From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

We are witnessing at least two major changes in the demographics of Christianity. The first is the global shift of Christianity from the northern hemisphere to the southern hemisphere. In 1910, 82 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the northern hemisphere; in 2010, that percentage had fallen to 39 percent. The most telling shift has taken place in Europe and in Africa. In 1910, 66 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe; in 2010, only 26 percent. In 1910, only 1 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Sub-Saharan Africa; in 2010, this had increased to 24 percent.

What has happened in Europe? Two world wars and a series of other circumstances have led to large-scale secularization in Europe. The secularization can take different forms – from the widespread atheism in former East Germany to strict religious neutrality, from militant secularism to tolerance for all. Secularization has resulted in the marginalization of Christianity and the disappearance of the symbols that have linked Christianity to Europe: Old churches are being converted into secular structures at a rapid rate in some countries, e.g., the Netherlands.

The second story is the rise of the “nones” in the U.S. According to a now famous 2012 poll released by the Pew Research Center, one in five adult Americans does not have a tie to a religious tradition. Among those between ages 18 and 29, it is one in three.

Are we following the footsteps of our older European friends? The evidence suggests that there is a difference. The “nones” in the U.S. are not necessarily secular: One of the monikers of the movement is that they are “spiritual but not religious.” Many believe in God and value spirituality but have developed an allergic reaction to institutional forms of religion.

This is one of the – if not the – most pressing challenges confronting Christians in the northern hemisphere at the outset of the 21st century. How can we become relevant? How can we develop a voice that speaks the Good News to people in the 21st century that is both faithful to the first-century gospel and yet rings true in modern ears? How can we articulate anew a message that once leaped across the boundaries of an ancient world that was limited in size but required enormous effort to traverse, to a vast contemporary world that is reduced in size exponentially by modern communication and transportation?

This issue of Reflections explores our world of spiritual turbulence and change. The voices of writers found in these pages range from those who are “nones” to those who want to understand them and find fresh ways to speak to them and to others in this new climate. Reading these reports and arguments, you will quickly realize that the causes of the rise of the “nones” and the most effective ways to relate to them are not simple or obvious.

Do I worry about the increase in those who find churches irrelevant? Yes. Am I disheartened by it? No. The nones have said that they do not find what we are offering compelling. We must rethink what we are saying and doing. I find this challenging and, in a way, exhilarating. I am not disheartened because I realize that there are many talented and dedicated people thinking about this, as this Spring 2014 Reflections reveals. More importantly, I am not disheartened because, ultimately, I believe God will work among us.