The Era of Christian Expansion

The Era of Christian Expansion October 5, 2015

Protestants look back longingly to the Reformation as one of the great periods of church history, and it was in many respects. In terms of the global reach of Christianity, though, the sixteenth century was a low point. Since its beginning, Christianity has rarely been confined to so contracted an area.

In the fourth century, Christianity encircled the Mediterranean. It was still strong in Palestine, in the Middle East, and further east. Jerusalem was a largely Christian city for many centuries. Christianity was dominant in North Africa, from Egypt to Carthage and beyond. It was taking hold in Northern Europe. Christian missionaries were being exported from Ireland, the out-back of Europe. 

Islam pushed Christianity into Europe, and during the second half of the fifteenth, it “became increasingly a European religion. Islam had launched a jihad against Christianity several centuries earlier. By about 1450 [Constantinople fell – 1453], as a direct result of its military conquests, Islam was firmly established in te southwestern and southeastern parts of Europe. Although Christian communities continued to exist outside Europe (most notably in Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and Syria), Christianity was becoming geographically restricted” (Alister McGrath, Historical Theology, 214).

It is old news now, but it is news that we should be reminded of regularly: Over the last several centuries, the church has witnessed unprecedented growth and expansion. We are living in the greatest era of Christian expansion.

McGrath summarizes: “One of the most dramatic developments to take place during the last few centuries has been the recovery of Christianity from this crisis. By the twentieth century, Christianity was firmly established as the dominant religion in the Americas, Australasia, southern Africa, and throughout many of the island nations of the South Pacific.”

This is the thrust of Philip Jenkins’s well-known book, The Next Christendom. Jenkins observes, “Over the past five centuries or so, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until very recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations, allowing theorists to speak smugly, arrogantly, of ‘European Christian’ civilization. . . . It is self-evidently the religion of the haves” (1).

This is no longer the case, “Over the past century, however, the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a ‘typical’ contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, ‘the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa, and Manila” (2).

Jenkins predicts that this trend will continue, and that the Christian population of the Southern hemisphere will continue to grow while the Christian population of the Northern hemisphere will decline: “In 1950, a list of the world’s leading Christian countries would have included Britain, France, Spain, and Italy, but none of these names would be represented in a corresponding list for 2050” (p 2).

The numbers are staggering: “According to the respected World Christian Encyclopedia, some 2 billion Christians are alive today, about one-third of the planetary total. The largest single bloc, some 560 million people, is still found in Europe. Latin America, though, is already close behind with 480 million, Africa has 360 million, and 313 million Asians profess Christianity. North America claims about 260 million believers. If we extrapolate these figures to the year 2025, and assume no great gains or losses through conversion, then there would be around 2.6 billion Christians, of whom 633 million would live in Africa, 640 million in Latin America, and 460 million in Asia. Europe, with 555 million, would have slipped to third place. . . by 2050, only about one-fifth of the world’s 3 billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Whites. Soon the phrase ‘a White Christian’ may sound like a curious oxymoron, as mildly surprising as ‘a Swedish Buddhist.’”

Pentecostalism in particular has risen from literal non-existence to become one of the largest groups of Christians in the world: “Since there were only a handful of Pentecostals in 1900, and several hundred million today, is it not reasonable to identify this as perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century? According to current projections, the number of Pentecostal believers should surpass the one billion mark before 2050. In terms of the global religions, there will by that point be roughly as many Pentecostals and Hindus, and twice as many as there are Buddhists. And that is just talking of the of the diverse currents of rising Christianity: there will be even more Catholics than Pentecostals” (8).

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