I had seen so many references to Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity that I felt like I already knew what it said. Still, I decided to allow it the chance to speak for itself. Well worth the read. Here are some thoughts.
Jenkins’s basic thesis of the shift of the center of gravity of Christianity from north to south is well established, hardly news in many circles, but he does an admirable job of presenting the statistical data of the global shift. Lots of numbers in this book. But in my mind, the real value of the volume lies in his ability to paint a picture of what it might look like. Whether he is describing the new Pentecostal/fundamentalist character of world Christianity, the realignment of Western nations against Christian nations, or the possible future arenas of the next jihad, Jenkins provides a vivid picture of the possibilities we may soon be facing… and already are facing in some parts of the globe. Thought-provoking.
However, I must say I enjoyed even more the first part of the book, dealing with the history of Christianity; in particular chapter 2, “Disciples of All Nations,” in which Jenkins presents a provocative reframing of Christian history. Reacting against Eurocentric readings of church history, Jenkins claims that the statistical weight of Christianity centered in the middle East, north Africa, and Asia until probably the fourteenth century – a statement that comes as a bit of a shock to any American or Western European who paid attention in world history class. Jenkins admits that his statistics differ from some other experts, and indeed, all statistics in this arena require more than a little guesswork. There is no official census data of religious affiliation in rural Syria in the 1300s, in case you were wondering. Still, his case seems weighty. It makes me want to do more research to see for myself the validity of this new historical reading. If Jenkins is on the right track, it reshapes our views of the current crisis-laden situation in the Islamic world as well as the current post-Christendom situation of Europe.
Jenkin’s work touches home with me personally for one simple reason: I live and minister within the new center of gravity of global Christianity. What he describes as new and future for Western onlookers is past and well-established present for us in Angola. In my mind, our situation is well encapsulated in one word: Christendom. I have long been struck by the fact that, while America publishes books by the dozens on the fall of Christendom and the new missional perspectives of Christians learning to live in a post-Christendom arena, I am placed smack-dab in the middle of a Christendom so firmly established and so pervasive that it is difficult to imagine a different possibility. Reading the history of the Middle East in the 500s or Europe in the 1500s feels like reading a commentary on our current experience of Africa in the 2000s. This is Christendom, and it’s alive and well. As such, I’m glad Jenkins chose to highlight the term in his book’s title. Western Christians need to be reminded that Christendom is not a thing of the past, but of the future.
One current research interest of mine spurred on by Jenkins and by other materials I’m currently reading (including John Parratt, Reinventing Christianity: African Theology Today) is the redefinition process of several terms within the African context. For example, Jenkins insists rather simplistically that southern Christianity is increasingly Pentecostal, and he’s certainly correct. But what does Pentecostal mean? The African content of the term differs significantly from what it might have meant in Los Angeles during the Azusa Street Revivals of the early 1900s. To miss the subtle redefinition at work is to misunderstand the present and the future of African Christianity and, therefore, of global Christianity. Hmm… there’s more work to be done.