Killing off Christianity

May 25, 2006 |Drew Dyck

Reports of the death of Christianity have been greatly exaggerated.

In college I got pretty used to people attacking my faith. In the classroom it seemed that Christians took the blame for just about all of history's woes — from slavery to the oppression of women to environmental destruction.

These attacks I could anticipate. I was ready for them. There was one charge, however, that took me entirely by surprise. All the harm my religion had allegedly caused ultimately didn't matter, I was told. Why?

Because Christianity was ending.

I remember studying a poem in Philosophy that described Christianity as a huge meteor. The meteor, the poem went, had blazed across the night sky and now flickered softly on the horizon. Soon it would pass from sight. The message was clear. Christianity had been a major force in history, but its days were numbered.

This belief was widespread. Not that anyone bothered arguing too passionately for the bold prediction. It was just common knowledge. Inevitable.

Yet being a somewhat difficult student, I felt compelled to investigate the received wisdom of the academe and found that the numbers tell a quite different story. In reality the faith is not waning. Worldwide the number of Christians is actually exploding. Still the heralds of doom, both in the academe and media, seem blind to the statistical reality. If they'd only remove their ethnocentric blinders, they'd see a wave of faith rising in the most populous places on earth.

Vibrant and Growing

In his book The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Philip Jenkins highlights the tendency of western commentators to make grave intonations about the plight of Christendom. He cites a popular article from The New York Times.

Visit a church at random next Sunday and you will probably encounter a few dozen people sprinkled thinly over a sanctuary that was built to accommodate hundreds or even thousands. The empty pews and white-haired congregants lend credence to those who argue that traditional religious worship is dying out.Brent L. Staples, The New York Times, Nov. 26, 2000.

Many voices echo this refrain. Popular writer John Shelby Spong, who wrote the best-seller Why Christianity must Change or Die, travels widely delivering his grandiose ultimatum to the faithful. Spong declares that unless Christians abandon such beliefs as Jesus' resurrection or the idea of a personal God, Christianity "will soon take its place alongside other ancient religions in the museum." Scholar Arthur Peacock agrees, insisting that the church drop what he calls "incomprehensible and unbelievable" teachings of supernaturalism in order to be credible to the world.

Jenkins writes that these statements reveal several misperceptions. Contrary to the gloomy forecasts, statistics show that the percentage of Christians, even in the U.S., is holding steady or even rising slightly. Critics tend to focus on declining numbers in high church traditions while ignoring the massive nondenominational congregations springing up across the country. They also overlook something else: the majority of earth's population. Jenkins writes:

Viewed from Cambridge or Amsterdam, such pleas make excellent sense, but in the context of global Christianity, this kind of liberalism looks distinctly dated. It would not be easy to convince a congregation in Seoul or Nairobi that Christianity is dying, when their main concern is building a worship facility big enough for the 10,000 or 20,000 members they have gained over the past few years. And these new converts are mostly teenagers and young adults, very few with white hair. Nor can these churches be easily told that, in order to reach a mass audience, they must bring their message more into accord with western secular orthodoxies.Phillip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2002.

A brief survey of second and third world countries (or as some say the "majority world") reveals a florescence of Christian belief not seen since the earliest days of the faith. Just look at the statistics.

  • In 1900 less than 10 percent of Africans were Christians. Today the number has surged to over 47 percent.
  • In 1949 China had only 4 million Christians. Today the number stands at about 82 million. That's over a 20x increase, even factoring in the country's total population growth. Former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine David Aikman projects that within a few decades 1 in 3 Chinese could be Christian.David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power, Regnery Publishing, 2004.
  • Christian faith is also on the rise in South America. Many South American countries report a catholic majority and a charismatic form of Protestantism is growing most quickly, sweeping whole cities with revival.
  • The spread of the faith in Korea has been just as astounding. Forget Saddleback. Seoul is now home to the world's largest church. And Korean Christians are not content with mere domestic growth. Christianity Today reports that now "Korea sends more missionaries than any country but the U.S. And it won't be long before it is number one."

Of course statistics can be misleading. Many secular European countries still show a Christian majority, even though most are only nominal (name-only) believers. However, nominalism is uncommon in the second and third world. For one, the church in these countries is young, with few second or third generation members who call themselves Christians simply because their parents were. Also, in countries like China, identifying as a Christian invites persecution. In these places those who call themselves Christians generally mean it.

Doomsayers can still point to Europe. In most European countries belief has been declining for decades. But Jenkins highlights a likely future scenario. With negative birthrates and an aging populous Europe is turning to immigration to stabilize its vulnerable economies. Jenkins believes the waves of immigration from increasingly Christian second and third world countries means Europe could very likely be "re-Christianized." In an Atlantic Monthly article Jenkins writes that the 21st century could be seen by historians as the time "when religion replaced ideology."

The Horse is Here to Stay

In light of the numbers it seems an odd time to be predicting Christianity's end. Of course people are always making predictions and rarely do they come to pass. Henry Ford's lawyer made a now-famous prediction about his boss' fledgling business. "The automobile is just a fad," he told Ford. "The horse is here to stay."

Today we see the lawyer was dead wrong. His mistake was understandable though because there was available evidence to lead him to that conclusion. There were a lot more horses than cars around at the time.

But those predicting Christianity's end are different. Their forecasts are simply not supported by the facts. In the midst of such Christian vitality they're starting to look a little strange — not like Ford's lawyer, but like someone standing by a crowded freeway stubbornly declaring that the horse will prevail.

I question their motivations. I wonder if their "predictions" are anything more than wishes in disguise. After all, those hailing Christianity's immanent demise also tend to advocate an aggressive secularism while longing for the day when religious belief will be expunged from public life. Call it wishful thinking.

Whatever the cause, it's still going on. Right now somewhere in America a professor is sketching out the soon-ending "Christian Era" before a class of credulous freshmen. On some radio show there's an "expert" opining about the decline of Christendom.

And meanwhile thousands are hearing the gospel for the first time and responding in faith.

Of course we Christians aren't surprised. We remember that someone else made a prediction long ago. Standing before his disciples with fire in his eyes Jesus promised to build his church. The gates of hell couldn't stop it, he told them. Nothing could. Nearly 2,000 years later 2 billion people the world over claim to follow the Carpenter from Nazareth. I guess He wasn't kidding.

Copyright 2006 Drew Dyck. All rights reserved.

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