“As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God ‘moving’ geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he is wanted.”
For the last five hundred years the story of Christianity has been bound up with Europe and European derived cultures. According to Philip Jenkins, over the past century the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted southward to Africa, Asia and Latin America. These are the regions in which the largest and fastest growing Christian communities on the planet are to be found. They are also the regions of fastest population growth. Combined with decreasing fertility rates in the West the result is that, “By 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites.” While Western Christianity is may be in decline, a new era of Southern Christianity is dawning.
1. A biblical-supernatural worldview
Southern Christians, whether they are Catholic, Evangelical or Pentecostal, are far more conservative in terms of both beliefs and moral teaching than the mainline churches in the prosperous North. “Southern Christians retain a very strong supernatural orientation, and are by and large far more interested in personal salvation than in radical politics.” This may explain the neglect of Western experts who do not find these churches to their taste.
Christians in the developing world take the Bible very seriously. They believe that what they read in the Gospels is happening in their midst. They believe that the world of the apostles is a present reality. “If there is a single area of faith and practice that divides Northern and Southern Christians, it is the matter of spiritual forces and their effects on the everyday human world.”
2. Home grown
The vibrancy of the church in the global South confounds the myth that Christianity is a European-American religion exported to a passive Third World. “Over the past two centuries, at least, it might have been the European empires that first kindled Christianity around the world, but the movement soon enough turned into an uncontrollable bushfire.”
In Africa the end of the colonial period marked the beginning of the explosive growth of the Christian movement on that continent. In China, since the beginning of communist rule and the subsequent expulsion of foreign missionaries, the church has grown at least ten fold to between 60-100 million participants.
“Whatever their image in popular culture, Christian missionaries of the colonial era succeeded remarkably.” Their success was not due to the imposition of a foreign faith backed with political and economic power. They succeeded because the church that was planted in fresh soil adapted to local circumstances and took on a life of its own. Christianity became even more appealing when it no longer implied submission to a foreign power.
Leadership roles, especially in the Pentecostal and independent churches, are not restricted to those who have been formally trained in Western oriented academic institutions. Local leaders are chosen who demonstrate the required spiritual gifts and qualities.
3. Communities of Faith
As the developing world modernizes rural societies are becoming more urbanized as millions join the drift to the burgeoning mega-cities. They find in those places a desperate lack of resources and infrastructure. The old support systems of extended family and village are replaced with the anonymity and alienation of the city.
In these cities religious communities act as an alternative social system providing health, welfare and education. Congregations often replace distant family networks. It was Christianity’s “radical sense of community” that made it so appealing in the days of the Roman Empire. Likewise the appeal of the early Methodists “at once providing material support, mutual cooperation, spiritual comfort, and emotional release in the bleak wastes of the expanding industrial society.”
The astonishing growth of the world’s mega cities will continue. There is every indication that the churches in those cities will continue to grow with them.
Christianity is flourishing wonderfully among the poor and persecuted, while it atrophies among the rich and secure…. [T]he distribution of modern Christians might well show that the religion does succeed best when it takes very seriously the profound pessimism about the secular world that characterizes the New Testament. If it is not exactly a faith based on the experience of poverty and persecution, then at least it regards these things as normal and expected elements of life. That view is not derived from complex theological reasoning, but is rather a lesson drawn from lived experience. Christianity certainly can succeed in other settings, even amid peace and prosperity, but perhaps it does become harder, as hard as passing through the eye of a needle.