The Catholic University of America


Final Examination of Janel K. Bakker

For the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Religion and Culture

November 30, 2009 at 1:00 p.m. in Caldwell Hall Room 125

Director: William D. Dinges, Ph. D. 


Encountering the Church in the Global South: Sister Congregation Relationships and Their Impact on Parishioners in Select Washington, D.C. Area Churches

            The contemporary landscape of global Christianity differs radically from previous eras, and new patterns of transnational engagement have emerged. Much attention has been given to the growth and vitality of Christianity in the Global South, but the linkages between churches across hemispheres are largely ignored. This dissertation unveils a new type of religious border-crossing relationship through its exploration of the international sister church phenomenon. Since the 1980s, sister church relationships have become increasingly common as congregations from different regions of the world “twin” with each other for the sake of mutual ministry and solidarity. The model eschews unidirectional sending of resources from “mother” to “daughter” churches by blurring the lines between donor and dependent.

            This dissertation combines ethnographic case study with historical research to examine the sister church model of mission as it is embedded in specific contexts. Focusing on the attitudes and experiences of Roman Catholics, mainline Presbyterians, evangelical Anglicans, and African-American Baptists from twelve Washington, D.C. area congregations, the study explores how these northern Christians relate to their counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere.

            Sister church relationships represent both philosophical shifts in missiology and changing structures of global religious engagement. While disparities in access to power and resources posed formidable barriers to mutuality, participants esteemed their southern counterparts as saints and teachers and sought to relate as partners in ministry. Respondents prized relationships over programs and envisioned themselves as both givers and receivers. Structurally, the relationships were decidedly local. They capitalized on the growing interest in practice-oriented spirituality at the grassroots level and profited from globalization's compression of time and space. Immigrants played key roles in sister church relationships, and modern technological developments allowed participants to sustain cross-cultural partnerships.  

            Perceiving northern and southern Christianity as fundamentally at odds, most scholars of global Christianity envision northern Christians as fearful and suspicious of southern Christians. Contrary to this picture, however, sister church relationships depict interconnectivity, respect, and even friendship between these groups. As twinning relationships show, emerging trajectories of religious globalization are marked not only by homogenization, conflict, or avoidance, but also by cross-cultural connectivity.