Columnists > Voices

Left behind?

A Christian surge overseas creates problems for the U.S. religious left

Issue: "2006 Daniels of the Year," Dec. 16, 2006

You've probably seen this before in screeds from the religious left: claims that conservative Christians have twisted Christ into a god made in their own image. For example, the Huffington Post website earlier this year ran a claim by Jim Rigby of St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Austin that "many Christians seek a white male king . . . [Europeans] could not see Christ in non-male, non-European, and non-Christian people because they were limited by their theology."

PCUSA pastor Rigby concluded with a call to teach our children to abandon "the dictator Christ of this culture." But is the idea of God with authority the product of our culture? This summer I worshipped at a house church in Beijing, and last summer relished a service in a Zambian megahut. Crucially, those Asians and Africans see Jesus as Lord, not just a pal. Secondarily, they have conservative positions on homosexuality, gender, etc. Our Daniels of the Year illustrate this development.

Penn State professor Philip Jenkins has documented the growth of non-European Christianity, most notably in The New Christendom (Oxford U. Press, 2002) and The New Face of Christianity (Oxford, 2006). He argues, using demographic data and trends, that by the year 2050 only one Christian in five will be white and non-Latino, and that Asia, Africa, and Latin America will be centers of Christianity, not Europe or North America.

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This forecasting method has its limitations: Who knows what God will do? Furthermore, although the trends are bad, Europe may not be finished yet, and Christianity in the United States, despite many flaws, is still vibrant. Still, it would not be surprising in 2050 if China were the leading Christian country in the world. As an extension of current growth patterns, Jenkins' prophecies are important, and his specific detail useful.

For example, Jenkins points out that the surging churches of the south are decidedly non-liberal in their theology: He quotes one African church leader saying, "We read the Bible as a book that comes from God and we take every word in the Bible seriously. Some people will say that we are therefore fundamentalists. We do not know whether this word applies to us or not but we are not interested in any interpretation of the Bible that softens or waters down the message."

Church growth in South America and Africa will challenge many Christians, as a large part of the surge is Pentecostal. And some doctrines may play a more prominent role: "Western churches might teach the doctrine of the communion of saints, and imagine the supernatural church as a union of living believers with those past souls who have already died. For the African churches, the notion of continuity with the world of the ancestors is not only credible, it is a fundamental component of the belief system."

Jenkins challenges U.S. professors and pastors who talk about the non-Western world to become truly multicultural: Understanding Christianity "in its non-Western context is a prime necessity for anyone seeking to understand the emerging world. American universities prize the goal of diversity in their teaching, introducing students to the thought-ways of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often by using texts from non-Western cultures. However strange this may sound in terms of conventional stereotypes, teaching about Christianity would be a wonderful way to teach diversity."

The difference between the dying churches of Europe and the live-wires to the south is not just the headline-grabber concerning homosexuality. In Europe many see the Bible as ancient irrelevance, but I saw in Africa and China excitement as hungry readers devour its message. Jenkins shows why: "Read Ruth, for instance, and imagine what it has to say in a hungry society threatened by war and social disruption. . . . Imagine a society terrorized by a dictatorial regime dedicated to suppressing the church, and read Revelation: understand the core message that whatever evils the world may produce, God will triumph."

That core message is vital in the West as well. We need to rediscover the sense of immediacy evident when members of a congregation heard the reading of Paul's regards to the Corinthians: "My love be with all of you in Christ Jesus." They answered in unison: "Thank you, Paul."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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