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The Changing Face of Christianity
February 10, 2005

In 1900 there were about 9 million Christians in all of Africa. By the year 2000 that number had grown to 380 million.

Calvin College provost and professor of history Joel Carpenter says that Africa is home to the greatest growth of Christianity in the world right now.

He and Lamin Sanneh, D. Willis James professor of missions & world Christianity at Yale Divinity School, are editors of a new book on the topic from Oxford University Press called "The Changing Face of Christianity."

Carpenter says that while the growth of Christianity in Africa is an important topic for that continent, it's also something that is going to impact North American culture in greater and greater ways in this next century.

"It is in Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and Oceana that Christianity is flourishing," says Carpenter. "In the global north - North America and Europe especially - the religion is barely holding its own. In addition the shape that Christianity takes in the global south and east is markedly different from how it looks in the north."

Indeed Sanneh, a West African Christian, says in the book's conclusion that northern, liberal Christianity has become a "do-as-you-please" religion, deeply accommodated to the post-Christian values of the secular northlands. And, he adds, the new Christianity of the global south and east, which bears the scars of hardship and persecution, will clash increasingly with its urbane and worldly northern counterpart.

That's because outside the North Atlantic region Christianity is much more dynamic and is marked by communal relationships and mutual obligations. Christianity in the north, says Carpenter, tends to be much more individualistic. In addition, Carpenter asserts that Christianity in the global south and east may be closer to classic Christian doctrines and imperatives than in the north where it has assumed modern, post-Christian cultural norms.

In the summer of 2000 Calvin convened a summer seminar to look at these issues and others related to the rise of Christianity outside North America and Europe. That seminar led to the new book, which also includes contributions from Calvin professors Richard Plantinga and Todd VandenBerg.

Carpenter says the 1998 Lambeth Conference was a wake-up call to many about the sea change taking place in global Christianity.

At that worldwide conference of Anglican bishops a number of issues were raised as important to the church, including evangelism, spiritual renewal, care for the poor and Christian witness in pluralistic societies.

"All of these are important issues," says Carpenter, "but they were brought to the conference by bishops from the south, not from the north. That was a real comeuppance for the bishops from the north, but it also sent a message to the rest of the world's Christian denominations that new agendas are here now."

Carpenter says that while the Christian religion is on the rise in many parts of the global south and east, he and Sanneh decided to concentrate on Africa where Christianity is so astonishingly dynamic.

"Africa," says Carpenter, "has had European missionaries for many years, but they have played a relatively minor role. The real church growth in Africa now has been happening through African evangelists and agencies."

They are, Carpenter says, people who have appropriated Christianity and made it their own. From that claiming they, in turn, are able to evangelize their fellow countrymen.

"They share the same culture," says Carpenter, "and they can speak straight to their neighbors' spiritual hopes, fears and needs."

In the introduction to the book Sanneh tells the tale of the Winners' Chapel, founded in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1983. It now has 400 branches in Nigeria and in 38 other African countries. And it owns the Faith Tabernacle in Lagos which seats more than 50,000 every Sunday, making it one of the biggest congregations in the world!

Carpenter notes that Africa is now at a crossroads, however. It has spread the fervor of Christianity to individuals. Now it needs to figure out how to bring this religion to bear on Africa life, to train business and political leaders, as well as pastors, to shape society and make a difference in some very troubled countries.

So sub-Saharan Africa is now a hotspot for new evangelical universities. They're being founded faster than researchers can keep up with them. Carpenter says there are parallels to this country during its formative years.

"It's not unlike where we were in Michigan during pioneer days," says the historian. "Consider Kalamazoo College, which came into existence even before the state of Michigan. It was built to train Christian leaders, to provide teachers and civic leaders for this emerging civilization out in the woods. (Recently founded) Uganda Christian University is doing the same thing. Its mission is for Christian witness in society. To help build a nation."

Carpenter also says that the changes in Africa and other countries in the global south impact North American society too. Immigrants, he says, are almost completely responsible for North American denominations' recent growth. He notes that about 80 percent of Korean Americans are Christians, and that more than half of Michigan's Arab population is Christian. And, he adds, about 3,000 Catholic parishes around the country have Spanish-speaking services.

In fact, he says, the Roman Catholic Church is probably more profoundly impacted by the rise of Christianity in the global south than any other religion.

"About 40 percent of the College of Cardinals," he notes, "comes from the global south and east. The new story there is Africa. All of these former British colonies are no longer primarily identified with the Church of England. The Catholic church is just taking off in places like Uganda and Nigeria."

So much so, says Carpenter, that he believes some day we will see an African pope.

"Then," he says, "you'll have a very visible reminder of the changing face of Christianity."