catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 15 :: 2003.07.18 — 2003.07.31


The Next Christendom is here

A couple of months ago, I was reading an international service application from a young man named Sandile from Swaziland. He was applying through the Mennonite Central Committee?s International Visitor Exchange Program to spend a year studying ministry in the United States, prospectively sponsored by a local church in my county.

As I read the answers to his essay questions, I was impressed with his command of English, noting his use of expressive, passionate religious language. And then I came to the portion about his family?his father, a pastor in the local Zionist Christian church, is a polygamist. My shock revealed how far removed I am from the strains of Christianity in the developing world and how badly I needed to read Philip Jenkins? 2002 book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity


In The Next Christendom, Jenkins reveals how common situations like Sandile?s are in Africa, unbeknownst to most Christians in developed countries. In fact, most brands of Christianity in the developing world would be unrecognizable, or at least highly suspect, to us. Southern Christianity is typically socially conservative and charismatic, with an emphasis on spiritual warfare and a willingness to incorporate cultural lifestyle and worship traditions. ?In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcisms, and dream-visions are all basic components of religious sensibility,? writes Jenkins. We may be tempted to dismiss Christianity in this form as a distortion of the true faith, but the truth is that Western believers may soon be forced into minority status by a phenomenon that closely resembles the Christianity of the Middle Ages in character, scope and social demography.

Contrary to a reasonably common opinion, Christianity is by no means a dying religion; while the West (most notably Europe) is developing an increasingly secular culture, Christian churches are thriving in some of the most rapidly growing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Jenkins predicts that by 2050, only 1 out of 5 Christians will be a non-Hispanic white. ?The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning,? states Jenkins, and this Southern Christianity has close affiliations with the poor and marginalized.

Jenkins does an excellent job of using history and statistics to justify his bold claims. He follows the spread of Christianity from the Middle East to the rest of the world, paying special attention to the interconnectedness of colonialism and mission activity and the rise of independent churches inspired by new prophets. He certainly deserves credit for his very even-handed approach to such controversial topics as imperialism, but his presentation of the facts is not free from justifiable speculation. His assumptions about my preconceptions as a Western Christian of European descent, while perhaps tiring to someone more educated in this area, were almost always on target.

In his predictions, Jenkins is neither unduly optimistic or pessimistic about the future. He presents a bleak picture of the potential for violent conflict between Christian and Islamic groups who are and will inevitably be fighting to control the same people, land and governments. At the same time, prospects for a movement of Southern missionaries to northern developed countries are positive. I remember hearing only last fall about a revival circuit in the United States being sponsored by an African Christian church. Apparently, the future is here.

For me, a somewhat disturbing trend outlined by Jenkins is that of Western conservatism finding strength in an alliance with generally conservative Southern churches. While I admire the commitment to family values, I am wary of a distinct unwillingness to even discuss such issues as homosexuality and women?s rights. The spread of Southern Christianity threatens to bring with it intolerance, ambivalence toward social activism, and an inability to engage culture in positive ways.

The coming of global Christianity is indeed exciting and terrifying all at once. In preparation for what Jenkins convincingly lays out as the future trend of Christianity, we have a lot of work to do in order to effectively discern in the midst of old and new. As a guide to the future of the Christian religion, The Next Christendom is essential reading for any Christian who seeks to have a relevant cultural impact in an increasingly globalized world.

Discussion topic: Essential elements of faith

Many forms of African Christianity have been criticized as mere traditional religion with a thin veneer of Christian faith, including such practices as circumcision, animal sacrifice and polygamy. In an example closer to home, Mormonism is branded as a cult by many. In the faith traditions we are familiar with, what is essential to Christian faith and what is cultural? How do we discern if a religion that claims to be Christian is truly Christian?

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