Christendom resurrected?

October 31, 2005

WE ARE LIVING THROUGH ONE OF THE MOST TRANSFORMING MOMENTS IN THE HISTORY OF RELIGION WORLDWIDE. Yet western observers are blind to the most significant and revolutionary changes in today’s world. Consequently they misread the global future. Their myopic view of Christianity historically as a western faith distorts their perspective on what is yet to come.

When Philip Jenkins first published these views three years ago in the influential Atlantic Monthly, he provoked widespread debate around the western world. Last Friday I met this professor of history and religious studies from Pennsylvania over the lunch table at Radboud University in Nijmegen. His presentation at the 75th anniversary of the department of missiology at the university was basically a reading of the first chapter of his book, The Next Christendom: the coming of global Christianity.

With four other international academics he debated his provocative theses, which included:
· Over the past half century the centre of gravity of the Christian world has moved decisively to the South;
· Within a few decades European and Euro-American Christians will have become a small fragment of world Christianity;
· By that time, Christianity in Europe and North America will to a large extent consist of Southern-derived immigrant communities;
· Southern churches will fulfil neither the Liberation Dream nor the Conservative Dream of the North, but will seek their own solutions to their particular problems.

Just a few days earlier, I had heard my colleague Gordon Showell-Rogers declare that Christendom was dead, “thank God”, at the European Evangelical Alliance general assembly in Portugal. Presumably he was referring to a dominating institutional imposition of Christianity in the west. But for Jenkins, a younger Christendom is alive and well and growing in the global South. For better or for worse, he believes, it is destined to play a critical role in world affairs.

The phrase, he admits, evokes a medieval European age of faith, when kingdoms, empires and nations came and went, while Christendom simply endured, offering universal standards and an overarching state of loyalty. His use of the term was originally in response to an article in the New York Times suggesting that, as nations states weakened, a new ideological force may emerge to create something like the political organisation of Western Christendom in the Middle Ages. That new force, was the suggestion, could be environmentalism with a mystical New Age twist.

Others had suggested that liberalism and secularisation would cause the decline and even disappearance of Christianity. Some like the American Bishop Spong had urged the church to abandon its ‘outmoded supernatural doctrines and moral assumptions’ in order to survive. Yet Jenkins asserts such liberalism to be distinctly outdated in the context of global Christianity. The rapidly growing churches of the global South are more traditional, morally conservative, evangelical and charismatic, even mystical, than their northern counterparts. Pentecostal churches gain 20 million members annually and are major competitors to Catholicism in Latin America especially. I noticed myself on a recent visit to Brazil that storefront Pentecostal and evangelical churches seemed to be open every evening with packed services, and surprisingly appeared to outnumber the larger Catholic church buildings.

Neither is secularism gaining in the southern hemisphere, according to Jenkins. Africans, Latin Americans and many Asians define their identities in terms of their Muslim or Christian loyalties. In this sense, a new Christendom as an overarching identity transcending nationhood and ethnicity could unite Southern Christians, in a parallel to international Muslim solidarity.

Jenkins calls for a new look at both past and future. His second chapter examines the ‘myth of western Christianity’. Christianity was not originally a western faith, having started in the Middle East and spread quickly south to Africa, long before Islam arrived, and reaching London and China around the same time. Early maps showed Africa, Asia and Europe conjoined at Palestine with Jerusalem in the centre. Monasticism was an Egyptian invention, he reminds his reader, and of the five ancient patriarchates, only Rome stood in Europe. Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem were in Asia; Alexandria in Africa. Many leading theologians of the early church, like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, lived in North Africa. Christianity has a prior claim on Africa and Asia in respect to Islam, he argues.

Likewise, the future needs reinterpretation. He challenges Samuel Huntington’s scenario, from the widely-read The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order, that ‘in the long run… Muhammad wins out’. Huntington’s forecast, that Islam would be the world’s largest religion by 2020, is ‘misguided’ as it ignores the population explosion in Christian countries in Africa. In 2020, Christianity will still have a massive lead and by 2050 Jenkins predicts three Christians for every two Muslims. “Throughout his Clash of Civilizations, (Huntington) refers to ‘Western Christianity’ as if there could be no other species,” writes the Pennsylvania professor.

By 2025, Africa and Latin America will be vying to be the most Christian continent, both with over 630 million Christians. Half the world’s Christians will live in these two continents. Europe would have slipped into third place. By 2050, only one in five will be non-Hispanic whites, and the phrase, ‘a white Christian’ may sound a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist’.

Over the lunch table, I asked Jenkins what he saw the main contribution of the immigrant churches to the western church to be today. In a crisp restatement of his third thesis above, he simply said, “They will take over.” Then, in a scrawl almost as bad as my own, he wrote inside my copy of his book: ‘To Jeff, All good wishes! Philip Jenkins’.

An interesting quote from another Philip, Yancey, opens the second chapter of The Next Christendom: “As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God ‘moving’ geographically from the Middle East, to Europe and North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.”

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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