The Lava Lamp and Global Christianity

May 29, 2011 — 3 Comments


I used to have a lava lamp. I loved watching the goo inside undulated from bottom to top and back down again. Whatever that stuff is inside the lamp gets lighter when it is heated and rises to the top. Then, as it cools off again, it sinks down to the bottom. This happens over and over until you get bored and walk away or turn it off.

The action of the lava lamp also works as a good illustration of the basic premise of Philip Jenkins' The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. Using a wealth of statistical data regarding religious affiliation, conversion, and population growth, Jenkins predicts an explosive growth of Christianity in the global South, while the cooling trends of secularization continue in the North. Like a lava lamp, a once hot Christianity in the North has cooled and is coalescing and heating up in the South.

Jenkins predicts that this trend will continue at least through 2050 (many of his predictions are set using that target year), resulting in a drastic reshaping of the "typical" Christian. By that time only 1 in 5 Christians will be a Caucasian Northerner. He calls this the "browning" of Christianity and warns that if Christians in the Northern part of the world don't start paying attention now, the shift will be complete before they notice.

While those in more left-leaning Christian traditions will welcome the ethnic diversification, Jenkins warns them that they might not find the ideology of these new, diverse brethren much to their liking. These churches tend to be much more conservative on gender issues and moral issues, are more comfortable with public displays of religion, and tend toward the charismatic end of the spectrum. Our traditional mapping of "left" and "right" will simply not work with these new Southern churches (Kindle loc. 2659-63).

This is curious, especially to one like me, who embraces this diversification but tends to lean toward equality on issues related to gender and sexuality. My new brothers and sisters in the South do not agree. Jenkins goes as far to say that the idea of ordaining women is "anathema" for these believers (loc. 2695), pluralism–what we might call religious tolerance–forbidden (loc., 2707), and the quest to become relevant, "suicide" (loc. 2712). This is the real "emerging" church. That which is emerging from post-modernism in America and Europe seems small and out of sync in comparison.

Yet much of pop theology written today is coming from this vocal minority (I wonder what African Christians would think about Bell's Love Wins?), largely due to reasons of disparity discussed in Oden's How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind. If tomorrow's leaders of the Church in the North are going to be effective at all, Jenkins suggests they start to look South. So far, this hasn't happened. He notes that at the same time Christianity is exploding in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, many traditional denominations in the West have cut back funding for missions (loc. 2907). The sheer desire for Northern Christianity to survive has caused it to take an inward turn. This may be more of a death knell than we realize.

Many Western and Northern churches today are staffed by at least one full-time clergy, if not more. In America it is not uncommon for "successful" churches to have a paid staff of two dozen or more, swallowing up an astonishing 60% of their capital resources (those not tied to the cost of the facilities they maintain). When times get tough, these churches are more apt to cut missions funding to a pittance, or use it as a carrot to stimulate other giving by promising that a percentage of the newest capital campaign will go to fund their efforts abroad.

A more sustainable and long-term investment would be to simplify and downsize. Families and individuals have been discovering this en masse over the past few years and perhaps it is time for religious organizations to follow suit. Taking cues from the South, churches will find that they can operate just fine without funds allocated to the bells and whistles that they are used to. Christianity is growing between cinder block walls under corrugated tin roofs faster than it is under intelli-lights and subwoofers. What would it look like if a church inverted its budget and gave 90% to fund the growth of churches where Christianity is actually spreading and used the remaining 10% to shepherd the flock at home? A lot of pastors would be forced to become bi-vocational. But maybe that's a good thing.

At any rate, Jenkins is urging his readers to look South and keep looking South. Sheer numbers will put the future of Christianity in the hands of those in the South. We can respond by investing our time and relationships there now, in anticipation of what is to come, or we can quietly sit back until we are forced to react to a Christianity that will seem strangely unfamiliar. The choice is ours. His quote from G. K. Chesterton that opens the 10th chapter sums it up nicely,

One of the games to which [the human race] is most attached is called 'Keep tomorrow dark', and which is also named . . . 'Cheat the prophet'. The players listen very carefully and respectfully to all that clever men have to say about what is to happen in the next generation. The players then wait until all the clever men are dead, and bury them nicely. They then go do something else. That is all. For a race of simple tastes, however, it is great fun. (loc. 2880-83)

This time, however, Jenkins asserts that whether or not we listen to him is somewhat immaterial. The changes will come. Christianity's cities of power and influence, her theologians, her leaders, will all be found in the South. Our soil will be the new mission field. When that time comes, where will we be?

Anderson Campbell


  • MIchael Hearn

    Eddie,Another great review!When we look to history and see the growth of Christianity is seems to prosper in times of oppression greater than times of prosperity. The Global South seems to be on the rise and much of Northern and Western Christianity is basking in their own abundance. Maybe as a result of this D.min our first assignment should be to reach the seemingly unreachable U.S. #dmingml

  • Glenn Williams

    Eddie, really enjoyed your review of Jenkin’s book. While I appreciate his call for those who live in the West to look to the South for the future of Christianity, I hope that we will do that with a sense of humility and responsibility to help them to avoid some of the pitfalls we experienced in the West due to unabated consumerism, corruption and greed. The Church in the South is not immune from these dangers. #dmingml

  • Anderson Campbell

    Glenn, I agree. We need to make sure that as we partner with those in the global South, we export the lessons that we have learned from Evangelicalism and consumerism being bedfellows. However, as we learned from Max Weber, in his “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” Evangelicalism and capitalism grew up together. So if we are to not repeat the mistakes of colonialism, then we must let Christianity in the global South grow up in situ. What this most likely means is that capitalism and its expression, will not be the demon that they have to fight. The biggest danger to importing capitalism and consumerism into Christianity of the global South comes when western missionaries feel that it is their job to “evangelize” the south. Following Oden, we must encourage the development of Christianity on southern terms. Then we must be willing to teach the lessons we’ve learned regarding consumerism in application to a problem that will probably be different.