The Next Christendom

The Coming of Global Christianity

Phillip Jenkins is the Distingished Professor of history and Religios Studies at Pennsylvania State University and the author of 19 books, including, most recently, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, which was published in April.

I want to begin with a remark, which may be one of the most perceptive historical comments that I’ve ever heard, from St. Vincent de Paul. De Paul was writing in the 1640s at a time when Europe was torn apart by wars; Protestants and Catholics were killing each other, Protestants and Catholics were killing Jews, everyone was killing witches – it was one of the worst times in history. And what he said was, “Jesus promised that His Church would last until the end of time. He never mentionedthe word ‘Europe.’ The Church will survive in Africa, in Latin America, in China and Japan.” And if you drop Japan from that list, that’s almost impeccable, that’s almost exactly true.

What I want to talk about this evening is what I call “The other other.” Ever since Sept. 11, Americans have felt a great urge to understand that mysterious, Third World religion that seems associated with fanaticism, an incomprehensible belief. And they try very hard to understand Islam, but they don’t understand that other mysterious, Third World religion which is Christianity. Christianity, I would suggest to you, is and is going to be, one of the great unknown forces in global politics in the coming decades. We are currently living through one of the revolutionary periods in religious history. I would argue that right now we are living through a period of change, and the only analogy I can think of, the closest to it, would be the Reformation of the 16th century, and maybe even that was not as far-reaching, because that was a European movement. This is a global movement.

What is happening? Christianity is moving and has moved its center of gravity decisively to the global South – a phrase that usually means Africa, Asia and Latin America. And the speed of that transition has been amazing. I don’t want to deluge you with figures, but some figures, I think, are interesting. In 1900, there were 10 million Christians in Africa, and they represented about 10 percent of the total population. Today, there are about 360 million Christians in Africa, and they represent a little under half the population. Within 30 years, Africa will have the largest number of Christians of any of the continents. Christianity is going to be a religion centered in Africa and the African diaspora, in the Americas and Europe. That is an epoch-making change. By the middle of this coming century there should be around 3 billion Christians in the world. There will be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. Of those 3 billion Christians, the number who are non-Latino whites will be about one fifth or one sixth of the whole. A white Christian! Rather like a Swedish Buddhist. There can be such people but it suggests a certain eccentricity. If you think that’s a fanciful remark, I quote to you the words of Matthew Ashimolowo, who is a leading Nigerian missionary to England. He complains that although he tries his best to put Christianity in terms that the British can understand, it’s an uphill struggle. “The problem is, they will not see us as a God thing, they see us as a black thing.” And this could be quite a good summary of the fate of the European Christianity. In London today, one half of all churchgoers on any given Sunday are African or Afro-Caribbean.

We live in very dramatic times, and we have not paid enough attention to them. Why? I think this is partly because large sections of the media in this country do not see what is happening. This Christianity is not just a change of ethnic basis. It’s not just the fact of being a black and brown Christianity instead of white Christianity. It’s often a more conservative, traditional, charismatic kind of Christianity. In other words, to use the scariest word available to the media, it is “fundamentalist.”

Not too long ago I did a radio interview on a National Public Radio station in Boston that you didn’t hear for the simple reason that they didn’t broadcast it. Let me tell you why. What they wanted to do was to have me come on and talk about the new kind of fundamentalism in Southern Christianity. I would talk about these mindless fanatics sweeping the South, and then they’d have a civilized Episcopalian on and he’d talk about all the social activism you find in Southern Christianity, and we could then have a screaming match. The Episcopalian said, “Well, of course, this Christianity, it is very fundamentalist.” And I said, “Well, yes it also is very socially active.” So we chatted and we got to the point of, “So what’s your favorite color? I like blue. Blue’s a nice color.” And they didn’t broadcast it because we weren’t arguing.

Look at the Roman Catholic tradition. The Roman Catholic Church may be the first of the world’s religious denominations to acknowledge and come to terms with this shift to the south. Within 20 years, roughly 60 percent of the world’s Catholics will live in Latin America and Africa. That doesn’t include Asia. That does not include Latin Americans and Asians living in the United States. Oh, did I mention that by the middle of the coming century approximately one third of the population of the United States will claim Latino or Asian roots? Southern Christianity is here. Southern Christianity is on our doorstep.


It has been remarked recently that the Vatican has one major problem, it’s 2,000 miles too far north. It should be in the center of the Catholic world. John Updike once said, “God doesn’t play too well in Sweden. God sticks pretty close to the equator.” Once you understand concepts like that, it makes a lot of sense in terms of where the great centers of the Catholic Church are and are going to be. In 2000, the Vatican issued the document Dominus Jesus about the unique truth of Jesus and of the Christian way. I think in America this was basically seen as, “Well, they found another way to annoy us. This is intended to make life difficult for us. It’s intended to wreck ecumenical efforts. It’s intended to wreck Christian-Jewish dialogue. Why do they do it?” In the rest of the Catholic world, partly for those 94 percent of Catholics who don’t live between Boston and San Diego, this was an extremely useful, practical manual. It placed limits on how far cooperation should go before it turned into syncretism. If you are living in a society like the United States, these kinds of efforts seem very rational. If you are living in a Nigerian village and have to know how far you can go in relation with local Muslims, this was a vitally important document.

By the way, you also can predict a number of things about the direction that Catholicism is going to go as it becomes a more African and Latin American religion. One is, if you think this Pope is big on the Virgin Mary, keep tuned. In Latin America we have many theologians who believe that popular religion, the religion of the people, is an authentic warrant for theology. If the people follow the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Virgin of La Caridad del Cobre and so on, then you’re going to see very, very high titles for the Virgin becoming increasingly common.

I’ve learned a good deal from doing the work that resulted in The Next Christendom, and maybe I can just talk a little bit about some of those observations. First we tend to look at the New Testament very differently when you look at the way the Bible is read in the new Southern churches. Passages and whole books, which mean next to nothing to most Westerners, have an amazing and immediate relevance in much ofthe South. Let me give you an example. I think many Westerners are almost embarrassed by the Book of Revelation. The Book of Revelation in America has connotations of compounds in Montana. If somebody approaches you and wants to tell you about the Book of Revelation, you know the Golden Rules: don’t make eye contact; don’t show fear; back away slowly. Across much of the global South the Book of Revelation is one of the most cherished parts of the Bible. Not because people believe in doomsday religion, but because they read it as it was written. A message to Christians living in absolutely hostile, intolerable, unchristian societies that seemed to be under the power of demons. The devil set up his throne in cities. You look at the newcities that were at the heart of the new Christian world: Lagos, Kinshasa, Sao Paulo and the idea that the city is under the control of the devil and demonic forces like poverty and racism and pollution makes absolute sense. The Book of Revelation is a political science textbook.

I think you also tend to read the Gospels differently. Maybe I’m being unfair to this audience, but I think many Westerners, when they read the Gospels, tend to read for wisdom and religious remarks. In other words, you look through all these stories about exorcisms and healings and casting out demons and the assertion of power over evil and you get to a good parable. If you look at it from the perspective of the Church in the areas where Christianity is growing so fast, then it is above all the appeal of power over evil that makes Jesus and His Church so overwhelmingly attractive. I think that has to make us ask a lot of questions. One question I have, and it is one of the most troubling questions, is whether Christianity is a religion that is intended, above all, for the poor. We’re all familiar with the line, “Blessed are the poor.” The words, “Blessed are the poor,” does not mean blessed are the poor. The word “poor” does not mean poor in the sense of not having a great deal. What it actually means is the utterly ground down, the oppressed, the cast out, the street people, the untouchables. It’s that sort of poor. It makes wonderful sense in a Christian world of starvation.

You look at the Bible as it is read in much of the global South and you see things that maybe you haven’t seen before with anything like the same immediacy. You realize how passages about exile make wonderful sense in the South. One the most popular books of the Bible in Africa is the Book of Ruth. Not one of the best known books of the Bible for Westerners. Why? What’s it about? It’s about women deprived of family, living in an era of starvation, having to migrate, having to become exiles from their country, having to turn to new kin. This is not a religious text. This is documentary. This is absolute immediate reality.

You begin to look at passages about martyrdom and persecution. Now let’s face it, for most of us here, and I don’t just mean the Twin Cities area, reading passages  in the Bible about when you are persecuted (not if), is not relevant. It’s historical. It’s very interesting how many Americans and Europeans cope with this. “Well, there will come a time before the end, and there’ll be the rapture and the anti-Christ will rule and at that point Christians will be persecuted.” If you live in Nigeria or the Sudan or India or Indonesia, and the passage about, “When you are called before a court and they ask you, ‘What do you believe?’”– when, not if – that’s a textbook. So, I think I tend to look at the Bible somewhat differently.

I look at history a little bit differently too. I think a lot of us are familiar with a concept called “Western Christianity.” If you look at many books, you’ll see Islam, African; Islam, Asian; Christianity, Western. And we know that Christianity, Western, is the religion of imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and conquest. The more I look at Christian history, the more I see that the normal state for Christians through history is as oppressed minorities or oppressed majorities living under hostile regimes. There is so much more to Christian history than many of the standard accounts that focus on Europe pay attention to.

Christianity is growing very fast, particularly in the same countries or in adjacent countries to Islam, a religion that grows from exactly the same kind of appeal as Christianity. The two religions have got on well in large parts of their history. But tragically, we live in an age when the two religions are rubbing up against each other. I’m often asked, “Do I foresee great religious wars coming in the 21st century?” No, of course I don’t foresee this. I see them now. I see Nigeria, potentially one of the world’s most important, wealthy countries down the road, if they could organize their economy and their government. What will Nigeria be in 25 years? Will it be one Muslim country? Will it be three countries? Will it be a graveyard? I look at Indonesia with a population of 23 million people, 10 percent Christian. Many people wonder if Christianity will survive there 20 years. I look at the Sudan, I look at Egypt. Do I believe in the clash of civilizations as something that is integral to Islam and Christianity? No. As something that is true of the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Definitely.

What does this mean for Americans? I ask the questions, “Should the American government make the prevention of religious persecution a cardinal goal of foreign policy? Should it be in their interest to try and prevent the destruction of religious minorities?” By the way, before you tell me – have Christians persecuted other groups? Obviously. The largest religious massacre in modern Europe since WWII was of Muslims by Christians at Srebrenica. Do not tell me this. I know this. But I also look at Islam and Christianity in countries like this and I look at the other great world religion, Hinduism, and the conflicts with Christianity in India. Is that something that should be a matter of concern, not just to Christians but to Americans, secular, Christian, Jewish, whatever? If you want to convert to another religion, feel free. If you’re forced to convert to another religion, it’s our business.

I’d like to end with a quotation from G.K. Chesterton, who once wrote a book called Napoleon of Notting Hill. It begins with the wonderful line, “The human race, to which so many of my readers belong.” And he proceeds, “One of the games to which the human race is most attached is called ‘Keep tomorrow dark’ and which is also named ‘Cheat the prophet.’ The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead and bury them nicely. They then go do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun.”

Trying to predict the future in any form is an area in which only fools would participate and fools rush in. Ladies and gentlemen, I am that fool. Thank you.