Philip Jenkin’s award-winning work The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 2002) profoundly changed my life. The central thesis of Jenkin’s work is most clearly articulated in his own words: “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetime and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning.” When I read this sentence more than fifteen years ago I knew I wanted to learn more about the global church. I also knew shortly afterwards that I wanted to undertake doctoral work that would focus on the history of this development “in our lifetime.” We all have people who have inspired us—whether athletes, actors, mentors, or civic leaders. Philip Jenkins was one of those people who inspired me to study, learn, travel—and pick up my pen to write about world Christianity. I am not interested in the subject because I think it will help me write best-selling books. My own works may likely remain obscure. I am interested in the topic because I’m really, really passionate about the growth of God’s kingdom throughout the world. And I hope that my feeble efforts will inspire a few others.
I want to talk briefly about Jenkins’ words and then give a preview of my forthcoming book that has been inspired (in part) by The Next Christendom. First, the passing of the “era of Western Christianity” does not mean that Christianity is dying in the West, as I have occasionally heard people assert. It is true that Christianity in Western Europe is in decline, while the church in North America is showing signs of atrophy, though it is continuing to grow. What Jenkins is describing is the significant growth of Christianity in Africa, Asia and Latin America in contrast with the comparatively slow growth of Christianity in the West. This means, among other things, that most of the world’s Christians live in what is now being called the “Global South”—a reference to the surprising expansion of the church in the Southern hemisphere. It also means that “Western Christianity” is not the dominant cultural expression of the faith in the world today. Of the more than 2 billion Christians on the planet, fewer than 5 per cent live in the United States! Western forms of worship, theology and ministry are no longer the dominant expressions of the Christian faith.
Second, the phrase “in our lifetime” refers to the rapidity of this Southern shift. Scholars first began to notice this phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. For example, the Cambridge demographer David Barrett, who served as a missionary in Kenya in the 1950s, set out to visit nearly every country in the world over a ten-year period in order to undertake a global census on the status of Christianity. His results, which included a historical survey of Christianity in every country of the world!, were published in 1982 in an over-sized reference work titled The Encyclopaedia of World Christianity. His monumental study was praised by Time magazine and a second edition with even more data, was published in 2000. (Barrett’s work is one of the reasons we know so much about global statistics on Christianity.) What Barrett (and many other scholars) helped uncover was that Christianity grew rapidly in the non-Western world between 1900 and 1980. In an oft cited refrain, in the year 1900 more than 80 per cent of Christians were from Western Europe and North America (and nearly 100 percent of the missionaries), but by the 1980s the church had grown so rapidly in the South that the vast majority of Christians were found to live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This transformation happened “in our lifetime.”
Third, “the day of Southern Christianity is dawning” points to the growth of the church in the non-Western world, as well as the influence of the church in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Christian leaders in the non-Western world are no longer following the direction (or directives!) of Western churches and their leaders. If they believe the Western church is wrong, they are not afraid to say so, even if they risk losing support for their ministry initiatives. If they think that Western missionaries (and mission-trip leaders) are arrogant and insensitive, they will not work with them, even if it means those same missionaries find some other way to make themselves a nuisance. Christians in the global South know that a new day has dawned and they are ready to lead. (More below on the implications of this.)
My Own Work
Over the last ten years I have been engaged in very intense doctoral research, while also travelling as a lecturer to various parts of the world. My forthcoming book will provide a popular introduction to what is now being called “Global Christianity” or “World Christianity.” Some scholars see a difference between these two terms, though in my view the contrasts are highly technical and the categories are overly tidy. Global Christianity is more closely associated with the idea of “globalisation”—the study of how ideas are becoming increasingly “globalized” through the exchange of ideas (including religious ideas). Therefore the study of Global Christianity often focuses on how Christianity has been transmitted from the Western world to the non-Western world. It therefore follows more closely the work of “transmitters,” like missionaries. World Christianity is more aligned with the study of indigenous expressions of Christianity in the various parts of the world—and how those expressions are both the same and different from Western expressions. I like to say that World Christianity asks the question, “After the ‘gospel vine’ was planted in African (or non-Western) soil, how does the new wine taste?” The emphasis of World Christianity is increasingly on the history of the non-Western church within its various regions (Africa, Asia, Latin America, et al). To continue the analogy, Global Christianity traces the old vine, while World Christianity tastes the new wine! The difference is really one of emphasis as the two are clearly interrelated. To use an example from my own studies, Global Christianity would describe how Christianity was transmitted to East Africa through the work of American and British evangelical missionaries (the vine). World Christianity looks at the faith of African church leaders during the same period (including their response to Western missionaries), and the role of role of non-Western leaders in the expansion and growth of Christianity in their own cultural contexts (the wine). The latter type of work is often more challenging, because of the need to unearth “buried histories” of non-Western leaders that have been ignored by Western researchers. (For an example of this kind of research, see my article on Wellington Mulwa in the Dictionary of African Christian Biography.)
My short introduction is intended for a wide readership, and while scholarly informed, will be written for anyone who is interested in missions. It is intended to be up to date with the latest research but accessible for average readers. The book will provide an overview of the status of World Christianity with a “fly-over” of the six major regions of the world: Europe, North(ern) America (the latter now refers to the United States and Canada), Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands). Those who have been influenced by the secularization theory (the view popularized in the 1960s that the world is becoming more secular) may be surprised that the theory itself has now been largely abandoned. It appears that what scholars meant by the “world” was the Western world, and that they also (wrongly) believed that decolonization in Africa and Asia would result in the de-Christianization of those same regions (when in fact the opposite occurred). The world is more religious than it has ever been. God is not dead, to turn the old expression on its head. Some may be surprised to learn that while Christianity is declining in Western Europe, there are vibrant signs of growth in other pastors of Europe. Others may be interested to learn that in some parts of the Middle East (like the Turkic Belt), the old faith is growing rapidly. Americans will be intrigued to learn that Christianity is not dying in the United States, though it is changing.
The book will also ask and endeavour to answer the important question, How did Christianity become a world religion in less than a century? This will be an eye-opening chapter for those who think that the spread of the gospel in the twentieth century was primarily due to the work of Western missionaries. As it turns out, historians have discovered that most converts (in some parts of the world more than 95 per cent of converts!) came to Christ through “indigenous witness” rather than through the evangelistic efforts of Western missionaries. The most successful Western missionaries in the modern period empowered non-Western workers to go to places where they were unable to go. In fact, some missionaries seldom left the “mission station” (often built along trade routes)—using it as a base to equip indigenous workers then sending them out to plant churches in hard-to-reach places. Another important discovery has been the growing number of reports (now filling up rare archival collections) of indigenous revival movements in places like Korea (the Korean Revival), India, Indonesia, Africa (the East African Revival) and Latin America (the Pentecostal Revival). Western missionaries did have an important role to play, but they did not single-handedly usher in the new era of global Christianity.
I will also be discussing the “Unfinished Task” (the title of a 1957 book) that is before the church. While Christianity is now a Global religion, nearly 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion people have never heard the gospel. How is this possible? In this chapter I want to introduce (or re-introduce) readers to a concept that has been around since the mid-1970s, but remains unknown to many people who are genuinely concerned about global missions. Our English word “nation” (“Go and make disciples of all nations”) is rather different from the Greek word, which actually means “ethnic group.” When we think of nations we often think of the more than 200 countries in the world with lines drawn around them, sometimes in the most unusual ways. (National boundaries have often been influenced by colonial haggling and world wars.) These lines, sometimes drawn straight across a map, often obscure the rich “ethnic” diversity that exists in our world. For example, India is one nation with at least seven hundred diverse ethnic groups! The researchers who have been working on this issue estimate that there are some 17,000 different ethnic groups in the world, 7,000 of which do not have a gospel presence. For this reason (and many others), while Christianity is a global religion, our task remains unfinished. We must continue to go until Christ returns!
Finally, I will devote a chapter to some of the practical considerations that emerge from what we are learning from the study of World Christianity. There are significant implications for mission strategies For example, the religious demographer David Barrett (mentioned earlier) helped us locate the regions of the world that were the most unreached, along with the surprising discovery that we were allocating the fewest number of missionaries to those regions. (Can I hear just a little amen for the importance of scholars in the work of missions? Of course, I am biased!) Researchers are also gaining insights about the attitudes of non-Western church leaders toward Western nations and Western missionary efforts and strategies. In short, the Western church must be engaged in the work of reaching the unreached, but it must go about its work differently. We cannot (pardon the military analogy), raise the American flag, ride into parts unknown with Western-funded SUVs, whip out our iPhones, trot out our credentials, and tell the non-Western church how its going to be done! Our efforts must be much more collaborative and the research is pointing again and again to the importance of this.
That’s a short summary! While you are waiting for my book—and I hope you will pick up at least one copy and spread the word—I would encourage you to start reading The Next Christendom by Philip Jenkins. If you’ve already read it, I commend his sequel, Believing the Bible in the Global South (Oxford, 2009). For a more challenging read, I commend his work The Lost History of Christianity. The latter work shows that the era of “Western Christianity” was only a brief phenomenon in history—lasting for about 400 years (between 1500 and 1900). I just returned from Costa Rica with my friend and our president Rick Thompson where we have been exploring partnerships with the church in Latin America. I want to thank Jeff Peterson, a Global Action board member, and his lovely wife Pam, for hosting us in their beautiful place Casa Ceilo Grande overlooking Costa Rica’s Central Valley. We were given more than a cup of cold water during our stay. I’m so excited to be part of the Global Action team! This week I’m spending time with some of our dedicated staff members in the US before embarking on a lengthy trip to Asia. I’ll get back to writing soon! If you are excited about missions, you can help spread the word by sharing this article with a friend.