Global Trend-spotting

By Sue Careless

Philip Jenkins spoke on “Christianity in the World City” at Wycliffe College, Toronto, on May 14 as part of the Refresh! Conference. This report uses his own rhetorical questions and questions from the floor. Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and is best known for his highly acclaimed work, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, which is now in its third edition.

Has there been a geographic shift in Christianity globally?

Christianity around the world is doing extremely well but paradoxically Christianity in its former centers of glory is doing extremely badly. Why is this happening, and is there a way we can lessen that difference in the old centers that are very Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic: W-e-i-r-d?

In 1640, one of the worst years in European civilization (until 1940), when Catholics were killing Protestants and Protestants were killing Catholics and everyone was killing Jews, people worried whether civilization would fail entirely in Europe. St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) predicted that the Church in the future would thrive in South America, Africa, China, and Japan. Except for Japan, he was right.

By 2050 the countries with the largest Christian populations will be the United States, followed in no particular order by Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Philippines, and China.

The American Physics Society compiled another list of countries that would have “no religion” by the end of this century. They included the Netherlands, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Austria, and Estonia. In the first list there is no member of the British Empire, and in the second most were influenced by the Reformation. So the question to ask is not Has there been a shift in Christianity? but Has the world been wholly turned upside down?

Which is the world’s fastest-growing religion?

I have two simple answers: Islam, and Christianity outside Europe. If you subtract the dead weight of Europe, Christianity outside of Europe is by far the fastest-growing religion.

Which continent has the largest Christian population?

Africa; no competition. In 1900 Africa had 10 million Christians, about 10 percent of the population. By 2000 they had 360 million, and it hit half a billion this year. By 2050 it should hit a little more than one billion. Over the next 20 or 30 years I’ve seen nothing that would slow it down.

Why are these huge changes happening?

If you want to understand global changes in religion, look at demographics. Take the country that would become Kenya. In 1900 it had 1 million people, by 2000 it has 40 million, and it should have 75 million by 2050. So if half the population is Christian and you keep that percent, you are going to have far more Christians by 2050. It is partly a case of conversions but demographics matter, too. In 1900 Europeans on the planet outnumbered Africans by two and a half to one; by 2050 Africans will outnumber Europeans two and a half to one.

Why is 2.1 such an important figure in demographics?

If you have a society in which a typical woman during her lifetime has 2.1 children, then that is the replacement rate for a steady and usually stable population. If it goes way above that you have an expanding, young population; if it goes way below, you have a shrinking, aging population. The median age of the population of Italy is 42, while that of Uganda is 14. This also has a great deal to do with religion and secularization. If you tell me the fertility rate of a particular society, I can give you a very good guess at how secular it is.

If you have a low fertility rate of 1.6, that society has lost the traditional, religious-based sanction for larger families. There are fewer children and so far fewer potential bonds to organized religion. In villages where there might once have been 100 children going through confirmation, now there are two or three. In the last 50 years, you have sharp falls in fertility rates in Europe due to secularization and the passing of secular policies like abortion and same-sex marriage. We see this dramatically in Spain and Italy. A Roman Catholic these days is female and lives near the equator. Last year in the Philippines there were more Roman Catholic baptisms than in France, Spain, Italy, and Poland combined. Areas of Germany have a fertility rate of .8 percent. This demographic decline is unprecedented.

Yet the countries with the sharpest falls in fertility in the last 25 years, and the ones most likely to be secularizing radically in the next two decades, are all Islamic. The sharpest drop has occurred in the United Arab Emirates: from 6 children per woman in the 1980s down to 1.6 today. There is a two-tier Muslim world. Some are very secular and European with low fertility rates, such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. Others have very high fertility rates and are very religious, fundamentalist, and violent: Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Fertility rates are a very good predictor of religiosity.

Some countries have resisted this great European fertility fall. Black Africa still has an expanding and extremely religious population. One recent survey found “99 percent of Nigerians believe in God.” Then it was “corrected”: 100 percent was said to be more accurate! South Africa is the exception. It is experiencing a nascent secularization.

What obstacles could stop the growth of Christianity in Africa?

If you have religious wars, particularly ones driven by resource conflict, there could be massive destruction of Christian populations.

What role do women play in the African church?

Even if they are not ordained, women are key among the lay leaders. Women bring their menfolk in as converts. If a church doesn’t have a very strong female base and constituency, it is going nowhere.

What is the most secular populated continent in the world?

Europe. But South America is moving in the same European direction regarding abortion and same-sex marriage.

What does Christianity look like in your “weird” world of Europe and North America?

There are two extremes. Europe is the most secular and the United States is the most religious. Recent surveys show growing numbers of people with no religious affiliation who are often referred to as the “nones.” In Europe they really mean it, but be very, very suspicious of the so-called American nones. Many still attend church. In Europe disused church buildings are everywhere, and become apartments, warehouses, and mosques. In America they become another church.

How do you have a church without children and where those in their 80s and 90s, the super-old, are the mainstream?

You cannot run a society with only old people. You need someone to do the work and pay the taxes. We’ve had mass immigration from the Global South into Europe and North America, and those people have brought their religious patterns with them. In Europe we’ve seen one pattern where new immigrant groups become the new framework of Christianity, replacing older churches. In America they do not, because the existing churches and their infrastructure are still so strong. So Nigerian, Vietnamese, and Korean churches in the States just add another layer to the existent American church.

In Europe we see this pattern of replacement very strongly. (Secularism is not uniform across Europe. The exceptions are Poland, Slovakia, and Croatia — which still have extremely high levels of religious practice and vocations to the priesthood.) In France today only 48 percent of people claim even a nominal Catholic identity. Religion is not dead in Europe but it’s strongly associated with immigrants. Nigerian congregations are springing up everywhere. The largest Christian congregation in Europe is in Kiev — and is Nigerian-led. The four largest megachurches in Britain are all pastored by Nigerians. The megachurches in Paris and Brussels are Congolese. European Catholic seminaries are overwhelmingly black African and Vietnamese. There are important areas of growth within the white churches of Europe, but they move away from the idea of church being for everybody and concentrate on smaller, highly motivated groups of worshipers that borrow from Pentecostalism and charismatic American and African churches. You’re familiar with Holy Trinity Brompton, and St. Andrew’s Chorleywood, which draws heavily on the Chilean Pentecostal revival. The See of York was founded in 627 and now has a black Ugandan bishop, John Sentamu. Christianity won’t die in Europe but will shift enormously from a white to a black and brown phenomenon.

There is still so much life and expansion in Christianity in the United States. The huge church parking lots are the modern-day equivalent of the mighty spires that rose above the cathedrals of the Middle Ages. In the U.S. by 2050, 90 percent of the Roman Catholic Church will be Latino and Asian.

Where does Canada fit in?

If Africa is the most Christian area on the planet, and Europe the least, and the United States somewhere in the middle, then Canada is much closer to the European model. Canada is the top immigrant destination of the G8 countries. The combined Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh populations in Canada equal 7.2 percent, while the same percent of the Canadian population belongs to immigrant Christian churches. Canadian Christianity is going to be much more an immigrant phenomenon. There are thriving Chinese Baptist churches in Scarborough and Richmond Hill. And don’t get me started on Vancouver.

Are Islam and the Asian religions immune from the secularizing trends that affect Christianity?

No. Let’s look at two imaginary friends of mine: Tony and Tariq. Tony is from a Roman Catholic background; Tariq is from an Islamic background. Their parents followed those religions but Tony and Tariq have zero interest in religion. Neither attends a religious service or follows any religious practices of their faith. Yet every study in Europe and North America will list Tariq as a Muslim but none will list Tony as a Roman Catholic or a Christian. So what do some statistics about Muslims actually mean? Simply that they or their families came from a country where Islam was the default religion, not that they necessarily now practice that faith.

Why do you stress cities?

Christianity was born in cities in Asia and Africa and in our time has decided to go home. It was established in cities, yet 500 years later there were virtually no Christians out in the countryside around those cities among the pagans, which is derived from the Latin paganus meaning peasant or pagus, country people. Today the largest concentrations of Christians are in cities. We are living in the greatest age of urbanization, greater than during the Industrial Revolution, and it’s happening in Africa and Asia. We’re dealing with cities of 25 and 30 million people. Chonqing in China has a larger population than Iraq.

How do you live in a city that size?

Either you have a superb, caring, and highly efficient government or you have excellent, devoted, religious institutions in those cities that provide welfare, health and education services that governments cannot begin to match. That is why Christianity is booming in cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, and Nairobi: the government is basically nonfunctional. And it’s also why Islamic fundamentalist movements do well around the world. It’s why Hamas does well in the Middle East, where the local government is often corrupt and utterly incompetent. If your child has a medical emergency you go to a particular Hamas mosque that will find a local heart surgeon who is devoting his or her time to the poor.

To understand the religious patterns in the world today you have to return to some basic biblical realities. It’s not so much people listening to doctrine or words initially but people seeing deeds and great social outreach. It’s people taking care of your family, people offering a humane face in a city utterly lacking those phenomena. That is why cities like Lagos are going to be the great centers of Christianity for the remainder of this century.

What about Christianity in China?

The current scale of Christianity in China is open to argument. In 1949, when the Communists took over, there were 5 million Christians. Today the official count is 24 million, but the best figure we have is 70 to 75 million, larger than in any European country. There are a lot of Roman Catholics, but the great growth centers are charismatic and Pentecostal. For many years the Communist Party was favorable to Christianity because it represented modernization, hard work, and good ethical standards. But in the last few years the government considers that it has run out of control. So now the Communist Party is giving major support to other religions, such as Taoism and Buddhism. In 2005 the government commissioned and funded the building of a colossal 354-foot-high statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin on the island of Hainan.

How do Muslims and Christians interact when they move to the Global North, say from Lagos to Toronto?

In an African country religious differences are less than you might think, because everyone is related to everyone. A Nigerian Christian probably will have a Muslim aunt. The interfaith conversations are amazing in Nigeria. It would be unthinkable to start any meeting there without a prayer. It doesn’t matter if it is a priest or a mullah who delivers it. Some U.S. diplomats got into trouble because they wouldn’t start meetings with prayers.

But if you move to Toronto you have Christians and Muslims from completely different societies. When people move and lose those original ties to that particular community and landscape then you get people cut off from their old, local Islam and sometimes they adopt this new, transnational, more radical Islam. You move to a land [seemingly] without God. How do you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? Some Muslims then accept a much more generic Islam that makes universal claims. Similar things happen to Christians who move from Ethiopia. They may move to a more transnational Christian faith like Pentecostalism. The old religious labels acquire a new currency in the new land. Sometimes a western government makes an ethnic group speak through its community’s religious leaders, the mullahs, who may be more radical than the ethnic group itself.

The Global North is present in the South in media, money, and soft power. (Both Muslims and Christians use media for evangelizing, often in very sophisticated ways.) The Global South is in the North in the form of people [immigrants]. Christianity is truly a global Church.

Image of Philip Jenkins by Sue Careless


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