According to the back cover of the book, “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity – Revised and Expanded Edition” is “a landmark in our understanding of modern Christianity.” Philip Jenkins currently is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Humanities at Pennsylvania State University. He teaches in both the undergraduate (Modern Christianity, Sects, Cults and Religious Movements among others) and graduate levels (American Catholic: Roman Catholicism in Twentieth Century America as well as others). He has Ph.D. (1978) in History, an M.A. (1978) and a B.A. (1974) all from the University of Cambridge.
Summary of The Next Christendom
The thesis of this book is explicitly stated on page xi of the Preface. Dr. Jenkins states, “Far from being an export of the capitalist West, a vestige of Euro-American imperialism, Christianity is now rooted in the Third World, and the religion’s future lies in the global South” (xi). Originally, he sent his first edition to the publisher on 10 September 2001-”which was in fact the last day of the old world” (xi).
Dr. Jenkins sets out to show how the concept of modern Christianity is not found in America as many think. Rather, it is found primarily in what he calls the global South. In essence, he argues, quite successfully, that we should step outside our preconceived notions of Christianity and look to other cultures in order to see how modern-day Christianity is impacting the world as we know it. He defines Christendom as having supranational and antinational implications in that one is no longer an African as much as he is a Christian first and an African second.
He makes his point quite clear that the global South has now become the “seat” of Christianity when he shows that North America actually has the lowest number of confessing Christians among the four major regions of the world. In order from most to least you have Europe (511 million), Latin America (511 million), Asia (344 million), and finally North America (226 million). This ought to cause us to take a second look at how we believe about Christianity and the global community.
He shows in the second chapter how Christianity is changing and impacting every culture where it is able to claim deep roots. He argues that syncretism is a major reason why Christianity is so successful in Third World countries. He also shows how forced conversions to Christianity helped to spread the religion outside of Europe. Whenever a Christian nation would conquer another nation, they would bring their religion with them. Another tactic he calls the Silk Strategy, was to bring the faith to the cultural elite and then allow it to filter down to the rest of the population.
In explaining the spread of Christianity today through missions work and missionaries, Jenkins believes that Christianity spreads effectively because it is perhaps the best worldview that is offered to the people. He seems somewhat amazed by the willingness of the converts to die so violently for their new found faith in God.
He also shows how Christianity becomes a political movement more than a religious movement. In essence, he explains that many revolutionaries (or at least revolutionary types) use what we call Liberation Theology to “rally the troops” and over throw an oppressive government in order to make life better for the poor.
Central to his understanding of the spread of Christianity is the power and persuasiveness of Pentecostalism. In his estimations, the Pentecostals are the most active with missions work and evangelism in the world. There message of health and wealth, while almost a laughable cliché in the United States by most Protestants, is a force to be reckoned with in the Third World.
Dr. Jenkins successfully demonstrates how Christianity, as a political and economic movement is infiltrating the Third World. It will not be long before the world’s understanding of Christianity will be that of what we see on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. It seems that the reasoning for this global expansion is more a matter of pragmatics than anything else.
Critical Evaluation of The Next Christendom
Before I begin with a critical evaluation of this book, I must state that Dr. Jenkins successfully accomplished his goal of showing how Christianity is becoming a more globally south religion given his understanding of Christianity. With that said, I believe his book fails at many levels to begin to understand what Christianity truly is. Quite often he makes statements about Christianity succeeding based upon its syncretism with other religions. He includes other religious groups like Mormons and says things like, “the term ‘Christian’ could be used only for someone who had experienced a personal born-again conversion” (100). Then he says, “These restrictions can seem overly narrow or bigoted (100).
All throughout the book, Dr. Jenkins refers to Christianity as the means by which one can experience political and economic freedom. This is not the end by which the means is after. Yes, it is true that as a by-product of Christianity, you are more likely to have financial freedom (we call this stewardship) and political peace (we become citizens of heaven), but these should never be our ultimate goal in this world or the next.
My final critique, and perhaps the most glaring given the subject of the book, is that he waits 102 pages to define what he means by the term “Christian.” His definition is one, “who believes that Jesus is not merely a prophet or an exalted moral teacher, but in some unique sense the Son of God and the Messiah” (102). This is why he can call Mormon’s Christians. They believe this but add so much more to who Christ is. This is also why he is able to exclude Jews and Muslims-they do not believe Jesus to be the Son of God.
However, his next sentence is what helped me to understand his extremely broad definition of Christianity used throughout the book. He says, “Beyond that (the definition given above), we should not inquire into detailed doctrine” (102). If Christianity is not a faith based upon essential doctrines that one must hold to in order to be a true Christian, then most everyone in this world is a Christian. I believe it is safe to say that if one limits the definition of Christianity to a set of essential and foundational beliefs, Dr. Jenkins thesis will not appear as striking as it does. When you include all who mention Jesus Christ in a positive manner in accordance with his definition given above, then it is no wonder the coming global Christianity is frightening with all of its syncretistic, political and economic benefits.
I think perhaps the best way to describe this book is that it is schizophrenic. On one hand, I think his extremely broad definition of Christianity violates what we know Biblical Christianity to be. On the other hand, he gives us a great peek inside how the world really sees Christianity.
Those who read this book with me have agreed that he is way off base in his inclusive view of Christianity. However, I would highly recommend this book to mature Christians who are able to discern what is and what is not true Christianity. It is good to see how negatively the world views Christianity and missions work. I think this book would be a great tool in seeing our failures as Christians and how we need to repent of past sins and seek to glorify God in our future work in global missions.