Does Christianity Grow or Just Move On?


I have just returned from Manila this week, where I had the privilege of teaching on Christian spirituality to a wonderful cohort of eager Filipino-Chinese and Mainland Chinese students. The latter are the “tip of the iceberg” of a remarkable, grass-roots movement of vibrant Christianity emerging out of a country that has been officially (and sometimes repressively) atheistic and Communist since 1949. Most of these bright, passionate young adults are university-trained students, and many of them possess Mac computers and international cell phones. Yet they have come to accept the prospect of suffering, and have embraced radical consecration, to a degree only sometimes seen nowadays among their North American Christian counterparts. What’s going on? Is Christianity really dying out in the West while growing up in Asia and Africa? If so, it raises another, somewhat troubling question: Does the Christian faith actually expand, or does it just migrate elsewhere?


The center of Christianity has been moving geographically since Pentecost. Briefly its epicenter was Jerusalem, but before long it expanded into “Gentile” territories around the shorelines of the Mediterranean Sea, deep into Africa as it followed the mighty Nile River southward and into Ethiopia, and East from the Mediterranean into lands we now know as Syria, Iraq and Iran. In the early centuries the great leaders and spiritual giants of the Christian faith resided, like Augustine, in North Africa and places like Damascus and what we now know as Istanbul. But by the seventh century much of this Christianity had grown spiritually tepid, and its organizational structures corrupt. It was not difficult for the zealous followers of Muhammad to over-run the whole region, imposing the new religion of Islam in places where the cross was once lifted high. Over the centuries of Islamic hegemony the Christian communities held on, often with remarkable resiliency, but inexorably their numbers have been declining. Today the Coptic Christian community of Egypt is the most substantial vestige of those earlier years of Christian vigor, and even it is now under serious fire. Further to the East, as Philip Jenkins movingly narrates in his The Lost History of Christianity (2009), pockets of Christians have managed to survive under Islamic rule for centuries. However, intensified persecution of Christians, brought on by the American invasion of Iraq may prove to have been the coup de grace, the final blow, for Christianity in these lands. 


But as Christianity was atrophying in these historic lands it was simultaneously expanding in Europe to the north. Eventually the epicenter of Christian faith relocated to this new continent and region of the world, and there it flourished for a millennium as a grand profusion of spires. Most of what we understand to be the Christian tradition—its theology, its art and architecture, its creedal statements and heroes and saints—developed in the European context. But in recent centuries the forces of the 18th century Enlightenment, and then of modernity and secularization, have not been kind to Christian faith in the European context. Today the spiritual ardor of this great Christian nexus has grown cold. In many European countries the number of citizens who regularly attend church is down to single digits.


During the past couple of centuries it has appeared, from a global perspective, that the baton of Christian leadership was passed along to North America, where it seemed easier to believe in the historic verities of the faith, and to be passionate about spreading the Gospel to the ends of the earth. But the post-World War II days, when regular participation in church life was standard practice for the majority of Americans, are now long gone. Here too secularization is advancing fast, and church attendance is in slow free fall. The anxious thought is that North America may soon follow the “Ichabod” ways of its European parentage, while the center of vital Christianity may relocate to sub-Saharan Africa or an emerging nation of Asia. These are the sorts of reflections that are inevitably stimulated by another of Philip Jenkins’s studies, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2007).


But here we must pause and consider a troubling possibility. Perhaps the pattern revealed by history is that Christianity has not steadily expanded into a globally pervasive religion after all. Perhaps it is closer to the truth to suggest that it is a kind of mobile, nomadic faith that flourished in one place for awhile and then moves on, leaving relatively little behind. One thinks by analogy of grazing cattle, feeding for a while in a pasture until all the grass is gone, and then ambling on to the next green scene. Another image that comes to mind is that of a forest fire that is hot on the outer edges, but leaves only charred ground behind.


What such depictions lack is evidence of a religion that takes deep root and proves sustainable in a place and with a particular people over the long haul. The response of Philip Yancey and others is to say, “Well, the Holy Spirit goes where he is wanted.” And there is certainly some truth to that. But why has the picture of Christian history not shown that the faith’s regional gains of the faith have been more enduring and permanent?


This is why (or so it seems to me) we need to pay closer attention to renewal movements, to those instances in which we find revitalization of previously moribund Christian faith. We need to see and celebrate whenever new life bursts out of the old, established situations once again. Flying home from the Philippines the other day I came across Leif Gunnar Engedal’s engaging article in Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality about a youthful Christian renewal movement, called the Crossroad Movement, in Norway, where church attendance tends to hover at a measly four or five percent of the population. The Crossroad Movement’s annual festivals attract thousands of ardent Norwegians to an informal fourfold “rule” highlighting personal relationship with Christ, commitment to cultivating authentic community, determination to live radically post-consumer lifestyles, and resolve to work for Kingdom values like justice and creation-care in the world. Grass-root movements like this deserve our careful and hopeful attention. Inasmuch as they emerge from places where Christianity has generally grown cold, they are like “clouds the size of a man’s hand” that hold promise of spiritual refreshment ahead. More importantly, they serve as signs of hope—hope that Christianity as a religion is not merely addicted to fresh opportunities for expansion and eventual burnout. It can and does flourish in sustained and sustainable ways in places where its roots already go deep.


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