Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 4, 2002
Reports of Christianity's death greatly exaggerated
Faith resurgence beckons as Latin and African believers grow
SPECIAL TO THE WCR
For the past 40 years or so, conventional wisdom has held that religious faith in the Western world is a dying phenomenon, destined to, if not disappear, at most to devolve into a fringe remnant as the current generations of mostly middle-aged and elderly adherents die off.
And certainly the demographic trend line has supported that school of thought, at least until recently.
The big baby boom generation marked a mass defection from the Christian churches, either to indifferent secularism, or in some cases, to exotic forms of "spirituality."
The Generation Xers following in their wake are even more comprehensively unchurched.
Few people under age 40 in the Western world today ever enter a church except perhaps to attend a wedding or funeral.
A university professor friend of mine noted that a classroom reference to "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John" these days is likely to be met by quizzical stares on the faces of his students.
"They are unbelievable pagans," he notes.
"Some of them have never heard the Gospels, not even the parables. . . . They haven't the least idea what Christianity is, and have no anxiety over it."
There is some evidence that Generation Y, the boomer-echo cohort born in 1982 and later, are going to be more engaged in traditional Christianity than the boomers and Xers have been.
Demographic sociologist Reginald Bibby, in his 2001 book, Canada's Teens: Today, Yesterday and Tomorrow, documented a modest rebound in religious service attendance among teens, up from a nadir of 18 per cent in 1992, to 22 per cent in 2000.
Not only that, Bibby's surveys indicate that 78 per cent of teens believe in life after death; 73 per cent affirm that God exists; and a surprising 65 per cent say they believe that Jesus Christ was the divine Son of God.
However to the chattering classes and self-styled "culture-makers" of the early 21st century west, religion is terra incognita - unknown and barely acknowledged territory.
For these secular myopians, religion, when they think about it at all, amounts to an annoying distraction from the "real world" categories of science, economics, politics, and supposed social progress. They tend to be oblivious to the magnitude of purchase religious faith, which they contemptuously regard as absurd superstition, exerts on vast numbers of people around the globe.
The vast majority of the world's citizens would consider the notion that religion might disappear in the 21st century laughably absurd.
In his new book (The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity), Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, documents and analyzes the explosive growth of Christianity in the less-developed world.
During the next quarter century, the world's Christian population is expected to grow to 2.6 billion, making Christianity by far the world's numerically dominant religion.
Globally, Pentecostals alone today number about 400 million, but are expected to surpass one billion by 2040, at which point they will outnumber the world's Buddhists, and roughly equal the global Hindu population.
The blindness of Western liberal humanists to the phenomenon of religious growth in the two-thirds world is astonishing. Philip Jenkins notes that in general, "
Perhaps the most remarkable point about global resurgence of Christianity is that it has "registered so little on the consciousness of even well-informed Northern observers."
The general ineffectuality of the churches today in the West fosters a misconception that religion is withering before the onslaught of humanist secularism everywhere.
Meanwhile, there are more Anglicans worshipping each Sunday in the small African country of Uganda, than there are in all of England, the U.S., and Canada combined.
In the February 2002 Atlantic Monthly, Toby Lester quotes Rosalind Hackett of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville observing that: "many people just aren't aware of how active African Christian missionaries are in North America.
The Africans hear about secularization and empty churches and they feel sorry for us. So they come and evangelize."
Asian and Latin American missionaries are moving North as well, Lester reports - both Protestant and Catholic. "The present rate of growth in the new Christian movements and their geographical range suggest that they will become a major social and political force in the coming century,"
Whether the phenomenon of Southern re-evangelization of the post-Christian North will be able to tap into the new curiosity about and openness to Christianity that Reginald Bibby's survey documented remains to be seen.
LOOK TO THE MISSIONARIES
However, it would be short-sighted to discount the possibility that a large-scale revival of Christian orthodoxy - something futurist Francis Fukuyama says religious conservatives hope for, and liberals fear - will actually happen, perhaps as a result of missionary effort from the two-thirds world, partly carried by the Internet, catalyzing a return to Christendom in the West.
After all, it has happened before.
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