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Catching up with the Global Church
A veteran researcher describes the state of Christian faith around the world.
Patrick Johnstone authored Operation World, "the definitive prayer guide to every nation." The resource has sold more than 2.5 million copies and is considered by many to be the most important missions resource in history. Johnstone, a former missionary, recently took on another writing project of equally impressive scope: The Future of the Global Church (IVP, 2012). The book includes data on global history, demographics, and religion.
What are some surprising developments in Christianity globally?
The 1990s was the greatest harvest into the kingdom of God that the world has ever seen. Part of this is due to trends in demographics. The places where Christian faith has flourished have also been the places with the greatest population growth. Evangelical Christians went through a wilderness period from the 1920s until the 1960s. But now evangelicals are a leading expression of Christianity. I recently spoke at an Anglican clergy conference and said, "Do you realize that the Anglican Communion in 2050, if present trends continue, will be 84 percent African and almost entirely evangelical?" Arguments about homosexuality, women's ministry, and other current hot issues in Anglicanism will hardly be relevant in 2050.
In the 20th century many assumed Christian faith would decline. What's actually happening?
The former Communist, European, and Pacific countries are secularizing very rapidly. Canada is somewhere in between the U.S. and Europe. Meanwhile Christian faith in the U.S. is in gentle decline. But growth in what I call "AFASLA"—Africa, Asia, Latin America—more than compensates for the losses in the West.
Nonreligious people are committing sociocide, mainly because of their low birthrates. There are a handful of prominent atheists making noise in the public square, but nonreligious groups peaked in the 1970s and have declined ever since.
What does a good relationship between Western and Global-South Christians look like?
A partnership of equals. There are great dangers when churches try to develop a direct relationship with local churches in another country. I discourage it, unless there is accountability for the leaders within the country. But if they are accountable to outsiders, that is paternalist. It creates dependency. If they are accountable to structures of the body of Christ within their country but there's external help, then it's OK.
What theological challenges face Christians in the developing world?
The prosperity gospel is a huge problem. Liberalism less so. The further Chinese Christianity gets from the input of denominational missions, the less liberal influence remains, because liberal theology doesn't fit the Chinese situation. But in a Hindu or Buddhist situation, which are incredibly elastic, there could be challenges and accommodation. The trend and tendency of the church in AFASLA is more evangelical, charismatic, and Pentecostal. Africans and Asians will form the patterns of development of evangelical theology in the 21st century. It's going to look different, but it will be biblical.
Some claim persecution purifies the church. Should western Christians pray for persecution?
Paul suggested that we pray for a peaceable government. I don't think we need to pray for persecution. We already have it in Britain. Many are losing their jobs because they wear crosses around their necks or speak as a professional about their faith in Christ. You can go to prison for speaking openly against homosexuality in Parliament. Pressure is put on Christians, and we're being mocked. As a result, many people in Britain are afraid to share their faith. Whether we like it or not, persecution is with us, and it's likely to increase. We thought persecution would decline with the fall of Communism, but it has increased in many parts of the world.
How can we help the global church?
We need to work together with other members of Christ's body. By 2050, one-third of the European population will be non-indigenous. And the figure will most likely be higher in North America. We need multicultural teams that work with multicultural churches.
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