The Rapid Spread of Evangelical Christianity

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Niccolo and Donkey
The globalization of God in the 21st century

The Globe and Mail

Neil Reynolds

January 10, 2011

In the past 10 days, Christian churches have been attacked in Egypt and Nigeria and improvised explosive devices have been placed on the doorsteps of Christian families in Iraq – which events, taken together, could mean a co-ordinated assault on Christians by Muslim holy warriors. Or, alternatively, a coincidental convergence of the kind of random assaults on Christians that regularly occurs in Muslim countries.

Either way, such assaults normally provoke negligible public response from people around the world, Christian or not. Perhaps the small slaughter in Alexandria will end this silence. It should. The civilized world should not quietly tolerate massacres conducted in the name of any God.

Christians, however, should not think that Christianity itself is in any way vulnerable to Muslim jihadists . Islam, as a faith, poses no threat to Christianity; neither, for that matter, does fundamentalist Islam. As U.S. political scientist Walter Russell Mead observed in a celebrated essay last year, Christianity is now “on its biggest roll” in its 2,000-year history. Many Christians, though, are only dimly aware of the faith’s phenomenal advance. You could call it the greatest story never told: the epilogue.

A professor of foreign affairs at Bard College in Upstate New York and a lecturer at Yale University, Walter Russell Mead is a prolific author ( God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World ) and a Democrat who voted for President Barack Obama. In his essay on the spread of Christianity, he provocatively declares that it is on the rise in virtually every country of the world except “the EU and the Islamic countries that forbid proselytization.” (He should have included Canada, too.)

“In absolute numbers of adherents and in global market-share, Christianity is at an all-time high,” he says. “In the last 50 years, Christianity has surpassed Islam both as the most popular religion in sub-Saharan Africa and as the leading Abrahamic religion in China. The Roman Catholic Church alone claims as many adherents as the number of Sunni Muslims in the world.” Further, the global rise of Pentecostalism produced the fastest growth of any religious movement in history: This single church increased its membership “from zero to 500,000 million in 100 years.” All together, Christians now outnumber Muslims two to one.

Writing in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs, British foreign-relations scholar Scott M. Thomas (author of The Global Resurgence of Religion: The Struggle for the Soul of the 21st Century ) concurs. Prof. Thomas says that the most dynamic religious explosion in the world is not an Islamic phenomenon. It is an evangelical Protestant phenomenon.

In his own essay (A Globalized God), Prof. Thomas says that evangelical Christians now number as many as 688 million people – reaching strategic mass in such countries as China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria. Evangelical Christians, he says, will be a major religious, social and political force in the world for the next 100 years.

“Remarkably, given its Marxist past, China is experiencing a tremendous expansion of Pentecostalism and evangelical Christianity,” Prof. Thomas says. By 2050, the number of Christians could reach 218 million – perhaps 16 per cent of its population. In the same year, by some estimates, the number of Christians worldwide will exceed three billion.

The rise of Christianity as the world’s only global religion will have profound consequences. Prof. Mead describes it, for one thing, as “the world’s most pro-American faith.” It isn’t that Christianity makes people pro-American, he says; it’s that Christianity gives people “a perspective on life congruent with American ideals” – Protestant work ethic, entrepreneurial aspiration and commitment to individual liberty.

For his part, Prof. Thomas anticipates that global Christianity (and Islam, too) will be more conservative than European Christianity. On the other hand, he anticipates that evangelical Christianity will be more liberal than the Roman Catholic model it will replace in some Latin American countries.

It is not Christian triumphalism to take note of these historic trends. Nor is it a head count to determine who has the greater God. Prof. Thomas anticipates that the globalization of God will make “religious monopolies” much harder to sustain: “Religion is becoming a matter of choices.”

This historic shift, he says, has already begun in the Islamic world – perhaps, one can hope, in time to avert religious massacres throughout the 21st century.

Christianity is the largest in adherents, but Islam is growing faster, as is irreligion. Also, Christians are on average not very devout, while fundementalism and zeal are strong trends in Islam. Bahai is the fastest growing small religion.

As for Christians in the Muslim world, in which are they growing in ratio? Not Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Bosnia, Kazakhstan... where?