Philip Jenkins is currently Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity originally went to press in 2001. The Next Christendom is a winner of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s Gold Medallion Award, and named a top religion book of 2002 by USA Today.
Summary of The Next Christendom
Christianity of the West and Islam of the Middle East have become one of the central concerns for many of the world’s current issues. Jenkins believes tensions are high between the two regions partly because of the globalization of the public square, and also because of a major religious shift that is occurring in these regions, including the growing fact that Christianity is increasingly moving south and back to where it began (p. 14).
In The Next Christendom, Jenkins provides a short overview of Western Christianity, saying that it found its Western niche during the post-Constantine days of Rome, and soon after became a part of European culture. But before that, he points out that Christianity was a new faith that was partly Jewish and partly Greek. Shortly after Christ’s ascension, the gospel spread throughout the Roman provinces east to China and India, north and west to Europe, and south to Africa.
Following that, Jenkins then describes how militant Islam swept across Africa and western Asia and caused the church to eventually lose most of its grip in Africa and the Middle East, especially (pp. 25-38). With that being a major factor, Jenkins also suggests that other religious traditions competed with Christianity in Africa and Asia.
Though the book is not long, it is expansive in its scope. He covers the expansion of Christianity through colonialism and modern missionary efforts, suggesting that though Christianity has been largely defined by its Western believers, there were still Catholic and Protestant churches being planted outside of European Christendom (see p. 50, for example).
In chapter four, Jenkins then suggests that the dramatic secularization of Western Europe has changed the face of Christendom. At the same time, he points out that there are now nearly 50 million Protestant believers and over 400 million Catholics in South America (p. 57). More importantly, Jenkins makes the point that these churches-though their buildings often look Western-their congregations have developed indigenous nuances (including political, charismatic, and syncretistic) to go with the gospel message (pp. 39-53; 74-78).
From there, Jenkins suggests that the shift of Christianity from the West to the South and East is happening for several reasons. Among these, first, Western nations have largely developed an engrossment with tolerance and materialism. Second, Western populations are growing at a slower rate than developing nations. Though this does not mean other major religions are not growing in the South also, the point is: Christianity is growing at a phenomenal rate in the Southern hemisphere and in China, therefore making a profound impact on the global look of Christianity (pp. 81-85; 94-105).
If such trends continue, Jenkins claims Christianity will inevitably become increasingly Southern in style, culture, philosophy, and academics, and less Western over time. So the question remains: what will Christianity look like when it is no longer culturally European or Western? Will it still be Christianity? As the church population explodes in developing nations and becomes more indigenous to those cultures, will there be a conflict of orthodoxy and heresy like in the early church? Will the church become increasingly poor, libertarian, or spiritual? (see pp. 108-17; 145-56).
Critical Evaluation of The Next Christendom
I remember watching the news one night and hearing a Saudi Muslim complaining of the “American Christian Zionists” and their out-and-out lack of respect for Islam. This kind of thing will likely continue to wedge a rift between Western Christian ideology and missions and the non-Western world. Jenkins’ projections do look as if they are better than conjecture here. Not only will the current Western and Islamic conflict have a profound impact on the global public square, it will also affect church planting and evangelism in Africa and Central Asia, especially in the 10/40 window.
Jenkins’ book does provide helpful information. But, I do have a few issues with the book. For example, in a smaller part of the book, Jenkins describes the coming of the new global Christendom with a categorical applied definition of Christianity that is too broad. I think this should be addressed in order to make an appropriate assessment of the value of Jenkins’ book. What is his applied definition of a Christian, according to the book? “A Christian is someone who describes himself or herself as a Christian” (p. 88). Later, he clarifies that “the term ‘Christian’ could be used only for someone who had experienced a personal born-again conversion” (100). To be fair, Jenkins’ does explain why he chooses to use such a broad definition. He makes note of the evangelical tendency to unfairly deflate Christian numbers or ignore whether Catholics are to be included. Then he also admits that some groups make larger-than-life claims. So what definition can be better?
But such a definition is problematic. Overly syncretistic churches in Africa with a skewed view of the gospel of Jesus Christ and an unhealthy mix of traditional animism are not Christian churches. Jenkins’ definition is broad enough to include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Should those numbers be counted as Christian just because they consider themselves to be followers of Jesus? Though it is not useful to be excessively narrow, it does not help missionaries to accept that a people group is evangelized according to such a broad definition of a Christian. Be that as it may, as the newer Southern and Eastern churches continue to grow, they will begin to look less and less like a Western church and more like an indigenous church. The question is the book leaves is: what will they look like? Will they really be Christian? And, how will we know?
What should we think about Jenkins’ book? For one, just as there is a growing secularization in Europe, North America is also a part of that trend (cf. pp. 166-67). What will believers in North America do about it? Join it? Or, reaffirm their commitment to the Great Commission and preach the gospel at home also? In summary, Jenkins’ book can be both helpful and average at best. For that, I recommend The Next Christendom with only some reservation for missions or general reading.