The Future of Christianity:

A Global Perspective with Implications for the Western Church

Douglas L. Rutt©2004



“What is happening to “Christianity” as a movement worldwide?  Recent works by the likes of Justo Gonzalez, David Martin, David Bosch, Alister McGrath, Andrew Walls, and, of course, Philip Jenkins, have made startling observations and predictions about where “Christianity” is headed as a worldwide movement.  What are the implications for the Western churches?  What does it mean for theological education in the Western church?  What is the role of the Western confessional church? 


            Academic experts used to believe that as human society becomes more scientific, more technologically advanced, and better educated, religion, including Christianity, would disappear from the scene.  Modernism, so they predicted, would do away with the possibility of accepting the realities of unseen spiritual forces.  It was thought that the rational would finally overcome, as Toby Lester said, “the influence of that last, vexing sphere of irrationality in human culture: religion” (1).  However, while secularism does appear to be the predominant worldview in some places, especially much of Europe, generally, the fact of the matter is that religious movements are exploding worldwide, and Christianity, contrary to popular belief, is also experiencing growth.  In his article, “Oh God’s,” Lester saw the surging growth of “religion” in the twenty-first century as the major factor in world conflict, more so than political, social and economic factors, and Christianity, he said, is a part of this mix.  At the very end of his article, he quoted Phillip Jenkins, who said: “I think, that the big ‘problem cult’ of the twenty-first century will be Christianity” (12).

            Jenkins’ reason for making that surprising statement is not his hostility toward Christianity, per se, but rather is based on his observations of how Christianity is undergoing changes in its manifestations and character as it grows globally.

            In the fall of 2002, two articles by Phillip Jenkins himself were published:  “The Real Story of Secularization,” and “The Next Christianity,” in addition to his dramatic book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.   He pointed out that while Christianity is growing globally, there are also other trends within Christianity that are important, trends that the world has taken notice of.  The question for the Western church, it seems, is how seriously should it take these emerging trends in world Christianity?   Secondly, if it is decided that the emerging trends in world Christianity should be taken seriously, what does it mean for Western churches, theologians, theological educators, pastors and missionaries?

            To question the future of Christianity is nothing new.  Certainly St. Augustine, indeed, Saint Paul, were concerned about it.  Martin Luther had thoughts on it.  Even our Lord addressed the issue when he said he would establish his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Mt. 16:18).[1] 

Christianity Growing Worldwide

The fact of the matter is that Christianity is not only surviving worldwide, nor merely growing, but it is thriving.  According to the David Barrett’s “Annual Statistical Table on Global Mission” in the January 2003 issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, there are over two billion Christians (2,076,629,000) “of all kinds” in the world today.  That represents 33.1% of the world’s population.  In fact, in spite of what one might think, there are almost twice as many people in the world who identify themselves as Christian as there are adherents to Islam, although, according to Barrett’s statistics, Islam is growing at a slightly faster rate.[2]

            The other significant factor that Barrett’s statistics reveal, however, is that there has been not only major growth in Christianity in the past century, but there has also been a major shift in where those people who call themselves Christians are to be found.  In 1900, for example, eighty-two percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and North America.  In 2003, according to Barrett’s statistics, sixty-two percent now live outside of Europe and North America, in Africa, Asia, Latin American and Oceania.[3]

            Lutheranism has also been affected by this shift.  Recent statistics published by the Lutheran World Federation show that there are by far more Lutherans in Africa than in North America.  During the past two years, the number of Lutherans in Africa has grown by 1.1 million to 13,068,209, while the number of Lutherans in North American has declined by more than 84,000 members to less than 8.5 million.  Just a couple of the larger church bodies are the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania, with some 2.5 million members, and the Mekane Yesu Church of Ethiopia, with over four million members (Lutheran World Federation).

            Yet Christianity is not dying out in the West, of course.  At least, and especially in North America, while it continues to suffer the pressures, hostility and persecution of secularism, the era of religion, including Christianity, is not over.  This is contrary to the assertions of writers alluded to above, like Steve Bruce,[4] who insist that, with modernization, the increase in quality of life, well being, affluence, education, etc., there is this sort of law of sociology which says that religion will not be needed any longer and will disappear.  Even many secular sociologists of religion have given up on that thesis.[5] 

The End of Christendom

What has happened, however, is that the members of mainline churches have perceived that their religious leaders have lost touch with, or given up on, the basic tenants of Christianity in their pursuit of humanistic goals (Jenkins 2002a, 10).  Carl Braaten has cautioned that the Trinitarian and Christological heritage of the church is, for example, “under full-scale attack,” which, he said, is “invading the liturgical and devotional life of the ordinary faithful” (28).  He said:  “In place of the canonical traditions of ecumenical orthodoxy, a new body of literature is put in its place, with new scriptures, new liturgies, new creeds, new moral codes, in short, the invention of a new religion that masquerades as Christian, and sometimes finds support and hospitality in the bureaucracies and seminaries of mainline churches” (28). 

For the West, this means, as Douglas John Hall said, “the end of Christendom.”  Christianity in the West must face up to the fact that the old Constantian model of church life is passing.  The church no longer has the favored status in society that it is used to.  Churches try to adapt to the new reality in many ways, said Hall, ranging from the church as a social club to advance liberal ideals, to the Church Growth Movement’s buy-in of mass media culture in an attempt to be relevant in the new age.  According to Hall, however, churches in North America are still living under the delusion that the age of Christendom has not passed (19-20).

            Hall does not lament the decline of Christendom, however.  He sees it as an opportunity for the church to become a genuine community of believers.  The church must, as he put it, in a paraphrase of Jesus’ words (Matthew 16:25), “disengage in order to reengage” (49).  The proper tension between Christ and culture must be sought.  Unfortunately, as the church or North America clings to the Christendom model, it inevitably becomes caught up in the prevailing culture, usually without even noticing it. 

In other words, much of contemporary Christianity has lost its saltiness, and when Christianity looses its saltiness, becoming too interested in seeking the approval of men, of the prevailing culture and society, too concerned about it’s privileged place “in the public square,” it looses its ability to help the common man or woman in his or her daily struggle to remain faithful to God and live the Christian life in a world that is hostile to that faith.  Hence, the decline in what is called mainline Christianity.

Thriving Movements

In the midst of that decline, however, other versions of Christianity seem to thrive.  Alister McGrath asserted that what will “determine whether a Protestant congregation survives in the West throughout the twenty-first century is not whether it is Anglican, Methodist or Presbyterian, but whether it is evangelical or charismatic” (100).  What McGrath means, it seems, by “evangelical” has more to do with a conservative orthodoxy than with “evangelicalism” or “neo-evangelicalism.” 

            This brings us to the impact of the tremendous global shifts in Christianity that have occurred during the past century, and what it means for the Western Church.  When, exactly, did that “shift in the center of gravity,” as it has been called, take place?  According to David Barrett, sometime between 1970 and 2000.  Philip Jenkins’ book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity, has probably done more to bring these changes to our attention than about anything else in recent times, although he is not the first to ever have noticed or commented on this shift.   One certainly cannot accuse Jenkins with understatement.  As if to try to get our attention, or maybe sell more books, he said things like:


The fact is, we are at a moment as epochal as the Reformation itself—a Reformation moment not only for Catholics but for the entire Christian world

. . . .   The process will not necessarily be a peaceful one.  The twenty-first century will almost certainly be regarded by future historians as a century in which religion replaced ideology as the prime animating and destructive force in human affairs . . . . (2000c, 54).


            Some of Jenkins’ analyses are woefully inadequate, to be sure, such as his understanding of what the Reformation was all about.  However one cannot help but wonder about how what he said about much of Christianity in the Two-Thirds world will influence its future, its self-understanding, and most importantly, its faithful understanding of the message of Scripture—of the gospel.  Will any semblance of theological orthodoxy survive?  Will the Christian churches in the Two-Thirds world remain faithful to God’s word, or will they be carried away by magnetic leaders and self-proclaimed messiahs who promise not forgiveness, life and salvation in Christ Jesus, but rather are more about shamanistic practices and promises of wealth, health and worldly power?

            Indeed, Pentecostalism is a part of the picture here—a big part.  It is estimated that there are now at least some 250 million Pentecostals in the world (Martin xvii), with some estimates of up to 500 million.  The World Christian Encyclopedia suggests that, if present trends continue, there may be a billion Pentecostals by the year 2050 (Lester, 2).[6] 

            The Igreja Universal do Reino do Deus is a large denomination that has spread beyond Brazil to many parts of the world, including North America and Europe.  It is known especially for what might be called a “theology of prosperity.”  While many of the members are poor, they give sacrificially to support the church’s ministry, with the hope that they will be rewarded by God several times over in return, not just in heaven, but also in the hear-and-now.  Interestingly, in spite of the recognition of abuses by the money-grabbing pastors of the church brought out by the sociologist Waldo Cesar in the book Pentecostalism and the Future of Christianity, the other author, Richard Shaull, tried to construct a framework in which movements such as the Igreja Universal can have legitimacy, both in terms of their concern for the poor and their doctrine.  Shaull advocated that the central message of Christian redemption has been distorted since the time of Nicea and Chalcedon (157), and that “salvation” needs to be redefined according to “a new paradigm,” where “God is not centered in the announcement of forgiveness of sins and justification.  God is experienced intimately and intensely as broken lives are reorganized, as those considered ‘worthless’ and ‘insignificant’ discover their worth before God, and as those who thought they could do nothing to change their situation of the world are empowered to act” (146).  It seems that what he is really trying to do is to remake Pentecostalism in the image of Liberation Theology.

Biblical Authority in Churches of the Two-Thirds World

            Having touched upon the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism, it also is true that many of the churches in the south are actually quite traditional and conservative by Western standards.  There is a respect for authority—the authority of bishops as well as Scripture.  There is a respect for what Scripture says about how one should lead one’s life.  Thus, this shift from the north to the south has caused serious tensions to erupt in Roman Catholic, but especially in Anglican circles.

            For example, liberal European and North American bishops within the Anglican Communion are finding themselves outvoted on crucial issues by the more conservative bishops from the south, where the majority of Anglicans now live.  At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, Archbishop Holloway and Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris of Massachusetts accused the Two-Thirds world bishops of having sold their votes to a handful of conservative extremists from the U.S. for “chicken dinners” and “barbecues” on the conference’s sexuality resolution, which stated that homosexual practice is incompatible with Scripture.  The statement passed by a 7-1 margin, much to the chagrin of the liberal bishops from England and the U.S. 

In indignation, the famed Bishop John Spong added further insult toward his non-Western brethren.  He is reported to have said before the conference even began, that “Africans practice a ‘superstitious’ form of religion,” and that they are “ignorant of the progress of science.”  Holloway is said to have added that “Africans need to be taught Biblical scholarship of the last 150 years” (England).  Needless to say, the African bishops felt seriously patronized, to which Spong responded, “If they feel patronized that’s too bad.  I’m not going to cease to be a 20th century person for fear of offending somebody in the Third World” (LeBlanc).

            Unfortunately, this kind of arrogance on the part of some Western mainline church leaders as they try to push their agenda, and the kinds of tensions caused when Two-Thirds world churches resist that agenda, have also been experienced within Lutheranism.  This author has heard complaints from Lutheran leaders in other parts of the world that some Western churches and organizations have tried to promote their liberal, northern European social and theological agenda on their churches in the Two-Thirds world, or even the former Second World, for that matter.[7]

Implications for the Western Church

So, what does all this mean for the Western church?  If the global shifts in Christianity are to be taken seriously, which it seems they must be, then what does the Western church do, or do differently?  What role will it have as the number of those who call themselves Christian in the Two-Thirds world continues to grow and outnumber Christians in the West?

Douglas John Hall’s admonition to the churches in the West would be a start.  Maintain the tension.  Learn to be in the world, but not of the world, with all that it implies (52).  Hall appears to advocate what Richard Niebuhr described as Luther’s position vis-à-vis the proper relationship between Christ and Culture.   It is not as simple as it sounds, though, for culture is like a rapidly moving river in which people are caught up and carried along.  The risk is real of mixing or confusing human culture and Christ on the one hand, or, on the other hand, so disengaging ourselves that we become like a far off island, with no possibility of being salt, light or yeast to the world, in other words, we lose our ability to relate and communicate.  But, as Hall points out:


We must stand off from the liberal middle-class culture with which we have been consistently identified; rediscover our own distinctive ontological foundations and the ethical directives that arise from them; and allow ourselves, if necessary, to become aliens in our own land (54).


In as much as Western Christians can distance themselves from becoming absorbed by prevailing culture, said Hall, they can be what Christ wants them to be for the world:


Such a situation could serve the mission of the Christ of God in the world only insofar as we do sufficiently disengage ourselves from that world—intentionally, and not as pawns of an impersonal historical destiny.  If we are faithful and imaginative enough to disentangle our authentic tradition of belief from its cultural wrapping, we will have something to bring to our world that it does not have—a perspective on itself, a judgment of its pretensions and injustices, an offer of renewal and hope.  Only as a community that does not find its source of identity and vocation within its cultural milieu can the church acquire any intimations of “gospel” for its cultural milieu (55-56, emphasis in original).


Even over sixty years ago Bernard Iddings Bell let forth with a similar call for prophets if Christianity is to survive in the West.  His words ring so true today:


The note of prophesy [in the church] has, indeed, not wholly died away; but the prophets have been expelled form the synagogue, banished to obscure Coventries, or at least been persuaded “to draw it very mild.”  This is understandable.  Prophets are upsetting souls.  They interfere with the financing of missionary budgets and, in general, with the smooth running of ecclesiastical enterprises.  They make difficult the erection of super-temples, and mar the nice amenities of life.  It was so in the days of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremy, of those apostles who in the first days of Christianity went about turning the world upside down, of Loyola and of Luther and of Wesley and of Gore.

Nobody likes the prophets much.  But whenever the prophets are silent, the Church is first made powerless and then regarded, quite properly, as parasitic.  The Church in a liberal and capitalist world has preferred popularity to prophecy.  It is not surprising that now the Church discovers that “from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”

If the church is in any real sense to influence the world of tomorrow, it would seem that the Church must so reform itself that it can make a new and almost brutal proclamation of the ethics of Christ, with an authority born of the belief that the way of life therein commanded comes straight from God (4).


                The end of the age of Christendom in the West is a perfect opportunity to regain the prophetic voice that is always threatened when Christianity gets too cozy with its host culture.  Christians in the West have good reasons to be hopeful in a post-Constantinan world because they will more clearly see and be able to live out the tension, what George Lindbeck called an “awkwardness” (134), that they have been called to while in this world.  In as much as they can do so, they will more fully be light, salt, and yeast.

            But what of Western Christianity in relation to the reality of the growth and metamorphosis of Christianity in the non-Western world?  Does or will the Western Church have a role to play in the future Christianity in other parts of the world?

It seems the Western church does and will have a role, especially in light of the increasing global interchange in the area of theological education.  Although some might believe that Western theological education has little to offer the churches of the Two-Thirds world, the experience of this writer has been that the West has much to offer (with some qualifications).  There is no reason why the younger churches should be condemned to repeat the same errors and heresies that the church has fought for two thousand years to overcome.  In spite of any limitations one might want to put on the West’s ability to relate in a meaningful way to the realities of life, mission and ministry in other parts of the world, there are things to be learned from the history and theological reflection of Western Christianity.  Most non-Western theologians with whom this writer has contact would never deny that.

In addition, as Andrew Walls has pointed out, the churches in Africa, Asia and Latin America must also produce theological scholarship or “the principal theaters of Christian mission in the century now opening will languish in confusion” (18).

            Walls made eight points that are worth repeating here, which he says are the essential ingredients so that the churches of the south will have the theological resources to take the leadership in the twenty-first century.  They are:  (1) A renewal of the sense of Christian vocation to scholarship anchored in mission; (2) A research climate; (3) Exacting standards; (4) Collegial attitudes; (5) A pioneering spirit (Origin); (6) Dual education; (7) A catholic attitude toward knowledge, and (8) A lively interactive sense of world Christianity.  His essential point was that both the Western and the non-Western churches will benefit from a healthy interaction in the area of theological education.  He said:


True sharing of academic resources would be a small step toward the enjoyment of the riches that will be available in the body of Christ as his people from all over the world grow up in him.  And the discoveries about Christ that are made in the African, Asian, and Latin American heartlands will belong to us all (19).


            This last point is important.  Western Christians should not be afraid to make contributions to theological scholarship and leadership in the Two-Thirds world.  The Theological Educators’ Conference of the ILC, held in April of 2001 in Brazil, and now being planned for April 2004 in Erfurt, are steps in the right direction.  This also brings us to the second point, and that is how frequently Western colleges and seminaries are looked to for help.  The churches in the Two-Thirds world want to learn, they want to know, they want to relate, they are open to dialogue and learning. 

Third, confessional churches in the West—churches that maintain the tension, that maintain a high regard for the authority of Scripture—will have a common ground from which to dialogue with the brethren in the non-Western world.

            Fourth, Alister McGrath made an interesting point.  He predicted that the most dynamic Christian movements in this century will be Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, and then he added something that might be considered unlikely: Eastern Orthodoxy.   He made this prediction because he says many Evangelicals and Pentecostals express concerns over the “historical shallowness of their faith” (117).  He claimed that a longing for a historical rootedness has caused many evangelicals to convert to Orthodoxy.   Unfortunately McGrath did not even make mention of confessional Lutheranism in his book on the future of Christianity, but one would think that orthodox Lutheranism, too, could have something that would attract the attention of others in its historical, ecumenical, and confessional understanding of the gospel.

            One other point should be made.  If the Western churches are going to make the contribution that they can and should make, they will need to be intentional about it.  They will need to go there.  It means, perhaps, that theological professors, for example, would spend their sabbatical in Addis Ababa, or Jakarta or Sao Paulo, rather than Cambridge, Frankfurt or Strasbourg.  The essential point is to be engaged, to be attentive, to be responsive, to take seriously the needs of the colleagues in the south.   Western churches must be willing to expend resources in doing it, but they (we) will learn much as well in the process.


Douglas L. Rutt

Fort Wayne, Indiana

February 22, 2004




Bell, Bernard Iddings.  1942.  Will the Christian church survive? The Atlantic Monthly (October 1942) [cited March 1, 2003].


Barrett, David B. and Todd M. Johnson.  2003.  Annual statistical table on global mission: 2003.  International Bulletin of Missionary Research 27:1 (January), 24-25.


Braaten, Carl E.  1996.  Confessional integrity in ecumenical dialogue.  Lutheran Forum 30:3 (Reformation), 24-30.


England, Robert Stowe and Auburn Traycik.  1999.  Post-Lambeth vote-buying accusations: Africans say Holloway should prove vote-buying charge of offer full apology.  The International Prayer Book Societies, Reports from Lambeth ’98, [cited January 27, 2003].


Hall, Douglas John.  1997.  The end of Christendom and the future of Christianity.  Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International.


Jenkins, Philip.  2002a.  The real story of secularization.  Books and Culture: A Christian Review 8:6 (November/December), 10-11.


_______.  2002b.  The next Christendom: The coming of global Christianity.  New York: Oxford University Press.


_______.  2002c.  The next Christianity.  The Atlantic Monthly (October), 53-68.


LeBlanc, Doug.  1998.  Americans ask Africans to forgive: Americans decry Spong’s remarks on Africans.  Lambeth ’98. [cited January 27, 2003].


Lester, Toby.  2002.  Oh, Gods!  The Atlantic, [cited March 3, 2003].


Lindbeck, George.  1984.  The Nature of Doctrine.  Philadelphia: Westminster Press.


Lutheran World Federation, Lutheran World Information. [cited February 22, 2004)


McGrath, Alister E.  2002.  The future of Christianity.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Martin, David.  Pentecostalism: The world their parish.  Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.


Ratsim, Thomas.  2002.  Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) says ‘No’ to condom use.  Africa Online (September 18),,3,49509.jsp [cited December 19, 2002].


Shaull, Richard and Waldo Cesar.  2000.  Pentecostalism and the future of the Christian churches: Promises, limitations, challenges.  Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


Stark, Rodney and William Sims Bainbridge.  1986  The future of religion: Secularization, revival, and cult formation.


Walls, Andrew F.  2003.  Theology is moving south: Where Christian growth and the fruitful questions are.  In Trust 14:2 (New Year), 14-19.


[1]In researching this article, the author found an interesting article written in 1942 by Bernard Iddings Bell, the author of the classic Crowd Culture: An Examination of the American Way of Life:  He asked, “Will the Christian Church survive?”  His answer was, of course, yes, that is, if it is willing to pay the price of unpopularity and persecution (Bell 7).  It is an interesting piece, written in a time of war, that perhaps has something to say to the contemporary North American scene, where Christians still risk the confusion of Christianity and culture. 

[2]David Barrett’s statistics are often called into question.  For example, one will note that he lists the number of Christians in Latin America as 498,399,000—virtually the entire population of the region.  If that were so, why do mission work there?  It is important to remember how David Barrett defines what a Christian is.   For his purposes, a Christian is he or she who says, “I am a Christian.”   In this regard, he follows the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms the rights of anyone to define his or her religion.  This is fine for his purposes; however, of course, it has serious limitations and does not always present for us an accurate picture of the state of world religions. 

It is the conviction of this writer that most people of the world, whether they might classify themselves as Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or whichever of the worlds major religions, are basically animistic in their beliefs and practices, with a veneer, or at best a syncretistic mixture, of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc., and traditional beliefs.  That is certainly the case in Latin America, and, from what the author has gathered, it is also true in places like India, Asia and Africa.  Interestingly, a perusal of any random book on the topic of “The World’s Religions” in a Barnes and Noble bookstore will show that many books almost totally ignore animistic or popular folk religion, or perhaps they will include a short section on “primal religions,” thus betraying their evolutionistic view of religion.  Barrett’s statistical table is not much better, including only some 237 million people in the whole world under the category he now calls “ethnoreligionists” (formally called “tribal religionists”).

[3]In 1900, there were 427,780,000 Christians in North America and Europe (82%), and 93,864,000 in Asia, Africa and Latin America  (18%), for a total of 521,144,000.  In 2003, there were 755,455,000 people who call themselves Christian in North America and Europe (38%), while there are 1,207,871,000 in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania (62%) for a total of 1,963,326,000.   The discrepancy between the earlier cited number of  2,076,629,000 and the total listed here is due to the fact that the latter number includes “unaffiliated Christians,” which do not show up on the tables for the continents (Barrett 25).

[4]Steve Bruce’s latest book, God is Dead: Secularization in the West, published by Blackwell, and Edward Norman’s book, Secularisation, published by Continuum, are reviewed by Philip Jenkins in the November/December 2002 issue of Books and Culture (Jenkins 2002a).

[5]See, for example, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation,  Berkeley, University of California Press, 1986, in which the authors postulate that secularization, rather than leading to the demise of religion, actually maintains and perpetuates religion, as people react against it.

[6]Richard Shaull, a professor ecumenics at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Waldo Cesar, a Brazilian sociologist, recently published an interesting study in which they tried to understand the phenomena of Pentecostalism from an interdisciplinary point of view, especially as it has manifested itself in Brazil through groups like the Igreja Universal do Reino do Deus.

[7]For example:  Much to the chagrin of the Western press, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania has held firm to its position that the use of condoms to fight HIV/AIDS is immoral.  Rev. Martin Shao, Assistant to the Bishop of the Northern Diocese said that the ELCT would not change its stand by distributing condoms, insisting that the only way to prevent AIDS is to be found in morality.  “We can prevent AIDS by abiding with the Word of God,” he said (Ratsim).