Philip Jenkins. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York City, NY: Oxford University Press. 2011. 368 pp. $15.96
In The Next Christendom, Philip Jenkins (Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of the Humanities in history and religious studies at Penn State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University) critiques the widespread notion that, “Christians are un-Black, un-poor, and un-young” and argues instead that “the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Lain America” (2). Jenkins explains Christian history has been viewed too-often and too-long through the lens of the church that developed from Rome, while neglecting the global impact of the churches developed from Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. This neglect – in addition to the incredible success of global evangelism and missions from the western church – has led to a new world in which Christianity thrives in what were once receiving nations, and Christianity is fledgling in nations that once were sending nations.
Jenkins challenges the reader to grasp a new vision of the state of the global church that accounts for the rise of Christianity in the southern hemisphere. This new understanding is much needed for the terminally-myopic western church and provides the perspective needed to comprehend the true state of global Christianity.
In developing his position that Christianity is growing and thriving in nations out of sight from his audience, Jenkins bolsters his argument with a problematic definition of Christianity. For the purposes of his book, he includes anyone “who describes himself or herself as a Christian, who believes that Jesus is not merely a prophet or an exalted moral teacher, but in some unique sense the Son of God, and the messiah” (88). While it may be argued that he is not attempting to define an evangelical Christian, but rather provide a working-definition for those under the Christendom umbrella, this definition still fails to distinguish orthodox Christianity from sects and groups that use the name of Christ in the worship of other gods. Included in his list are Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and even animistic cults in Africa who include Jesus in their worship, but do not worship him alone. Whatever this is, it cannot be described as Christianity.
Even in light of this critique, Jenkins’ thrust – that Christendom has spread far beyond the borders of western Europe and North America, and is not suffering the same decline seen therein, but is thriving and growing instead – remains valid. The task of the reader, then, is to consider the ramifications of this reality.
Jenkins argues that, “if in fact the bulk of the Christian population is going to be living in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, then practices that now prevail in those areas will become every more common across the globe” (107). The western church, which has grown accustomed to her own liturgies and practices colored by her immediate culture, will increasingly be influenced by the worship practices of the developing world. While this may be most visible in terms of worship, this influence will also affect discipleship practices, evangelistic methods, and various other experiences of the church. Perhaps most importantly, the individualistic culture of the west will be overcome by the community-orientation of the global south.
Additionally, the shift in the center of Christianity places tremendous responsibility upon the next Christendom. The continued global witness of Christianity relies heavily on the growth and ability of southern Christianity to continue to thrive. The propagation of the gospel to the ends of the earth, then, is no longer merely the task of the West, but is also the task of the South – and it is clearly up to the task, already sending missionaries from what were once receiving nations to those which were once sending nations.
That means that the gospel that had been sent to the ends of the earth is returning. The United States of America (whether considered a “Christian nation” or not) has been at the forefront of sending missionaries around the world. It is now considered one of the mission fields with the greatest need in the world. The North American fields are white with harvest and the nations are sending the laborers. This is not cause for shame, but for joy.
Jenkins’ book would be strengthened by a more specific definition of what it means to be Christian. That specificity might diminish the number of those considered to be Christian during the early church in Asia and Africa, as well as those in the global South today. However, that specificity would place the author on more solid ground in making his assertions. The statistics would still reveal that the weight of Christianity has shifted to the Global South, and this shift should encourage the church as she presents the testimony of Jesus Christ to the world.