As the religious map of the world transforms, so does the faith of the cross
We live in a world full of surprises. If there is one phrase to capture the spirit of our times, I would vote for this one: “Who would have thought?”
Six years after the tragedy of 9/11, we are surrounded by chatter about the surprises of our day, including the impact of globalization, the rise of China as the new economic superpower, the resurgence of Islam, and the threat of violent radicals acting (illegitimately so, I think most Muslims would agree) in the name of Islam. I acknowledge the importance of these themes, but as a historian of the modern era, I am dismayed that one of the greatest and most surprising changes in the world of recent times — one that reaches across regions and civilizations — has largely been ignored.
An even greater religious change than resurgent Islam has taken place without much notice: Christianity has become a worldwide faith. This new fact amounts to a seismic shift in the world’s religious commitments. The vast majority of Christians now live, not in Europe and North America as is commonly supposed, but in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today, Christianity is predominantly a non-Western religion. Who would have thought?
From Christendom to Global Christianity
In 1900, 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America. A century later, nearly 70 percent of the world’s Christians live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Christian adherence and vitality are waning in the global North and West, and they are rising in the global South and East.
The rise of non-Western Christianity has come as a huge surprise. Christianity outside of the West was thought to be a product of European imperialism, and it was expected to wither and die in the post-colonial era. Just the opposite happened. Consider the huge change in Africa. There were only about 9 million Christians in all of Africa in 1900. Today, there are an estimated 397 million African Christians. Says historian Philip Jenkins, the Christianization of sub-Saharan Africa is probably “the largest religious change in human history.”
As it takes root in the global South and East, Christianity is being transformed. Never before has the world seen the faith of the Cross expressed in so many languages and cultural forms. What should that fact imply to us? It ought to say, among other things, that what happens in Africa, Asia, and Latin America will have a growing influence on Christianity worldwide. Conversely, what happens in Europe and North America will matter less.
Only a few years ago, such assertions would have seemed vastly overblown, but the events of 9/11 and the subsequent wars have begun to awaken us to the “globality” of contemporary life. What happens halfway around the globe matters here almost immediately.
There are many ways in which the Christian church is being changed by the new global Christianity. One worldwide Christian fellowship after another — from the World Council of Churches to the Lutheran World Federation — now has a leader from the global South. The most compelling public thinkers for the Christian church are beginning to come from the global South and East. Christian missionaries and immigrants from African, Asian, and Latin American countries are enlivening Christian witness and fellowship throughout Europe and North America.
And even in our predominantly Anglo churches, we sing hymns and praise songs from Zimbabwe, Nicaragua, and South Korea; travel on service and mission trips to El Salvador, Kenya, and the Philippines; and hear about the gospel’s progress in Africa or Asia directly from visiting African or Asian church leaders. The same globalization that has made our world more radically interactive in business and popular culture is connecting Christians worldwide.
It is not difficult to predict, then, that Christians will more and more take their cues from the parts of the world where Christianity is on the rise rather than declining, and where critical, life-and-death struggles abound. This is the main stage for Christianity today, where the average Christian lives and gives witness.
So we should ask ourselves: What are the most widely practiced forms of Christianity in the world today? Who are the world’s average Christians, and what are their lives like? And what is it that we have to learn from these brothers and sisters in Christ?
The average Christian in the world today, historian Dana Robert reminds us, is a woman from Africa or Latin America. Her family has little money. Her husband farms, and he scrounges up short-term cash jobs when he can. She tries to sell a few things at the market. The children haven’t had their shots, and they get sick. She struggles to keep them in school, where there are no textbooks. The political situation is fragile, and the national government doesn’t get much done, while local officials demand bribes. Our sister reads her Bible, and its accounts of famine, plagues, poverty, displacement and exile, tyranny, cronyism, and corruption — which seem distant to most of us in the global North and West — are immediately relevant to her. The Bible is her book.
Who is Jesus to our average Christian woman and her family? Certainly he is their personal savior, as North American evangelicals put it. But the text that defines Jesus’ ministry for Christians in the global South is Luke 4, where in the synagogue he boldly claims, in the words of Isaiah, that he has come “to preach good news to the poor,” that God has sent him “to proclaim freedom for the prisoner and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). As the center of Christian adherence and vitality continues to shift southward, it will be only natural for this outlook to gain weight.
We tend to think of the Christianity of the global South and East as being quite fragile, and still dependent on us for help. But the time has come for North Americans to listen and to learn from our Christian brothers and sisters, who have much to teach us.
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