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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times: The State of Global Christianity (Part 2 of 2)

Posted by Steve Turley ● Mar 30, 2016 7:18:47 PM

In our last post, we examined data concerning the state of the church in the West in light of two dominant civilizational processes: globalization and traditionalization. The mistake scholars can make is to interpret the data in light of only one of these dynamics, resulting in either overly dire or auspicious conclusions. We found that while it is the case that Christianity is waning in the West, it is not the waning of historic Christianity but rather a Christian faith redefined in accordance with the secularized social complexions inherent in globalism. Secularization reconfigures Christianity in such a way that empties the faith of its moral identity and theological integrity, and thus the faith can be expected to inevitably wither.

But what about where the church is not constrained by these Western secularizing social arrangements?

There is nothing less than a revolutionary change occurring within worldwide Christianity. The ground-breaking study by Philip Jenkins as well as the 2013 report published by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) found that the center of Christianity has shifted away from Europe and towards the so-called global south. As the Kenyan scholar John Mbiti noted: “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.”[1] According to the CSGC report, while 41.3 of all Christians lived in Africa, Asia, and Latin America in 1970, this figure should rise to about 65% in just a few years from now. And we are finding that Christianity is growing more rapidly than the population increases themselves, which shows that conversion is a key part of such growth.

In fact, Christianity is far outpacing Islam. By 2050, there will be three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide.[2] The growth of the Pentecostal movement alone has been nothing short of staggering. In 1970, Pentecostals were 5% of global Christianity, today they are 26%, and they are projected to reach over 1 billion by the end of the century. Indeed, Pentecostalism may be the single most successful social movement of the twentieth-century.

In Africa, the Catholic Church more than doubled between the periods of 1976 and 1995. Currently there are 120 million African Catholics with projections of upwards of 230 million by 2025. In Asia, Catholicism has seen a 90% increase in the last several decades.[3]

The CSGC report found that Evangelicalism has grown significantly, from about 98 million Evangelicals in the world in 1970 to over 300 million today.

And just when liberal commentators are busy gleefully writing the obituary for the so-called Christian Right, these global trends are indicating the emergence of a worldwide conservative Christian network which is increasingly exercising powerful influence at the UN.[4] As it turns out, the global Christian realignment is making conservative Christianity more of a political factor, not less.

And then, there's China. Reports estimate that not only are there more Christians in China today than communist members, but that there are or soon to be more Christians worshipping in China than in the U.S.

And these trends don’t bode well for the secular West, which is in fact shrinking as a percentage of global population. While the West, including Russia and Eastern Europe, comprised 35% of the global population at the turn of the last century, it has fallen to 17% today and will most likely dwindle further to a mere 10% by this century’s end.

Furthermore, even within the West, there are is a growing Christian movement that refused to subsume the Christian faith to secular values. University of London scholar Eric Kaufmann’s detailed study on global demographic trends found that conservative evangelical women in the U.S. averaged 2.5 children, representing a 28% fertility edge over their secular counterparts.[5] Kaufmann notes that this demographic deficit has dramatic effects over time. In a population evenly divided, these numbers indicate that conservative evangelicals would increase from 50 to 62.5% of the population in a single generation. In two generations, their number would increase to 73.5%, and over the course of 200 years, they would represent 99.4%.

Kaufmann’s data projects that secularists, who consistently exemplify a low fertility rate of around 1.5 (significantly below the replacement level of 2.1), will begin a steady decline after 2030 to a mere 14 to 15% of the American population. Similar projections apply to Europe as well. In fact, since 1970, charismatic Christians in Europe have expanded steadily at a rate of 4% per year, in step with Muslim growth. Currently, Laestadian Lutherans in Finland and Holland’s Orthodox Calvinists have a fertility advantage over their wider secular populations of 4:1 and 2:1 respectively.

If there is a lesson to be learned from all this, it is that when the church is allowed to compete with the traditional structures of public life, it appears to win handily. When the church proclaims the reconstitution of the world in Christ, the gods and cosmologies of the world's traditions and customs tend to bow down to his lordship. But when such a proclamation has been frustrated by a secularized public square, Christianity, along with most other traditions and customs, is reconfigured socially into a privatized parody of itself with very little of its historic distinctives to offer modern constituencies.

It is time, therefore, for the church in the West to wake up from its secular slumber and refuse to accept the recreational space allotted for it by globalizing processes. Let's stop looking for the latest gimmick or sensationalized seduction to woo young people and self-designated "Nones" to worship services. Instead, let's live out a distinctively Christian public life, one that reveals the fact that the entire cosmos has been incorporated into the transformative life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and thereby prepare time and space for its future transfiguration when Christ returns, when God will be all and all.


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[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 2.

[2] Jennifer S. Butler, Born Again: The Christian Right Globalized (London: Pluto Press, 2006), 27.

[3] Butler, Born Again, 28.

[4] See, for example, the excellent studies by Butler (cited above) and Doris Buss and Didi Herman, ­Globalizing Family Values: The Christian Right in International Politics­ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).

[5] Eric Kaufmann, Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Demography and Politics in the Twenty-First Century (London: Profile Books, 2010).

Featured image credit: © 2014 John Christian Fjellestad, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio.

Topics: Church, blog, Traditionalization, Globalization

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