Global Shift in Christianity Tops List of Religious Developments

Gordon-Conwell seminary's Center for the Study of Global Christianity says 62 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a percentage that's destined to ris
( [email protected] ) Jan 07, 2007 05:19 PM EST

What were the key religious developments around the turn of the third millennium Anno Domini?

Beyond daily headlines, the most important one is probably the ongoing, inexorable shift of Christianity's population and dynamism away from the West and toward a markedly different style in developing nations of the "Global South."

Gordon-Conwell seminary's Center for the Study of Global Christianity says 62 percent of the world's 2 billion Christians live in Africa, Asia and Latin America, a percentage that's destined to rise.

Africa's Christian boom since 1900 "may well be the largest shift in religious affiliation that has ever occurred, anywhere," said Penn State historian Philip Jenkins.

He first examined such trends in "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity." Oxford University Press, which continues a distinguished record in religious publishing, plans an update of that 2002 title plus a Jenkins tome pondering Christianity's plight in Europe.

Meanwhile, Jenkins pursues the scenario in "The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South" (also Oxford), which skirts Latin America to focus on Africa and Asia.

He starts from the Anglican Communion's severe split, pitting biblical conservatives across the Global South against America's Episcopal Church, which allows same-sex blessing ceremonies, gay clergy and an openly gay bishop.

Compared with Westerners, Jenkins observes, younger churches demonstrate "much greater respect for the authority of Scripture, especially in matters of morality; ... a special interest in supernatural elements of Scripture, such as miracles, visions and healings; a belief in the continuing power of prophecy; and a veneration of the Old Testament."

He calls their strict adherence to biblical teachings traditionalism, not fundamentalism, and says it underlies both spiritual deliverance and political liberation, which in the Global South are fused.

Exorcisms, belief in the devil and "spiritual warfare" against demonic powers thrive in situations where paganism, witchcraft, omens and even allegations of human sacrifice persist. and Christian alternatives help overcome people's fearfulness.

Scripture's rural culture of herding, farming and fishing seems more familiar in the Global South than in the West.

More important, Jenkins said, "the Bible speaks to everyday, real-world issues of poverty and debt, famine and urban crisis, racial and gender oppression, state brutality and persecution" and situations where pestilence and extreme poverty promote "awareness of the transience of life."

Meanwhile, Western Christians must address "an age of doubt and secularism" where many are lured by ancient spiritual writings the early church deemed spurious and barred from the Bible.

While Westerners face pressure to interpret the Bible in terms of secular trends, in the Global South secular ideologies "appear false and destructive," representing corruption, sin and death. Churches' moral conservatism is also influenced by Islam and other non-Christian faiths.

Westerners decry church promises of "health and wealth." But Jenkins regards this as an inevitable byproduct when money and doctors are absent and "it seems impossible to survive without miracles."

A second eye-opening book about broad trends is "Who Really Cares" (Basic Books) by Arthur C. Brooks, Syracuse University professor of public administration. He crunched available data on U.S. charity and found, to his surprise, that conservatives are far more generous than liberals in donating money, time, and even blood.

Politics aside, he discovered that on average, Americans who spurn religion are "dramatically less likely" to donate than religiously active citizens, whether conservative or liberal.

Nor do the devout aid only religious causes. "Religious people are more charitable in every measurable nonreligious way - including secular donations, informal giving, and even acts of kindness and honesty - than secularists."

That disputes claims that religious faith lacks moral impact, in best-sellers by atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris.

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