Saturday, 21 November 2015

The Next Christendom

I haven't been blogging for a while because I've been too busy with other things - a couple of weeks holiday in Western Australia, lots of work before and after to clear two weeks for a holiday, a journey to a strange land to do a job I can't tell you about....

Anyway, I can tell you about a book I've just finished reading which provides a kind of counterpoint to our current moral panic about Islam.  It's called The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, and it was written back in 2001 by Philip Jenkins who at that point was Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University although he has since moved on to other academic posts.  To some extent it may be a little aged, but because it deals with long term trends (both past and future) it remains largely relevant in 2015.

We often think of Christianity as a Western European religion, centred on Italy, France and Spain if you are Catholic, and on Germany, Netherlands and Britain if you are Protestant.   However, for most of its history this was far from the truth.

Of course we all know that Christianity originated in the Middle East, but we tend to forget that for its first millennium the strongest centres of the faith were in the Middle East and North Africa - in Constantinople, Alexandria, Carthage and so forth.  Even after the Mongol invasions of the early second millennium and the growth of the Ottoman Empire in the late Middle Ages there were still substantial Christian minorities in places like Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Egypt.

It was only after 1500 that the growth of Western European power and technology led to the spread of European Christianity throughout the world, and only from the early 20th century that Islamic regimes started to make life more difficult for their Christian subjects and their numbers seriously declined.  The result was that the various Eastern churches became weaker both in numbers and in influence, while Western Christianity (Catholic or Protestant) became the dominant form of the faith.

Jenkins' main message is that this era of European dominance has already passed its peak, and over the next 50 years the church is likely to become more and more dominated by the churches of South America, South East Asia and most especially Africa.

It's certainly true that in most cases Christianity came to these continents via European missionaries.  However, it would be a mistake to conclude that their churches are simply transplanted versions of Western churches or that their growth will just be a continuation of the old thing in a new place.  While Western missionaries founded the southern churches, their success and rapid growth in the 20th century was almost entirely due to the efforts of local leaders and evangelists.

Sometimes these operated entirely outside the structure of the existing denominations.  For instance, Africa has a long history of prophetic movements, with charismatic leaders responding to dreams and visions and founding rapidly growing, high energy independent apocalyptic churches.  These may depart from many aspects of what we would regard as Christian orthodoxy but nonetheless they remain recognisably Christian.

In other cases, newer and more peripheral trends in Western Christianity have been transformed and gained immense strength in southern hemisphere contexts.  For instance, Pentecostalism has swept through the traditional Catholic strongholds of Central and Southern America and also through South-East Asia, with large, wealthy and vibrant churches springing up rapidly in major population centres.  Some of the largest congregations in these places advocate an unabashed prosperity gospel, promising their largely poor followers wealth and comfort in this life as well as solace in the next.

Even where southern growth has taken place within existing denominations (and this is still the majority of the growth) these are not simply replicas of their northern counterparts.  They have often incorporated indigenous elements into their worship and practice and even their theology, just as early Christians consciously imported elements of Roman and Saxon religious practice into their Christian worship.  They have also taken on influences from the independent churches around them, including a strong emphasis on prophecy and other spiritual gifts and a much more lively, immediate perception of the involvement of the supernatural in every day life.  This includes both divine intervention, and the intervention of demons and spirits which need to be exorcised.

Jenkins argues very persuasively that these churches, not those in Europe or the US (or here in Australia) will be the future of Christianity, the next Christendom.  This is partly driven by demographics.  Populations in Africa, Asia and Latin America are growing rapidly, while those in Europe and North America are steady or declining.  If they have growth at all, it is as much through immigration from the South as through natural increase, and these immigrants bring their faiths with them.

Allied with this is the relative strength of the old and new churches.  In Europe and, to a lesser extent, North America the church's influence is declining,  Fewer people attend church, and the church has decreasing influence in public affairs.  In this environment, many Western churches have lost confidence in their own message and in particular have moved from evangelism to social concerns.  Meanwhile, the churches of the South are aggressively evangelistic and growing rapidly.

If this is the future of the church, what will it look like?

For a start, Southern churches are much more conservative than their Northern counterparts, both morally and theologically.  Debates like our current one over same sex marriage, or the long-standing one over whether the resurrection and other miracles should be understood literally or figuratively, are far from the minds of southern church leaders.  They promote and attempt to enforce a strictly traditional morality on their followers, and maintain solid orthodoxy.  Indeed, in recent years many Western conservatives, despairing of their own churches, have placed themselves under Southern leadership.  Jenkins cites the example of the several hundred North American Anglican parishes which have placed themselves under the governance of the Archbishop of Rwanda.  In other cases, Southern churches have begun to re-evangelise the North, starting with their own expatriate populations but often consciously branching out from there to minister to "white" populations.

Furthermore the idea of the separation of church and state, so deeply enshrined in Western democracy, is largely unheeded in the South.  In Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, Church leaders have been at the forefront of political movements, both peaceful and militant, and have often ended up at the head of governments or in positions of formal authority.  Here they are not shy of attempts to impose Christian standards on the wider population.  Often this leadership has been a beacon of justice and freedom (Oscar Romero in El Salvador, for instance, or Desmond Tutu in South Africa), but not always.

A final point, which has only grown more relevant since the publication of The Next Christendom, is the implication of this rapidly growing Southern Church for inter-faith relations.  As he was writing, religious wars and violent clashes were already taking place in Sudan, Nigeria and other African countries where Christianity and Islam faced each other across regional or national borders.  This clash between Islam and Christianity continues to occupy most of our attention and probably represents the greatest source of religiously-inspired suffering and warfare.  He points out that while in general the rhetoric of Christians is less aggressive and violent than that of Islamic militants, Christianity also has its share of armed warriors.  He believes a new crusade is a highly possible, even likely outcome during this century.

However, he doesn't limit his analysis to relations between Christianity and Islam.  For instance, the murder of Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines in Orissa in 1999 is used as a starting point for analysis of a much wider but less publicised (at least in the West) trend towards Hindu militancy in India which includes attacks on churches and centres of other faiths.  This is at least in part a reaction to widespread conversions of dalits ("untouchables") to Christianity as way of protesting or escaping the entrenched discrimination imposed on them within Hindu society.  Even Buddhism, renowned for its penchant for non-violence, can serve as a stimulus for aggressive nationalism, as we have been seeing recently with the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar.

For a somewhat liberal Western Christian like me, Jenkins portrait of the present and future church is a little disturbing as well as heartening.  It is heartening that the faith, far from dying out, has gained a new vitality.  However, it is disturbing to think that its future could be as a militant, conservative bastion, enforcing conformity and waging war in Christ's name.  Furthermore, it is scary - but essential - to realise that this is just one aspect of the gradual decline of Western hegemony.  In a century's time it seems likely that not only religion, but global politics, economics and trade will be dominated by the Southern nations.  My grandchildren will live in a different world to the one I have lived in, and my certainties will not be theirs.

Although this is disturbing for me, it is probably not objectively a bad thing.  For all the good things we have brought into the world our hegemony has hardly been an unmixed blessing, especially not for the people of the South.  Perhaps they will end up doing a better job.  I certainly hope so.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...


Thanks Jon - I'd like to borrow this book from you. What you say about Christians from the South and indeed persecuted Christian minorities such as the Karen, Chin, Kachin and others from Burma resonates with me as I have taught many Christian refugees from these backgrounds over the last few years.

Alex Smith said...

Interesting stuff Jon, thanks!

Jon Eastgate said...

I borrowed this one from the BCC library!