The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity

Philip Jenkins Oxford University Press, USA, New York September 13, 2011
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Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Penn State University, argues that the astounding growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere over the last century is indicative of both the true global character of Christianity and the central role that the church in the global South will play in the future. Targeting particularly the liberal Westerner, the author establishes his case with an arsenal of historical and contemporary data to support his claim that the conservative, contextualized forms of “Southern Christianity” will define “the next Christendom.”

In chapter one, “The Christian Revolution,” Jenkins energetically contends that, although ignored by North Atlantic media and academic studies, it is the huge religious migration—the shift in the center of gravity in the Christian world from the North to the South—that was the most significant religious event of the twentieth century. He claims that this revolutionary change has and will continue to allow Christianity unprecedented growth.

In chapter two Jenkins builds a case that, contrary to popular belief, Christianity has never been synonymous with the North Atlantic nations, having regularly sustained a fairly worldwide perspective, if not presence. A brief survey of Christian history shows that it was a full thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire before Christianity became confined mainly to Europe. He then examines the re-expansion of Christianity through Catholic and Protestant missions, highlighting its failures and successes in becoming the first truly global religion.

In “Missionaries and Prophets” (chap. 3) Jenkins articulates the nationalization of Christianity by indigenous leaders. “Standing Alone” (chap. 4) examines the stunning growth in nearly all Christian churches—both mainstream and independent—except for its suppression in the Islamic world. Jenkins ascribes this successful Southern growth in part to economic circumstances that have allowed the church to be a refuge to estranged, suffering people during decades of social change.

“The Rise of the New Christianity” (chap. 5) observes demographic trends and the population explosion of the South that will play a key role in Christian expansion in the twenty-first century. In “Coming to Terms” (chap. 6), Jenkins debates whether Southern expressions of faith reflect true Christianity or syncretism. Asking whose culture will fashion the form of future Christianity, he responds that “Northern views on religious matters should become less and less significant as the new century develops” (p. 119). What may seem to be oddities in third-world churches may in fact be the result of taking the Bible more literally than churches do in the West.

The point of chapter 7, “God and the World,” is that, unlike much Christianity present in the North, Southern Christianity assumes that God is active in all spheres of life, private or public. This has prompted leading religious figures in the global South to be involved in politics, government, and a variety of social causes. “The Next Crusade” (chap. 8) discusses the real and potential conflicts that exist or could well exist in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized by religion in the Southern Hemisphere, particularly between Islam and Christianity. In chapter 9, “Coming Home,” the author discusses the great gulf between the liberal Christianity of the North and the more traditional Christian theology and practice of the South.

In “Seeing Christianity Again for the First Time” (chap. 10), Jenkins argues that the new Christendom of the South is not a mirror image of the North. Rather it is distinct and developing, requiring the reader to view Christianity through new lenses. Christianity can no longer be seen as the religion of the West but must be appreciated for what it has become, a global reality that is increasingly affected by the characteristics, beliefs, and actions of the people of the South.

Several evaluations are in order. First, the author does an exceptional job in educating the average reader in the West regarding the changing face of Christianity. Jenkins correctly indicts the West for ignoring this revolutionary change in the world. By marshalling a wealth of historical and demographic evidence (at certain points questionable), he demonstrates that the future of Christianity almost certainly lies in the South.

Second, Jenkins demonstrates that at no time in history did the West have a monopoly on the Christian faith. Readers will be surprised to learn that in A.D. 1200 over half of those claiming Christian faith may have lived in the Middle East and Asia—in spite of Muslim domination (pp. 23–24). By revisiting the history of Christianity, Jenkins shows that the explosive growth of Christianity in the non-North Atlantic world is not a Western incursion but is instead a return to a global faith.

Third, while the author excels in making the reader aware of the dynamic acceleration of Christianity in the South, Jenkins’s open definition of Christian faith may alarm some. Though he correctly asserts that Christianity should not be defined too narrowly, he includes “for the purposes of this book” a breadth of Christendom that seems to minimize historical doctrines such as the bodily resurrection of Christ and the Trinity (p. 88).

Fourth, Jenkins’s appraisal of Christian movements in the South seems to be overly pragmatic. Throughout the book the litmus test for success seems to be quantity more than quality, which is understandably more difficult to discern, especially when a broad definition of Christianity is accepted.

Literarily engaging, well researched, and jolting, The Next Christendom has justly received wide acclaim. By nearly all standards this is an extraordinary volume.

—Alex Didea and J. Scott Horrell

April 1, 2005
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2005 vol. 162 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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