No evangelical collapse

2009-03-19 00:00

I was intrigued with your article last week (The Witness, March 13) titled “Evangelical Collapse”, Evangelicalism being that branch of Christianity which limits spiritual authority to the Bible.

It is true that not only Evangelicalism, but all forms of Christianity, except the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches as a sub-species of Evangelicalism, are indeed on the back foot in North America and Western Europe. This is mainly because they have been battered by the gale force and prevailing winds of scientific humanism, the neo-pagan spirit of our age, plus aspects of post-modernism, all of which have slowly taken the West out of what used to be called Christendom into a post-Christian era.

However, it would be misleading to conclude on the basis of your article that Evangelicalism worldwide is in retreat or collapse. In fact, the contrary is the case. For example in one of the landmark volumes of this past decade, The Next Christendom — the Coming of Global Christianity, by Philip

Jenkins, professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University in the United States, the author affirms on the basis of wide and meticulous research that: “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilisations overseas, above all in North America … but over the past century, the centre of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward to Africa, Asia and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South — not just surviving but expanding.”

Jenkins affirms that Christianity, and here he is speaking primarily of evangelical Christianity, “should enjoy a worldwide boom in this new 21st century, but the majority of believers will be neither white nor European, nor Euro-American”. Jenkins predicts that in 2025 there will be about 2,6 billion Christians, mainly in the southern hemisphere. Thus, while Western Christianity, as we know it, may decline in our lifetime, nevertheless the day of Southern Christianity is dawning. And this dramatic growth, says Jenkins, will even exceed that of Islam so that there will “by 2050 still be about three Christians for every two Moslems worldwide. Some 34% of the world’s people will then be Christian, roughly what the figure was at the height of European world hegemony in 1900”.

Interestingly enough, Jenkins notes that southern-hemisphere Christians in this developing era will be more conservative, evangelical and biblically based in terms of their beliefs and moral teaching. They will also have a “very strong supernatural orientation” with the dominant Christian current being “traditionalist, orthodox, and supernatural”.

He affirms that it is not easy, even now, “to convince a congregation in Seoul or Nairobi that Christianity is dying, when their main concern is building a worship facility big enough for the 10 000 or 20 000 members they have gained. And these new converts are mainly teenagers and young adults. Nor can these churches be easily told that in order to reach a mass audience they must bring their message more into accord with Western secular orthodoxies”.

Thus can Jenkins predict what he calls “a new Christendom” which will “offer a higher set of standards and morals which alone could claim to be universal”.

In all of this, Christianity on our own continent may hold a major clue to the future of the faith as Africa almost certainly will sometime in the 21st century become the major fulcrum of world mission, ably backed up by South-East Asia, China and Latin America. In reality the Christian growth rate in Africa can indeed be described as explosive, with some 1 500 new congregations being planted every month and some 25 000 people a day entering the Christian faith either by conversion or baptism into Christian families.

So biblically committed Christians everywhere should take heart, particularly if they live in the southern hemisphere or especially in Africa.

And even with regard to the West, I noted a feature article in Newsweek a few years ago stating that biblically committed Christians “should not lose heart”, not only because southern-hemisphere Christians will surely re-evangelise the North, but also because “Christianity as the world’s most missionary faith,” has a history of renewing itself, even in the most culturally inhospitable places. “That,” said Newsweek, “is a hope that lies behind the ever-changing face of the church”.

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