“Is God Dead?” was the front cover of Time Magazine on April 8th, 1966. It came at a time when sociologists were declaring that America was moving into a ‘post-religious’ age. At that time, Harvey Cox, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, wrote a very influential book, entitled ‘The Secular City,’ in which he sought to work out a theology that was relevant to this new age, an age of secularism.
Now, almost fifty years later in 2009, when he was retiring from Harvard, he wrote another book, ‘The Future of Faith,’ in which he readily acknowledges that what was predicted back in the 60s, when sociologists who thought spirituality was headed for extinction, did not happen. In actual fact, there was evidence that ‘faith’ was alive and growing. In his new book, ‘The Future of Faith,’ he examines the future direction of the church.
Harvey Cox put it this way in a chapter entitled ‘The Age of the Spirit,’ “The resurgence of religion was not foreseen. On the contrary, not many decades ago thoughtful writers were confidently predicting its imminent demise. Science, literacy, and more education would soon dispel the miasma of superstition and obscurantism. Religion would either disappear completely or survive in family rituals, quaint folk festivals, and exotic references in literature, art, and music. Religion, we were assured, would certainly never again sway politics or shape culture. But the soothsayers were wrong. Instead of disappearing, religion – for good or ill – is now exhibiting new vitality all around the world and making its weight widely felt in the corridors of power.”
So what happened to bring this change?
TWO MAJOR CHANGES IN CHRISTENDOM
Recently, I was talking on the phone with my daughter Beth, who lives in Germany. Beth has a Ph.D. in historical theology and for almost twenty years, has taught online with Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN. She made a comment that caught my attention when she said, “There have been two major changes in Christendom in the last 100 years.” Naturally, I asked what they were. Her answer:
1 The Rise of the Global South
2 The Rise of Pentecostalism
Let us take a look at each one of these major changes in Christendom.
THE RISE OF THE GLOBAL SOUTH
The first change is the global shift, especially to the global south. The phrase, ‘the global south’ refers to the developing world in the southern hemisphere, most of which is indeed south of the equator even though some lies north of it.
Professor Philip Jenkins of Baylor University declared, “The center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably – southward to Africa and Latin America and eastward towards Asia.” Jenkins also states, ‘Whatever Europeans or North Americans may believe, Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global south – not just surviving, but expanding.”
Jenkins does point out it is difficult to settle on exact numbers because the churches there “are too busy baptizing newcomers to be counting them precisely.”
Most of these movements are “strongly conservative in their theology, escatology and sexual teachings.” They are much more traditional and orthodox, even compared to American conservatives. Then, of course, there is what is happening in China (and other parts of Asia) where it is estimated by some that there are over 100 million believers in China alone. “It is estimated that more people in China attend church on any given Sunday than in the United States.”
Now, America still leads the world in terms of sending out missionaries and in regard to finances, but that too is changing. Between 2010 and 2015, the number of African missionaries jumped 32 percent to over 27,000. Korean missionaries jumped 50 percent to 30,000 in the same period. And the countries receiving the lion’s share of these missionaries are Brazil, Russia, and-wait for it-the United States (Breakpoint 2018).
It is exciting to see what is happening in the global south. Chances are you will not hear about this in the mainstream media. For example, this year, 3 million people attended a March for Jesus at Sao Paulo in Brazil. The President of Brazil Jain Bolsonaro addressed the event.
To put it simply, the global church is exploding, the shift in Christendom is headed south, and North America and Europe are no longer the center of Christendom.
ITS EFFECT ON AMERICA
A sideline to the shift in the global church can be seen in a recent event here in America. Earlier this year, the United Methodist Church General Conference convened, and one of the decisions to be made concerned the church’s teaching on sexuality and whether clergy could perform gay marriages, etc. The decision eventually was made to uphold the church’s traditional teaching of sexuality. The deciding factor was that a third of the delegates were from Africa, where the Methodist Church is still conservative.
Now, Christians in America need to not just recognize the shift in the global church that is happening; they need to actually rejoice in what is occurring around the world. After all, the mandate from Jesus was to go into all the world.
THE RISE OF PENTECOSTALISM
The modern movement called Pentecostalism (and related movements such as the Charismatic Renewal) is just over 100 years old. It is generally dated back to the revival that happened in Azuza Street, Los Angeles, in 1906, that spread around the world.
It is hard to realize how far it has come in 100 years. Roberts Lairdon, in his book ‘God’s Generals’ writes, “Declaring yourself a Pentecostal in the 1920s and 1930s meant ridicule and shunning from most other Christian denominations.” I remember back in 1971, at a Charismatic conference in England, talking to an old-time Pentecostal who told me about how they had been persecuted back in the early days of Pentecostalism in England. They had even been pelted with rotting fruit. Then, too, there was a major conflict between Fundamentalists and Pentecostals. One fundamentalist C. Campbell Morgan called Pentecostals “the last vomit of Satan.”
HARVEY COX’S JOURNEY
After he began to study what was happening in this part of the church, Harvard professor Harvey Cox had this to say about the growth of Pentecostalism, “Even before I started my journey through the world of Pentecostalism, it had become obvious that instead of the ‘death of God’ some theologians pronounced not many years ago, or the waning of religion that sociologists had extrapolated, something quite different has taken place.”
Consequently, he began to explore the rise of Pentecostalism, which, as he wrote, “I never learned anything about the movement either in seminary or graduate school. Perhaps my teachers felt it wasn’t worth mentioning.” As a result, he wrote another book ‘Fire from Heaven; the Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century.’ Later still he wrote the book ‘The Future of Faith,’ where he includes a chapter on Pentecostalism and the Age of the Spirit.
To put it simply, Pentecostalism is now a dynamic force within Christendom, and it has the momentum to continue to be so.
“Is God Dead?” was the cry in 1966, but today the answer is, as always, “No!” God is alive, and so is His church. Yes, the center of Christendom is moving to the global south, and Pentecostalism is a dynamic movement that is on the increase around the world. Rejoice in what the Spirit of God is doing. As I always say, “The Best is Yet to Be.”
Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hades will not prevail against it.”
Cox, Harvey Gallagher. The Future of Faith. HarperOne, 2010.
Jenkins, Philip. Next Christendom: the Coming of Global Christianity. Oxford University Press, 2011.