Mid-council leaders in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) were challenged Sunday to be ready for a new wave of Christianity – a “global Christianity” – because it’s coming, whether the church is ready for it or not, whether it wants it or not.
“We’re living through one of the most dramatic times of change in the whole of Christianity; it’s at least equivalent to the impact of the Reformation of the 16th century,” Philip Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, said during the Presbyterian Foundation breakfast at the denomination’s 222nd General Assembly (2016).
Jenkins, who was introduced by Tom Taylor, the Foundation’s president, dove into the heart of his message – ready or not, the age of global christianity is here.
Jenkins, author of “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” and more than 20 other books on Christian history, said European and North American Christians soon will be outnumbered by dramatic growth in the faith in the Global South.
Citing statistics on Africa alone, Jenkins said there were 10 million Christians on the African continent in 1900 – and a century later there were 360 million. Today there are approximately 500 million. By 2050, there could be 1.1 billion, which Jenkins said does not account for Christian Africans living outside Africa.
Getting accurate statistics on the number of Christians in many communities is difficult, Jenkins said, sometimes because they are too busy baptizing new believers to count them all.
In other places, he said, burgeoning numbers could pose a threat to dominant cultural and religious populations, making Christians targets of persecution.
Jenkins said demographic changes are a large factor in the growth equation, noting that in 1900 there were three Europeans for every African; by 2050, he said, there will be three Africans for every European.
“The most important thing that happened in Africa in the 20th century was that half of the population converted from heathenism, paganism and tribal religious practices to monotheistic religions,” he said, adding that 80 percent converted to Christianity and 20 percent to Islam.
Jenkins said these demographic changes are part of a worldwide trend that was foretold long ago, paraphrasing a statement made in 1640 by St. Vincent de Paul: “Jesus said his church would live until the end of time, but he never mentioned Europe. The church of the future will be the church of South America, Africa, China and Japan.”
“All denominations are being revolutionized by this change now,” he said, noting that Korea has approximately 20 million Christians; including nine to 10 million Presbyterians who are “fervent adherents of the faith.” He said such rapid growth brings inherent challenges: “All denominations have to deal with the influx of people with different ideas.”
Some of these ideas include a focus on exorcism and spiritual warfare among churches of the Global South, Jenkins said. He told a story about the president of the Evangelical Church of West Africa – considered a sober, mainline denomination – who advised his church to be sensitive to American visitors: “There will be no exorcisms while our guests are here; they frighten white people.”
Jenkins said such practices must be seen in the context of cultural understanding. “If your worldview is that you are constantly surrounded by evil, you want Christianity to be a religion that is conquering those forces of evil, with Jesus coming as a victor to drag his slain enemies behind him,” he said.
Jenkins noted that evangelical Protestant churches are evangelizing strongholds of Christianity thathad faith communities in the earliest eras of Church history – including Egypt, India and Ethiopia. He said this has come about as literacy has risen and common-language Bible translations have become available.
“In Ethiopia – in the last 50 years – there has been a revolution,” he said. “Ethiopia was Christian before the Roman Empire. Traditional Ethiopian Orthodoxy conducted long services in the old language. But about 100 years ago a reformation started, by putting scriptures in the modern languages.”
He said these changes create commonalities between people of the Protestant Reformation and modern Global Christians, resulting in what he called “a fundamental change in consciousness” among believers in the Global South.
Signs of this change, he said, include:
- Believers are now considering themselves “people of the Book,” rather than part of a historic tradition. When converted from “heathenism, paganism or tribal religions” people often have only one book – the Bible.
- A shift in power dynamics, now that women and non-elites are able to read and interpret scripture and exert spiritual authority in traditionally patriarchal cultures.
- In Uganda, the same word is used for “reader” and “Christian.”
- In Central and South America, spiritual authority is shifting from a Catholic, urban, male, older population to Christians who are Protestant, rural, female, and dark-skinned.
“When you can read and look at the symbols and make sense of them, what does that do for your confidence?” he asked. “They are not old men, but young women – what does that do to the change in power and spiritual authority?” It’s a shift of power in age, gender and race, and one for which Jenkins said he believes western Christians should be prepared.
He noted that the Christian message is spreading through popular media such as pamphlets, comics, graphic novels and videos, rather than theological texts, which presents a challenge to western, largely academic theological training.
Shifting his focus to migrant communities in the West, Jenkins said: “[Global Christians] have a hard time understanding a secular society, like Europe or America, where religion is not central to life.” He said these “thriving migrant religious communities may lead to a re-Christianization of Europe.”
After a question-and-answer session, Foundation President Tom Taylor thanked Jenkins and summarized his talk: “Christ’s church was here before you got here, and it’ll be here long after you are gone.”
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