Study Guide

The Next Christendom

by Philip Jenkins

The Next Christendom Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Philip Jenkins bases his projections in The Next Christendom on an analysis and synthesis of geographic and demographic data from a wide range of sources. As his subtitle suggests, he predicts that by 2050 the world will see The Coming of Global Christianity, a Christianity very different from what his audience, presumably American-born and European- born Christians, has experienced.

The raw data behind Jenkins’s text does not always cohere well in his prose. Chapters have frequent subheadings which add clarity, but often his information has a chunky rather than a cumulative feeling as he presents it. Nonetheless, journeying through this rough style is worthwhile, for his suggestions about the immediate future of Christianity are worthy of consideration.

Jenkins uses a broad definition of Christianity as he works his way through his data. Thus, he accepts as a Christian anyone calling himself or herself a Christian and believing that Jesus is both the son of God and the Messiah. He admits that some of the numerical data, especially that from official church sources, might exaggerate church membership. He sees the pitfalls in what he is trying to do: project future religious trends when such trends, past experience shows, sometimes take unexpected turns. Still, he makes a firm claim that the growth of Christianity in the Southern Hemisphere will continue, until by 2050 Africa and Latin America will contain half of the Christian population of the world and that this younger Christendom, in concert with similar growth in numbers of Muslims, has the potential to bring about global religious and political conflicts among Christians and between Christians and Muslims.

In his first four chapters, Jenkins looks at earlier shifts in the geographic center of Christianity. He argues that Christianity began as a global religion, spreading rapidly over Africa, Asia, and Europe during the first millennium. It was not until 1500 that Europe began to be the geographic center and dominant voice in Christianity. At the same time, as Europeans began exploration and settlement of new lands, Christian missionaries from Europe brought their faith to indigenous peoples. When, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, large numbers of European Christians settled in North America, that continent joined Europe as the geographic and population center of Christianity.

In the nineteenth century, European colonization and Christian missionary activity spread Christianity in Asia and Africa. Still, as the twentieth century began, European and American Christians formed the geographic and population center of Christianity and controlled that religion. For example, in 1914, all Catholic bishops and cardinals were from Europe and North America and few native priests had been ordained in Catholic mission territories. Christianity was and, Jenkins believes, still is, according to its North American and European members, a Western, white, and liberal religion, practiced in a way that fits a middle-class and upper-class lifestyle.

According to Jenkins, this was because European and North American Christians did not fully realize how successful Christianity had been in the Southern Hemisphere. Some in the Southern Hemisphere who became Christians as a result of missionary activities accepted the faith because they wanted to be like Western Christians in terms of status; many more found Christianity a succor to their marginalized or dispossessed status. Jenkins, using his reading of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart (1958), notes that Igbo Africans responded to missionaries in both these ways. Though this source is fictional, it is a fact that today Christianity is the major religion among Achebe’s Igbo people. So too did the marginalized mestizaje of Latin America embrace the Christian religion that replaced identity with country or race with identity with the Christian church. This was also the appeal of Christianity for the Untouchable caste of India.

Where oppression abounded, Christianity gained converts, and these converts spread their faith across their lands and down through generations, digging deep roots for their faith. It is significant that when colonial powers moved out of their conquered lands in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Christianity not only remained but flourished. By 1970, Christians outnumbered Muslims on the continent of Africa. The depth of religious belief among Southern Hemisphere Christians is validated also in the stories of martyrdom from Asia, Africa, and Latin America in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Indeed, Christianity in many parts of the Southern Hemisphere has a passionate nature that is still quite unrecognized by many...

(The entire section is 1934 words.)