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Volume 15, Issue 3: Ex Libris

Book Reviews

Woelke Leithart

The New Christendom
Phillip Jenkins
2002, Oxford University Press

As many of my friends know, I am fond of statistics, especially impressive ones. How many people live in Prague, how many whales migrate in the spring from location A to location B, or how far away the stars are—all of these sorts of things fascinate me. I think this has a good deal to do with the reasons why I enjoyed Phillip Jenkins's book The New Christendom.

I reviewed Pat Buchanan's The Death of the West about a year ago. In that book, Buchanan predicted the self-destruction of Western society, due largely to a collapse in birth rates (as a side note, Buchanan's statistics were also frequent and fascinating). At the end of my review, I pointed out that one of the problems with Buchanan's view was that he failed to take into account the possible influence of Christianity on the global demographic. Phillip Jenkins's book leaps into this question and answers it as thoroughly as anyone could ask for.
Through the first few chapters, Jenkins offers a host of statistics. While the populations of predominantly atheistic nations are rapidly declining, those with strong Christian populations are expanding. Christians are increasing in numbers to an almost incredible degree all around the world; it is only in North America1 and Europe that the numbers are less than startling. In Africa, taking the Roman Catholic church as an example, 37% of the 3 million baptized yearly are adults—which means converts, not children being brought up in a Christian household (though those would account for the other 63%). Kwang Lim Methodist church in South Korea expanded from 150 members in 1971 to 80,000 in 2000. The church in the "third world," at least numerically, is exploding.
Of course this is not an entirely unmixed blessing. The theology of the new Christendom is in many ways very different from that predominant in the West. Paganism still has a strong hold on parts of the globe where Christianity is making its inroads, while in the United States paganism seems to be fling of yesteryear, even if now attempting a retro comeback. The question of the enculturation of the church is also important when it comes to how these countries are worshipping God. After all, tweaking current religious practices in one way or the other can be helpful in adding more converts to the fold. Some enculturation is, of course, right and proper; in this country, we worship in English. Jenkins does not propose to answer this question, he simply points out that the church is changing as it expands into other cultures. On the other hand, "third world" churches tend to be theologically conservative: the combined votes of the Asian and African bishops at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops defeated a clause allowing for homosexuality. Liberals portray these churches as backward and unenlightened, but then so are we.
Jenkins's book really is very good, but I do have one nitpicky problem with it. He doesn't begin to define what he means by Christian until page 88. After seventy pages of amazing numbers about how Christianity is doing in the world, I naturally began to wonder who he was counting as Christians. Was he counting professing believers or church-goers? Surely he wasn't counting the number of baptisms. When he finally explained that his definition of Christian is a person who calls himself a Christian and also believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Messiah, my mind was set at ease. But I would have appreciated not having to wonder if he was ever going to define it—such definitions are better placed toward the beginning. He is, of course, including Roman Catholics in his numbers—they fit this criteria—and thus many evangelicals would immediately discount the entire process. But that is no reason why we should, necessarily.
The finest feature of The New Christendom is how enormously encouraging it is. In the Reformed world we have become accustomed to hearing how poorly the church is doing in our country (since it is, in many ways), and we have a tendency to think of our country as the bastion of Christianity in a world that needs to be discipled from square one. But if even half of what Jenkins is writing is accurate, then the world is still a much more Christian place than many Americans acknowledge. Africa alone, to use yet another statistic, has grown from 10 million Christians in 1900 to 360 million in 2000—and that is not a typo. And that is encouraging.
If it isn't already clear, I very much enjoyed this book. Like any good book, it left me wanting more, right away. But whether or not you appreciate Jenkins's approach, the subject of Christianity in the rest of the world is very important. God is working wonders while we in America sit bemoaning the state of the church. Christianity is no more married to the West than it is to Platonism, and it seems that it will soon be tied to a very different world.

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