Christianity Going South

Sightings authors often comment on religion in the United States rather than “the rest of the world,” but through the years have shown regularly how artificial or at least permeable such geographical distinctions are when it comes to religion. Philip Jenkins, Mark Noll, Lamin Sanneh, and others reveal the same, with important books on what Jenkins calls “The Next Christendom” and Noll describes as “The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith.” They see the Christian population “going South.” In American slang, “going south” means going down to an inferior position. But in demographic terms, the capital “S” signals going up, as the masses of Christians are doing, while Christian power slides from Europe and North America to Africa, Latin America, and other points South.

It is impossible to quarantine the diseases of the old North’s Christendom so that they do not also spread South. So the worst of the “prosperity Gospel,” with its guarantees of material prosperity to converts, has taken over and predominates in many movements, such as in Kenya. The homophobia that leads nations like Uganda and Kenya to debate whether to condemn homosexuals to death is richly related not only to old tribal taboos, but to new-style Pentecostal churches there. And the conflicts over gay issues in the American Episcopal church are heated up by interventions on the part of Ugandan and Kenyan Anglicans. The Lutheran World Federation, meeting this month, deals with Tanzanian Lutherans (who number one-third as many Lutherans after a few decades as there are Lutherans in the United States after three centuries of presence), as they say they will not accept funds or help (or prayers?) from Lutheran bodies that have different views of homosexuality than they do.

Exuberant therefore as many northern world historians may be over aspects of Christian growth in Africa – and I’ve also paid attention to these in my 2007 The Christian World – they and their compatriots often gasp when close-ups of practices in Africa get global publicity. This week the notices come from Nairobi, in balanced reporting by writers in The Economist who, quite naturally, notice the economic side of Pentecostal growth there. Borrowing “Prosperity Gospel” techniques from American evangelists and then re-exporting them in exaggerated form, African movements manifest bull market versions of competitive “market religion.” These have to be upbeat and aspirational. They help in some reform of business practices there, but “there is also plenty of hucksterism.”

The Economist tells of Bishop Margaret Wanjiru’s “Jesus is Alive Ministries,” where Ms. Wanjiru, a governmental official, draws 100,000 worshippers to meetings, but can see that number rise to 500,000 when a visiting evangelist also comes along. The editors comment that judgment from European and American critics often overlooks the fact that gross versions of “the Protestant Ethic” were imported from the northern churches. They also assess that these Pentecostalisms do better at inspiring personal wealth-seeking than at becoming clear political movements. We’ll wait and see.

Oh, and did we mention that The Economist reminds readers that many of these Pentecostal leaders promote “clear anti-Muslim sentiment” which “scares politicians who want to win the sizable Muslim vote.” Romanticizing New Christendom movements can be as dangerous as is the sneering done by those who look on and do not discern the good effects of much of these churchly endeavors in the lives of ordinary members.

Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford, 1999).
Jenkins also treats the subject in “The Next Christianity,”in The Atlantic Monthly, October 2002.
Martin E. Marty, The Christian World: A Global History (Modern Library, 2007).
Mark Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP Academic, 2010).
Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (Oxford, 2008).
“Slain by the Spirit: The rise of Christian fundamentalism in the Horn of Africa,” in The Economist, July 2010.
For an earlier treatment of the prosperity gospel in Africa, see Isaac Phiri and Joe Maxwell, “Gospel Riches,”in The Christian Century online, July 2007.

Republished from Sightings with permission of the University of Chicago Divinity School.