The southward shift in Christianity

I gave a lecture yesterday in the class for which I’m a teaching assistant on the southern shift of Christianity.  I’m now mining that for two blog posts – this one describing the shift southward and another soon to come one on how that relates to modernity and postmodernity.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the southern shift of Christianity, it refers to the transformation of Christianity from a primarily European religion at the beginning of the 20th century to a truly global religion today, with large numbers of adherents in not just Europe and North America, but Latin America, Africa, and Asia as well.  This transformation is also referred to as the rise of Global Christianity or World Christianity.  It’s part of what I study in school.  Really, I should just refer you to the article by my advisor, Dana Robert, entitled “Shifting Southward: Global Christianity since 1945” or Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  But neither of those is available in blog form, so I’m writing this post.

At its most basic level, this shift southward is a demographic transformation.  In 1900, two thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe.  Today, less than a quarter do.  Currently, the majority of the world’s Christians live in South America, Africa, and Asia, areas referred to variously as “non-Western,” “the (global) South,” “the Two-Thirds World,” or “the Majority World.”  That’s a significant change.

Christian growth in the global South has come from two main sources: conversion of peoples from other religions and high population growth rates among Christians (and non-Christians) in the Global South.  Both of these trends should continue, ensuring that the numerical dominance of southern Christianity will only increase in this century.  At the same time as the number of Christians in the South has been increasing because of conversions and reproduction, the number of Christians in the North has stayed stable or declined as people have become secularized or had fewer babies.

Although this transformation is usually talked about using the language of World Christianity inclusive of Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Oceania, demographically, it is largely an African story.  In 1900, less than 10% of Africans were Christian.  Today, over half are.  The African population has also grown significantly.  The percentage of Christians in the Asian population has grown, too, as has the overall Asian population, but the change in number of Christians is most dramatic in Africa.

Part of the shift southward, though, is not just demographic but a shift southward (and eastward) in thinking.  This is where Latin America and Asia become more important.  Latin America has been largely Christian for a long time, but people are now paying more attention to the unique flavor of Christianity in Latin America.  Asia has neither the dramatic demographic switches of Africa nor the long history of Christianity in Latin America, but still manages to make up a decent percentage of the world’s Christians and is home to some of the places where Christianity is growing fastest, like China.  So people’s thinking has shifted to think about Christianity as an Asian religion, too.

At the same time there’s been a demographic shift and a shift in thinking as part of the southern shift, there’s also been a shift in the makeup of Christianity.  While the traditional image of Christianity in non-Western countries is that of missionaries firmly in control of churches containing those few natives who have been willing to turn their backs on their communities and cultures and “become white”, that is no longer the case.

First, the relationship between Christianity and culture is much more complex.  Christianity certainly changes local cultures and rejects certain elements of local cultures, but it also gives new life to other elements of local cultures.  In terms of language alone (Protestant) Christian missions have been perhaps the greatest force for the preservation of indigenous languages in the world because of their practice of Bible translation.  Scholars talk about the process of inculturation as Christianity adapts to new cultures.  Thus, there’s been a cultural shift in Christianity.

In addition, missionaries are, by-and-large, no longer in control on non-Western churches.  Even where missionaries are still present, they’re often not leading local churches, but rather teaching or filling other supportive roles.  Most Christian churches around the world are led by leaders local to where the church is.  In some cases, that manifests itself as local control of local branches of an international religious body (like the United Methodist Church), but often it includes locally-formed religious bodies, which then may expand and become international missionary bodies themselves (e.g., Redeemed Christian Church of God from Nigeria, Universal Church of the Kingdom of God from Brazil, Zimbabwe Assemblies of God Africa [ZAOGA], from Zimbabwe).

The rise of independent denominations and churches is just one aspect of the denominational shift that has gone along with the southern shift of Christianity.  The biggest winners in the shift south have been Catholicism, independent churches, Pentecostalism (which overlaps with independent churches), and Evangelicalism (which overlaps with the last two).  Traditional mainline Protestantism has not benefitted nearly as much from the expansion.  More Christians are now part of Independent churches (African, Asian, and other) than are part of Protestant churches (427 million to 376 million).  Catholicism is still the largest branch of Christianity (with about 1.1 billion followers, about half the Christians in the world).

Along with these changes in denominations go changes in theology, worship style, etc.  In general, theology is more conservative and worship style more charismatic.  Theology and worship around the world also draw on cultural elements that are foreign to those in the West.  The role of ancestors in Christianity, whether indigenous music can be used in worship, exorcising demons, ecstatic worship experiences, and questions of ritual power and purity are all concerns that aren’t very important in the West but are very important in other areas of the globe.

There’s a lot more one could say about this topic, but I think I’m going to wrap up the post here.  Look for the follow-up in a few days: how these shifts relate to (post)modernity.


Matthew Rossetto posted on January 22, 2018 at 8:03 pm

very good content

Ahmet Mehmet posted on June 19, 2020 at 12:15 pm

Great blog

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