Last week I read a book called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford UP, 2002) by Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State.  I had read much of Jenkins’s argument elsewhere in articles by him, but this book develops many of his ideas at length.

Jenkins makes several related main points.  First, Jenkins observes that Christianity is disappearing from its ancient homelands in the Middle East and Europe.  As late as the middle of the 20th century there were large Christian populations in the Middle East.  Apart from the Copts in Egypt these Christians are disappearing under a combination of factors, including Islamist extremism, the folly of Christian politicians in Lebanon (though Jenkins does not mention that), and the difficulties of Palestinian life. As for Europe, it still has the largest nominal population of Christians of any continent, but most of that is indeed nominal and non-practicing.  The Church of England, for instance, claims about 25 million members, but even on Easter and Christmas only about five percent of them darken the door of a church.  The situation in Protestant Europe is as bad, and it quickly is becoming almost as bad in the Mediterranean Roman Catholic parts of the continent.  Furthermore, this rapid decline shows few signs of slackening.  For instance, between 1989 and 1998 alone church attendance in all Christian bodies in England declined by 22 percent (from 4.7 to 3.7 million).

Secondly, Jenkins notes that while the rapid decline of Christianity in the Middle East and Europe leads many to conclude that Christianity as such is in decline, nothing could be further from the truth.  The churches in Latin America, Asia, and Africa are burgeoning.  The relative numerical strengths of Islam and Christianity are stable, with Christianity maintaining its position.  There is no evidence that Islam is overtaking Christianity in the world, though the Middle East is becoming more solidly Muslim and new Muslim populations in Europe are growing rapidly.  Much of the population growth of the world in the next 25 or 50 years is likely to occur in heavily Christian lands such as Brazil, the Philippines, Congo, Nigeria, and Mexico.  The percentage of Africans who are Christian has risen sharply in the last 100 years and is continuing to rise.

The combination of these first two points leads to a third:  the center of gravity of Christendom is shifting ‘south’ to the sites of population growth.  While the United States is a partial exception to the pattern, in general the old great Christian centers (Rome, Moscow, Geneva, Canterbury) either are going to lose influence or they will maintain influence and significance because of their close ties to growing ‘Third World’ churches.  Even in Europe itself insofar as religious practice does thrive, it tends to do so because of immigrants from Europe’s former colonies.  Many urban Church of England parishes, for instance, are largely peopled by West Indians and Africans or their descendants.  So both in the ‘Global South’ and in the old centers of Christian Europe, the influence of what Jenkins calls ‘global Christianity’ will grow.

One can certainly debate whether all of this is a good or a bad thing.  But most of Jenkins’s ideas to this point are pretty firmly based in fact.  It’s true that projecting population trends is a chancy business:  perhaps places such as Spain and Italy will reverse their fertility decline (now far below replacement level); perhaps fertility and death rates elsewhere will change suddenly.  Mostly, however, Jenkins has begun with conservative assumptions and then pointed out long-standing and clear trends.

The most interesting parts of Jenkins book, I think, are his speculations concerning the ways in which demographic changes in the Christian world will affect Christian worship, theology, and assumptions.  I will note three examples.

  1. In most of the world the supernatural and miraculous side of Scripture and of Christian life are simply accepted as true. While liberal European and American theologians have busily ‘demythologized’ Christianity, global Christians accept and assume the reality of miracles, the power of prayer, the influence of spiritual forces, and the truth of our Lord’s miracles and resurrection.  In this respect, global Christianity will be solidly traditional and conservative whether the rationalist ‘West’ likes it or not.
  2. The burgeoning global churches tend to be more enthusiastic, neo-pentecostalist, and experiential than European churches. The enculturation of the faith through the use of local music, dress, dance, and symbols will tend to favor either neo-pentecostalist churches or more mainstream traditions that are capable of embracing local cultures.  The effects of this point may seem very untraditional to European or North American observers.  Furthermore, as enculturation proceeds some observers may detect syncretism or mixing of religious ideas, which affects not just outward forms but also central doctrines or practices: e.g., some independent African churches accept polygamy; elsewhere some urge the use of non-Scriptural elements in the Eucharist (rice in Asia, etc.).
  3. The big losers in all of this will tend to be Churches that are heavily tied to Europe or its ideas and forms. The Eastern Orthodox, who are very heavily concentrated in Eastern Europe, are likely to see a serious decline.  Rationalist, demythologized, liberal Christianity has even less of a future in global Christendom than it does among the disappearing European and liberal North American churches.  In contrast Roman Catholicism, with its long history of missions and of absorbing local cultures and forms and neo-pentecostalist bodies such as the Assemblies of God, and independent local churches, all can do very well.  I would add, traditional Anglicanism also has proved adaptable to local forms and can continue the major mission success of the old Anglican Communion.  But success in the global Church will affect the faith and practice of the older centers.

I do not agree with all of Jenkins ideas, but this is an important book that deserves attention. It is written for a general audience.  I recommend it to all.

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