Thursday, May 10, 2007

Christianity "Going South"?

Newsflash: The World is Changing. In particular, the Christian world is changing. Phillip Jenkins' eye opening book, The Next Christendom, points out some staggering statistics about the changing face of Christianity. Here are some:

  • In 1950 a list of the world’s leading Christian countries would have included Britain, France, Spain, and Italy, but none of these names will be represented in a corresponding list by the year 2050.
  • In 1900 Europe was home to two-thirds of the world’s Christian population; today, the figure is less than a quarter. By 2025 it will fall below 20 percent.
  • In 2005 about one third of the planetary population, some 2.1 billion people, were Christians.
- 531 million were Europeans.
- 511 million were Latin Americans
- 389 million were Africans
- 344 million were Asians
- 226 million were North Americans

  • The number of African Christians will double in less than 30 years.
  • In 2025, here’s how these figures will change. Of the 2.6 billion Christians worldwide…
- 595 million will live in Africa
- 623 million will live in Latin America
- 498 million will live in Asia
- 513 million will live in Europe
- Latin American and African Christians will account for half of the world’s Christian population.

  • By 2050 only about one fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites.
What all of these figures tell us is that Christianity is, quite literally, "going south." In other words, the momentum of Christianity is moving to parts of the world that have less access to wealth and resources, namely Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Now, how does that make you feel?

I’ll be honest that it made me feel a little bit scared. It made me feel like I was losing my Christian voice. It made me wonder if Christianity would survive in such cultures, and if it did survive, would it even look the same as the Christianity that I believe?

Then it made me look at Christianity throughout history. It survived the Romans, the Catholics, the Europeans, the Nazis, the Russians and the Americans. It survived the Crusades, the Reformation, the Scientific revolution, Darwinism, the Industrial Revolution, Marxian philosophy, Television, the Internet, etc. If the West hasn't completely screwed up the gospel by now, who can? Plus, think of the culture of the West and compare it with the culture of the South. Which is more like the culture of the Bible? Perhaps there's a lot we can learn from our Southern friends about the true nature of the church.

We've reviewed the Western challenges to the Christian worldview, but have we considered how those challenges influence the way we view our faith? It would take us at least sixty days in the woods to begin to understand God without all our gadgets, television, internet, and luxuries, much less the philosophical baggage we may not even be aware of. So, while Christianity has survived these things, it has also been influenced by them. What will it be influenced by in 50 years?

This is important, because now, more than ever, we need a clear understanding of what it means to be distinctly Christian.

Is the Christian life summed up in the old hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey”? Is it all about discipline and discipleship? Is it all about knowing Christ and obeying his commands? Here’s what Scott McKnight says about that:

“My 20 years of studying and teaching the Gospels have made me very aware of the power of Jesus images of discipleship--his admonishment to "be perfect" and to "take up your cross daily," and his warning that "any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple." I also am aware that these texts can be abused and misused, particularly when they are employed to present radical obedience as the entirety of the Christian life. Radical commitment is an important concept, but it is not what the Christian life is all about. There is something behind discipleship.

Is it the disciplines that stand behind discipleship? Jesus prayed, meditated, fasted, kept periods of solitude, lived simply, worshiped and celebrated. But he rarely spoke about the disciplines. They are there, but they are not his focus. Because they are so objective, the spiritual disciplines easily attract legalistic and pietistic barnacles that turn them into ugly monsters. Because the disciplines can be quantified, counted and assessed, they can easily lead people to compare themselves favorably or unfavorably with others. And because they are acts, they can easily lead to a sense of accomplishment and superiority. A discipline-focus for spiritual formation can lead to legalism--as evidenced by the Christians who congratulate themselves on their daily Bible reading, church attendance, or the superior vocations of their children.”

So, what is it that we are to be focused upon as Christians? What is our gospel? Again, McKnight is helpful:

“A scribe comes to Jesus and asks, "What is a life of discipleship? What are the disciplines designed to accomplish?" Because that scribe is a Torah-observant Jew and because Jesus is a Jew as well, the scribe asks this great question in a first-century Jewish manner: "Of all the commandments [and you know Jesus, there are over 600 of them], which is the most important?" "The most important," Jesus answers, is this: 'Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this: "Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no greater commandment than these" (Mark 12:28-31).

Behind discipleship and beyond the disciplines is love--love of God and love of others. Radical commitment is fine, if it is fired by love. Spiritual formation is noble, if it produces love for God and others. Without love, to modernize Paul's words, we become either fanatics or egoists. When Jesus says we are to love God he is quoting from the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4-9, words that were recited according to the "divine hours of Judaism." Most scholars think observant Jews recited this passage two or three times per day. But when Jesus goes on to say that we are to love others, he tampers with the sacred creed of his contemporaries. He adds to the Shema by quoting Leviticus 19:18, and in so doing creates a new creed for his followers, the Jesus Creed. Love of God is to be joined, at all times, with love for others. Both, always. Apart they turn humans into fanatics and egoists. Together they turn humans into the imago Dei, walking expressions of God's love.”

In the ever changing landscape of the Christian world, the joy of the true gospel is what excites me most. The opportunities we have to be people of The Jesus Creed - lovers of God and lovers of others - gives us the freedom to embrace our Southern brothers and sisters with grace and simplicity, and allows us to learn and be shaped by them as they learn and are shaped by us. After viewing these statistics and pairing them with McKnight's quotes, I am as excited as ever about being a part of the world community of Christ followers. It's nice to know that as the world changes, the gospel remains simple, beautiful and believable: Loving the triune God, while sharing that love with the diverse world.

1 comment:

Stephen and Haley said...

I think these stats are pretty amazing. I admit too my own angst when it come to the changing times. Maybe not so much the geographical regions that Christianity is shifting to but more so the reality that things are changing.

Change is often wonderful, but very often hard. (I feel the weight of this right now!)

Change can be wonderful and challenging and encouraging ( I hope).

Two quotes that I think are outstanding are

"If the West hasn't completely screwed up the gospel by now, who can?"

As a lover of Christian history I couldn't have said it better myself. History is often the best corrector and helps to put the momentary troubles of our day in their proper light. (I'll stay away from the word tradition because some well meaning brothers might accuse me of being well you know C%^#*@ic!)

And the other one is:

"This is important, because now, more than ever, we need a clear understanding of what it means to be distinctly Christian."

You (through Mcknight) sum this up nicely.

Love the post, great work and good thoughts.