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WORLDVIEW: Global church: South, East & out of control

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Christianity’s global growth is rapidly moving away from Europe and North America and toward Africa, Asia and Latin America.

That’s old news to anyone who’s been paying attention for the last several decades. But it gets powerful, provocative — sometimes frightening — confirmation in a recent book by Philip Jenkins, “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002). Jenkins summarizes his findings in the October 2002 issue of The Atlantic magazine (see “The Next Christianity” at www.theatlantic.com).

Jenkins, a religion historian at Penn State, contends that the global Christian revolution already under way will profoundly affect the world throughout the new century in every sphere — from spirituality to politics, from social change to the very existence of nation states.

We’ve arrived “at a moment as epochal as the Reformation itself,” Jenkins writes. “Christianity as a whole is both growing and mutating in ways that observers in the West tend not to see…. [N]ews reports today are filled with material about the influence of a resurgent and sometimes angry Islam. But in its variety and vitality, in its global reach, in its association with the world’s fastest-growing societies, in its shifting centers of gravity … it is Christianity that will leave the deepest mark on the 21st century.”

European and North American media are missing this earth-shaking story. They’re distracted by noisy institutional crises in the declining church bodies at home: clergy sexual scandals, demands for acceptance of gays, women priests, etc.

Liberal church folk think these are the vital issues facing the faith. Many conservative evangelicals, meanwhile, are preoccupied with their long struggle against decadent social forces tearing at the gates of their churches.

But from a global perspective, the real action is elsewhere.

“If we look beyond the liberal West, we see … another Christian revolution,” Jenkins reports. “Worldwide, Christianity is actually moving toward supernaturalism [and] the ancient worldview expressed in the New Testament: a vision of Jesus as the embodiment of divine power, who overcomes the evil forces that inflict calamity and sickness upon the human race. In the global South … huge and growing Christian populations [now comprise] a form of Christianity as distinct as Protestantism or Orthodoxy, and one that is likely to become dominant in the faith.”

This revolution is “far more sweeping in its implications than any current shifts in North American religion, whether Catholic or Protestant,” he asserts. “Christians are facing a shrinking population in the liberal West and a growing majority of the traditional Rest. During the past half-century the critical centers of the Christian world have moved decisively to Africa, to Latin America, and to Asia. The balance will never shift back.”

Never is a long time. We must pray and work toward revival and vibrant church growth in the old Christian strongholds of the West. But after more than a millennium of dominance, Europeans and North Americans are no longer in the driver’s seat. The church has become truly global for the first time in its long history. That, in part, is a tribute to the success of the missionary movement over the last two centuries, and especially the last two generations.

Jenkins includes Roman Catholics and all other forms of institutional Christianity in his overview — plus a host of bizarre cults. But many of the trends he identifies apply to the hundreds of millions of believers whom evangelical mission strategists refer to as “Great Commission Christians.”

The burgeoning “Southern” church, he observes, is far more conservative, morally traditional, biblically fundamental and evangelistic than its Northern mother. It is also more mystical, apocalyptic and open to the existence of supernatural forces — both divine and demonic.

“The most successful Southern churches preach a deep personal faith, communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on obedience to spiritual authority, from whatever source it is believed to stem,” Jenkins writes. “When a Northerner asks, in effect, where the Southern churches are getting such ideas, the answer is not hard to find: they’re getting them from the Bible. Southern churches are reading the New Testament and taking it very seriously…. ”

Sounds great — as long as solid biblical teaching remains the primary source of authority. The most exciting example of the last century — and perhaps in all of church history — is the runaway Christian movement in China, which will surpass 100 million believers in the near future.

Where biblical authority wanes or is overwhelmed by heresies and manipulation, however, phony prophets and messiahs are wreaking havoc. A particularly extreme case: the “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda, which kidnaps children to fill its ranks and employs mass murder, rape and forced cannibalism in its campaign to overthrow the Ugandan government.

The new global Reformation, Jenkins warns, is so potent that it might sweep aside all other forces in some chaotic regions. Without faithful leadership, that’s not necessarily good news.

If all this sounds overblown, review the cataclysmic impact of the original Reformation, which continues to reverberate after nearly five centuries. It radically reshaped the map of Europe, not to mention our understanding of faith, spiritual and temporal authority, the Bible, education, personal liberty and the state. It liberated multitudes — and sparked multiple wars.

The new Reformation might do the same. Declares Jenkins: “We are living in revolutionary times.”
Bridges, whose column appears twice-monthly in Baptist Press, is a senior writer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges