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Southward shift

Culture | As Christianity fades in the West, churches of the "mission field" are rising to defend the faith

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

Christianity is growing at a rate that is nearly unparalleled in the history of the church. Yet this growth is primarily taking place in cultures that have not previously been Christian at all. In historically Christian societies, where for centuries upon centuries the church has thrived, Christianity seems to be fading.

In 1900, according to statistics from the website of the mission organization Synergos, Western Europe was home t0 more than 70 percent of the world's professing Christians. Today, that figure has shrunk to 28 percent. In 2025, it is projected that only about one in five of the world's Christians will be Europeans. North America had just over one in 10 of the world's Christians at the beginning of the last century. By 2025, for all of the megachurches and church-growth techniques-which seem mainly to draw on people who are already Christians, taking them from small congregations to bigger ones-the percentage is projected to decline slightly.

Conversely, in 1900, just 1.7 percent of the world's Christians lived in Africa. Today, that figure is nearly 18 percent, and it is projected by 2025 to rise to more than 25 percent. That is to say, there will be substantially more Christians in Africa than in Europe.

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Asia is experiencing similar growth. In 1900 it was home to 3.7 percent of the world's Christians, but by 2025, the share of Christians living in Asia is projected to equal the share in Europe, with slightly more than 20 percent. Latin America is projected to be home to just under a quarter of the world's Christians.

This phenomenon is being called the "southward shift of Christianity," as the center of gravity for Christianity shifts from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere. This is a tale of great receptiveness to the faith on what used to be called "the mission field," but it is also a tale of decline among the nations that used to send most missionaries.

This is evident in the 1990-1991 and 1995-1997 World Values survey, which studied church attendance. In England, the percentage of citizens who are in church on any given Sunday is 27 percent. West Germany has a church-going rate of 14 percent. In Denmark and Norway, only 5 percent bother to get up on Sunday morning. In Sweden, Iceland, and Finland, only 4 percent go to church.

This decline is directly attributable to the theological liberalism of the once-powerful state churches. In countries with churches that remain conservative, attendance is high. In the United States, where evangelical and conservative churches outpace the mainline liberal denominations, a relatively robust 44 percent of the population goes to church on a typical Sunday.

But even in Europe, several countries still have extraordinarily high church attendance. In Ireland, the percentage of the population that can be found in church every Sunday is no less than 84 percent. In Poland, over half-55 percent-go to church. In Portugal, the church-going rate is 47 percent. And in sophisticated, secularized Italy, 45 percent go to church, slightly more than in the United States.

These are Catholic countries where the church has remained conservative. Catholic churches that have gone liberal-in the United States, France, the Netherlands-have the same low attendance rate as liberal Protestants.

And it is not modernist, liberal Christianity that is sweeping through the Southern Hemisphere, but a Christianity in which the gospel is proclaimed, that believes God's Word, that refuses to conform to the world.

In fact, the so-called "Third World" churches are now standing up for orthodox Christianity against the Europeans and Americans. This is dramatically unfolding in the worldwide Anglican Communion. At last year's world Anglican conference in Lambeth, the British and American bishops pushed for a proposal to change the church's teachings on sexual morality, only to be outvoted by the bishops of Africa and Asia.

Now the battle has intensified. American Episcopalians in New Hampshire have voted in a new bishop who left his wife and child for a homosexual lover, and the Anglicans of Canada have approved same-sex marriages.

The Anglican archbishop of Nigeria, Peter Akinola-whose 17 million members outnumber those of England, Canada, and America combined-will have none of that. He has declared that churches that disobey the Bible's teachings about sexuality are heretical and that he will withdraw fellowship from any such Anglican church. Other bishops from Africa, Asia, and Australia have joined him.

The southward shift is good news for the cause of conservative Christianity. It is amusing to watch left-wing European and American multiculturalist theologians stand accused of racism, imperialism, and cultural insensitivity for imposing their modern values on cultures that do not share them. What we need now are missionaries from Africa to convert the heathen in Europe and America.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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