The Next Christendom: Discussion 1

Today we begin taking an in-depth look at Philip Jenkins book, The Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity.  This is the book Jamie and I selected as our book of the year for our 3W Staff.  Three Worlds is about helping the church navigate the Three Worlds of Christianity at the dawn of the 21st Century:  1) the Traditional 2) the Post-Christendom and 3) the non-Western.  This book deals with the world that is growing the fastest---Non-Western Christianity.  Consequently, it's highly relevant to us at Three Worlds and highly relevant to all of you too as you shall see.  As I've said previously, I think it is the most important book about Christianity that has come out in the past 10 years.  It should be required reading for anyone in ministry (or for anyone studying history, international relations, religion or political science).

I'll be taking the book piece by piece, highlighting important sections, offering commentary and raising questions.  Feel free to write to us here if you have any questions or comments that you would like to add.


Philip Jenkins is a a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State.  He has written a large number of books and really excels at covering a lot of ground in a very clear and concise way.  He is a perfect popular academic writer.

This particular book deals with the growth of Non-Western Christianity also called "Southern Christianity" by Jenkins or "World Christianity."  This is the Christianity that is growing rapidly in Brazil, Sub-Saharan Africa, and parts of Asia  including China.  Places that were once thought of as pagan or non-Christian, like Africa, are now predominantly Christian.  Furthermore, while Christianity in the West is in steep decline, it is growing and taking on a local, non-Western flavor in much of the world.

People still think of Christianity as a Western (American) religion.  But the reality is that Christianity has been increasing for quite a long time.  Independent African churches (not tied to Western denominations and Western Christianity) have been growing since the 1930's and really began a fast growth curve in the 1950's.  But it wasn't until the late 1990's (if then) that even academics took notice of this growth.  Only around 2005 or so, did articles about the 100 million + Christians in China start making it into regular news outlets.  Jenkins book was the first to really take non-Western Christianity public.  Excerpts from his book were highlighted in a cover story article in the Atlantic magazine (formerly the Atlantic Monthly) in 2002.  That put the subject "out there" so-to-speak.

Behind the scenes, scholars like Andrew Walls at Edinburgh and Lamin Sanneh at Yale had already written and discussed non-Western Christianity at length.  Sanneh was a professor of mine and a great inspiration to Philip Jenkins.  Mark Noll, Jehu Hanciles, Paul Freston and other scholars who are now writing books about this subject.  Sanneh, however, can't write for a mass audience the way Jenkins can.  And that's why "The Next Christendom" has become the book on this subject for now.


Jenkins writes:  "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...Over the past century however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia and Latin America."

If we want to visualize a "typical" contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela...

Many of the fastest growing countries in the world are either predominantly Christian or else have very sizable Christian minorities.  Even if Christians just maintain their present chare of the populatin in countries like Nigeria and Kenya, Mexico and Ethiopia, Brazil and the Philippines, there are soon going to be several hundred million more Christians from those nations alone.

Some 2 billion Christians are alive today, about one-third of the planetary 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 surpirsing as a Swedish Buddhist."


He's a good writer isn't he?  The beginning of the book sets the stage and challenges the current conceptions of who Christians are, what they look like, and where they live.  It's amazing that all of this has gone so unnoticed for so long.  To this day, we frequently meet Christians actively involved in missions who assume that Christianity is primarily Western and that there are very few Christians in places like Africa.

There can be several reasons for this--perhaps you can add more.  One is just ignorance about life outside of our own country or environment.  It's easy to latch on to an image and have that be your permanent reality.  "Most missionaries are white," "Africans primarily live in tribes and in small villages where they have never been exposed to Christianity," "everyone in Latin America is Catholic" etc.  I remember my father used to include slides of Nairobi, Kenya's skyline in his presentations just because most people hearing his presentations had no idea that Africa had cities and even tall modern looking buildings.  This was in the 1970's and 1980's.

But there's also the fact that Christianity has been so defined by American Christian media, American denominations, and American preachers.  As the Christian nation with the most money and p.r. possibilities, "what does a Christian look like" very much gets defined by North America--particularly the U.S.A.

Another reason is probably that Evangelical (mission) efforts have often come with very little analysis on the ground.  Decisions are made and fast-tracked and as the reality on the ground changed--missionary efforts did not.  The Evangelism push if often almost manic as opposed to being strategic.  A numbers-obssessed approach hasn't helped matters. It created the paradox that this extreme Evangelism efforts yielded results and then went unnoticed.  That would be fine if it weren't for the fact that some of this new Christianity is filled with errant thought--which will be talked about later.

Then there's the secular press, which prior to 9/11 never really took religious stories seriously.  Religious stories are common place now and the rise of the New Atheists brings even more attention to the positive and negative role played by religion.  But all of this was largely absent prior to 9/11.  The change has been dramatic. A shift this dramatic could easily go unnoticed in the secular press.

Same with universities which often remained completely oblivious to major religious shifts happening in the world.

So the ground has shifted as far as Christianity is concerned and people are just beginning to notice.  But this change has effects both positive and negative--and we'll continue to look at that as we make our way through the book.