The Changing Face of the Church: How the Explosion of Christianity in Developing Nations Is Transforming the World's Largest Religion

Newsweek, April 16, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Changing Face of the Church: How the Explosion of Christianity in Developing Nations Is Transforming the World's Largest Religion


It is Sunday morning in Agbor, a remote village in southwest Nigeria, where chickens peck at rutted roads and bicycles outnumber cars. All morning long women in brightly colored dresses, wide-eyed children holding hands, men in white Sunday shirts and dark pants stream toward the churches. There are more than 20 of them within a square kilometer. Some are clearly Roman Catholic, Anglican and evangelical Protestant--the fruit of Western missionaries. But most are of purely African origin like the Celestial Church of Christ, Miracle Apostolic Church and The Winners Chapel. And so it goes all across the African subcontinent, where Christianity is a 24/7 experience. On decaying asphalt highways the backs of trucks and buses proclaim Christian slogans: IN HIS NAME, ABIDE WITH ME, and GOD IS GOOD. Inside urban malls, the lilting pop music carries an upbeat Christian message in Ibo, Twi or Swahili. Even the signs above storefronts bear public witness: THY WILL BE DONE HAIR SALON, THE LORD IS MY LIGHT CAR WASH and TRUST IN GOD AUTO REPAIR, SPECIALISTS IN MERCEDES BENZ.

This is the heart of contemporary Africa. And south of the Sahara, at least, that heart is proudly Christian. Pope John Paul II has visited Africa 10 times--more than any continent outside Europe--and for good reason. Here among the Ashanti and Baganda and the thousand other tribes who occupy the world's second largest continent, Christianity is spreading faster than at any time or place in the last 2,000 years. Among the most prominent African Christians is an Ibo from Nigeria, Cardinal Francis Arinze, a Vatican official now regarded as a prime candidate to become the first black pope.

In 1900, the beginning of what American Protestants christened as "the Christian Century," 80 percent of Christians were either Europeans or North Americans. Today 60 percent are citizens of the "Two-Thirds World"--Africa, Asia and Latin America. "The center of Christianity has shifted southward," says Andrew Walls, an expert in the history of Christian missions, at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. "The events that are shaping 21st-century Christianity are taking place in Africa and Asia." Europe itself is now a post-Christian society where religion is essentially an identity tag. In Scotland less than 10 percent of Christians regularly go to church, but in the Philippines the figure is nearly 70 percent. In Nigeria alone there are seven times as many Anglicans as there are Episcopalians in the entire United States. The Republic of Korea now has nearly four times as many Presbyterians as America.

Not only is the flood tide of non-Western Christians altering the map of world Christianity, it is also reversing the flow of influence within the Catholic and Protestant worlds. A month ago the presiding bishops of the worldwide Anglican Communion met in North Carolina amid a rift between the liberal churches of the West and the eruption of more conservative churches in Africa and Asia. On Feb. 21, the pope expanded the College of Cardinals to a record 184; of the 135 eligible to elect the next pope, 41 percent are from non-Western nations. And as Christianity becomes a truly global religion, theologians from India and other parts of Asia are developing new and often controversial interpretations of the faith based on their contacts with Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

The emergence of non-Western Christianity has many converging causes. In Latin America, the faith that arrived with the conquistadors in the 16th century is now expanding in part because the population is exploding. In India, the growth is mainly among the outcasts, who find in Christianity hope and dignity denied them by the rigid caste system. In China, Christianity answers problems of meaning that Marxism fails to address. But wherever it spreads, Christianity is also seen as the religion of the successful West--a spiritual way of life that is compatible with higher education, technology and globalization. …

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