The Next Christendom — The Coming of Global Christianity (Third Edition)
by Philip Jenkins
Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y. 346 pages.
Philip Jenkins is an encyclopedia who knows as much about the Christian religion past and present as anyone writing today. He is also a fine writer capable of organizing an extraordinary amount of facts into a compelling narrative. His colleagues must also be encouraged by the research that is updated in this book first published in 2001 and part of “The Future of Christianity” trilogy. A staggering number of events have occurred since 2001 and not only the obvious ones. The first chapter of this updated edition will send tremors down the spiritual spine of every North American Christian who has ears to hear what the news that the global shift in Christianity portends for us. What Jenkins states will be old news to those who have been paying attention, but to many others it will be disturbing. For all of us, the compelling research presented here about the ongoing decline of the church in Europe and North America alongside the steady rise in Africa, Asia and Latin America should be an occasion for serious conversation. For instance, Jenkins argues that Western observers rarely note the success of the Pentecostal movement. “Since there were only a handful of charismatics and Pentecostals in 1900, and several hundred million today, is it not reasonable to identify this as perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century?” And perhaps more pressing he writes that the “Christianities” of the South may widen their theological spectrum as occurred in the North, but “for the foreseeable future, the dominant theological tone of emerging world Christianity is traditionalist, orthodox and supernatural.” And he adds, “This would be an ironic reversal of most Western perceptions of the future of [vital] religion.” His conclusion based on impressive demographic data is that the future is never perfectly predictable yet the trends are demonstrably clear. The global center of Christianity will be in the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover in 2050 the overwhelming majority of world’s 3.2 billion Christians will be non-white. 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.”
Jenkins is an historian who brings his skills to bear on the historical roots of this shift. He examines the various missionary movements of both Roman Catholic and Protestants from the 17th century to the present. His interpretation is critical of the obvious failures of those movements (e.g., the Roman Catholic insistence of using Latin in Chinese liturgies and the Protestant American cultural imposition) but he joins nuanced commentators, like Nicholas Kristof, in demonstrating the deep success of the spread of Christianity into Africa, China and Latin America. The original meaning of “Christendom” is restored to the present Christian worldview of the Southern Hemisphere that has its roots in the past. Christianity will keep pace with Islam and according to Jenkins will have more adherents. How these two religions live with one another will continue to shape the future. How North American Christians will enter that conversation is our question.
ROY W. HOWARD is the Outlook book editor and the pastor of Saint Mark Presbyterian Church in North Bethesda, Maryland.