Reinhard Bonnke, a German-born Pentecostal evangelist made his way onto the wooden platform. It was only 2 years after Bishop Shelby Spong had written his impassioned plea to the Christian West: Why Christianity Must Change or Die. In it, Spong urged Christians to abandon their outdated assumptions about morality; the supernatural is not relevant for the 21st century.
The evangelist Bonnke steps up to the microphone, and behind him hangs a banner: “Come and Receive Your Miracle.” He gazes outward; before him stands a throng of 1.6 million people.[i]
It’s Nigeria. It’s the year 2000. And everything has changed. In Europe, the pews are empty and the George Whitefields are dead. In America, Billy Graham is old and so are his crusaders. But in the South and the East, Christianity thunders in the youth of revival. Of course, there are exceptions and the picture is complex, but there isn’t much doubt: millennials are not interested in Billy Graham revivalism, and neither is the West. We are sick and tired of God, and we are callous. Since we will not change, God must. And if God will not change, He must die. This is what Spong, the PCUSA, and the mainline denominations in the West have shouted in paperback or whispered in practice throughout the last century.
Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom explains why they are wrong and why Christianity might have a new face, but not a new message; it will still be the familiar, radical, supernatural, life-piercing and all-consuming demand to worship the God who entered history as He enters us: miraculously and redemptively, changing us from the inside-out.
As I reflect on Jenkin’s work, I can’t help but highlight what I love. I love the research behind it. I love the rebellion too. There’s something rebellious and refreshing about giving a different perspective. We’re too lemminglike in our liberalism. Our culture is liberal; our shows are liberal; our schools are liberal. There are few things more exciting than a bit of orthodoxy to guide us against the grain.
In The Next Christendom, it is not the author’s opinion, but the global wave of documented Christian growth that pushes against the tide of secularism and champions orthodoxy. This is where I want to begin: with the places, the nature, and the potential impact of the globalization of Christianity; with its face, its shape, its future. It is the research that speaks most powerfully in Jenkins’ book. I will cap my synopsis of this with some brief critical reflections.
The Face of Christianity
One of the best lines in Jenkins’ book is a line he did not write. It is a quote from the Kenyan scholar John Mbiti: “The centers of the church’s universality are no longer Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Beunos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila.”[ii] Throughout the book, Jenkins delves into the significance of this quote with staggering statistics. He highlights the growth of the church in Africa, for example, from its numerical growth of a mere 10 million in 1900 to an astonishing 360 million by 2000.[iii]
During the renaissance and beyond, the face of Jesus was painted as a reflection of His followers - with blue eyes and a pale complexion - but Jenkins argues that this reflection is changing. By 2050, he argues, a white Christian might be as rare as a Swedish Buddhist.[iv] In Amsterdam and London, church buildings are being renovated and sold for secular or non-Christian purposes, but in places like Seoul or Nairobe the main concern is not filling the church buildings with people; it is erecting buildings that can hold the tens of thousands of Christian worshipers that flock into the house of God on a weekly basis.[v] Jenkins likewise captures the growth of Christianity in China under adverse conditions: from a handful of Christians in 1949 to approximately 50 million by the end of the century.
He fleshes out this broad global picture by honing in on specifics. From historic trends to inner cultural movements and distinct growth patterns over specific nations, Jenkins cements his claims in concrete figures. Uganda, for example, was only exposed to Christian missions around the mid-nineteen hundreds; today, only 10 percent remain Muslim while 35 percent are Protestant and 40 percent are Catholic. The remaining 5 percent consist of adherents to tribal religions.[vi]
The Shape of Christianity
Jenkins does an excellent job of not merely citing statistics, but also describing the personality of the rising Christian South and East. Several surprising features arise from this analysis. First, the tremendous growth of Christianity is not directly correlative to the beginning of colonialism, but rather to the end of it. Christianity thrives on independence. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Africa: since 1965, adherence to Christianity in Africa has grown from about a quarter of the population to 46 percent of the population.[vii] Nations that modernize Christianize.
Even more apparent is the vibrant conservativism in these movements of faith. For example, abortion is now illegal in almost all African nations.[viii] Regarding homosexually, a 1998 global Anglican Communion sought to liberalize the church’s position on same-sex marriage; the vote was lost because Southern bishops formed a solid bloc to defeat liberal motions on gay right.[ix] The expectation was that Southern Christianity would take a liberal position more akin to liberation theology; surely these positions exists in the South, but the majority of Christians remain conservative and traditional.[x]
The “New Christendom,” according to Jenkins, is uniquely vibrant. Most new converts are teenagers and young adults.[xi] Reasons for embracing faith are not strictly political, social, or cultural, but come down to an overwhelming belief in the message offered. Chinua Achebe describes the impact of preaching on one young Igbo man: “It was not the mad logic of the Trinity that captivated him. He did not understand it. It was the poetry of the new religion, something felt in the marrow…”[xii] This also explains the rise of Pentecostalism on a global scale. The poor and the needy run to a message that captivates them and provides hope and release. This invites cause for concern about the place of orthodoxy among tribal believers, not to mention the corruptions associated with modern faith-healers and the lack of biblical warrant for the health-and-wealth Gospel. But it explains why Rheinhard Bonnke’s sign does not say, “Repent of Your Sins.” Instead, the hundreds of thousands come to: “Receive Your Miracle.”[xiii]
The Future of Christianity
What does the future hold? No one knows, but Jenkins is willing to make some predictions. The first regards what the future will not look like. According to The New Christendom, it will not look Western. Why not? Because the West, especially Europe, is committing cultural suicide. It requires a birth rate of about 2.1 to retain a stable population. These are the birth rates for some European nations: Spain, 1.1; Italy, 1.2; Germany, 1.3. The birth rate in Russia is 1.2. These statistics cause Jenkins to make a stunning prediction: “By 2050, six nations could each have 100 million Christians or more, and of these only one represents what is presently the advanced industrial world, namely the United States.”[xiv]
On the flip side of the population implosion in the West is an exploding population in the South and East of mostly Christian and Muslim populations. Developing nations such as Angola, Yemen, Uganda, and Afghanistan have birth rates between 6.8 and 7.3. Jenkins suggests that we can expect more conflict in the future between Muslim and Christian followers in both intranational and international affairs. Nigeria is a prime illustration. By 2050, its population could be around 300 million if current growth rates continue; it’s population is also split almost 50/50 between Christian and Muslim.[xv]
Not all the growth in Christianity comes from population explosion. 37 percent of all African baptisms into the Catholic Church are adult baptisms, for example. Per the World Christian Encyclopedia, the present net increase on the continent of Africa is 8.4 million new Christians a year, of which 1.5 million are net new converts (converts minus defections and apostasies).[xvi]
Despite the fascinating research behind Jenkins’ book, two things concern me. First, it is the lack of clarity concerning what Christianity is and how it should be defined. Granted, The Next Christendom is not a theology book, but are the various trends into deeply charismatic and Pentecostal forms of Christianity trends in conformity to the true Gospel? And if not, should we regard them as Christian movements in the same way Pentecost was? To do so seems both problematic and dangerous.
My second concern regards the future. Jenkins concedes that we should be wary about making predictions, and yet he seems keen to do so, sometimes quite specifically. My own concern about the future, now 17 years after Jenkins published this book, is positive and yet more tempered. As nations complete their movement to modernize, is there not a chance that will also secularize? What impact will social media make on the message of the Gospel? I remain confident that Christ will receive His reward in the end and that His church will rise to glorify His name, but I am unsure if the final remnant will be an ocean of believers. Likewise, the words of Jesus remind me to be cautious (Matt. 7:13-14).
Jenkins’ The New Christendom is a work that I wish I had read sooner. It takes us out of our suburbs and into the trenches. It also takes us into the celebration. It adds perspective. It gives encouragement to stay strong to the message by which we were saved. That a supernatural work of God stands at the foundation of all that matters – few things are more relevant; that Christ will get the reward for His sufferings at Golgotha - few things are more certain.
[i] Jenkins, Philip. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002), 74.
[ii] Ibid., 2.
[iii] Ibid., 2.
[iv] Ibid., 3.
[v] Ibid., 9.
[vi] Ibid., 90.
[vii] Ibid., 56.
[viii] Ibid., 197.
[ix] Ibid., 202.
[x] Ibid., 7.
[xi] Ibid., 9.
[xii] Ibid., 44.
[xiii] Ibid., 77.
[xiv] Ibid., 90.
[xv] Ibid., 173.
[xvi] Ibid., 56.