Tracking the global path of Christianity

Many Americans don’t realize it, but global changes in Christianity are affecting them, says Philip Jenkins, author and distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University. Jenkins spoke here this week in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Pallium Lecture Series. His topic: “The Christian Church in the New Millennium.” An Episcopalian and former Roman Catholic, he has written nearly 20 books, including, “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity“; “The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice“; “Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis“; and “Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religion in American History.” He spoke with Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Heinen.

Q. Broadly stated, where is Christianity headed?

A. The future of the Christian church is not where many Americans think it’s going to be. Just as Christianity moved from the Middle East to Europe, (the heart of Christianity) is now very much moving to the global south – to Asia, Africa, Latin America. That’s one of the great shifts of our time. Probably within another 40 or 50 years there should be around 3 billion Christians in the world, and the proportion of those who will be non-Latino whites will probably only be one-sixth or one-fifth. So, the average Christian will be black or brown, and likely quite poor. Which is a shift from Christianity as the religion of the white north.

Q. The impact?

A. It’s going to have a huge impact on Christianity. The kind that is really booming in the south, in many ways it’s a more traditionalist kind of Christianity. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s politically conservative, but it tends to quite literal interpretations of the Bible. It’s much more sympathetic to ideas of supernatural intervention. It’s often very charismatic. People take ideas of dreams and prophesies and visions very seriously. And that applies across denominations.

Q. The effect in the U.S.?

A. That of course has a big impact because in many ways the south is coming north. When I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, I was talking to my Nigerian cab driver, and I found he was running one of the Nigerian congregations in Chicago and was a nephew of one of Nigeria’s leading prophets. By year 2050 about one-third of Americans will have Latino or Asian roots, and overwhelmingly those will be Christian roots. And so the kind of Christianity that’s practiced in this country is also going to be more southern.

Q. You came here to speak at a Catholic event. What about the Catholic Church?

A. In a sense, the Catholic Church was the first global organization, and it faces all of these issues in an acute way because so many of its people do live and have lived for many years in the global south. By 2025, something like 80% of the world’s Catholics will be African, Asian, Latin American. A lot of people are predicting that the next pope could be African or Latin American.

Q. That sounds similar to the Anglican Communion, which spread with the British Empire and now has a majority of its bishops in the global south, which is much more theologically conservative.

A. It’s not an exact analogy, but I think for many Americans, when they look at the Catholic Church they can’t work out why it’s so conservative and why (Pope) John Paul II seems so fundamentalist and supernaturally oriented. What a lot of Americans also haven’t worked out is that the United States represents 6% of the global church and that most of the big Catholic nations of the future are in Africa, Asia or Latin America. So it’s almost as if North American and Europe don’t matter anything like as much as they did. What I sometimes say is that the reason the pope seems so strange to Americans is that he’s been playing the game of the new century, not the last century.

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