Christianity on the Move

By Sheryl Flatow

During the past one hundred years, Christianity has steadily lost followers in Europe, while winning a multitude of new converts in Africa and beyond. At the turn of the 20th century, 70 percent of the world’s Christians were European; by 2000, that number had fallen to 28 percent. In 25 years, Africans and Latin Americans are expected to make up the majority of the religion’s followers.

This changing demographic has prompted Dana Robert, professor of world Christianity and history of mission in the School of Theology, to reexamine the religion’s spread and the role of missionaries who carried it across the globe.

“My core interest is how Christianity became a world religion that today is largely non-Western,” she says. “What does this mean for Christianity? What does it mean for history? What does it mean for culture?”

For the past 14 years, Robert has traveled frequently to Zimbabwe and South Africa, where she studies African Christianity. She is also involved in collaborative projects, including a book series, African Initiatives in Christian Mission, working with scholars in several different countries to conduct field research on emerging churches. “It’s very helpful to have a comparative perspective when doing research on the meaning of world Christianity,” she says.

The spread of Christianity is shown as a percentage of population by current United Nations regional boundaries. Charts courtesy of Dana Robert

The spread of Christianity is shown as a percentage of population by current United Nations regional boundaries. Charts courtesy of Dana Robert

The spread of Christianity is shown as a percentage of population by current United Nations regional boundaries. Charts courtesy of Dana Robert.

Robert has written and edited a number of books that seek to explain Christianity’s changing face, including Converting Colonialism, a collection of essays by leading scholars exploring the relationships between colonialism and missionaries, and between indigenous converts and the colonial contexts in which they lived. Her forthcoming book, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion, is concerned with three thematic issues: mission and colonialism, mission and gender, and the role of the missionary in converting communities.

Arguing that we need to look at instances of “cultural exchange” to see the missionary as “a bridge from here to there,” she acknowledges that many people simply “can’t relate to the motive” behind missionaries’ work. Robert cites the “very close relationship between mission and human rights discourse” as one way to make her research subject more accessible.

“One of the things I find most compelling is the way that missionaries have brought back information about people suffering around the world, and have been on the cutting edge of human rights issues in the West. It was missionaries living with indigenous people who started to defend their human rights. In the early 19th century, the first really strong argument against the slave trade was based on eyewitness accounts of missionaries in West Africa.”

The same, she notes, has been true more recently: “When we learned about people in the Congo being massacred, or Pol Pot killing people in Cambodia, missionaries got the word out.”

In the 21st century, the concept of mission continues to evolve. “It’s estimated that 1.5 million North Americans went on so-called mission trips in 2005,” says Robert. “You have Christian and Jewish youth on missions to encounter the poor. There are also people who say they’re going on mission trips, and they’re atheists. There’s something that people are seeking, some kind of fundamental encounter with the ‘other.’”

The identity of missionaries is also changing. Many are non-Western, including an estimated 40,000 to 80,000 Indian missionaries in India. “But you might not recognize them as ‘missionaries,’” she explains. “They don’t necessarily have financial backing; they just go. It’s part of globalization and migration.”

The movement of people and ideas is hardly new. “When people migrate,” says Robert, “they take their religion with them. Throughout history, when people migrated, religion spread. Christianity spread along the Silk Road, from Iraq to China, in the 600s and 700s. Christianity spread in the British Empire. Whenever you allow the movement of people, their ideas and beliefs go with them.”