Tuesday, November 30, 2004

The Next Christendom

I promise that my weblog will not be just a forum for reviews of New York Times' columns and books, but the David Brooks' column that I touted in my last blog reminded me of a terrific book I read about a year ago that I want to encourage everyone to read. In his book The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2003) Penn State professor Philip Jenkins argues four propositions convincingly.
  1. The center of gravity of the Christian faith has already or soon will shift decisively to the southern hemisphere.
  2. Most Christians are now or soon will be non-white.
  3. The most important influences on the 21st century church will be evangelicalism and pentecostalism.
  4. The conflict between the church and Islam will intensify.

There is no doubt that he is correct. I used to say almost exactly the same thing to my church history students at the conclusion of my course on church history from the Reformation to the present. I wish I'd written a book about it! The only thing I added that Jenkins doesn't mention is the significance of the ordination of women at all levels of the church, but this is a largely First World phenomenon and not accepted by the largest Christian body - the Roman Catholic Church.

Jenkins spins out some of the implications of these changes. One is that the churches of the global south are coming north. Walk down the streets of almost any large city, and you will see that he is correct. In every major city there are numerous and growing Spanish-speaking churches; there are Korean and Chinese churches and African churches from every part of the African continent. Jenkins points out that the largest church in London was founded by a Nigerian pastor. The southern hemisphere churches are not just founding congregations for their expatriates; they are sending missionaries to evangelize the secularized northern hemisphere.

However, Jenkins' theses have economic and political consequences, too. Take oil-rich Nigeria, for example. Imagine that a repressive Christian regime came to power and began to persecute Muslims systematically. It is entirely likely that Muslim countries would intervene to protect their fellow Muslims, and it is not hard to imagine other African states or even European states being drawn into a larger conflict. Or consider this: Although China is still an officially Marxist state, Chinese communities around the Pacific rim are often characterized by vibrant and growing Christian churches. What would happen if Chinese Christians in (for example) Muslim Indonesia were oppressed by the Indonesian government? Is it possible that China would intervene to protect Chinese Christians from Muslim persecution? It's a scenario both ironic and frightening, but it could happen.

Jenkins argues that the church is undergoing a transformation as momentous as the Reformation. I believe he's right. His book is the 21st century's equivalent of the 95 Theses Martin Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg.