It was a strange headline that appeared two years ago in The London Times: "Christianity Almost Beaten in Britain, says Cardinal."
The stunning statement was made by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, when he addressed a gathering of Roman Catholic clergy in England in 2001.
And who could blame him for his pessimism? Christianity in the West appears to be in the process of retreating everywhere under the advancing assault of secularism and New Age spirituality.
What should encourage believers everywhere, however, is a phenomenon that is developing, for the most part, outside the notice of much of the Western press. In what is called the "Global South" -- Africa, Latin America and Asia -- Christianity is growing in staggering fashion, promising in the next 50 years or so to eclipse the West as the spiritual home of the faith.
Relocation and Rebirth
This is not what Western elites in the media or on college and university campuses thought was happening. "For over a century, the coming decline or disappearance of religion has been a commonplace assumption of Western thought, and church leaders have sometimes shared this pessimistic view," says Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, in his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.
That secularists expected the demise of Christianity is not hard to understand. After all, they viewed that faith as a Western religion, and Jenkins admits that "[u]ntil recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in White nations ...."
If Christianity were mainly a religion of the peoples of Europe and North America, as secularists have always thought, then Jenkins says it made sense that "the growing secularization of the West [could] only mean that Christianity is in its dying days."
However, a strange thing has been happening: rather than dying, Christianity has spread in unexpected ways. Mark Hutchinson, chairman of the church history department at Southern Cross College in Australia, says that "what many pundits thought was the death of the church in the 1960s through secularization was really its relocation and rebirth into the rest of the world."
Jenkins says, "We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide .... The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning."
The numbers boggle the mind. In Africa in the year 1900, for example, there were approximately 10 million Christians on the continent. By 2000, the number had grown to 360 million.
The Anglican Communion is a perfect example of this worldwide trend. Whereas in its U.S. branch -- the Episcopal Church -- membership has declined over the last 40 years to 2.3 million, in Uganda alone there are more than 8 million Anglicans.
Worldwide, evangelical Christians are a thriving part of the Christian community. Yet, 70% of evangelicals live outside the West.
'God Goes Where He's Wanted'
What has been driving this trend? "As I travel," says author and journalist Philip Yancey, "I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God 'moving' geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where He's wanted."
If Yancey's supposition is correct, it would explain a lot, because Christianity does seem to be waning in the West -- especially in Europe. In an article for The New York Times, writer Frank Bruni says that "Europe already seems more and more like a series of tourist-trod monuments to Christianity's past. Hardly a month goes by when [Pope John Paul II] does not publicly bemoan that fact, beseeching Europeans to rediscover their faith."
"In Western Europe, we are hanging on by our fingernails. The fact is that Europe is no longer Christian," Rev. David Cornick, the general secretary of the United Reformed Church in Britain, says.
Secularism deserves much of the blame, say some Christian leaders, including the pope, who has complained that the proposed constitution for the European Union completely omits any reference to God or the continent's Christian past.
One sign of the weakness of Christianity in Europe is church attendance. According to a major survey in the 1990s, the percentage of people attending church on an average Sunday in some European countries is a mere fraction of the total population: England (27%), West Germany (14%), Denmark (5%), Norway (5%), Sweden, (4%) and Finland (4%).
More than even secularism, however, Gene Edward Veith, culture critic for World magazine, says the problem is found in many of the churches themselves: "This decline is directly attributable to the theological liberalism of the once-powerful state churches."
Veith says that, where the more conservative Catholic Church holds sway, church attendance is far higher: Ireland (84%), Poland (55%), Portugal (47%), and Italy (45%).
"These are Catholic countries where the church has remained conservative," Veith says. "Catholic churches that have gone liberal -- in the United States, France, the Netherlands -- have the same low attendance rates as liberal Protestants."
In the Global South, however, Christianity is finding converts by the millions. According to researcher David Barrett, author of the well-respected World Christian Encyclopedia, Africa is gaining 8.4 million new Christians a year, and that number is a net total -- that is, new converts minus those who leave the faith.
South Korea is another example of a nation in which the growth of Christianity has been stunning. In 1920, Jenkins says, there were only about 300,000 believers in all of Korea. But today, in South Korea alone, there are 10 to 12 million Christians -- about 25% of the population.
"And it is not modernist, liberal Christianity that is sweeping through the Southern Hemisphere," says Veith, "but a Christianity in which the gospel is proclaimed, that believes God's Word, that refuses to conform to the world."
Christianity and Islam
While all this should be encouraging news for believers in the U.S., numerous difficulties will confront Christians in the Global South over the next half century.
One of the most obvious challenges will be the sheer enormity of the unfinished task of fulfilling the Great Commission. "The growth of Christianity in the last two decades has been nothing short of miraculous," says Elisabeth Farrell, co-author of China: The Hidden Miracle. "Yet a whopping two-thirds of the world's population -- 3 billion people -- remains unreached."
As many missionary-minded believers know, a staggering 95% of these unreached people live in an area called "the 10/40 Window," which Farrell describes as "an imaginary rectangle between the 10th and 40th parallels north, stretching from Africa to Japan."
Part of the problem, Farrell suggests, is that 95% of missions' budgets apportion resources for areas outside the 10/40 Window. That represents a potentially disastrous -- or, at the very least, shortsighted -- misallocation of finances.
However, part of the reason for this lack of emphasis on the 10/40 Window is that there is, quite simply, tremendous resistance to the gospel there. Jenkins says that "the historically Muslim lands into which Christian missions have never penetrated ... remain impervious."
From a spiritual standpoint, one can see why the resistance is so strong in these nations: Farrell says "[a]ll the world's major non-Christian religions were founded there: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Shintoism and Taoism."
Islam, however, will be Christianity's major religious competitor for the foreseeable future. By 2020, Jenkins says "Christianity will still have a massive lead [over Islam in terms of adherents], and will maintain its position into the foreseeable future. By 2050, there should still be about three Christians for every two Muslims worldwide. Some 34% of the world's people will then be Christian ...."
Nevertheless, Christianity and Islam will both prove themselves to be vigorous religions. "Muslim and Christian nations will expand adjacent to each other," says Jenkins, "and often, Muslim and Christian communities will both grow within the same country .... [W]e face the likelihood that population growth will be accompanied by intensified rivalry, by struggles for converts, by competing attempts to enforce moral codes by means of secular law. Whether Muslim or Christian, religious zeal can easily turn into fanaticism. Such struggles might well provoke civil wars, which could in turn become international conflicts."
The threat to humanity posed by potential religious wars between the two faiths could be horrifying, he added, producing "a new age of Christian crusades and Muslim jihads. Imagine the world of the thirteenth century armed with nuclear warheads and anthrax."
The danger of persecution is no less acute. Jenkins says, "Even if the dominant religion is generally tolerant, it only takes an outbreak of fanaticism every half-century or so to devastate or uproot a minority, and that has been the fate of religious minorities across the Middle East in recent years. Although Christian communities survive across the region, their numbers are a pathetic shadow of what they were even in 1850, and whole peoples have been obliterated since that time."
Within the 10/40 Window, such troubles will probably continue for decades to come, perhaps squashing attempts to gain a solid Christian foothold in Muslim countries. In Pakistan, for example, a 1986 law subjects a citizen to the death penalty or life imprisonment if he "directly or indirectly by word, gesture, innuendo, or otherwise defiles the name of the holy prophet Muhammad."
"These laws," Jenkins says, "offer a potential death sentence for anyone evangelizing Muslims, or even considering conversion, and several Christians have been condemned to death for related offenses."
In nations like Pakistan, it is not uncommon for periodic outbreaks of riots and violence to occur against the minority Christian populace. Here, murder and rape are dangers that believers live with daily.
In Sudan, the Muslim government's attempt to subjugate Christians has led to almost indescribable persecution. According to the U.S. State Department Annual Report on Religious Freedom 2000, Muslim persecution has included "indiscriminate bombings, the burning and looting of villages, and the killings, abductions, rapes, and arbitrary arrests and detentions of civilians."
Nevertheless, for the Great Commission to be fulfilled, the 10/40 Window is where the Gospel will have to go. Can the churches of the West produce the necessary missionaries to accomplish this task? After all, Christians in Europe, North America and Oceania already have their hands full with spiritual problems at home: they are stinging from cultural setbacks over the last 50 years on issues ranging from abortion to homosexuality, and fighting to keep secularism from capturing even larger swaths of the populace.
It might be an odd concept, but missionaries to the 10/40 Window may very well come -- in fact, may have to come -- from the Global South.
Such nonwhite missionaries may even show up on our shores. As Veith muses, "What we need now are missionaries from Africa to convert the heathen in Europe and America."
Stranger things have happened.