The reshaping of the world order currently underway portends significant changes to the international institutions and norms that have defined global interaction for much of the past century. For Western evangelicals, many of whom are accustomed to viewing their home country as a “Christian nation,” the dynamics of this transformation are mirrored in the existential challenges they face as they confront a new reality, raising important questions about the church’s role in a rapidly changing world.
Writing in 1990, Scottish church historian Andrew F. Walls took issue with the concept of a “Christian nation,” which he viewed as outdated.
Christendom, the centuries-old concept of certain nations belonging to the Christian society and others lying outside of it, has come to an end. Christians are now much more diffused throughout the world than they ever have been; yet they are also much more diffused within societies. Despite burgeoning numbers of new Christians, we are not seeing many new Christian states, certainly not in the manner of old Christendom. No longer does the word Christianity have a territorial connotation.1
Amidst the rebalancing, the church continues to grow, but for Western Christians, the global church landscape has become increasingly unfamiliar territory. Spencer Johnson’s 1998 parable about confronting change in the business world asked the question, “Who moved my cheese?”2 Evangelicals today may well be asking, “Who moved my church?”
In the year 1910, 93 percent of Christians lived in North American and Europe. By 2013 that number had dropped to 63 percent.3 Today, according to the World Christian Database, the majority of Christians are found in the area of the world identified by the UN as the global South, where the church is growing at an estimated 1.85 percent, compared with 0.35 percent in North America.4 Much of this growth has taken place in China, which, according to some statistics, could have the largest concentration of Christians of any nation by the year 2035.5 Meanwhile, between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of Americans identifying as Christian declined by 12 percent.6
This shift in world Christianity reflects the larger rebalancing that is redrawing the map of global power relationships. The global South region that has become home to the majority of the world’s Christians is the same area in which China’s leaders seek to nurture an alternative global community distinct from the current Western-led world order. Nadège Rolland, Senior Fellow at the National Bureau of Asia Research, describes China’s goal as “a yearning for partial hegemony, loosely exercised over large portions of the ‘global South’—a space that would be free from Western influence and purged of liberal ideals.”7
As Western nations move from a position of assumed superiority to one of interdependence with the rest of the world, so it may be argued that the church in American and Europe is moving from a place of dominance to one of increased interdependence with the global church. Should it continue to lose ground in the cultural and political spheres at home, it may find itself in the position of a despised minority in an aggressively post-Christian West. Some argue that it already has.
The key to the Western church’s ongoing effectiveness may well be its ability to learn from majority world believers, many of whom have experience in living out their faith in the face of political and cultural restrictions. For Western Christians who have long taken for granted their ability to affect societal change at the ballot box, these may be difficult lessons. Some of the nations where the church is growing the fastest (China included) are those where political freedoms are severely curtailed or are nonexistent. How Christians in these countries manage to live out the gospel on a personal and community level speaks volumes to believers in the West who struggle to maintain a relevant witness in the face of indifference or outright hostility.
- Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 237.
- Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese? New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1998.
- Bruce Drake, “Number of Christians Rises, But Their Share of World Population Stays Stable,” Pew Research Center, March 22, 2013. Accessed January 25, 2023. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/03/22/number-of-christians-rises-but-their-share-of-world-population-stays-stable/.
- “Status of Global Christianity, 2020, in the Context of 1900-2050,” Center for the Study of Global Christianity, July 2019. Accessed January 25, 2023. https://www.gordonconwell.edu/center-for-global-christianity/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2020/01/Status-of-Global-Christianity-2020.pdf.
- Leah MarieAnn Klett, “Most Evangelical Christians Live outside of North America and Europe, Researcher Says,” Christian Post, February 20, 2020. Accessed January 25, 2023. https://www.christianpost.com/news/most-evangelical-christians-live-outside-of-north-america-and-europe-researcher-says.html.
- “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019. Accessed January 25, 2023. https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.
- Nadège Rolland, “China’s Vision for a New World Order,” NBR Special Report #83 (Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, January 2020), 2. Accessed January 20, 2023. https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/publications/sr83_chinasvision_jan2020.pdf.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio
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