The Next Christendom

Philip Jenkins, writing in his pre-9-11 book The Next Christendom, laments the fact that religion — in particular, the dawning of the movement of Christianity from a Western European and North American context to a Latin American, Asian and African one — “was barely mentioned in all the media hoopla surrounding the end of the second millennium.”[1] With the rise of Christianity in the Southern hemisphere, the most important issues in politics, demographics, land and culture in the majority world will have to do with how well Christians interact with each other and with other religions such as Islam. Jenkins writes, “I suggest that it is precisely religious changes that are the most significant, and even the most revolutionary, in the contemporary world. Before too long, the turn-of-the-millennium neglect of religious factors may come to be seen as comically myopic…”[2]

Given the projections that by 2050 only one Christian in five will be white, Jenkins endeavors to investigate the ecclesiastical and theological impact of the Southern hemispheric shift on the whole Church.

(Just to clarify: throughout this article, I will use “Church of the global South” to refer to Christianity below the equator, and “Church of the West” to refer to the Christianity of Western Europe.)

Jenkins believes that we should give pause before asserting “what Christians believe” or “how the church is changing.” [3] Such blanket statements usually refer to what Western Christians believe. Before presenting the “Christian” stance on an issue, we need to acknowledge that Christianity has undergone a global shift.

The Church in the global South defies stereotype. At present, the Southern hemisphere is home to the poorest people on the planet. With the advent of liberation theology, one might expect Christianity in South America, for example, to be politically-minded, leftist and revolutionary. However, that is not the case. Jenkins writes, “the denominations that are triumphing all across the global South are the stalwartly traditional or even reactionary by the standards of the economically advanced nations.”[4]

Many denominations are feeling the impact of the global shift. In the Roman Catholic church, for example, Catholics in the global South already outnumber their Western counterparts. It is the Vatican’s best interest to cater to the conservative views of the South rather than the liberalism of the West. Jenkins states, “In the traditionalist view, adapting to become relevant or sensitive to the needs of the Western elites would be suicidal for the long-term prospects of the Church. It is the so-called traditionalists, rather than the liberals, who are playing the political game of the new century.”[5]

How does Christianity in the global South differ from that in the West? To answer this question, I will focus here on issues of gender and sexuality. Sex and gender roles are divisive issues in the traditionalist-liberal debates in the West. Yet if we analyze these issues from a purely Western perspective, we can easily miss what is truly happening. For example, Jenkins cites an article by New York Times reporter Brent Staples, who was argued that Christianity “had failed and was collapsing, and would continue to do so unless and until the religion came to terms with liberal orthodoxies on matters of sex and gender.”[6] Although ordained women are a crucial part of leadership in Latin American Pentecostal churches and African Independent Churches, those churches are still comfortable preaching traditional roles for women in society. Abortion is prohibited in Africa, and homosexuality is seen as an alien practice.

Southern views on gender roles and sexuality are reinforced by their biblical interpretation. Southerners believe that Scripture speaks clearly and decisively and on these issues, whereas Westerners look for cultural context in the Bible and deem it necessary “for churches to change in accordance with secular progress.”[7] “Liberals judge Scripture by the standards of the world; conservatives claim to set an absolute value on Scripture and religious sources of authority.”[8] So at Lambeth 1998, the Southern Anglican bishops defeated Western liberal motions on gay rights. Conservatives in the West discovered that that they had large numbers of allies in Africa. Lambeth inspired conservative Anglican Americans to be ordained in the conservative Southern Anglican church, and henceforth become a part of the Anglican mission in America to “lead the Episcopal Church back to its biblical foundations.”[9]

Throughout this book, Jenkins proved his thesis well. Specifically, with respect to gender and sexuality, he argues that views of the global South have increasing ecclesiastical and theological salience.

Unfortunately, Jenkins says little about hermeneutics. Personally, I would have liked more discussion on how Christians in the global South and West differ in how they approach Scripture. Biblical interpretation lies at the core of many divisive issues.

I think that readers could also have benefited from a brief section about Southern views of the work of the Holy Spirit. This is related to hermeneutics. For example, if the African Anglican church believes that the Holy Spirit is working through them in a special way, they would naturally claim to have greater authority on biblical interpretation and downplay the presence of the Holy Spirit among Episcopals and Anglicans in America and England. As Western Christians struggle to understand Southern perspectives on gender and sexuality, they need to consider how their brothers and sisters in the South see them in light of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Pg. 3
[2] Pg. 1
[3] Pg. 3
[4] Pg. 7
[5] Pg. 197
[6] Pg. 9
[7] Pg. 201
[8] Pg. 202
[9] Pg. 203


  1. Joe Schafer

    Ben, thanks for this article. Since the early 20th century, Christians in the United States have been mired in conflict between traditionalist/conservative and liberal views. For better or worse, we have been putting people into boxes and labeling them “conservative” and “liberal.” But as you have correctly pointed out, these categories simply do not apply in other parts of the world. And they don’t really apply in the United States either.

    For example, consider the idea of young-earth creationism (YEC), which maintains that God created the world approximately 6,000 years ago in six 24-hour periods. There are quite a few Christians here in the United States who still believe that, if you deny YEC, you must be a “liberal” who denies the authority of Scripture, doubts the bodily resurrection of Christ, approves of homosexual relationships, etc. Perhaps those stereotypes had some validity 50 years ago, but today they are quite ridiculous. Christians do not fit into these neat little categories, and applying labels like “conservative” and “liberal” is now inaccurate, unhelpful, divisive and dehumanizing.

    I strongly agree with you that our (usually unstated) assumptions about how we should read the Bible, and our (usually unstated) assumptions about the work of the Holy Spirit, lie at the heart of nearly all of these controversial issues.

    • Thanks Joe for your helpful comments on this short book review. Hermeneutics, I feel, is the most important thing Christians will have to pay attention to. YEC, homosexuality, the work of the Holy Spirit, whether your church is mission centered or gospel centered, etc. all can be boiled down to how one reads and interprets the Bible. I believe this will become clear as we interact more regularly and intimately with global Christianity.

    • Joe Schafer

      I hope that soon we can start to discuss how we (members and friends of UBF) approach the Bible. It is tempting to think that we are just reading the Bible straight and doing what it says. But every Christian community has values, traditions and cultural assumptions that strongly color its sense of what the Bible says. One great little book that helps to uncover some of these hidden assumptions is Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight. If you haven’t read it yet, I hope you will check it out.

  2. Gerardo R

    Great article! I have always wanted to read more about what the Holy Spirit is doing in Africa. Though lately I have had my eyes set on Christianity in China. Thank you for the article.

    • @Gerardo, he covers China ever so briefly, but as the book is an overview of non Western Christianity, everything is brief.

  3. @Joe,

    I have not read The Blue Parakeet–on my long list to read. It’s hard to know what to do with those blue parakeets; they sure are troublesome and throw a monkeywrench into our Bible reading. My mom grew up in a church where dancing was forbidden. It’s clear that that was a cultural preference and NOT biblical, as much as the culture would have liked it to be biblical. What do we do with women pastors and priests? In certain cultures it’s not an issue. Some cultures, based on what appears to be a misreading of 1 Corinthians, forbid women to even speak in church.

  4. Hi Ben. Thanks for the article. If you have a chance, I recommend John Armstrongs blog this week for a very interesting discussion on hermeneutics, especially in a premodern context.