Rethinking Christianity in the 21st Century

Gregory E. Sterling

Christianity is changing – rapidly – in a century where commerce, communications, and travel are connected globally in unprecedented ways. How do we understand these changes in the faith, and what impact will global connectedness have on the church?

Trends have not dramatically eroded the relative number of Christians in the world. The overall percentage has been relatively stable. In 1910, approximately 35 percent of the world’s total population were Christians; a century later, Christians comprised 32 percent.1

What has changed is Christianity’s global geographical distribution. The basic shifts have been from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern and from the West to the East. In 1910, 66 percent of the world’s Christians resided in Europe; in 2010, this percentage had fallen to 26 percent.2 This is not due simply to the growth of Christianity elsewhere but to the secularization of Europe. Today churches there are being converted into other types of establishments at an alarming rate. In England there have been debates over the nature of the businesses that may take over church property – e.g., a pub is acceptable but a sex shop is not.

World War and Bingo Nights

There are numerous reasons for the decline of Christianity in Europe. Two world wars have scarred the minds of many Europeans: People wondered where God was. Other factors are at work. One of the most interesting observations I have heard came from a Lutheran bishop in Sweden. At a dinner in Lund, I asked her how things were in her diocese. She said people attended bingo nights during the week in far greater numbers than worship services on Sunday. I asked why. She suggested that the socialism of the Swedish government was a significant reason. The government had taken over the role that used to belong to the church. Instead of the church bringing meals to the ill or cleaning their house or providing a ride to the doctor, the government provided all of these services. The church had lost its role in society. Whatever the causes for the decline of Christianity in Europe, the reality of its decline is undeniable.

The African Century?

By contrast, Christianity has been exploding in Africa. In 1910, only 1 percent of the world’s Christians lived in sub-Saharan Africa; in 2010, this percentage had risen to 24 percent.3 The growth has not only come in Pentecostal or charismatic movements but in mainline Christian traditions. In 1900, more than 80 percent of Anglicans lived in Britain; in 2008, that number had fallen to 33 percent. By 2008, the number of Anglicans in sub-Saharan Africa had reached 55 percent.4

Similarly, the Roman Catholic Church has grown exponentially in Africa over the last 100 years – from less than 1 percent of the world’s Catholic population in 1900 to 16 percent of the global Catholic population in 2010.5

One overlooked factor is that many in Africa associate Christianity with democracy and economic prosperity. People gravitate to it as a means of upward mobility.

Christianity has increased in Latin America. Looking at Catholicism, we can see this growth: In 1910, 24 percent of the world’s Catholics lived in South America or the Caribbean; by 2010, this had risen to 39 percent.6 All these numbers tell the story of the southern migration of Christianity. In 1910, only 9 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the South. In 2010, this had grown to 24 percent.7 Christianity has expanded in the East. It is estimated that in 1910, 4.5 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the Asia Pacific region; in 2010, this number had blossomed to 13 percent.8 The most impressive Christian growth is taking place in China, although it is impossible to know exactly how fast. Since 1949 there has been an official church in communist China. Those unwilling to register have formed underground or house churches. Since the time of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), these have proliferated. One recent estimate places the total number of Christians in China at 67,070,000.9

Pluralism Rising

There is one other trend to take into account: When thinking about the global church, it is impossible to ignore the presence of other religions. With 32 percent of the world’s population, Christianity is the largest religion today. However, Muslims comprise 23 percent, unaffiliated individuals 16 percent, Hindus 15 percent, Buddhists 7 percent, folk religionists 6 percent. All other groups are less than 1 percent.10 How should we respond to the shifting landscapes of the religious world? Let me offer four responses.

1) A Changing Center of Gravity. Christianity’s numerical shift from North to South and from West to East will alter its character in significant ways. For those Christians who belong to a worldwide communion, the presence of Africans will become more and more evident. Among Protestants this means the African churches will soon – if they do not already – have more votes than their northern counterparts. Some tensions already exist between North and South. Christians in the Southern Hemisphere tend to be more ethically conservative. Churches like the Anglican Communion or the United Methodists will need to negotiate these differences. The election of a Latin American pope has shaken up the ethos of Catholicism. Further change is likely in store when the church one day elects a pope from Africa. In short, we cannot consider the future of the worldwide faith without regarding the churches in the Southern Hemisphere as a rising force.

2) Theology. If we believe experience is a vehicle of theology, we will need to learn to respect the different experiences that shape theologies across the world. These will have a direct impact on our theological reflection. In China there are natural tensions between the official church and the underground or house churches, although these appear to be improving. In Africa, Christians struggle with the relationship between their spirituality and indigenous religions.11 The spirituality of African Christians is often a blend of native and Christian expressions.

These developments appear to me to be roughly analogous to the state of Christianity in the first three centuries C.E. At one time, there was a model of thinking of the early church as a single monolithic tradition. The tradition began with Jesus Christ, was developed by the apostles, and came to full expression in the work of the bishops who succeeded the apostles. Some offshoots from this tradition were heterodox, but they were exposed by the apostles and then by the heresiologists. This model of Christian origins is largely the construction of early Christian heresiologists like Irenaeus.

Twentieth-century scholarship overturned this model. Today it is recognized that Christianity emerged in different forms in various locales.12 The experience of Christianity in 1st-century Jerusalem was quite different than the Christianity in Corinth. Initially there was no such thing as orthodoxy in the sense of a uniform and well-defined movement. Orthodoxy emerged from the coalescence of various forms or patterns of Christianity. This does not mean that there was no continuity with the earliest forms of Christianity, but that orthodoxy was a clear development. It was not enforceable until the rise of bishops and the adoption of Christianity by Constantine.

In other words, rather than thinking of enforced uniformity, we need to think of diversity within a larger unity. If this is unnerving, we should remember that it was the diversity of the early centuries that helped to give Christianity its vibrancy and allowed it to take root in multiple circumstances throughout the Roman world. I think we need to allow for the same freedom today.

3) Community. The digital world is the greatest innovation since the printing press, and it has altered the way we think about community. The statistical rise of the “nones” has generated a new sociological category – people who have a sense of spirituality but are allergic to religious institutions. This generation forms customized cyber-communities rather than flesh-and-blood communities. The fact that two-thirds of the nones in the U.S. are spiritual but not religious makes them different from their more secular European counterparts. Notably, the phenomenon of non-affiliation is generational: 32 percent of those age 18-29 consider themselves nones, compared to only 9 percent of those over 65.

The current generation is wary of institutional forms of Christianity for many reasons. The scandals of the institutional church, the larger distrust of institutions, the failure of churches to proclaim the gospel clearly or authentically have all contributed. In my opinion, a crucial factor is the way younger people think about community and by extension religion. They regard religion as a matter of optional personal programming. Many create their own networks rather than join one that incorporates them. They do not join churches. Congregations are struggling to relate. As one minister memorably remarked: “We have too many eight-track churches in a MP3 world.”14 We need to learn how to build communities through digital communications that address the needs of flesh-and-blood human beings. We need to show how diverse people can live together and love one another in the spirit of Christ.

4) From Faith to Faith. We must recognize that we are only one-third of the world’s population. How should we think of the other two-thirds? In practical ways, the issue is more pressing for some Christians than for others. In the last decade, 45 percent of new marriages in the U.S. crossed major confessional lines or were interfaith. In 1950, only 20 percent of the marriages were interdenominational or interfaith. One possible implication of this is that it will promote good relations among the communities of faith. We will need to maintain our civility as the mix of faiths changes. On the other hand, studies suggest interfaith marriages face higher rates of dissatisfaction or failure. I do not expect these marriages to become less frequent, but acknowledge that they can be a challenge.

Credibility at Risk

Meanwhile, there are too many places in our world where religion is used as a pretext for violence. This should concern all people of faith. It threatens to increase the percentage of unaffiliated dramatically. It is a threat to the credibility of all faiths.

We must find ways to be loyal to our own beliefs or practices and yet be tolerant of others. As a Christian I cannot say what Mahatma Gandhi said when asked if he was a Hindu. Gandhi replied, “Yes I am. I am also a Christian, a Muslim, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” As much as I admire Gandhi, I can only confess that I am a Christian. My loyalty to Christ is exclusive. This does not, however, require that I take an exclusive stance to religion. As a Christian I have a Bible that contains the Jewish Bible. It would be incredibly foolish of me to deny that Jews understand God or deny the validity of the majority of my own Scriptures.

The world is moving in profound ways. We should not think that Christianity is disappearing. It is, however, changing.

The Ends of the Earth

I have spent a good deal of my life studying Luke-Acts in the New Testament. In my opinion, the two works offer a self-definition of Christianity within the larger ancient Greco-Roman world. The author did not think locally but globally. The Gospel opens and closes in Jerusalem. Acts opens in Jerusalem and closes in Rome, a symbolic geographical move. The author set this up at the beginning of Acts when Jesus said to the apostles: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”15 The most fascinating aspect of this declaration about “the ends of the earth” is that it is left open. Paul is taken to Rome where he awaits trial, but never comes to trial. As readers we want to know what happened to him. The author does not tell us. Why not? I do not believe it is because the author did not know Paul’s fate, but that the author wanted us to understand that the story was not over. It continued. This was the author’s way to challenge us to continue the story “to the ends of the earth.”

We live in a world that the author of Acts never imagined but did allow for when taking the story to the ends of the earth. I will say to you what I say to the students at Yale Divinity School. Christianity is changing in our globalized world; I do not know what it will look like in 50 years, but I know that you will write its history with your lives. Write it well.

Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. The author of several books, he concentrates his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Luke-Acts. His next book, for Eerdmans, is called Defining the Present through the Past.

Notes 1 Luis Lugo and Alan Cooperman, “Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (Dec. 19, 2011). The estimated numbers are 611,810,000 of the world’s 1,758,410,000 total population in 1910 and 2,184,060,000 of the world’s 6,895,890,000 total population in 2010.

2 Lugo and Cooperman, “Global Christianity.”

3 Lugo and Cooperman, “Global Christianity.”

4 Luis Gugo, Brian J. Grim, and Elizabeth Podrebarac, “Global Anglicanism at a Crossroads,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (June 19, 2008).

5 “The Global Catholic Population,” Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life (Feb. 13, 2013). The numbers are from less than 1 million to 171 million.

6 “The Global Catholic Population.” The estimated numbers are 70,650,000 in 1910 and 425,400,000 in 2010.

7 Lugo and Cooperman, “Global Christianity.”

8 Lugo and Cooperman, “Global Christianity.”

9 Lugo and Cooperman, “Global Christianity.” There have been several recent attempts to count Christians. For consistency I have used the Pew numbers.

10 “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project (Dec. 18, 2012). The estimated numbers are 2.2 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.1 billion unaffiliated, 1 billion Hindus, 500 million Buddhists, 400 million folk religionists (e.g., African tribal religions, Chinese folk religions, North American religions, or Australian aboriginal religions), and 14 million Jews.

11 Among the studies that address this, Lamin Sanneh’s West African Christianity: The Religious Impact (Hurst, 1983) and Gerrie ter Haar, How God became African: African Spirituality and Western Secular Thought (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), are notable.

12 The classic statement of this is Walter Bauer, Rechtgläubigkeit und Ketzerei in ältesten Christentum (BHT 10; Tübingen: Mohr, 1934, 19642). There is an English translation, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity (trans. Robert A. Kraft and Gerhard Krobel, Fortress, 1971).

13 This has been reported by many, most famously in “‘Nones’ on the Rise,” Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Project (Oct. 9, 2012).

14 Otis Moss III in the Beecher Lectures, Yale Divinity School (October 2014).

15 Acts 1:8. See the echo in Acts 13:47.