Book Review - The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins
I. Main Thesis
To quote Philip Jenkins in the first chapter: “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of ‘European Christian’ civilization. Conversely, radical writers have seen Christianity as an ideological arm of Western imperialism…”
“Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America….”
“Some 2 billion Christians are alive today, about one-third of the planetary total. The largest single bloc, some 560 million people, is still to be found in Europe. Latin America, though, is already close behind with 480 million. Africa has 360 million, and 313 million Asians profess Christianity….By 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 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.” Such people can exist but a slight eccentricity is implied.” (1-3)
The main thesis of this book is to show both by church history and current global trends in religion show that it is wrong to equate Christianity with White Eurocentrism.
Though the focus of North American studies in church history centers around Western Europe, a proper snapshot of the average Christian during the first few centuries of this religion was one of African and Middle Eastern descent, from places such as Egypt, Syria, and much of North Africa.
Even some of the greatest Christian leaders of the early church were African (St. Augustine, Cyprian and Tertullian to name a few).
Because of the unfortunate characterization of Christianity with white Eurocentrism, false religions such as Islam have made many inroads into the black community, and even today many believe the lie that the religion of Islam brings blacks back to their roots and that Christianity was the religion of choice among the white slaves; thus, it is a white man’s religion!
It is imperative that Christians understand the historical roots of Christianity in regards to the African’s important place in its development and also to see how God is moving mightily today in places once deemed “missionary territory”!
At one time we had to go to many of the third world nations to minister; now, countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa are sending their missionaries to North America and Western Europe to evangelize!
II: Important Quotes
“To take a historical parallel, Christianity changed thoroughly when a movement founded in a Jewish and Hellenistic context moved into the Germanic lands of Western Europe during the early Middle Ages.” (6)
“In 1800, perhaps one percent of all Protestant Christians lived outside Europe and North America. By 1900, that number had risen to 10 percent, and this proved enough of a critical mass to support further expansion. Today, the figure stands around two-thirds of all Protestants.” (37)
“To quote the late Stephen Neill…‘In the twentieth century, for the first time, there was in the world a universal religion – the Christian religion.’ In the third millennium, like the first, the faith would once again be a truly transcontinental phenomenon.” (38)
“For many, the age of the so-called Scramble for Africa marked a scramble out of inhospitable White churches, with the resulting formation of new independent denominations. Many used words like ‘Native’ or ‘African’ in their titles, and some claimed a distinct Ethiopian heritage.” (52)
“The appeal of Christianity still lay in its radical sense of community: it absorbed people because the individual could drop from a wide impersonal world into a miniature community, whose demands and relations were explicit.” (76)
“In 1850, Lord Macaulay warned the then-triumphant British Empire that religion was not the prerogative of any single region, still less a political entity: churches often outlive states and even world empires.” (192)
“The twentieth century was clearly the last in which Whites dominated the Catholic Church: Europe simply is not The Church. Latin America may be.” (195)
III: Salient Points and Analysis
Jenkins states “In describing the rising neo-orthodox world, I have spoken of a ‘new Christendom.’ The phrase evokes a medieval European age of faith, of passionate spirituality and a pervasive Christian culture. Medieval people spoke readily of ‘Christendom,’ the Res Publica Christiana, as a true overarching unity and a focus of loyalty transcending mere kingdoms or empires. Kingdoms like Burgundy, Wessex, or Saxony might last for only a century or two before they were replaced by new states and dynasties, but any rational person knew that Christendom simply endured. This perception had political consequences…Christendom was a primary form of cultural reference.” (10)
We have seen many saints domesticate the gospel to nationalism, in particular in this country those in the Republican Party, declaring that the U.S. is God’s country.
The Bible never says that the gates of hell will not prevail against a nation, but “the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church”! (Matthew 16:18)
During the time of the collapse of Rome, great saints such as Jerome thought that they were witnessing the end of the world because their context of Christianity was wrapped around the flag of Rome.
Jenkins here touches on a very important point: that Christendom transcends any and every nation and form of nationalism; rather, the church itself is called a “nation,” one that will withstand all attacks and outlive every nation and every political system!
Jenkins goes on to say “By the start of the 21st century, however, the whole concept of the nation-state was itself under challenge. Partly, the changes reflected new technologies. According to a report by the U.S. intelligence community, in the coming decades, ‘governments will have less and less control over flows of information, technology, diseases, migrants, arms, and financial transactions, whether legal or illegal, across their borders…. The very concept of ‘belonging’ to a particular state will probably erode’...Nation-states are imagined communities of relatively recent date, rather than eternal or inevitable realities…. In Europe, loyalties to the nation as such are being replaced by new forms of adherence, whether to larger entities (Europe itself) or to smaller (regions or ethnic groups).” (10-11)
Jenkins continues, “The more we look at the Southern Hemisphere in particular, the more we see that while universal and supranational ideas are flourishing, they are not secular in the least. The centers of gravest state weakness are often the regions in which political loyalties are secondary to religious beliefs, either Muslim or Christian, and these are the terms in which people define their identities.” (11)
Today, “unquestioned constructs like Great Britain are under threat” (11) because of the European Union politically and economically; we can then envision any of the newer nation states, such as the ones now forming in Africa and Asia, and even the U.S. (which is only about 225 years old) to be under similar threats.
It is very easy to see how folks will tend to be drawn more together because of ethnicity and religious beliefs. I wonder what a map of the world will look like 100 years from now!
The Myth of Western Christianity
Jenkins states “After the rise of Islam, maps generally shift their focus to the lands of Western Europe, especially to what will later become France and Britain. The Christian center of gravity shifted decisively from the Jordan to the Rhine, from Antioch to Chartres….During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.”
“By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy….Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.” (16-17)
We can see by examining Christian history that the Eurocentric stereotype of Christianity is not based in reality.
Jenkins continues “By the time the first Anglo-Saxons were converted, Ethiopian Christianity was already in its tenth generation.” (19)
“As late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Christians still made up a large proportion of most former Roman territories that had fallen under Muslim rule, in societies like Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, and it is not easy to tell when Muslims actually gained majority status in these communities. A reasonable guess would place the transition around the time of the Crusades, about 1100 or 1200.” (22)
“It was precisely as Western colonialism ended that Christianity began a period of explosive growth that still continues unchecked, above all in Africa. Just since 1965, the Christian population of Africa has risen from around a quarter of the continental total to about 46 percent, stunning growth for so short a period… ‘The present net increase on that continent is 8.4 million new Christians a year (23,000 a day)’ [from the 2001 World Christian Encyclopedia]… Sometime in the 1960’s another historic landmark occurred, when Christian’s first outnumbered Muslims in Africa. Adrian Hastings has written that ‘Black Africa today is totally inconceivable apart from the presence of Christianity.’”
“Whatever their image in popular culture, Christian missionaries of the colonial era succeeded remarkably. Much of this growth could be explained in terms of the churches’ elastic ability to adapt to local circumstances.” (56)
“In 1940, barely a million Protestants were recorded in the whole of Latin America. Since 1960, Protestant numbers, though, Protestant numbers in the region have been growing at an average annual rate of 6 percent, so that today Protestants make up around one-tenth of the whole population, some 50 million people.” (61)
“The ‘rise of Pentecostal spirituality’ has to be seen as truly epoch-making. According to reputable observers, by 2000, Pentecostal numbers worldwide were increasing at the rate of around 19 million each year.” (63)
In Korea “at the time of the Korean War, the nation’s Pentecostal believers could be counted only in the hundreds, but by the early 1980’s, their ranks had swelled to almost half a million.” (71)
“In late twentieth-century Brazil, Pentecostalism stands out as one of the principal organizations of the poor.” (74; quoted from Andrew Chesnut)
“Most Presbyterians have a God that’s so great, so big, that they cannot even talk with him openly, because he is far away. The Pentecostal groups have the kind of God that will solve my problems today and tomorrow. People today are looking for solutions, not for eternity.” (77)
It is said that Pentecostalism has probably been the most influential social movement of the twentieth century.
While communism and fascism have died or are dying out, Pentecostals are growing at an unprecedented rate and will eventually make up the majority of all Christians worldwide.
“By 2050 Africa and Latin America will probably be home to 29 percent of the world’s people. In 1900, ‘Northerners’ outnumbered these ‘Southerners’ by about 2.5 to one; by 2050, the proportions will be almost exactly reversed.” (80)
The reasons for the population decline in communities:
1- As communities become more prosperous people tend to have fewer children.
2- The decline in family size reflects greater confidence in the ability of medicine to keep children alive.
3- Couples who have faith in social welfare arrangements have less need to create large families who will maintain them in old age.
4- As economies become more sophisticated, more women participate in the workplace and don’t have as much time to bear and raise children.
5- Feminism may be the most effective means of regulating population. (81)
“In order to keep a population stable, a nation needs an overall fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman…Today, many countries are reporting rates well below that” with most of these nations being in Europe. (82)
This accounts for why Europe has opened their doors for immigration; without the influx of young people from third world countries, there wouldn’t be enough folks working to sustain the economies.
Even in the U.S., in 2000, there were 30 million immigrants, about 11 percent of the population. (100)
“In the late 1990s, California became the nation’s first ‘majority-minority’ state, in which non-Latino Whites ceased to form an absolute majority of the population.” (100-101)
IV: Personal Application
Reasons for the Success of Global Christianity
The book clearly teaches that much of the success of the newer churches unquestionably reflects their adaptation to local traditions and thought-patterns, so that African Christianity has become quintessentially African, Korean Christianity thoroughly Korean, and so on.
Allowing for indigenous leadership in the various nations brings respect to the ethnic peoples who alone fully understand their culture and have the ability to perpetuate the faith generationally.
Most of all the explosive church growth in the world today is experienced by those who believe the Bible is not only an accurate historical record, but one that transcends time, culture and ethnicity and is still applicable today.
They still believe that God moves supernaturally now and that God is concerned with answering their prayers and being with them in the midst of their everyday life.
To quote Jenkins here: “The vitality of prophecy in the contemporary South means that the rising churches can read biblical accounts with far more understanding and sensitivity than Northern Christians can. In the book of Acts, prophecy was a sign of the true church. If that was true 2,000 years ago, why should it not be true of a man or woman today…Prophetic powers are exactly what Jesus promised His disciples, without any caveat that these gifts might expire with the end of the first century.”
“ ‘However many sound social and cultural reasons the historian may find for the expansion of the Christian church, the fact remains that in all Christian literature from the New Testament onwards, the Christian missionaries advanced principally by revealing the bankruptcy of men’s invisible enemies, the demons, through exorcisms and miracles of healing.’” (129; quoting Peter Brown)
I believe it behooves us to re-examine our theology and our super-dependence on intellect and reason when it comes to faith and building the church, and learn much from these churches – that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Truly, to quote again from Jenkins “‘second-century Christianity (and third-century, and even first-century) can still be witnessed and shared in,’ namely in contemporary Africa.” (135; quote from Andrew Walls)
“It would be tempting to draw the conclusion that the religion actually does have a connection to under-development and pre-modern cultural ways…That conclusion would be fatuous, though, because very enthusiastic kinds of Christianity are also succeeding among professional and highly technologically oriented groups, notably around the Pacific Rim and in the United States.” (220)
In conclusion, let me again quote from the last paragraph in the book:
“Christianity is never as weak as it appears, nor as strong as it appears. And whether we look backward or forward in history, we can see that time and again, Christianity demonstrates a breathtaking ability to transform weakness into strength.” (220)