Which of these do you believe are true about Christianity in today’s world?
1. Christianity in our age is primarily a North American/European religion.
2. The typical Christian in today’s world is a Bible-belt American.
3. Missionaries are usually Europeans or Americans going out to upset other cultures.
4. Christianity is under siege and being squeezed out by science, modernism, relativism, and/or some other contemporary “ism.”
5. Miracles are rare: few people today have seen a genuine miracle in answer to prayer.
Here’s the truth about these five items. The first four go together to start with.
North American/Bible Belt/Under Siege?
Phillip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State, describes the situation this way:
The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning.
The fact of change is itself undeniable: it has happened, and will continue to happen.
Jenkins projects that Christians in Africa and Asia will increase by about 50%, from about 733 million in 2005, to 1.1 billion twenty years later. (His count includes nominal and cultural Christians, including many—especially in Europe—who would deny any belief in God.)
It is of course believing Christians who comprise the great global growth in the faith. Nominal/cultural Christianity is on the wane. Perhaps most jarring to Western awareness of the world is that the 20th century’s most successful social movement wasn’t Marxism, feminism, or environmentalism, but Pentecostalism, which grew from a mere handful in the early 1900s to hundreds of millions a century later.
Some estimate that in 1970, there were around 71,000,000 born-again Christians with a vision to reach out to the entire world for Christ. By 2000, there were 707,000,000, roughly 11 percent of the world’s population! Up until 1960, Western Evangelicals outnumbered non-Western Evangelicals by two to one, but by 2000 non-Westerners (mostly Latinos, Africans, and Asians) lead by four to one, and the figure will be seven to one by 2010. Today more missionaries are sent from non-Western than Western nations.
Christianity is in excellent condition overall. God is clearly at work around the world.
In his academically-oriented work Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Craig Keener soberly reports that
For these countries alone [ten countries with sizable Pentecostal movements], and for Pentecostals and charismatics in these countries alone, the estimated total of people claiming to have “witnessed divine hearings” comes out to [over 202,000,000]. Among Pentecostals, an average of 73.6% claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing, and among charismatics the proportion is 52 percent. … We might be looking at claims of closer to three hundred million among them alone. … All such figures are merely estimates, but they give us the best current ballpark figure to work from. Even if for some reason we estimated only one-third of these figures, (a much greater margin of error than seems likely) the numbers are already enormous even before we add … the non charismatic claims. … More than one-third of Christians worldwide who do not identify themselves as Pentecostal or charismatic claim to have “witnessed divine hearings.”
Throughout this massive book, Keener repeatedly emphasizes his doubts that all of these claims are genuine. His point, he tells us, “is simply to invite attention to what this survey indicates about the vast numbers of people worldwide who claim to have witnessed supernaturally effected hearings.”
He had a historical purpose in writing this book: to show that miracle claims do not by themselves reduce the New Testament’s credibility. In the course of his research, though, he dove deep into the philosophical questions. He goes on later to add,
Of course many of these claims would not withstand critical scrutiny, and presumably an even higher percentage would fail to persuade others predisposed not to believe. But those who would simply reject all healing claims today because Hume argued that such claims are too rare to be believed should keep in mind that they are dismissing, almost without argument, the claimed experiences of at least a few hundred million people. … In contrast to starting assumptions on which Hume built his case, it is no longer feasible to consider such claims rare.
And he was also unexpectedly into global research on miracle claims. Now, are any of these claims credible? First I would ask whether it’s credible to insist that every one of them is false! Surely someone among those hundreds of millions is capable of telling the truth and distinguishing between a psychosomatic recovery and a genuine healing!
I could introduce you to Connie in Hampton, Virginia, who was healed from severe epilepsy through prayer. Epilepsy does not go away through psychological manipulation. Or I could tell you about my own instantaneous healing from chronic bronchitis years ago. Or I could invite you to read the hundreds of pages of accounts Keener has compiled from all over the world: healings from blindness, cancer, lameness, epilepsy, heart disease, injury, and more.
The global growth of Christianity described above is in fact being driven by signs, wonders, and visions. Since I first heard about this six or seven years ago, every time I’ve had the chance I’ve been asking missionaries whether this was true where they worked. Every one of them has been able to report church growth through miracles.
It seems to happen more on the edge of global evangelization than in the West where the the faith is more established, but it’s hardly rare here. Keener’s examples from the Western world run to almost seventy pages, not including the documentation in the endnotes—which by the way comprises fully half of the 2,000 or so pages in this work.
I have witnessed fakes. I was at a rally in Anaheim where an all-too-famous and all-too-wealthy televangelist brought a man up on stage who proclaimed, “I’ve been healed of AIDS, but the devil is holding up the test results!” I just about choked. My friends and I left that meeting long before it was over.
All the phonies in the world, however, cannot negate the reality of God’s work when he does it for real.
Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. I know not all my readers are in the West, but most are, and for most of us, Christianity’s explosive global growth is invisible. We don’t see its shift to the south and the east, but it’s real. We don’t often see miracles, but for believers in many parts of the world, hearings and other signs are common.
God is more active than many of us realize. The world is not the way we thought it was.