Dr. Philip Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the institute for Studies of Religion in Baylor University, has spent some of the best years of his life researching and writing books on history, religion, and criminal justice. His book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is my first encounter with any of his work. While observing contemporary religions trends, he has been capable to recognize and predict some of the possible future trends in Christianity. As Dr. Jenkins himself concludes, “The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of the Southern churches is dawning. The fact of change itself is undeniable: it has happened, and will continue to happen.” (page 3) The future of Christianity looks starkly different than the modern experience
The Authors Thesis
Dr. Jenkins’ thesis for his book is that Christianity is now rooted in the so-called third world, and there will be a global shift to the global south where the new seat of Christianity will be established. He arrives at his thesis by looking at several religious trends in the world and statistics. He states that,
In the 1900, 83 percent of the world’s Christians live in Europe and North America. In 2050, 72 percent of Christians will lie in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and a sizable share of the remainder will have roots in one or more of those continents…If we imagine a typical Christian back in 1900, we might think of a German or an American; in 2050, we should rather turn to a Ugandan, a Brazilian, or a Filipino.” (preface)
If the author’s thesis is correct, and one believes it is, one can expect a renewed conflict between religious groups especially among Muslims and Christians, possible conflict between northern and southern forms of Christianity, and finally a large number of political and social ramifications.
The first half of Dr. Jenkins’ book gives us a quick glance at the history and the current state of affairs of the Christian world. He first describes the theological orientation of the growing Christianity of the sought. In his own words, he states “Generally, we can say that many global South Christians are more conservative in terms of both beliefs and moral teaching than are the mainstream churches of the global North; this is especially true of African churches.” (pg 8) This was a surprising statement considering that most renowned Hispanic theologians espouse a liberation theology point of view. In fact, according to the author, liberation theology is nothing more than a branch of western theology. The author also states that the global south is very characteristically charismatic and Pentecostal in nature with a great supernatural orientation, “and are by and large far more interested in personal salvation than in radical politics” (pg. 9)
Furthermore, the author makes the case that one of the reasons for their conservatism and supernatural emphasis has to do with the fact that, unlike the western church, the global south is not a stranger to persecution and martyrdom. They are constantly confronted with competing religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism, but more importantly one would add that Christianity in the global south confront demonic powers found within the animist and many of the syncretistic sects such as Santeria, Candomble, and Obeah. Many of these competing religions are the reason behind the death of many Christians in the global south, such as Islam, leading them to a stronger reliance on the spirit of God and a stronger conviction upon the Biblical views. Nonetheless, the author gives us this caveat
“As Southern Christianities continue to expand and mature, they will assuredly develop a wider theological spectrum than at present, and stronger liberal or secularizing tendencies may well emerge. For the foreseeable future, though, the dominant theological tone of emerging world Christianity is traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural.” (pg 11)
The author reminds us that Christianity, in fact, began in the global south with an eastern culture. One could very well say that Christianity is returning home. He recalls Christianity found in Ethiopia and Armenia. While most western historians suggest that western Christianity began with Constantine in 313 AD, they fail to recognize that early states that established Christianity as their official religion prior to the Edith of Milan. In fact, ”Almost certainly, Armenia was the first state anywhere to establish Christianity as an official faith, which it did around the year 300.” (pg 25) Even more astonishing is the fact that the Ethiopian church is equally ancient, “By the time the first Anglo-Saxons were converted, Ethiopian Christianity was already in its tenth generation.” (pg 25) Moreover, according to Dr. Jenkins the average Christian in 1200 AD would have been of Middle Eastern or Asian descent.
The second half of the book, the author introduces his view on what shape and form Christianity has taken in the global south. “About a third of the world’s Christians by 2050 will be African, and those African Christians will outnumber Europe’s by more than two to one. The Christian world will have turned upside down.” (pg 112) Furthermore, “By 2050 only about one-fifth of the world’s 3.2 billion Christians will be non- Hispanic whites. Soon, the phrase ‘a white Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’” (pg 3) As a result of this, it is predicted that conflict will arise between traditionally western Christianity and the global south.
The new upcoming Christianity seems to have adopted many cultural practices, which appear to be suspect in the eyes of western Christians. It is not unusual to find churches in Africa who continue practices which appear more Jewish than Christian. African Christians find it difficult to understand why they should treat the Old Testament distinctly from the New Testament. Western culture must recognize that the Old Testament is more culturally familiar to them than the New Testament. Moreover, the practice of exorcism is very common in the global south. The author indicates that the Latin American congregations (even in churches who are not Pentecostal) practice healing, exorcism, and spiritual warfare. They do so recognizing that, “The Bible itself so readily supports a worldview based on spirits, healing, and exorcism.” (pg 160)
While to most western Christians these expressions of faith may seem syncretistic. The author refutes that view by citing a true example of a syncretistic movement:
Northern Mexico is home to a native people called the Tarahumara, who have adapted elements of Christianity to a traditional mythology. They believe in God and his wife, the Virgin Mary, who correspond to the Sun and Moon, together with their son Jesus. The divine family created all Indians, while non-Indians are the offspring of the Devil and his wife. (pg 164)
As it is evident, this example of true syncretism shows a faith that is so far from Biblical truth that it cannot be recognized as a authentic Christian faith. Same can not be said about Christians in the global south who merely practice that which they found within the worldview of the Biblical text.
The author believes that Christianity in the global south has not developed a view akin to western culture’s separation of church and state. In fact, such a view seems counterintuitive when many of the leaders of political activism are members of the clergy a fact that has its benefits and detriments. It is expected that clashes with Islamic politics will increase. According to the author,
Of the world’s twenty-five largest nations by 2050, at least nineteen will be predominantly or entirely either Christian or Muslim. If we imagine that the current religious balance will still continue at that point, then there should be a remarkably even balance between Muslim and Christian forces. Seven countries will be wholly or mainly Muslim, ten wholly or mainly Christian, and two deeply divided between the two faiths. (207)
Christianity in the global south is more community-oriented form of Christianity than its western sister. They are constantly responding to poverty, disease (such as HIV), and many other forms of social injustice. They have not developed a bifurcation between compassion ministry, and the proclamation of the Gospel. An aspect that one believes western culture ought to emulate. Fortunately, the next Christendom seems to have the right perspective on this issue.
Dr. Philip Jenkins book was an eye opening experience, which led me to consider investigating genuine Latin American theology. A theology completely divorced from western influence and developed within indigenous fellowships. It has become well known that the African community of believers has verbalized their theology, but the Latin American community has not taken this step. Dr. Jenkins book has become essential in exposing Western Christianity to the Christian faith that stands at the horizon. One area of concern is in regards to the author’s definition of Christian faith. He seems to have a very broad definition, which includes faith groups who are beyond the scope of Biblical truth, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It would be beneficial to draft a similar work within the boundaries of a conservative definition of Christian. In this manner, the word would not only be beneficial to the western church, but also to the endeavors of future missionaries.