The Other Christian South

The Other Christian South

By 2025, a date less distant than the span of Pope John Paul II’s reign, the largest group of the world’s 2.6 billion Christians will be living in Latin America.

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The source:  “Believing in the Global South” by Philip Jenkins, in First Things, Dec. ­2006.

When Jesus promised that his church would last until the end of time, he didn’t suggest that it might not move. The southward shift of Christianity’s center of gravity has been recognized for some time, but how long it has been predicted, and to what effect, is ­surprising.

St. Vincent de Paul, writing about 1640, in the midst of the Thirty Years’ War, said that the church of the future would be the church of South America, Africa, China, and Japan. Today, despite some ­foot-­dragging in Japan and China, St. Vincent’s prediction is coming to pass, writes Philip Jenkins, a historian at Pennsylvania State ­University.

In 2005, the last year for which figures are available, Europe was still the leading Christian continent, with 531 million believers, followed by Latin America, with 511 million; Africa, with 389 million; Asia, with 344 million; and North America, with 226 million. By 2025, a date less distant than the span of Pope John Paul II’s reign, the largest groups of the world’s 2.6 billion Christians will be living in Latin America, with 623 million, and Africa, with 595 million. By 2050, Christianity will be primarily the religion of Africa and the African diaspora, Jenkins ­says.

For the foreseeable future, the “Southern” church will include millions of the poorest residents of the planet. “Northern” Christians have expected these new believers to be liberal, activist, or even revolu­tionary. But while many of the new converts do espouse liberation, Jenkins writes, they combine it with a concern with deliverance from supernatural evil, which can be manifested in sickness, wickedness, and compul­siveness. Although some European and American Christians accept theories of the diabolic and demonic, most reject them as irredeemably ­pre-­scien­tific. But in the dominant churches of the future, prophecy will likely be an everyday reality, and faith healing, exorcism, and dream visions will all be fundamental parts of Christian religious sensibility. The new church will also likely be more con­servative morally and sexually than the Main Street churches of the ­North.

Many wonder if this form of “Southern” Christianity is Chris­tianity at all, or a remnant of an older “animism” in which healing, visions, and prophecy are para­mount. Jenkins suggests a different inter­pretation: African and Asian Christianity will be rooted in the Bible, particularly the stories of the Old Testament, with its tales of famine and pestilence, sacrificial lambs, and kinship responsibilities. “For better or worse,” Jenkins concludes, “the dominant churches of the future could have much in common with those of medieval or early modern European times.”

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