These numbers, faintly surreal in their precision and their air of inevitability, come from the long-awaited second edition of The World Christian Encyclopedia, by David Barrett, George Kurian, and Todd Johnson, just published by Oxford University Press. We'll be coming back to this indispensable work both in this space and in the pages of Books & Culture: there's far too much in these two volumes to take the measure of in a single pass. But clearly the findings of Barrett & Co. underline what many people have been saying for some time now: Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift.
Similar shifts, says missiologist Andrew Walls, have taken place repeatedly in the history of the church, though perhaps never before on this scale. (Look for an interview with Walls in the May/June issue of B&C.) What to make of it?
A good report from the front lines can be found in veteran Newsweek religion writer Ken Woodward's story, "The Changing Face of the Church." On the one hand, Woodward's wide-ranging survey suggests the enormous appeal of the gospel to "the poor, the marginalized, the powerless, and—in parts of Asia and the Middle East—the oppressed." On the other hand, the impression given is that syncretism is the rule rather than the exception among Christians in Africa, Asia, India, and Brazil.
The ironies and complexities come thick and fast. Much has been made of the way in which missionaries from the West mixed elements of their culture with the gospel, expecting the peoples they converted to accept the whole package. But to deplore that practice makes sense only if we believe that it is possible to identify core elements of the faith that are not culture-bound, from which it follows that "indigenous" expressions of Christianity in Africa, say, must be judged by the same scale, and be found wanting to the extent that they are in conflict with those core elements.
Indeed, Africa is particularly significant in the global shift noted by Barrett, Walls, and many others. Woodward notes that "Pope John Paul II has visited Africa 10 times—more than any other continent outside Europe—and for good reason. Here among the Ashanti and Baganda and the thousand other tribes who occupy the world's second largest continent, Christianity is spreading faster than at any time or place in the last 2000 years."
Given the news from Africa, a skeptic may suggest that Christianity hasn't made much of a difference there. In Rwanda, bodies were stacked like cordwood inside churches, where machete-wielding Hutus hacked fellow Christian Tutsis to death. Where is the fruit of the longtime Christian presence in Sierra Leone, in Liberia? But then, where was the light of the church in Germany, the theological center of Christendom, when the Nazis began to rise? How did the godly errand into the American wilderness culminate in California in the annihilation of the Modoc Indians?
In short, while we may be profoundly thankful whenever and wherever the gospel spreads, triumphalism is not in order, whether in the vintage American style or the new and increasingly common Two-Thirds World version.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Christianity Today's Weblog also commented on Newsweek's article.
The New York Times, Associated Press, and others have also profiled David Barrett and his work.
James F. Engel made similar observations about the questions such numbers raise in an August 2000 Christianity Today article, "Getting Beyond the Numbers Game | A veteran missiologist and marketing analyst implores the missions community to tabulate less and pray more."
Oxford University Press' site offers some information about The World Christian Encyclopedia, which can be ordered through Amazon.com, ChristianBook.com, and other book retailers.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time.
Public-izing Faith | Recent articles in Touchstone, Commonweal, and The New York Times serve as reminders that faith is not merely "a private thing." (Apr. 2, 2001)
How Can I Keep From Singing? | Arne Bergstrom has looked suffering square in the eye all over the world. Now he sings about hope. (Mar. 26, 2001)
To Poland, for an Evening | Once in a great while, a film like Kieslowski's The Decalogue discovers how to transport an audience. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Examining Peacocke's Plumage | The winner of the 2001 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion rejects everything resembling Christian orthodoxy, but that doesn't stop him from co-opting the language. (Mar. 12, 2001)
Are Scientists Taking Orders from Pat Robertson? | A Salon.com essay accuses the Intelligent Design movement of being primarily an arm of "conservative Republicans" and the "religious right." (Mar. 5, 2001)
Had Morse No Code? | Like much popular art, the finale of Inspector Morse functions like a dream of the collective unconscious. (Feb. 26, 2001)
Beware the Women! | A conspiracy theorist claims the church is becoming too "feminized." (Feb. 19, 2001)
Return to the Father's House | Touchstone magazine examines God the Father and human fatherhood. (Feb. 12, 2001)
What's the University For? | In James Davison Hunter's The Hedgehog Review, academics nibble on the hands that feed them. (Feb. 5, 2001)
Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary? | Experiencing Marian devotion as a Protestant (Jan. 29, 2001)
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