Why “World” Christianity?


MBC Bicentenary Dec 2013

What is World Christianity?

Beneath its surface meaning, this beguilingly straight forward phrase—world Christianity—represents a vast, dynamic and bewildering complexity not easily accommodated by customary academic understandings of Christianity. Both “world” and “Christianity” are commonplace categories, of course, and that’s the problem. Both terms are so inclusive as to seemingly discredit their usefulness as defining or delimiting cognitive categories.

Despite this, I believe that the phrase has become a useful theoretical frame for many of us attempting to understand Christianity as she is. Let me try to explain. Since the publication of David B. Barrett’s monumental World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World A.D. 1900–2000 (OUP 1982), these two terms in conjunction have assumed a conceptual significance that has deeply influenced our capacity to notice, to some extent comprehend, and to talk about the demographic and sociological shifts that have transformed the Christian religion over the past century.

The Christianity that has been around for two millennia is a religious phenomenon associated initially with North Africa and the Mediterranean, then Europe and Northern Asia, and more recently, North and South America. But as my colleague Todd Johnson points out in his book Christianity in its Global Context 1970-2020: Society, Religion and Mission (Center for the Study of Global Christianity 2013), the last fifty years have witnessed a substantial shift of Christian numbers from the northern to the southern hemisphere of our planet. According to Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project numbers published online in December 2012, one out of every three persons worldwide self-identifies as “Christian.” 50% of these are Catholic; 37% are Protestant; 12% are Orthodox; the rest are simply “other”.

More germane to the question is the location of these believers. Approximately 75% of the world’s Christian population is divided more or less equally between three regions: Europe (27%), Latin America and the Caribbean (24%), and Sub-Saharan Africa (24%). The other 25% is split between Asia and the Pacific (13%) and North America (12%).  Less than 1% are now found in the Middle East and North Africa  (http://www.pewforum.org/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-christians/).

But this redistribution represents much more than a mere headcount of believers! For most of its existence, ecclesiastical entities in the northern hemisphere—Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and so on—have exercised de facto proprietary control over the religion’s theological content, liturgical practices and mission agendas. This is no longer the case. And the simple phrase, “World Christianity”, is an acknowledgment of that fact.

The phrase has become the umbrella term reminding church historians, theologians, and missiologists that Christianity is no longer an exclusive or even primarily Western phenomenon. While Christianity recedes in its old heartlands, it thrives apace in Africa and Asia.  Eleven years ago Prof. Lamin Sanneh published Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Eerdmans 2003). The title of the evocative little book encapsulates, for me, what is meant by “world Christianity.”

Jonathan J. Bonk
Research Professor of Mission
Director, Dictionary of African Christian Biography
Boston University School of Theology

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