Christians should entertain thoughts of the impossible when it comes to penetration into the most unlikely places and peoples in the world with the message and people of Christ. Fatalism based on a mere human trajectory of two thousand years is impious. Ultimately, fatalistic thinking is unbelief in the promise of Jesus, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). The main help in breaking the habit of fatalism is the book about God’s superhuman feats, the Bible. But God ordains others too.
One of the values of being aware of the sorts of things Philip Jenkins, of Penn State University, writes about in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity is that it helps explode fatalistic thinking. Just when you thought you knew how the Christian mission and the world would end, and were yawning toward Armageddon, along comes Jenkins with a story of the last one hundred years that makes you realize you must have already fallen asleep.
The book is mainly about the shift of visible Christianity (Christendom) from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern—from Europe and America to Africa, Asia, and South America.
Over the past century . . . the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably southward, to Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Already today, the largest Christian communities on the planet are to be found in Africa and Latin America. If we want to visualize a “typical” contemporary Christian, we should think of a woman living in a village in Nigeria or in a Brazilian favela. As Kenyan scholar John Mbiti has observed, “the centers of the church’s universality [are] no longer in Geneva, Rome, Athens, Paris, London, New York, but Kinshasa, Buenos Aires, Addis Ababa and Manila.” (p. 2)
Who would have thought that the most powerful influences for sane doctrinal faithfulness in the global Anglican Communion would come not from the evangelical resurgence of British evangelicals (as wonderful as that is), but from African bishops who regard so-called gay marriage (for example) as the oxymoron that it is?
Who would have thought that thirty or so conservative Episcopalian congregations physically located in North America would now technically be part of the jurisdiction of the Archdiocese of Rwanda?
Who would have though that there would be twice as many Presbyterians today in South Korea as there are in the United States?
Who would have thought that China would be one of the largest “Christian” nations. In 1949, China had only four million Christians. Today the number stands at about eighty-two million. That's over a twenty-fold increase. Former Beijing bureau chief for Time magazine David Aikman projects that within a few decades one-in-three Chinese could be Christian (Jesus in Beijing: How Christianity Is Transforming China and Changing the Global Balance of Power).
Who would have thought that, as Mark Noll says in Books and Culture (March/April 2002), “While European Christianity has become archaeology and North American Christianity hangs on as sociology, Christianity in ever-expanding sections of Africa, Latin America, and Asia is dynamic, life-transforming, and revolutionary—if often also wild, ill-informed, and undisciplined”?
And what utterly unforeseen things might the future hold? Lots of danger and lots more than danger. Here is one of Jenkins’ speculations:
The next 20 years or so could well be the worst and the most dangerous period. [But] all around the world, there’s a major demographic change. Surprising areas are now experiencing the kind of demographic transition that Europe experienced 30 years ago, and fertility rates are declining very dramatically. For instance, just in the last 20 or 30 years, Iran has gone from six children per woman to two. In other words, the U. S. now has a higher fertility rate than Iran. Now that’s of interest in its own right, but it also means that in 15 or 20 years, you’re going to have far fewer young men of the sort who represent the violent, active militant groups. It’s quite likely that there will be a decline of religious conflict. But in the intermediate time, it’s a very dangerous situation indeed. (Christianity Today, Nov. 2006 50/11, p. 103)
How can we not get on our knees with a fresh sense of trembling expectation and ask our prayer-hearing God for Christ-exalting, global impossibilities beyond anything the last one hundred years have seen?