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Prof: Christianity heads back to its roots

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (BP) — Vibrant colors of flags representing several nations paraded down the chapel aisle before history professor Philip Jenkins from Baylor University described the consequences of the movement of Christianity toward the Global South from its predominant foundation in North America and Europe since 1900.

“Christianity is a religion that was born in Africa and Asia and, in our lifetimes, has decided to go home,” Jenkins said at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary’s 10th annual Intersect conference.

This is not the end of Christianity in the West, but a shift from the prominent influence of Western culture, Jenkins said, projecting that Christianity’s strength by 2050 would not just be in the U.S. but in such Southern Hemisphere regions as Mexico, Brazil, Uganda, Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, the Philippines and China.

Christianity’s rise in the Global South will cause the faith at large to be expressed with unique and new characteristics of each culture where it expands, Jenkins said. The attributes that develop in predominantly poor areas, he said, likely will bring major repercussions to Western, affluent, industrial Christianity.

For instance, the Bible will be heard rather than read within predominantly poor and illiterate people groups, Jenkins said, pointing out that listening changes the way authority is perceived. Biblical parables often overlooked by Western churches, he noted, tend to resonate with people of poorer cultures who can identify with searching their home for one lost coin or know firsthand that someone who is robbed and left on a well-traveled road will be passed by until a genuinely kind person decides to stop.

Distinctives from a predominantly poor Christianity will have an emphasis on healing and spiritual warfare deriving from shifting views on the causation of illness and differing concepts of spirituality and demonic evil, Jenkins continued.

“Are you prepared to take ideas of exorcism and witchcraft very seriously?” he asked.

In light of these changes to the Global South, Jenkins said the power of evangelism and missions no longer will be dedicated to intellect but to divine power at work — specifically in healing. The Western church has ascribed areas of physical and — more commonly — emotional healing to the secular world, but in order to be “change agents,” Jenkins suggested churches must respond to poverty, ministering to the body, mind and spirit.

The Intersect conference, which celebrated its 10th anniversary Nov. 4-5, is part of the legacy of Faith Kim, founder of The David and Faith Kim School of Global Missions at Golden Gate Seminary. The conference aims to shed light on points where culture and the Gospel converge.

After Jenkins’ first lecture and a luncheon, a book signing was held in the student center, where students, faculty and area church leaders gathered to meet him. Among those at the book signing, master of divinity student Daniel Choi reflected that he had had a bleak outlook, thinking Christianity was phasing out, but the Intersect conference was giving him a new perspective.

Jenkins said in his second lecture, “We are living in a world where Christianity is spreading very rapidly, but looks very different.” While some people may be surprised or alarmed by the projected future, he said the movement toward the Global South is nothing new. It is a return to places where Christianity existed peacefully beside other major religions in such a way that a historical review reveals how many of their traditions overlapped.

Jenkins recounted that Buddhism and Christianity reached Tibet around the same time in 800 A.D., and a Christian bishop helped a traveling Buddhist missionary from India translate Buddhist sutras into Chinese, which later became a main source for Buddhist movements in Japan.

While many modern-day Christians would be perplexed why a bishop would do that, Jenkins said the lines between the faiths were drawn differently back then. The fascination of the bishop to understand the traditions of the Buddhist faith was not syncretism; rather, Jenkins said it was an ongoing attempt to see how Christianity could be framed in Asian dimensions.

In Christianity’s renewed move toward the Global South, Jenkins said these lines of faith and secularism will be less distinct, as they were in centuries past.

“If you look at Christianity of the West … it’s half the story. The more we look at Christianity today as it develops its great centers in counties like China, like the Philippines, like the Congo, like Nigeria — we realize that Christianity is going back to what it was for the first three-quarters of its story…. It is resuming a normality that was broken for 400 or 500 years,” Jenkins said. “Do not see global Christianity as some radical departure of the faith; it is a restoration of normality.”

Jenkins is the author of “The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South” and “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.”

Jenkins studied at the University of Cambridge and currently is a distinguished professor of history at Baylor. He also serves as co-director for the Program of Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

    About the Author

  • Kate Weatherly

    Kate Weatherly is a multimedia producer and writer for Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (www.ggbts.edu), which operates five campuses in northern California, Southern California, Denver, Phoenix and the Pacific Northwest.

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