The Coming of Global Christianity

Posted on April 16, 2012

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It may come as a surprise to some, but Islam is not the fastest growing faith in the world today.

While teaching the second half of my survey course on the history of the Christian church I came across a book by Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom, the Coming of Global Christianity, published first in 2002 and just last year revised and updated in a new edition.

It is a book filled with startling and revealing data and analysis.

For example, Christendom as a “western” phenomenon, whose characteristics were historically determined in Europe and North America, is on the decline, dramatically in some nations like Great Britain.

The “new” Christendom, the rapidly growing one, is charismatic, Pentecostal, spirit-filled, and most decidedly conservative. It is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The “old” Christendom, the one most of us are familiar with, is shrinking and, as Jenkins argues, no longer represents the dynamic, cutting edge of Christianity.

It is Uganda, for example, where we should be looking at as the expanding frontier of Christianity. It is certainly not in the old Western bastions of Christianity—Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Britain for example—that defined Christianity for centuries, gave us the great Cathedrals, the music, and the Protestant Reformation.

Uganda? you may ask? Where’s that?

Jenkins notes that Uganda is representative of the fast growing tropical countries. The population in 1950 was 5.5 million people in the land the size of Oregon. The number of people is roughly doubling every quarter century or so. By 1975 there were 11 million people, 23,000,000 by 2000; and by 2025 there will be 55 million, and 65,000,000 by 2050.

Uganda represents one of the triumphs of the missionary movement of the past two centuries where Christianity was newly planted only in mid-nineteenth century. Today, about 40% of the population is Protestant, 5% Catholic and 10% Muslim, and small percentages follow traditional African religions.

By 2050, if present projections hold, to put it in a different context, there will be more self-described Christians in Uganda than in places like Germany or Britain.

Other trends are readily apparent. Brazil was heavily Roman Catholic until about the middle of the twentieth century.

By 2050, there should be about 207 million Brazilians. Today, about 75% of Brazil’s population is reported as Catholic, while 20% are Protestant Pentecostal.

If we project into the mid-21st century there will be 150 million Catholics and 40 million Protestants, but the non-Catholic population has swelled so quickly in recent years as to render any such predictions moot.

It would not be astonishing for Brazil by this stage to be half Protestant. “That Brazil will be key center of world Christianity,” writes Jenkins, “is beyond doubt.”

“Not only are there going to be far more Christians in the global South than in the North,” he continues, “but the Southerners are also likely to be much more committed in terms of belief and practice. A cultural change is evident from Europe, which has a present-day Christian population of 560 million.”

Over the past century, massive secularization has reduced the population of European Christians. Rates of church membership or religious participation have been declining precipitously in a long-term trend that shows no sign of slowing.

Great Britain offers a model example of de-Christianization in the northern or Western world. In a survey taken in 2000 44% of the British claim no religious affiliation whatsoever. That number that has grown from 31% in 1983. Two thirds of those ages 18 to 24 now describe themselves as nonreligious, and almost half of young adults do not even believe that Jesus existed as an historical person.

But that is not the whole story. While, in Britain, people have moved to religious indifference, and the Muslim population has swelled to over a million, not all Asian or African immigrants are Muslim.

A good many other immigrants are Christian, and they raise the prospect of a revitalized Christian presence on European soil. Many Africans and Asians are of Christian origin, and the churches they represent include Pentecostals, Baptists and independents.

Great Britain, for example, is now home to a substantial network of African and Caribbean churches heavily in Pentecostal and worship style. Currently about half of all churchgoers in London are black.

The United States is more complicated. Trends apparent in Europe and Africa for example, do not dominate the religious spectrum.

Critically, the U. S. population will continue to increase. There are about 280 million Americans today, and that figure will grow to about 400 million in 2025.

Equally significant, society is moving from being either white or black to an immensely diverse racial and ethnic melting pot. Hispanics already make up more than 15% of the population. Add in Asians to the Hispanics, and by 2025 almost 25% of the population will be Hispanic or Asian, and that percentage increases to 33% by 2050.

California is sometimes viewed as a bellwether of American society by some, and by 2025, a majority of the people in the Golden State will be Hispanics.

The diversity is even more dramatic in the religious landscape.

Distinct from modern Muslim immigrant streams into Europe, virtually all of the Hispanics are Christian, divided roughly between 70% Catholic and 20% evangelical Protestant or Pentecostals.

One tends to think in stereotypes. Most Asians must be Buddhist or perhaps Hindus. But the reality is that significant percentages—by a ratio of 10 or 20 to 1– of the one million Korean-Americans, for example, are Christian.

America remains, the author writes, “substantially what it has always been, a mainly Christian country.”

What about Muslims in the U. S.? They number about 4 million, or 1.5% of the population. And not all Middle Eastern immigrants are Muslim, since many Arab-Americans are in fact Christian, especially from counties such as Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria.

There are so many dimensions to this book that we can scarcely even mention the primary ones, the most important being the changing face and demographics of Christendom.

Why did he write the book? I think he wanted to counter some deeply held prejudices against Christianity as being an example of Western imperialism or colonialism, and show it for what it truly represents: a dynamic, growing faith which is converting and expanding in the world because of its message of redemption and hope.

While all faiths in the world have a claim to legitimacy, and Jenkins is careful to underscore that point, it also is competing with Islam as the world’s greatest faith.

And, returning to the world, or global society, Jenkins writes that “when comparing Christianity and Islam, projections are that by the year 2020 Christianity will have a massive lead and by 2050 there will be three Christians for every two Muslims in the world.”

In fact, the message of Matthew 28:19, with the instruction to the eleven disciples to go out make disciples of all nations, appears to be happening.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday May 14, 2012