Global Context: A New Christendom with New Faces

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Global Context Series: A New Christendom with New Faces

By: Bruce Riley Ashford

Philip Jenkins believes that we are living in the midst of a monumental moment in religious history, and he has written two books to make his case. The first, The Next Christendom, contains the meat of his argument while the second, The New Faces of Christianity, follows up on certain strands of the argument. The following is a brief review of both books.

Jenkins was affected by recent events in the Anglican Communion and in particular the 1998 Lambeth Conference which condemned homosexuality as incompatible with Christian ministry.

What really raised eyebrows is that the resolution was passed against the will of the English prelates, because of the numerical clout of the burgeoning African church. Bishop John Shelby Spong’s comments were representative of the wrath and condescension of many of the European bishops: “I never expected to see the Anglican Communion, which prides itself on the place of reason in faith, descend to this level of irrational Pentecostal hysteria.”

In The Next Christendom, Jenkins takes a look at this phenomenon. What is the tectonic shift that has allowed the African bishops of the Anglican church to have more clout than the English and American bishops? His answer is that “we are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide.” The nerve center of Christianity, Jenkins argues, is moving South and East. The era of Western Christianity (centered in Europe and the United States) is passing and the day of Southern Christianity (centered in Africa, Asia, and South America) is arriving. If present trends continue, Jenkins, argues, then by 2050, only about 20% of the world’s Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians.

The doctrinal implications of this are many, as Jenkins demonstrates in The Next Christendom and expands upon in The New Faces of Christianity. The new Southern Christianity has held to the traditional Christian positions on abortion, homosexuality, divorce, gender and ministry. A majority of these Southern churches are heavily influenced by the charismatic and Pentecostal movements. Services are often marked by spontaneous and emotional worship, tongues, healings, and exorcisms. These churches, however, are also markedly different than many charismatic churches in that they often emphasize the blessedness of poverty and suffering.

Further, Jenkins argues, this growth of Christianity could spawn an era of religious wars, particularly between Islam and Christianity: “Across the Muslim world, many believers have shown themselves willing to fight for the cause of international Islam with far more enthusiasm than they demonstrate for any individual nation. Putting these different trends together, we have a volatile mixture that could well provoke horrific wars and confrontations.”

If this were merely the story of an ethnic and geographic shift, that would be significant in and of itself. However, it is much more. It is a story of a massive shift in belief and practice. In an article, “After the Next Christendom,” Jenkins reflects upon the reactions to his book. He writes that he “was fascinated by the reactions of alarm and near-horror that surfaced in liberal circles, aghast at the prospect of legions of Southern fundamentalists about to begin a Long March against the centers of Western Christianity….Conservatives, in contrast, were delighted by the prospect of a traditionalist and biblically oriented Christianity arising in Africa, Asia, and Latin America…” Indeed, Southern Christianity is, in juxtaposition to mainstream churches in Europe and America, very conservative.

Although this monumental shift reaches across the face of nearly all denominations and church networks, the Anglican communion once again is illustrative. The African Anglican churches accuse the Western Anglican church of rejecting Biblical and historic Christianity. Various statements have been issued, including the following declaration of the Nigerian church: “The unscriptural innovations,” they write, “of North American and some western provinces on issues of human sexuality undermine the basic message of redemption and the power of the Cross to transform lives. These departures are a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the diminution of the authority of Holy Scripture.”

However, there are many flavors of “conservative,” and many American evangelicals would not be happy with the Southern flavors. Larry Poston, in his article “Interfacing with ‘The Next Christendom,'” pointed out seven issues that will be central in defining the relationship of Northern and Southern Christianity. They are worthy of mentioning here: (1) The inscripturated Word of God versus the “Word of God for today;” (2) Signs and wonders: accept or reject? (3) Demonic Forces: Respecting their power but avoiding neo-Animism; (4) Theological systems vs. “only trusting in the Spirit;” (5) The public square: important or not? (6) Gender roles in society and church; and (7) the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches: What is the relationship?

These are some of the challenges, for better or for worse, that lie ahead as the center of Christian gravity moves from the North to the South. As Jenkins puts it, “Christianity, a religion that was born in Africa and Asia, has in our lifetimes decided to go home.” Both books, The Next Christendom and The New Faces of Christianity, are worth the read for anybody interested in state of the global church.