Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Big Picture I

I am currently reading Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity which is creating plenty of brain food for a future missionary. In this space over the next few days, I plan to muse on a couple of Jenkins’ findings.

Let me begin with the central thesis of the book, which goes something like this: “We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide.” This transformation is the movement of Christianity from the European and Western civilizations, all located in the northern hemispheres, to the southern part of the world, including Africa, Asia and Latin America. Jenkins calls this new center of the worldwide Church, “Southern Christianity,” and goes on to quote numbers and figures to prove his point.

Jenkins reports these facts, I believe, in order to, first, set right all those who claim to see the death of Christianity in the near future. It may be common for Western intellectuals and postmoderns (Bishop Spong included!) to predict the end of religion as we know it. But Jenkins dismisses this idea with cold hard facts. The church, in all its diversity and configurations, is actually growing around the world. And, even more importantly, it is growing in those very places which one might suspect would resist “Western” religion. Christianity is booming in the old European colonies scattered throughout the world, despite its very mixed past.

Jenkins is also convinced, I think, that Western Christianity will be challenged, even threatened, by the Southern churches. For one, the Southern churches are located amongst the poorest people of the world.

It is appropriate that the gospel is taking root in the Third World at this particular point in time. Christianity has always made its home among the poor, the dispossessed, the refugee. Jesus proclaimed that this was his particular mission in life – to bring good news precisely to those kinds of people. When the poor hear and receive the gospel, then apparently something right is happening.

But something else begins to happen as this worldwide shift occurs. Perhaps these new Third World Christians will finally force Western churches to face up to the problem of poverty and Christian responsibility. Perhaps they will force us to read the story of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler again, for the first time. Maybe they will convince us that Jesus really did say that it would be harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to squeeze through the needle’s eye.

The end result could be a brand-new kind of Christianity that might actually look, feel, pray and believe much like the first Christians. And that can’t be a bad thing.