In a classic book of humor entitled The Experts Speak, we find an impressive collection of failed prophecies and wildly inaccurate predictions: Television would never catch on, nobody needs a personal computer, and so on. I occasionally think there might be a place for a parallel volume of religious forecasts gone stunningly wrong. Such an assemblage of errors would include Thomas Jefferson’s belief that America’s future was undoubtedly Unitarian and Mark Twain’s prediction that, by around 2000, Christian Science would be challenging Roman Catholicism for supremacy in the Christian world. The 1960’s produced a singularly rich crop of predictions insisting that liberation theology and theological radicalism would carry the field long before the end of the century. Foretelling the future shape of religion requires, well, a prophet, which most of us are not. All of which is by way of apology for the fact that 1 intend to engage in exactly the kind of activity that I have disparaged. It would take a fool to try to foretell the religious loyalties of the coming century; I am that fool.
My foolishness, at least, has a strong statistical grounding, based on what today seem like undeniable demographic and religious trends. If these developments unfold as predicted, then the world’s religious picture by around 2050 is going to have many features that would delight a modern-day conservative: Christianity will be flourishing, expanding rapidly both in absolute and relative numbers, and religious thought and belief will be highly conservative and traditional. The problem —and some will see it as a problem —is that the traditions in question will not be those of Europe, North America, or the global North: in short, of anything that we currently think of as “traditional Christian culture.” Christianity may be entering one of the most glorious ages in its history, but this age is one with which we Northerners will have precious little connection.
When I tell people that I am researching future trends in world religions, they often ask, “So, will Christianity (or the Roman Catholic Church) survive?” They seem stunned when I tell them that both should be expanding apace through the coming century, and that nothing short of a global cataclysm can prevent this. Barring an encounter with an asteroid that has our planet’s name on it, the number of Christians worldwide should soar, because the faith is so strong in those regions that are growing at an astounding rate. Moreover, the Christian share of the population in these countries is expanding due to evangelistic efforts that are succeeding to a degree scarcely paralleled in church history. Currently, for instance, about 40 percent of Nigeria’s 120 million people are Christian. If the churches can simply maintain that share, then there will be over 120 million Nigerian Christians by 2050. Most observers, however, think that this is a pessimistic scenario and that the proportion of Christians in that country will be even larger by mid-century.
Looking around the world, we can find many similar cases, and we can make a plausible estimate of the countries that should, by the middle of the 21st century, have the largest number of Christians. The list will startle many. The United States should still head the list, with over 300 million members of Christian denominations, but after that, the emphasis shifts dramatically to the global South. The next names on the list, each with between 100 and 200 million believers, would be Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Trailing these, with 60 to 80 million Christians, are Ethiopia, Russia, China, and—would you believe it!—actually a Western European country, Germany. Don’t worry though; this anomaly will soon be corrected: In all probability, Germany will shortly after be overtaken by another African country.
Looking at the top ten Christian nations slightly distorts the overall picture, because it understates the growing African domination of the churches. Quite apart from giant nations such as Nigeria, Christian numbers are expanding across the continent. And while Africa and Latin America grow, European populations will contract steadily: The fifteen nations of the European Union combined will shrink by about a sixth over the next 50 years. Some countries, such as Italy and Spain, will be losing people so fast as to raise doubts about their continued existence as organized societies. Even in terms of formal adherence to Christianity, sub-Saharan Africa will already have displaced Europe as the Christian heartland within a quarter century or so, while the divergence in terms of practice will be even more glaring. By 2050, non-Hispanic whites may make up only one-seventh of Christians worldwide.
The nation of Uganda is representative of the fast-growing tropical countries, particularly in Africa. Uganda’s population in 1950 was a mere 5.5 million people (in a land the size of Oregon), but the number of people has doubled every 25 years or so, the same rate of growth as North America experienced during the expansion of the colonial and early national period. There were 11 million Ugandans by 1975; today, there are 23 million. According to U.N. statistics, the total should grow to 65 million by 2050. The U.S. Census Bureau offers an even more remarkable projection; 84 million Ugandans by the mid-21st century. The rate of overall growth would be even higher if not for the effects of AIDS and civil violence.
In religious terms, Uganda represents one of the triumphs of the missionary movement. Although Christian activities date back only to the 1870’s, the successes have been astonishing: Today, about one third of the population is Protestant, one-third Catholic, and one-sixth Muslim, while the rest follow traditional African religions. Even if we assume no further expansion through conversion, the Ugandan Christian population should still grow from around 17 million today to over 40 million by mid-century. Assuming continuing evangelistic success, at least 50 million Ugandan Christians is probable. At that point, there will be more self-described Christians in Uganda than in Britain, France, or Italy. As this example indicates, we are living through an age of religious revolution.
As the saying goes, you can prove anything with statistics, even the truth. Much more significant than the raw numbers is what they imply for the practice and theology of the faith: Put simply, the booming African churches will diverge ever further from European patterns. This is not just a matter, say, of African Anglican or Catholic churches keeping the same basic liturgy and religious beliefs, but adding a little drumming and putting up pictures of a dark-skinned Christ. To understand the scale of what we might be dealing with, just think of how Christianity changed when it was assimilated into the German cultures of Europe in the Middle Ages. Yes, Jesus was imagined differently, becoming the blond, blue-eyed figure we have been portraying ever since; but over the centuries, the cultural interaction also resulted in a wholesale revision of older Christian thought and belief.
I have already ventured too far into the prophecy business to try to imagine the shape of the new Christianities, of what we might call the “Next Christendom” that is now in gestation. Yet we can already see how Christians in the Southern hemisphere are adapting the faith to their cultural realities and distinctive traditions. All too often, Americans and Europeans assume that Christianity is a purely Western export, a toxic package of prejudices and repressions that has been imposed on unwilling native populations in Africa or Asia as part of the colonial enterprise. In Barbara Kingsolver’s snide novel, The Poisonwood Bible, a missionary girl in the Belgian Congo recollects that “We came from Bethlehem, Georgia, bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.” Kingsolver is depicting Christianity as a part of white-bread Euro-American culture which has no place overseas; only imperialistic arrogance leads us to believe otherwise. In truth, Christianity has been in Africa for a very long time and was domesticated there long before it ever tamed backward tribes such as the Germans and English.
To appreciate the Africanness of Christianity, we might look at the truly ancient Ethiopian Church. An Ethiopian court official is one of the first Gentile converts identified in the Acts of the Apostles, and the entire nation was converted around the same time that the Roman Empire was. Although scarcely known by Westerners, this church offers one of the most remarkable success stories in Christianity. The church has many aspects that would surprise a Westerner, including some practices that derive from Judaism: Most believers practice circumcision, some keep a Saturday Sabbath, and many churches feature an ark. But it would be a daring outsider who would suggest that the faith for which Ethiopians have struggled and died over 1,600 years is anything less than a manifestation of the Christian tradition. Even today, after conflicts with Muslims and, more recently, anticlerical Marxists, the church claims 30 million members, which is more than the number of North American Methodists of all denominations combined. The population of Ethiopia is expected to triple in the next 50 years, and it is reasonable to expect that the number of Ethiopian Christians will grow accordingly.
Although there is no direct link between the Ethiopian Church and the newer congregations of black Africa, the black churches often lay claim to the Ethiopian name as a kind of declaration of independence from European models. African churches of all stripes are fond of quoting Psalm 68, which proclaims, “Let Ethiopia hasten to stretch out her hands to God.” For over a hundred years, autonomous “Ethiopian” or “Zion” churches have been expanding across Africa. Today, around one sixth of all Christians worldwide belong to churches that are neither Catholic, Protestant, Anglican, nor Orthodox, and many of these are found among the African independent churches. That is already over 350 million believers, and the number is expected to climb in coming decades.
These independents flourish because they offer believers a brand of Christianity that accepts many older rituals and cultural patterns of the kind that the missionaries once denounced as pagan. Often, too, newer churches practice a very enthusiastic religion, one that fully accepts the value of dreams, visions, prophecies, divine revelations, and spiritual healings. It is easy for Westerners to see such behaviors or rituals as beyond the legitimate bounds of Christianity, but in many critical ways, the independent congregations lie firmly within the great tradition. The creeds of the different churches are classic and powerful statements of Christian doctrine.
In many ways, the Christian texts and creeds make far more sense for the independent churches than they do in the West, precisely because they are so rooted in traditional cultures, which can be seen as an ideal preparatio evangelica. Western churches might assert a formal belief in the communion of saints and imagine the supernatural church as a union of living believers with the souls of those who have already died. For African Christians, the notion of continuity with the world of their ancestors is not only credible, it was a fundamental component of popular beliefs long before the acceptance of Christian doctrine. And while many Western Christians find it difficult to accept notions of the afterlife or resurrection as literally true, these theories resonate with African independent churches. The fact that believers regularly see their ancestors in dreams and visions is simply proof that they are still alive in God. In the affairs of this world, too, the ideal of Christian community may be more accessible in southern Africa than in Western Europe. For African churches, proximity to native traditions gives a powerful relevance to corporate and communal visions of the Church, the ecclesia.
To understand what may seem like the oddities of the independent churches, it is helpful to read the best contemporary account of first-century Christianity: the Acts of the Apostles. Passages that seem mildly embarrassing to a Western audience read differently—and relevantly—in the new churches of Africa or Latin America, where believers take a more matter-of-fact attitude toward the apostolic world of signs and wonders. Of course a holy man like Philip might have four virgin daughters who prophesied: What is prophecy but a sign of the true church? And why should modern readers have difficulty in accepting the repeated miracles, healings, and raisings from the dead undertaken by the apostles? Simply read the gospels: This is exactly what Jesus promised his disciples, without any caveat that these powers might expire with the end of the first century. Then, as now, God spoke to his followers by means of dreams and inspired prophecies. Yes, there are still people in the world who believe in miracles, and their numbers are growing—quite rapidly, in fact.
We can disagree at length in deciding what is fundamental to Christianity and what is simply the expression of a particular culture. This point was brought home to me some years ago when I visited St Peter’s Anglican cathedral in the Australian city of Adelaide, where the visitor leaves the bright sunshine to enter into a dark Gothic chamber, which seems utterly inappropriate for the local climate and environment. However, the English Victorian builders believed that a “religious” building had to follow certain cultural norms, and that meant copying the Gothic styles which mimicked the brooding forests of medieval northern Europe. Some enthusiasts even insisted on calling Gothic architecture “Christian,” tout court. Presumably, if the course of Christian history had run differently, then another society might have succeeded in spreading its distinctive cultural vision across the world, with equal confidence that it was the only fit vessel for conveying Christian truth.
While it is easy to recognize that Gothic architecture represents a particular cultural form, we need to be more flexible to determine which other cherished ideas and images are cultural accidents, as opposed to essentials of faith. In the coming century, this debate is likely to rage with continuing fury as the new churches acclimatize ever more enthusiastically to their societies, to the horror of established Western denominations. Perhaps these debates will contribute to more North-South schisms, and even mutual denunciation as extreme as the ancient split between Catholic and Orthodox. But if such controversies do develop, the shifting population balance is so marked that the future of Christianity will be in the global south, and the successful churches of the future will be those that best accommodate to those cultures and traditions. Everything augurs wonderfully well for “traditional” Christianity; sadly, they just won’t be my traditions.