Churches die. Only a hundred years ago the English writer, Hilaire Belloc, could say with a straight face that ‘Europe is the faith’. In this book, historian Philip Jenkins predicts that by 2050 the phrase ‘a white Christian’ may have become ‘a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as a Swedish Buddhist.’ Now that might be slightly hyperbolic, but there is no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest shifts in religious affiliation in world history. Christianity, which for over a millennium has been closely identified with Europe, is now finding its home is in Africa, Asia and South America.
This book explores the significance of that shift for Christianity and the world. What follows is my take on what Jenkins has to say about Africa, Asia, South America and the challenges posed by Islam – partly to collate my own thoughts, partly because Jenkins has a tendency towards sensationalism that annoyed me enough to write this piece!
To the ends of the earth
Demographics tell much of the story. In 1900 32% of the world’s population lived in Europe, North America and the lands of the former Soviet Union. By 2000 that had fallen to 18%, and by 2050 it will be around 10-12%. In 1900 only 10% of all Protestants lived outside Europe; by 2011 that figure stood at two-thirds. In 1900, 9% of all Africans were Christian (including the ancient Coptic Orthodox community), and Africans accounted for less than 2% of the total number of Christians worldwide. Nowadays over half of all Africans identify as Christians, and by 2050 a third of all Christians worldwide will live in Africa. Together, Africa and South America will be home to more than half of the Christians on the planet.
The global expansion of Christianity over the past five hundred years is due, in no small part, to the dedication of European missionaries in taking the gospel ‘to the ends of the earth’, and it is here that Jenkins begins. The mother churches may have been tossed back and forth by every storm that blew across the landscape (and modern Europe has had an extremely tortuous history), but the missionaries were not deterred. Jenkins rarely lets theological considerations get in the way of a good story, but his conclusions are balanced.
Often, Christian missions are seen as little more than projections of western imperialism, and it’s true that modern Christianity is in many senses a western export. However, Jenkins wants to remind us that Christianity is a religion that was born in Asia and had some of its most formative experiences in Africa, centuries before the concept of Europe existed. If the missionaries had only exported European culture, Christianity would have died with the old colonial powers. That it flourished once they departed shows the missionaries imparted something far more enduring.
If the success of a movement is defined in terms of numerical growth, nowhere has Christianity been more successful in recent years than in Africa. Africa puts to death the stereotype that Christians are ‘un-black, un-poor, and un-young’. In the post-colonial period African Christianity has experienced growth upon growth. Jenkins says it’s not uncommon for independent African and Pentecostal churches to see annual growth of 15% as normal. 37% of Roman Catholic baptisms are baptisms of adults, which for a church that is not at all Baptist is a remarkable figure. The Anglican Communion is becoming increasingly dominated by Africans, and the same can be said for Methodism and Lutheranism.
While impressive, the growth of Christianity in Africa raises many questions. By modern western standards, African Christianity can seem ‘exotic, simplistically charismatic and syncretistic’. Jenkins has plenty of fun trying to upset western Christians (both conservative and liberal) with his descriptions of African popular piety. Reading this book was to re-enter the strange world of the early medieval period as depicted in Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom – a world in which spiritual conflict is a daily experience, healing is the test of true religion, and the intercession of ancestors expected.
Jenkins argues that African Christians are much closer to the biblical world than western Christians. In many ways this is true. For example, the gospels speak very directly to the poor of Africa in a way that affluent westerners tend to miss. Supernaturalistic, pre-modern African cultures have little difficulty accepting the biblical stories of the miraculous. Concepts such as atonement make more sense to Africans than westerners. Bultmann may have ‘demythologized demon possession’, but most Africans are not having a bar of it.
However, many of the customs described in the book do not fit as comfortably with the great tradition of the Christian church as Jenkins supposes. Allowing polygamy, as some indigenous African churches do (following OT precedents!), certainly makes it easier to evangelise both traditional African cultures and affluent Muslims, but it’s rather difficult to reconcile with Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching on marriage. Many of the charismatic phenomena described by Jenkins belong to the Christian tradition only in the sense that some Christians have always practiced them – often they owe more to traditional cultural beliefs than to the NT, which takes a rather dim view of the ‘magical’ elements of Greco-Roman religion.
Despite the sheer diversity within African Christianity, Jenkins comes to the rather unstartling conclusion that the future belongs to those churches that espouse historic, mainstream Christianity. There are sociological reasons for this, of course, but Jenkins also hints at the theological reasons for the endurance of the mainstream churches. In Acts, Luke sees Christianity at conflict with the pagan spiritualities of his day, but his answer is not to fight on the terms set by his pagan opponents, but to proclaim that Christ has rendered all other powers futile. This is a liberating message that Jenkins thinks earns the mainstream churches much credibility. Traditional theology not only provides the most enduring interpretation of Jesus’ message – it also makes good pastoral sense.
The story of Christianity is Asia might be less spectacular in terms of percentages when compared to Africa, but given Asia’s size and influence on world affairs, Asia will be no less important for the global church. Some countries in South East Asia are predominantly Christian (one thinks of the Catholic Philippines, and nations like PNG), but on the whole Christians find themselves in the minority.
In the late second millennium Christianity has returned to China, a land it was relatively strong in during the first millennium of the church’s history. Perhaps no missionary endeavours have so excited the imagination of western Christians as the China missions, with the sixteenth century Jesuit Matteo Ricci and the nineteenth century Protestant Hudson Taylor among the most famous missionaries of all time. Despite being repeatedly defeated in China, Christianity has come back in strength, this time as an indigenous movement.
Christianity appeals to the rising middle class in China, and as Chinese influence in Asia grows, so will the influence of Chinese Christians. The atheistic People’s Republic tries every trick in the book to try and control the churches, which The Economist recently described as the only cult bigger than the Communist Party itself! Jenkins quotes Francesco Sisci, who wrote in an interesting article in First Things that ‘we are nearing a Constantinian moment for the Chinese Empire.’ This is hopefully wrong (Constantinian moments are always mixed blessings for everyone involved), but it is probably true to say that China presents the greatest opportunity for the gospel during the next few decades. As atheistic materialism proves itself to be hollow and unfulfilling, Christianity offers a compelling alternative.
Within a decade India will be the most populous nation on earth. The number of Christians in India is small as a percentage of the whole, but given the size of India we are still talking over 40 million people. Whereas in China Christianity is predominantly a middle class phenomenon, in India Christianity is a religion of the poor. Many Christians are Dalits (untouchables). In a caste based society, the Christian gospel offers real hope to those who are treated as nothing by the wider society. Conversely, Christianity has difficulty breaking into the upper castes, whose member’s own status in society is integrally bound up with Hinduism.
Democratic, intensely religious, and highly pluralistic India in many ways represents the challenges and opportunities of the future. While people of very different religions, languages and ethnicities have shown they can live together peacefully in the Indian Republic, it’s also true that perhaps the worst religious violence of the twentieth century occurred in India and Pakistan, with Hindus persecuting Muslims, and Muslims retaliating. Christians have not been exempt, and the sporadic persecution of Christians at the hands of Hindus remains a concerning feature of Indian society. When the Hindu nationalist BJP won a stunning victory over the Congress party in 2014, many commentators were concerned that religious liberty would come under serious threat. That has not happened to the degree feared, but the inherent contradictions of Indian society remain.
Secular governments, a majority Roman Catholic population, and the rise and rise of Pentecostalism are the major characteristics of the South American landscape today. Nowhere in the twentieth century was the synthesis between Christianity and politics more powerful than in South America. Poverty and corruption are endemic on the continent, and many saw the answer to these evils in liberation theology, which promised to usher in a new, just social order based on the fusion of the gospel and Marxism. But liberation theology failed to deliver, and instead the poor of Latin America have flocked to forms of Protestantism.
Pentecostalism has been incredibly successful in South America, at the expense of the Catholic Church. Jenkins does not predict whether Pentecostal and Evangelical Protestantism will continue to make significant inroads, or whether Catholicism will be able to retain the loyalty of its current adherents. The former seems likely, given the severe shortage of Catholic clergy, which makes it difficult for the Catholic Church to provide pastoral care to its flock. On the other hand, Catholicism can be remarkably flexible. The respected Catholic journalist, John L Allen Jr., says that ‘as Roman Catholicism in the future speaks with an African and Hispanic accent, it will also speak in tongues.’ If you can’t beat them, join them!
Christians in South America will continue to look to the churches to stand up against corrupt governments and give voice to the vulnerable. However, they are also looking to encounter the living God. The problem with liberation theology was that it ultimately wasn’t religious enough – it promised material wellbeing, but it couldn’t bring people to God. Jesus was no longer the risen Lord, but merely a figure to inspire hope. In the chilling words of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in liberation theology salvation became a human achievement, ‘leaving God with nothing to do’. By western standards, South American Christianity might not be as politically ‘conservative’ as African Christianity, but it is no less supernaturalistic and experiential, and Jenkins thinks that’s unlikely to change.
Christianity and Islam
One in two people on the planet identify in some way or other with either Christianity or Islam. The history of relations between the two great monotheistic faiths is fraught with tension. Unfortunately, given the rise of Islamic extremism in recent times, that looks set to continue. In the Middle East over the last decade we have seen the systematic destruction of some of the most ancient Christian communities; communities that had survived for over a millennium under Islamic rule. The spiritual and cultural loss this represents should not be underestimated. The bigger worry in future decades, however, will be Africa.
In terms of percentages, Islam has grown much faster than Christianity. Christianity has remained stable, claiming a third of world’s population. By contrast, in 1900 only 12% of the world’s population was Muslim, a figure that now stands at just over 22%. By 2050 the proportion of the world’s population that will be Muslim is predicted to increase to 27%. This increase in numbers has not lead to an Islamic golden age, and indeed Africa – a continent that many Muslims think ought to belong to them - has over the twentieth century become a majority Christian continent. Islamic discontent is very real, with potentially explosive geopolitical consequences.
Countries such as Nigeria and Uganda have roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims. When you consider the political instability of those countries, the potential for conflict is huge. If the instruments of civil society break down, people will turn to the most credible institutions left to provide safety and security, which inevitably will be the churches and mosques. Jenkins raises the spectre of prince-bishops arising once again, as they did in the medieval period when the structures of the Roman Empire collapsed. While the analogy is somewhat anachronistic, what we do see is political parties aligned along religious lines, with all the problems that causes. If Sudan is the model to be followed, the initial signs are not good.
Jenkins acknowledges that when it comes to religious violence in the modern period, Islam is the problem. In other respects, however, Jenkins treats Islam and Christianity as though they are basically equivalent. This is unfortunate, for it misses the real theological differences between the two religions, and these differences have a significant impact on how the two religions relate to the wider world.
Now it is true that Christians, beginning in the fourth century, have on innumerable occasions been willing to use state power to quash theological dissent. There are plenty of historical examples where Christians have been far less tolerant than their Muslim neighbours. Nonetheless, Christian theology has never been able to completely forget Jesus’ teaching that his kingdom is not of this world, or that faith must be freely embraced and that love can’t be forced. Even a superficial comparison of the life and teachings of Jesus and Muhammad reveals that the two religious traditions have very different starting points when it comes to questions of faith and religious freedom.
The question going forward is whether Islam can find a rationale for religious freedom within its own tradition. Failure to do so could be very bad for Christians. But, as the African theologian Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Tertullian’s statement has not always been true historically, but Jenkins believes it may well be true in Africa and parts of Asia in the years to come. While the conversion of Muslims to Christianity won’t become a mass movement, I’m willing to predict that Muslim converts to Christianity will make a contribution to the universal church disproportionate to their numbers.
Seeing Christianity Again for the First Time
Jenkins is alarmed that Christianity is becoming increasingly unintelligible to most westerners, which means that the beliefs, hopes and fears of a large portion of the world’s population are simply beyond the comprehension of the western world. Now Christians probably shouldn’t be surprised if non-Christians have difficulty understanding Christianity, but it would be disappointing if western Christians failed to understand their Global South co-religionists. This book would have been more helpful in that regard if Jenkins had focused less on issues the western media find interesting, and more on issues Global South Christians themselves find interesting. That minor point aside, this book does a good job showing just how complex and fascinating a phenomenon global Christianity is.
Christians the world over read the same Bible, profess the same Creed, worship the same Lord and celebrate the same sacraments. But their lived experiences vary greatly. ‘Looking at Christianity as a planetary phenomenon, not merely a Western one, makes it impossible to read the New Testament in quite the same way ever again. And the Christianity we see through this exercise looks like a very exotic beast indeed, intriguing, exciting, and a little frightening.’