Over the next few weeks we are looking at Lamin Sanneh’s book, Whose Religion in Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West.
Chapter One – The Wind Blows Where it Will
Chapter one is divided into multiple sections, with sections two and following in a Q & A setup where Sanneh asks questions and then answers them. In Part One of the this chapter, he speaks of the facts regarding the resurgence of Christianity globally and some of the reasons for it. I will list the facts he shares and then speak of some of the other comments he makes.
1. As late as the 1970’s Christianity was expected to be in steady decline by 2000 with the resurgence of Islam sealing the fate of the church.
2. Africa, in 1900 and firmly under colonial rule, had 8.7 million Christians, about 9% of the population of 107.86 million. The majority of the Christians were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox. Muslims in 1900 outnumbered Christians by a ratio of 4:1.
3. In 1962, with Africa mostly out of colonial control, there were about 60 million Christians with Muslims at about 145 million. Of the Christians, 12 million were Protestants and 27 million were Catholics. The remaining 10 million were Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox.
4. In the mid 1980’s. the churches found themselves as the only viable structures remaining after the breakdown of state institutions and had to carry the burden of the social problems in their countries.
5. Christian Africans came predominantly from the poor and marginalized.
6. By 1985, there were 16,500 conversions per day, a rate of over 6 million per year. In the same period (between 1970 and 1985), 4,300 people were leaving the church daily in Europe and North America.
A public consensus, shared by many Christians, was that a tolerant and secular world required the abandonment of Christian exclusivism. A rule for measuring tolerance was the degree to which one was opposed to Christian exclusivism and mission.
The decline of Christianity worldwide, however, did not occur despite the retreat of mainline churches and their missions in the face of the tolerance movement of the West. Instead, Christianity grew at a much faster rate than ever, which baffled both the skeptic and supporter.
The significance of the expansion needs explanation:
1. The expansion took place after colonialism and during the period of national awakening. It appears that colonialism was a barrier to the growth of Christianity, so when colonialism ended the barrier was removed.
2. The delayed effect of the Bible translation into African languages. With vernacular translation came cultural renewal, and that encouraged Africans to view Christianity in a favorable light.
3. African agency. Africans stepped forward to lead the expansion without the disadvantage of foreign compromise and influence. Young people, and especially women, were given a role in the church.
4. Christian expansion was virtually limited to those societies where the people had preserved the indigenous name for God. Africans best responded to Christianity where the indigenous religions were strongest, suggesting indigenous compatibility with the gospel. Compare this to Islam. Muslim expansion and growth were most successful in areas where the indigenous religions had died off or been subjugated and where local populations had either lost or barely remembered their name for God.
It is important to note, however implicit in his book, that the removal of foreign influence from the African continent allowed for the wildfire-like spread of Christianity. This points to the inculturation of Christianity, meaning that the West does not hold the market on Christianity. It has different expressions in different cultures and when not institutionalized, as Christianity is in the West, it has the freedom to spread at an amazing rate. The downside to this is the necessity of discipleship with the churches, a problem to be noted in the early church in Acts as thousands became Christ followers in one day.
Another point to mention is the impact of the use of indigenous names for God. It was the use of the indigenous name of God that correlated to the growth and spread of Christianity. The name for God was reframed into an understanding of the triune God.
There is one other major and relevant point Sanneh makes. The churches were unprepared for Islamic radicalism. This revealed the weakness of privatized Christianity unschooled in the science of government and unprotected against the negative fallout of consensual politics. A privatized Christianity seems to have emboldened religious radicalism. The application of this point is quite apparent. Secularism has driven western Christianity to a private expression and other radicals, both religious and otherwise, are emboldened by the vacuum left. Christianity in the West must move out of its shell of fear and engage the culture it exists in.
In our next post, we will look at Part II of Chapter one which Sanneh entitles: World Christianity and Christendom: Parallels and Divergences.