarch, he said to him, “Brother!” adding the very telling word “finally” immediately afterward.

Such small gestures can have enormous consequences for Christianity. The Orthodox Church officially broke from the Roman Catholic Church in 1054. At the time, the patriarchs of each Church excommunicated the other patriarch. The Russian Orthodox Church is now the largest communion within Eastern Orthodoxy, so the brief meeting in Havana was an important step in international ecumenical relations.

In the meantime, the Catholic Church, like all other branches of Christendom, is losing members in the developed West to the Nones, and it is gaining most of its new members in underdeveloped Africa, East Asia, and South America. However, those who are joining the Catholic Church in those places are more exuberant, Pentecostal, and unorthodox in their worship. The traditional western Mass does not appeal to them as readily. Therefore worship adjustments have been made. Theologically, the new converts are much more conservative and evangelical than traditional Catholics. In addition, it is quietly claimed that there are hundreds or possibly even thousands of married men in Africa who have been ordained as Catholic priests. African culture frowns upon a single status for anyone, and thus it is said the Church has unofficially recognized that cultural predilection by ordaining married men who seek to become priests. 

In the midst of all these varied and often surprising activities, the Catholic Church continues to excel in ways which have always distinguished it from the Orthodox and Protestant traditions of Christianity. It provides an ecclesiastical home to 1.2 billion people. It manages to appear like an unchanging rock of certainty, yet it deftly and wisely moves with the ever-changing trends and the multiple signs of the times.  It heals the sick, cares for the homeless, speaks truth to power, and constantly addresses the issues which make it uniquely the most influential Christian communion on earth. Yoking three languages, we say, Viva Mater Ekklesia!


An Apology to Eastern Orthodox Christianity


This lecture is intended primarily for an American audience. Because there are few Orthodox Christians in the USA, we shall not look at any trends within the world-wide Orthodox tradition. It would further lengthen a lecture which will be more than long enough as it is. Apologies to the Orthodox! Mea Culpa, as they do not say in Greek.


Trends in World Protestantism


Like the Catholic Church, the world’s Protestant Churches are generally declining in the developed nations of the West while they are experiencing astonishing growth in Africa, East Asia, and especially Latin America. Once again though, as in Catholicism, much of this growth manifests itself in exuberant, pentecostal, and charismatic worship. Ecclesiastical authority tends to be lodged in individual charismatic pastors or individual congregations more than in denominational structures as such.

Why is current worldwide Christian growth centered in places where Christianity historically has not been prevalent? And why is Christianity declining where it has long been prevalent? These are questions deserving major attention, but it cannot be provided in a series of lectures which focus on smaller but more manageably-explained trends.    

Nonetheless, this can and perhaps ought to be said about where Protestant and Catholic church growth is the highest. It is in nations or areas of nations where primary, secondary, and higher education are not widespread among the populace at large. Parts of Africa, East Asia, and the rural and poor urban sections of Latin America all fit into that category. Churches there, as compared to governments, give educational encouragement to the young and their parents, and it results in a commitment to the Church which was non-existent until quite recently.

Ecclesiastical sociologists predict that there will be more Christians south of the equator by the end of this century than there will be north of the equator. In fact, a few such experts say that already there are more “Southern” than “Northern” Christians.

Philip Jenkins teaches in the Religion Department at Baylor University in Texas. He is probably the world’s leading expert on Christianity in the global South, meaning south of the equator. Up to the present, he wryly notes that most of the world’s Christians have been, to use his terminology, “western-educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic.” He says that if you take the first letter of each of those words, it spells “weird.” Christianity is growing the quickest in places that are not weird, Prof. Jenkins notes. Those areas are not western-educated, industrialized, rich, or democratic. 

 The most astonishing growth of Christianity is occurring in a nation most Christians would say is the least likely for it to happen: China. Prof. Jenkins has postulated that China is now the country with the second-largest number of Christians within its borders, second only to the USA. It is impossible to verify that claim, however, because most Christian congregations in China are house churches, small underground groups of people who worship in private homes. They are not recognized by either the Chinese government or any official denomination, and so no official statistics of church membership are kept.

To repeat the “weird” acronym, most Chinese are not western educated, many of them do not live in the industrialized or rich sections of China, and their nation-state is certainly not democratic. Nevertheless, uncountable millions of Chinese are becoming Christians every year. China has been an autocracy as long as there has been a China, but it may be that Christianity offers the Chinese a spiritual and emotional freedom which the communist-controlled state carefully intends never to provide the Chinese people.

The newest nation in the world is South Sudan. It is also struggling harder to maintain its very existence than most other states. It split off from the much larger and heavily Muslim Sudan, because its people were experiencing severe repression from the Sudanese government because they are Christians.

For many reasons, it has been theorized that democracy has historically become more successfully rooted in predominately Christian nations than where any other religion has dominated. Unfortunately, because of time constraints, we cannot go into any of those factors. However, it currently seems as though Christianity is growing fastest in underdeveloped autocracies. If this is true, it is something very much worth thinking about - - - but we are not going to do it here. We merely note it.

To return to China for a moment, that nation is developing economically very quickly, and shall almost certainly be the largest economy in the world in a few years. Much of China is still rural and underdeveloped though, and that may be where much of the Chinese Christian growth is occurring. In any event, the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and its government are not positively disposed toward any religion, least of all Christianity, which it views as a “western” influence. How all of this will play out is hard to predict.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom releases an annual report on its findings for various nations around the world. Two years ago, they cited as particularly repressive states such nations as Pakistan, China, Iran, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria and Vietnam. The prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, is an ultra-Hindu nationalist, and India too was cited for its official religious intolerance, although Mr. Modi strongly denied the allegation.

The United Kingdom is a nation where Christianity has had a long and illustrious history. At present, it also is indicative of how strained Christianity is in the Land of Hope and Glory. For instance, in the last six years 168 Churches of England have closed their doors, along with 500 Methodist congregations and 100 Catholic churches. Over the past six years, for every Anglican church that closed, three new Pentecostal churches have been given birth.

I spent the second year of my seminary training at Trinity College of Glasgow University in Scotland. Back then there were four Faculties of Divinity at the four historic Scottish universities. The Church of Scotland ordained an average of 35 to 40 graduates from each of those divinity schools, for a total of 140 to 160 ordinations per year. Two years ago, in 2016, a retired minister friend of mine from the Church of Scotland said that a total of only nine Church of Scotland graduates of the Scottish divinity faculties were ordained.

In 2015, for the first time in recorded history, there were more people in England who reported they had no religion (49%) than the 43% who said they were members of a Christian church. Since 2004, English church baptisms are down by 12%, marriages by 19%, and funerals by 29%. (From the latter statistics it should not be deduced that British Christians are living much longer than other Britons. Rather the numbers suggest that backsliding Britons, like other Britons, do not have their funerals in churches.)

Being the Archbishop of Canterbury is almost as heavy a calling as being the Bishop of Rome. Justin Welby, the current primate of the global Anglican movement, is doing his best to walk the tightrope between progressives pulling in one direction and conservatives pulling in the other direction. African Anglicans are very conservative in their sexual ethics, reflecting African values. If the Anglican Communion does not officially condemn homosexual relations, the ordination of homosexuals, and gay marriage, many Africans are threatening to pull out of worldwide Anglicanism and form their own traditional Anglican communion. These issues have also been fought everywhere around the world by Anglicans and virtually all other Protestant denominations. Through it all, Archbishop Welby is courageously trying to prevent open ecclesiastical warfare among Anglicans by promoting what he calls “good disagreement.” To that ecclesiastical cynics might say, “Good luck.”  


To attempt to draw this ever-lengthening lecture to a close, let us quickly look at a few other examples of how Christianity is doing in various parts of the world.

Around the globe, Pentecostalism is growing faster than any other branch of Protestantism. Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an American institution, estimates that today a quarter of the world’s Christians are Pentecostals. He predicts that by 2025 there will be 800 million Pentecostals. South Korea seems to be leading this trend. The largest Christian congregation in the world is the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul, with over three-quarters of a million members. That is not a denomination; it is one mega-mega-mega congregation. Many of these huge Pentecostal churches are “Gospel of Wealth” churches, but most are not.

The Middle East is rapidly losing most of its Christians either to death by government-or-Islamist sponsored persecution or by the flight of millions of refugees. In 1910 14% of Middle Easterners were Christians; today 4% are. The exodus is the greatest from Syria, followed (in descending order) by Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq.

The archbishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Mosul, Iraq begged all Iraqi Christians to leave the country, lest they be killed. The cathedral in Mosul is now a mosque which is dedicated to jihad against non-Muslims. When Iraq became independent in 1932, 12% of its people were Christians, many of them in civic leadership positions in cities. In 2003, when Saddam Hussein was driven from office by American-led military forces, the percentage of Iraqi Christians had dropped to 6%. Now it is down to 4%.  

In parts of Africa, the status of Christianity is equally tenuous. It has been widely publicized that ISIS has killed many Egyptian Copts and bombed numerous Coptic churches. Once South Sudan became an independent predominately-Christian country, Sudan declared Islam the official state religion. The Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, told non-Muslims, “Nothing will preserve your rights except for Islamic Sharia law.”

This is not to say that all religious repression or violence in western Asia or northern Africa is Islamic-oriented. For much of the past two centuries, Kenya has been a predominately Christian state. Recently there have been incidents of violence by Muslims against Christians, but the reverse is also true. Along the northern border of Kenya with Islamic Somalia, Muslim clerics have been kidnapped by militant Christians, and many sheikhs and imams have been killed. The Anglican bishop of Mombasa has pleaded with the Kenyan government to step in to prevent the violence.

Many Americans are aware of Muslim headgear being banned in European states. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called for a ban on burkas in Germany prior to the recent German election. It is unknown what her personal thoughts are on this matter, but clearly she was bowing to political pressure from the German right to outlaw distinctively Muslim dress. In early 2017 the European Union Court of Justice ruled that private employers may forbid female employees from wearing head scarves. (Feminists might note they did not forbid male Jewish employees from wearing yarmulkes or male Muslim workers from wearing similar skullcaps.) Maryam H’madoun of the Open Society Foundation said of this EU court decision that it may discourage many observant Muslim women from entering the work force. With the number of Muslim refugees flooding into the EDU, that is the last thing that is needed to implement a successful transition for the refugees.

Some current polls indicate that many if not most Muslims world-wide favor democracy over autocracy. However, autocracy has been dominant in the Islamic world since its inception in the seventh century. But it also behooves Christians to realize that democracy became viable in the western world only in the late eighteenth century, and western  democracy became fairly widespread only in the late twentieth century.

The Pew Research Center is one of the most prestigious and widely respected institutions covering world trends. Several months ago they published the results of a major study of population trends in various religions. On the basis of what is happening in recent and current religious growth, they estimate the number of Muslims in the world will increase by 70% between 2015 and 2060, 34% for Christians, 27% for Hindus, 15% for Jews, 5% for folk religions, 3% for the religiously unaffiliated (the so-called Nones), and, very surprisingly, minus 7% for Buddhists.

Lest Christians become unduly alarmed by those figures, they require that one very salient point should be highlighted. The growth in Muslim population percentage is not because Muslims are killing Christians or conquering predominately Christian nations. Rather it is because Muslims birth rates, in general, are considerably higher than Christian birth rates. That is because many millions of Muslims still live in poor countries, and poor people are far more likely to have more children than wealthier people. The Christian percentage growth is half what the projected Muslim figure is because prospective parents in Christian countries all over the world are having fewer children. The rate of conversion for new Muslims and Christians is roughly the same. Babies, not conversions, conquests, or killings account for almost of the projected growth in all the religions. Why the Buddhists should decline is apparently anyone’s guess.

For all religions, as has previously been stated, it is the growth of the percentage of the Nones which is the most ominous. Fifty years ago in the USA and other western nations, it was being postulated that the world was becoming rapidly secularized. The process has not been nearly as rapid as anyone imagined back then, but it has accelerated nonetheless.  

Without question, government policies in any nation can enhance or thwart any or all religions. Americans cannot determine what other countries do, but we can attempt to convince our own government to be tolerant and fair in its attitudes toward all religions, Christian or otherwise. Religious intolerance has been a curse in the world; tolerance, as difficult as it is to implement, is a far better permanent policy to follow.

In conclusion, what was said in the previous lecture can also be said in this one. The religious news that makes headlines are when opposing religious groups begin to persecute or kill one another. It would be both perverse and obtuse to claim that does not happen. Nevertheless, what is happening far more frequently is that most Christians, like most Muslims, do what they have always done. They change lives for the better, feed the hungry, heal the sick, combat injustice and oppression, and seek to do whatever they can to usher in the kingdom of God. Christians do that by proclaiming the Gospel.

One of Robert Frost’s most famous poems was called Birches. He ended it by saying, “One could do worse than to be a swinger on birches.” We might also say Christians could do far worse than to attempt to become bringers of the kingdom of God.


John Miller is a writer, author, lecturer, and preacher-for-over-fifty-years who is pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC


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