Forget the Old Time Religion – World Christianities are here!

The demographic shift of Christianity from Europe to the Global South is most likely the biggest and fastest religious change in the history of humankind. In 1900, less than one in five Christians lived in the Global South. Today, two in three do. Today, almost half of world’s Protestant Christians are in Africa.  (World Christian Encyclopedia, 3rd ed., 2020)

The consequences of this shift are not only that the white man no longer is the paradigmatic Christian. Christianity is rather undergoing a deep and wide transformation, which is probably at par or even greater than that of the Reformation era of the 16th century. The rapid expansion of Christianity drags everyone used to the Euro/American dominated Christianity out of their comfort zones.

Jubilation in Nkamba, New Jerusalem, of the Kimbanguist Church, DRC. Image: Mika Vähäkangas

Prophets and messiahs – is this Christianity?

The new encounters with other faiths and cultures previously not related to Christianity lead to a high degree of diversification. Just like with other forms of globalization, there are two completing tendencies. On one hand, these encounters generate local cultural-religious hybrids that are novel forms of Christianity like African Instituted Churches. At the same time, there are global tendencies in Christian worship and thinking that spread like wildfire like the Sydney-based Hillsong, for example, that has introduced globally its worship style. Some of these have been local cultural-religious hybrids whereas others are international from the outset. These global tendencies create resembling patterns of thought or worship across the globe.

Seen through the lenses of the old Euro/American dominated Christianity, many of these new forms are on the fringes or even outside of Christianity. In the leadership of churches, there are countless prophets with claims of direct access to divine revelation. There are also many religious leaders that are regarded as incarnations of one of the Trinitarian persons (Father, Son/Christ and the Holy Spirit). In other cases, the impact of another religion is so great that it makes many Christians squirmish.

All flowers blossom

This diversity of Christianity is nothing unprecedented. Kwame Bediako analyses already in 1992 in his Theology and Identity how the present situation resembles that of the early Christianity. At that time, there was not yet a church-state pact that worked for religious-cultural uniformity, and Christian proclamation entered new cultural and religious contexts. Also then, like today, there was a high level of theological and ritual innovation. The major differences are that now we have that earlier era as a comparison, and today’s interconnected world allows us to know about the Christian diversity in much more detail than before. This diversity makes one wonder whether one should rather talk of World Christianities in plural.

The internal diversity of Christianity affects also the outside. Interreligious relations have entered in a new phase, especially on the grass-root level. Relationships between faith and politics, churches and states are being redefined in countless locations.

We are diverse just like our topic

We, the researchers related to Lund University research seminar Global Christianity and Interreligious Relations deal daily with what happens on the borders – between Christianity and other faiths, between different forms of Christianity, and in relation to the rest of societies. We represent different cultures, religious traditions and academic backgrounds but are all consumed by passion to understand better what is going on in the world of religions. While we all inevitably have our personal convictions, we do not share a unified view on what Christianity is, or should be.

Mika Vähäkangas, professor in mission studies and ecumenics, Lund University

For more on the impact of the changes above on theology, see my latest book

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