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It’s worth remembering that the Christian God is far from dead in the global South (Cris Borges/Reuters)
It’s worth remembering that the Christian God is far from dead in the global South (Cris Borges/Reuters)

MARGARET WENTE

God's far from dead in the global South Add to ...

What’s the fastest-growing religion in the world today?

It’s Christianity. You can be excused if you guessed wrong. For the past decade, the Western world’s attention has been transfixed by Islam. But in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, it’s Christianity that’s on the march. Today, Christianity claims 2.18 billion believers – a third of the world’s population. By 2050, Christians will outnumber Muslims 3 to 2, according to author Philip Jenkins.

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A more detailed look at where Christianity is growing can be found in a comprehensive new report on global Christianity from the Pew Research Center. It found that, while Christianity is on the wane in the global North, it’s exploding in the global South. Nigeria now has more than twice as many Protestants (60 million) as Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation. Brazil has more than twice as many Catholics (130 million) as Italy. The biggest Christian congregation in London draws 12,000 people every week; it’s mainly West African, and its pastor is Nigerian.

Europe still has lots of Christians. But Christian practice is all but dead. The churches have become museums. The same is largely true in Canada, where the churches have been converted into luxury condos, daycare centres and homeless shelters. The only truly enthusiastic Christians are evangelicals and immigrants. In the U.S., the most vigorous form of Christianity is the Pentecostal version.

Most of us nominal, northern European Christians get married and buried in a church but don’t bother much with it otherwise. We are children of the Enlightenment, and Christianity is just a metaphor. We don’t really think we’re drinking the blood of Christ when we sip the communion wine. We admire the poetry of the Bible and the liturgy. But we generally look down on anything that involves shouting, speaking in tongues or creationism.

We attenuated Christians prefer our faith bland and anemic. Many parts of our tradition are quite moving (the carols, the baby in the manger, the shepherds who watch their flocks by night), but other parts are too bizarre for our taste (the casting out of devils, the Crucifixion and that whole deal with the empty tomb and the Resurrection). We think Jesus Christ, like Santa, is basically a story for young children. For us, Christmas has become a jolly, almost secular affair, further diluted by other festive traditions such as Hanukkah, Kwanza and Diwali.

You don’t have to go far to see how pale and anemic our version has become. In Mexico, the blood and ecstasy are in your face. The blood drips realistically from each of Christ’s holy wounds, and the saints are depicted under graphic torture. God hasn’t yet retreated from the world, and miracles are a fact of daily life. A popular form of religious folk art is pictures painted on tin that depict ordinary people being saved from some calamity – a car accident, for example – by the intercession of a friendly saint.

The face of Christianity looks much more like Mexico than the Christmas Eve service at my local church. Today, more than 60 per cent of the world’s Christians live in the global South. By 2050, only a fifth of the world’s three billion Christians will be non-Hispanic Caucasians. About half the world’s Christians are Catholic – conservative Catholics, not liberal ones, which explains why Rome is not about to embrace birth control, female priests or gay marriage any time soon.

As Philip Jenkins, author of The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, writes: “The types of Christianity that have thrived most successfully in the global South have been very different from what many Europeans and North Americans consider mainstream. These models have been far more enthusiastic, much more centrally concerned with the immediate workings of the supernatural, through prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances and healing. In fact, they have differed so widely from the cooler Northern norms as to arouse suspicion that these enthusiastic Africans (for instance) are essentially reviving the pagan practices of traditional society.”

Or, you could argue that Christianity is simply returning to its roots. It was born as the religion of the outcast and the dispossessed. Today, it’s embraced by young rural migrants flooding to the giant, impersonal cities. Like Islam, Christianity is a reaction to urbanization, cultural upheaval and displacement. It provides meaning, community, refuge, support networks and an anchor. It also offers blessings and redemption. Christianity, in its original form, preaches that supernatural intervention can help you in the here and now. And it promises the gift of eternal life as a reward for the pain and suffering of this one – surely the greatest selling proposition of all time.

This emergent Christianity has gone almost unnoticed in the West. But Philip Jenkins argues that it’s at least as important as Islam, and far more global in its scope. Christians already form a majority in about two-thirds of the world’s nations. The rise of Islam and Christianity in the heavily populated South could create a new era of religious strife, of jihads and crusades. And one day, we may be worrying about Christian theocracies as well as Islamic ones.

So as we celebrate our splendid made-up version of Chris-Dawali-Kwanza-ka, it’s worth remembering that the Christian God, merciful and frightening, is very far from dead. He may not mean much to us any more. But, in large parts of the world we seldom think about, he’s more powerful than ever.

Editor's note: An an earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version, a statement that Christianity is the fastest growing religion in the world today should have been attributed only to religion scholar Philip Jenkins. He says that by 2050 Christians will outnumber Muslims by a ratio of 3 to 2. An incorrect ratio was published Dec. 24.

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