At the outset of his book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (3rd ed., Oxford, 2011, p. 1), Philip Jenkins writes,
We are currently living through one of the transforming moments in the history of religion worldwide. Over the last five centuries, the story of Christianity has been inextricably bound up with that of Europe and European-derived civilizations overseas, above all in North America. Until recently, the overwhelming majority of Christians have lived in white nations, allowing some to speak of “European Christian” civilization. Conversely, radical writers have seen Christianity as an ideological arm of Western imperialism. Many of us share the stereotype of Christianity as the religion of the West or, to use another popular metaphor, the global North. It is self-evidently the religion of the haves. To adapt the phrase once applied to the increasingly conservative U.S. electorate of the 1970’s, the stereotype holds that Christians are un-black, un-poor,and un-young. If that is true, then the growing secularization of the West can mean only that Christianity is in its dying days. Globally, perhaps, the faith of the future will be Islam.
According to a recent article in First Things, drawing upon statistics from the “Status of Global Christianity” report published by the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, the number of Christians in Africa has grown from 8.7 million in 1900 to 542 million today. There may be 1.2 billion Christians in Africa by 2050. The article continues, “But perhaps the most astonishing numbers in the survey involve Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians. There were 981,000 of these souls in 1900; there are 643,661,000 of them today; and there are projected to be over one billion Charismatics and Pentecostals in 2050. In raw numbers, then, Charismatic and Pentecostal Christianity is the fastest growing phenomenon in world religious history.”
Christianity is changing. The center of gravity has shifted. And if you have experienced Methodism in the global South, you know that it has more in common with what we would consider Pentecostalism than the theology and practice of most North American United Methodist congregations.
Now consider the following 2013 statistics from GCFA on the racial/ethnic makeup of the UMC in the United States:
White (non-Hispanic) – 90.317%
African-American/Black – 6.122%
Asian – 1.264%
Hispanic – 1.033%
Native American – 0.293%
Pacific Islander – 0.187%
Multi-racial – 0.785%
The UMC’s own website reports that the overall percentage of white membership in the U.S. has increased from 87% in 1998. As the United States is becoming more ethnically diverse, and as Christianity is increasingly associated with the developing world, the U.S. population of our denomination is moving in the opposite direction. We are failing to speak to the populations that are growing most quickly in our own country. This is the height of irony, given the amount of time United Methodists spend talking about diversity. A serious commitment to diversity would involve much more intentional engagement with expressions of faith that are reaching ethnic minority and immigrant populations.
The next Methodism is likely to mirror the trends of the global church. In fact, missionaries from other countries are already beginning to re-evangelize the U.S., and their success will come to bear on Methodist traditions. The wealth of North Americans has allowed us to maintain a disproportionate amount of denominational control, and many UM’s are uncomfortable with the conservative and charismatic nature of Methodism in the global South. There have been proposals, even coming from our own Connectional Table, to create distance between churches in the U.S. and those in other parts of the world. Facts are stubborn things, however, and if the current trends continue, our attempts to distance ourselves from these brothers and sisters will appear in retrospect to be the pride that preceded the fall.
Cultures vary widely, and expressions of religion are invariably tied to culture. But where we see the church thriving, where lives are being changed, signs and wonders are manifest, and societies are being transformed, perhaps we should pay attention.