A misgiving about “Global Christianity” literature

As I read more and more about “Global Christianity,” I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on numbers and growth rates. My objection isn’t that religion shouldn’t be quantified, etc., but rather with the ways that the inevitable breathless recitations of statistics seem to fit all too well with stereotypes about the seething horde of humanity in the Third World, with its unstoppable frenzy of breeding and spreading — such that “they” are in danger of taking over Western countries or bringing the earth itself to its knees through their demands for resources, etc.

To a certain extent, this discomfort is unfair, since birth rates really are higher in the Third World than in developed nations. Yet perhaps it is justified insofar as so many of these studies extrapolate from current demographic trends in making predictions about the future of Christianity — as though there were something inherent to the soil of the Third World such that Christianity, once planted there, can do nothing but grow.

Is it not equally possible that a movement, such as “prosperity gospel”-oriented Pentecostalism, that is enjoying incredibly rapid growth will prove to be a fad and experience just as rapid a decline? Latin American Liberation Theology may never have seen the growth levels of Pentecostalism, but it did have its heyday and subsequent slow decline (albeit never the absolute disappearance that so many Western commentators seem to envision). Similarly, there are many countries in Africa where the African Independent Churches are being left by the wayside, again after previously having grown.

This is the kind of thing you expect when you’re dealing with actual groups of human beings with particular needs and hopes that may or may not be fulfilled by a given religious movement — but for Global Christianity scholars, no such reversal seems to be possible, even though the massive historical fact of the decline of Christianity in Europe is staring them in the face. I don’t know how one would make predictions that would take that possibility into account, but something more is probably needed than extrapolating from current trends. Just as in the West, Christianity in the Third World is an actual lived experience that interacts with the surrounding conditions and the vagaries of individual lives, rather than, for example, a big gob of numbers.

5 thoughts on “A misgiving about “Global Christianity” literature

  1. Part of the problem you highlight is that some “Global Christianity” literature has the implicit or explicit agenda of contrasting the supposedly anemic Christianity of Europe (and to a lesser degree the United States) with the allegedly expressions of Christianity elsewhere. To the extent that the authors seek to spur renewal among churches in the North which have purportedly lost their passion and zeal, the churches of the South must be portrayed as being on an inexorable upward journey.

  2. At it’s best, this movement of western Christian scholarship (in missiology) helps western Christianity to refrain from thinking of itself as the epicenter of God’s work in the world, and to learn from watching the process of translating the Gospel into other cultural contexts. At it’s worst, as Alain pointed out, it treats the (3rd) world instrumentally for the sake of spurring zeal at home (“100 billion burgers sold worldwide!”). It pays no attention to the translation process itself, only its projected numerical outcome.

  3. It is also instructive to remember that there is a large degree of syncretism in ‘Global South’ adoptions of Christianity – just as there was in early modern Europe, where attendance at Mass went hand in hand with folk religion, etc. So these huge numbers don’t represent absolute conversions but partial, and pragmatic, adoptions of certain lived practices and language, etc. And this syncretism can come back to bite Christianity on the arse. For example, see Bolivia, where the resurgent rhetorical use of indigenous religions as part of the broader leftisit anti-colonial movement led to constitutional changes essentially disestablshing the Catholic church. I.e., if these numbers look too good to be true, they probably are.

  4. Alain makes a good point, and I would add that in my minimal reading there are constant reminders of their orthodox theology. I think their is an implied rhetoric, an argument that the west’s impoverished theology is to blame for why the south is exploding. It comes across as part guilt trip, part “I told you so,” which is less than helpful.

  5. It’s also frustrating that these numbers are used to then assess the potential of religious movements. Nearly every conversation I have had with people doing sociological studies of Latin American religion has involved some kind of objection to my interest in liberation theology. ‘But it failed, now Pentecostalism is on the rise…’

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