Student forum addresses future of Christianity

Marilyn Chenoweth

The Roman Catholic Church rests on the cutting edge of globalization and is positioned to undergo significant changes by the year 2050. Christianity is moving south.

Philip Jenkins, distinguished professor of religious studies and history at Pennsylvania State University, conducted a student forum titled “Christianity’s Global Future, or What Will the Church Look Like in Fifty Years?” on Oct. 4. Jenkins is the author of 20 books and many articles on contemporary religious issues. Jenkins says his interest in global Christianity stems from his dislike of mainstream media writing, which tends to focus solely on Europe and neglects the rest of the world.

About 30 students and faculty gathered in the St. David’s/Radnor room of Connelly Center at 10 a.m. to hear the expert speak.

Tom Smith, a professor of political science and humanities at Villanova, introduced Jenkins. Addressing the students, who comprised the majority of the audience, Smith described the typical young person of today.

“You’re not in charge of your own life as much as you’d like to be,” Smith said. “Your lives are run by large forces you think are beyond your control.”

One of these forces is religion, according to Smith. Today, most people are unaware that Christianity is migrating toward the South.

Following this introduction, Jenkins approached the podium, dressed formally in a jacket and tie. Maintaining a casual atmosphere, Jenkins chose to move about the room, often leaning slightly on the wall or resting an arm on the podium.

“Christianity is, in a good way, going south,” Jenkins said.

There are approximately two billion Christians around the world. Five to 10 million live in Europe, 490 million live in Latin America, and 360 million live in Africa. By 2050, Christianity will be the dominant religion in Africa.

The largest Christian countries in the world are the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Nigeria, the Congo, China and the Philippines.

Notably, France, Great Britain, Spain and Italy do not appear on this list. By 2050, Western Europe will not represent the heart of the Christian world.

Why is Christianity spreading so quickly toward the global South? One reason, Jenkins claims, is that the Bible has more power in the global South than in Western communities. Around the world, Christians tend to be members of poor communities. Christians of the global south can often relate to topics presented in the Bible more easily than their Western counterparts.

“Think of reading the Bible in a poor world,” Jenkins said. “Do you ever notice how many stories in the Bible are written about food?”

In the United States, most food- related concerns involve the obesity epidemic. Countries in Africa, however, struggle with starvation and malnutrition every day.

“So much of the Bible is motivated by famine,” Jenkins said.

In the Book of Ruth, men venture from their societies, while women stay behind to maintain them.

This very practice occurs in Africa today. The poor can often relate to the Bible better than any other group of people.

For this reason, the global South is expected to see a significant rise in Christianity.

Jenkins spoke of Christianity in general terms but chose to focus on the Catholic Church in particular. By 2050, 85 percent of the Catholic Church in the United States will be Asian and Latino.

The United States will be a “majority minority country,” Jenkins said. “We’re all minorities.”

Viewing religion on a global scale gives individuals a different perspective, according to Jenkins. What are the most important issues facing the Catholic Church today? Americans typically cite women’s ordination and clerical celibacy, while people of the global South site the extreme shortage of priests.

Interestingly, Americans are also concerned about the priest shortage within the United States.

“By the standards of most of the Catholic world, the United States is the Magic Kingdom.” Jenkins said.

In the United States, the ratio of priests to parishioners is 1 to 1,200. In Brazil, this ratio is 1 to 8,000. The priest shortage is six to seven times worse in global south churches than it is in the United States.

The Vatican claims the greatest issue facing the Catholic Church is the threat of Catholics migrating to Protestant and Pentecostal churches, according to Jenkins.

Brazil, the world’s largest Catholic country, has gone from being virtually all Catholic to 15 percent Protestant.

“We’re living through a change in Christianity much more important than the Reformation,” Jenkins said.

Why this sudden increase in Protestant and Pentecostal worship? According to Jenkins, these religions offer a unique sense of healing. Protestant and Pentecostal worship services often emphasize physical movement, such as swaying and dancing.

Worshippers are passionate, according to Jenkins. Today, some Catholic parishes are emulating Protestant and Pentecostal practices.

Jenkins’ closing remarks were followed by questions from students and faculty.

He said government agencies are becoming more aware. People of the global South, however, are frustrated that people of the West do not seem to take notice of them.

“They are distressed that the West is not aware of Christians in these areas,” Jenkins said. “They want the West to be aware of religious freedom and religious persecution issues.”

His predictions for Christianity and the Catholic Church over the next 50 years have received positive reactions from people of all ages.

“People are flexible, surprised and open,” Jenkins said.