As we enter 2020, I want to reflect not just on the local church that I pastor, but on the Church around the world. As churches in America seem to be shrinking at an alarming rate, and as more and more churches seem to think the answer to this problem is to become more accommodating to our culture’s new norms of sexuality and inclusion, what are we to make of the Church heading into this new decade? Is the Church dying? Is Christianity waning? Do we need to abandon archaic sexual ethics and beliefs in the supernatural that seem irrational and unscientific in order to survive?
What I am learning is that I was wrong about the Church and so are you. The narrative that we hear in America about the state of the Church and Christianity couldn’t be more false. For instance, if I were to ask you, “What does a typical Christian look like?” you might describe a white, southern woman driving a minivan. Or, if I were to ask you, “What does a typical evangelical Christian look like?” you might describe an older man in his 60s who wears a suit and tie. And if I were to ask you, “Is Christianity dying?” you might give me predictions about how the Church is irrelevant now and how it will be barely existent in the future. And if those were your answers, then, in all three cases, you couldn’t be more wrong. The statistics about the global Church say the exact opposite.
Simply put, the global Church is exploding with growth. But western arrogance, xenophobia, and cultural prejudice has led us to only look at what is happening in the Church in America. What the numbers tell us is that the Church in America is a strange anomaly that barely resembles the global Church. In particular, the more liberal Protestants in America represent a strange aberration theologically compared to the rest of the world and are dying faster than any other segment of the Church.
Here are the stats that will help correct our view of the Church:
In 2015, 68% of Christians are of color (1.6 billion). And, globally, evangelicalism is a predominantly non-white movement within Christianity. In 2015, 84.1% of all Evangelicals in the world are of color (non-white; 270.1 million)Center for the Study of Global Christianity
Philip Jenkins is a well-respected professor of history, specifically focusing on the history of religions. His research affirms this:
Today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in those regions (Latin America & Africa). If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria, or in a Brazilian favela…By 2050 only about one-fifth of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. Soon, the phrase “a white Christian” may sound like a curious oxymoron…Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom
In other words, if you are still picturing a white woman in a minivan or an old, white man with grey hair when you picture a Christian, you are WAY off. White Christians are the minority. White evangelicals are the extreme minority among evangelicalism. Narratives that try to explain conservative theology as a by-product of “privilege” need to be reconsidered and abandoned in light of the actual data. Globally, those most likely to espouse evangelical theology look more like a poor, hispanic woman or a young, African man.
But, surely, these poor, “Third World” Christians have a progressive, liberation theology, right? Nope. Mostly, liberation theology was crafted by those originally from the global South but educated in the western world with western mindsets. While those Christians in the global South care very much about caring for the poor, most of them do not ascribe to a liberation theology. Here’s what the research says:
…we can reasonably say that many global South Christians are more conservative in terms of both beliefs and moral teaching than are the mainstream churches of the global North, and this is especially true in Africa. The denominations that are triumphing all across the global South are stalwartly traditional…
Global South Christians retain a very strong supernatural orientation and are by and large far more interested in personal salvation than in radical politics. As Harvey Cox showed in Fire from Heaven, Pentecostal expansion across the Southern Continents has been so astonishing as to justify claims of a new Reformation.Philip Jenkins, The New Christendom
These newer churches preach deep personal faith and communal orthodoxy, mysticism, and puritanism, all founded on clear scriptural authority. They preach messages that, to a Westerner, appear simplistically charismatic, visionary, and apocalyptic. In this thought-world, prophecy is an everyday reality, while faith-healing, exorcism, and dream-visions are all fundamental parts of religious sensibility.
Pentecostals are flourishing around the globe. Since there were only a handful of Pentecostals in 1900, and several hundred million today, is it not reasonable to identify this as perhaps the most successful social movement of the past century? According to current projections, the number of Pentecostal believers should cross the one billion mark before 2050. In terms of the global religions, there will be by that point roughly as many Pentecostals as Hindus, and twice as many as there are Buddhists.
All of this is saying that globally, the vast and overwhelming majority of Christians are conservative, traditional, orthodox, and charismatic.
So when you picture a typical Christian, what should you picture? The words we would use in America to describe what a typical, global Christian is like would be these: poor, non-white, charismatic, evangelical. So picture a young, brown-skinned woman who regularly casts out demons, prays in tongues, believes in the actual resurrection of Jesus, and rejects any sexual ethic that would embrace homosexuality as normative. And picture her in a church that is exploding with growth.
In terms of picturing the local church, don’t picture a mainline Protestant church with 20 senior citizens who can barely afford to pay the bills for their 1950s church building. That reality is an anomaly only the western Church is experiencing. No, instead, picture a crowd of thousands of brown-skinned believers trying to fit into buildings that are bursting at the seams. This is the Church today. This is reality. This is the future!
If you’ve bought into the lie that, in order to survive, the Church must abandon things that seem strange to our culture–like the supernatural aspects of Christianity–and embrace progressive ideology, you have it backwards. You’ve been lied to about the Church, about what it really looks like, and about what causes it to grow.
If we are humble enough to learn from our brown-skinned brothers and sisters in Christ, and we don’t think we have it all figured out because of our white, western education, then those of us who have ears to hear, let them hear. We need to be doing what our hispanic and African family is doing. We need to embrace the poor, embrace the non-white, embrace the conservative evangelical framing of the gospel, embrace the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, embrace the supernatural, and embrace a pietist/holiness understanding of morality.
None of this fits neatly into our old, American, political and theological categories. As we step into a new year and a new decade, it’s time for something new in the American Church.