By Joshua Benton
ENUGU, Nigeria – When the Rev. Humphrey Ani walks out on the poured concrete floor of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, he sees the future of Christianity stretched before him.
The pews are packed, even though the slowly turning fans do little to disperse the Sunday morning heat. More than 2,000 worshippers are sitting under the church’s tin roof, and hundreds more gather outside in the dirt courtyard, eager to hear the four-hour service.
The women are all dressed in conservative, ankle-length dresses and ornate headscarves. The men look a bit scrappier; this is a poor town, but they show up for church.
For centuries, Christianity has been primarily a white, European and North American religion. But the explosive growth of Africa and Asia, combined with the success of evangelization there, will change that forever.
By 2050, it’s expected that only one in five Christians worldwide will be white. And places like St. Joseph’s – a regular parish in an unremarkable Nigerian town – will be the Christian mainstream.
“I’m sure it will be an adjustment for Americans – they are used to being in charge,” Father Ani said during a brief break between services, scarfing down bread before facing thousands more parishioners. “But I hope we can all realize we are one brotherhood before God.”
There is, of course, a rich history of missionary efforts in Africa and Asia, and those efforts have been overwhelmingly successful. But even if missionaries had no further success – if not another soul were converted to Christianity – the sheer fact of high birth rates in the developing world would produce some startling numbers:
In 1900, 82 percent of the world’s Christians were in Europe or North America. By 2025, that will drop below 30 percent.
Nigeria had 50 million Christians in 2000; by 2050, it’s projected to have 123 million – more than Germany and France combined. The Congo’s Christian community is expected to more than triple, to 121 million. There will be more Christians in Ethiopia than England, more in India than Italy.
“There is this very strong idea that Christianity is a Western religion that has been on loan to other parts of the world,” said Philip Jenkins, a Penn State professor whose book, The Next Christendom, is the central text of those projecting the faith’s demographic future. “Of course, it’s a Near-Eastern and North African religion that has been traveling for the last 2,000 years.”
Take this part of southeastern Nigeria, known as Igboland today and Biafra during the disastrous Nigerian civil war of the late 1960s. It’s perhaps the most heavily Catholic spot on the continent, with about 90 percent of its people belonging to the church.
St. Joseph’s will draw up to 9,000 people to services on a busy Sunday. (As a point of comparison, in the nine-county, 67-parish Diocese of Dallas, only the downtown cathedral attracts more weekly worshippers.)
Churches in Igboland are always trying to find ways to deal with overflow crowds. Some evangelical preachers can pull millions to a multiday healing event. Having tens of thousands of Nigerians at a prayer meeting is considered unremarkable.
Some say that sort of spirituality can be a forceful counterpoint to the increasing secularism of the West.
“Here we take religiousness for granted,” said Godfrey Odigbo, director of the Spiritan International School of Theology in Enugu. “In Europe, people think that if you need God, you can just call him. If you don’t need him, you can ignore him. God is not part of everyday life. But deep inside, there’s a yearning.”
The Catholic Church’s growth in the developing world was greatly aided by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, which allowed Mass in native languages and permitted other localized variations in church rituals.
The travels of Pope John Paul II – the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries – reflected the church’s global growth. He visited more than 40 African nations during his papacy. Dr. Jenkins argues that one reason John Paul was successful as a doctrinally conservative pope was that he knew the church’s millions of new adherents in Africa and Asia were similarly minded.
The new pontiff, Benedict XVI, recognizes that he oversees an increasingly diverse church. Last Sunday, at a Vatican ordination ceremony for 21 priests, he said the church “must open up the frontiers between peoples and break down barriers between classes and races.” The men he ordained embodied that message: While most were Italians, the group included priests from Nigeria, Kenya and Angola.
The worldwide demographic shift leads to questions that go to the heart of the faith. What will it mean to Christianity when, numerically, the version of the faith practiced in Kampala and Kinshasa becomes “the norm” and places like Rome and Canterbury move to the margins?
Many Westerners got their first look at African religious power in 2003, during the debate over the consecration of Gene Robinson as the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. Bishop Robinson is openly gay, and his election was controversial within the Episcopal Church, the American branch of the world Anglican Communion.
But some of the most vigorous opposition came from a surprising source: Anglican bishops in Africa. Africans are typically conservative on issues of sexual morality and, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, they vigorously protested Bishop Robinson’s consecration.
Other Anglicans, up to and including the archbishop of Canterbury, were forced to listen. The Anglican Communion began as the Church of England, but today most of its bishops are African or Asian, and they have clout within the church. In 1998, when Anglican leaders gathered to consider a statement supporting gay rights, African and Asian bishops formed a bloc large enough to defeat it. This enraged some American church leaders, including one bishop who labeled African Anglicanism “a very superstitious kind of Christianity” barely removed from animism.
Jacob Olupona, a religion scholar at the University of California at Davis, said racism fueled some of the Western response. “These are people who think that they own the church,” said Dr. Olupona, whose father was an Anglican priest in Nigeria. “They suddenly discovered they were not going to be calling the shots. They used to get away with anything. The African church prevented that from happening.”
The disputes have led to some unusual realignments within the church, as conservative Americans have sought allies in the global South. In 2000, two American men, Chuck Murphy and John Rodgers, were ordained as Anglican bishops – not by the American church, but by the archbishops of Rwanda and Singapore. The men set up what has become known as the Anglican Mission in America, an attempt by African and Asian churches to “reform” the Episcopal church and push it to the right on issues of morality.
Last month, Archbishop Akinola announced the formation of a new Convocation of Anglican Nigerian Churches in America, a group aimed at Nigerian emigrants who disagree with the Episcopal Church’s stance on gay issues.
He told Nigerians that leaders of the American church have “torn the fabric of our common life and have jeopardized your lives and ministries. This is a tragic reality that cannot be ignored.”
Last month’s Vatican conclave was the first in modern times in which leaders from developing countries were considered strong candidates for pope. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was viewed as one of the favorites, and Latin America produced a number of serious contenders.
Dr. Jenkins said that while the College of Cardinals ended up selecting another European, the conclave “really broke down any residual resistance people might have had” to a non-white pope. Today about two-thirds of Catholics are in the developing world, along with about 40 percent of the cardinals.
In 10 or 20 years, he said, the cardinals will be overwhelmingly from poor nations.
What will a more Afrocentric church bring? Generalizing about 300 million people is risky, but African churches are known for a greater emphasis on the supernatural as well as for their more conservative stances on moral issues.
Pentecostal and charismatic churches flourish, even more than mainline Protestant and Catholic churches do – although some Africans are comfortable mixing and matching elements from different Christian faiths and even indigenous beliefs.
“We have people who come to Mass on Sunday, go to a Protestant healer on Wednesday, and see the witch doctor on Saturday,” said Father Ani, who proudly points out that his last name is the name of the earth goddess in traditional Igbo religion.
In the worldwide Christian community, it’s likely that African voices, along with Asian and Latin American ones, will grow louder in the coming decades. It remains to be seen how Western Christians will react to being subject to theological decisions often driven by people traditionally viewed as souls to be saved by missionaries.
“From a point of view of an American, we’ll be humbled,” said the Rev. Michael Duca, rector of the Catholic Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving. “There will be changes. We don’t know what they are.
“We know that the church may not always find its roots in Rome. That has been the symbol of the center of the faith, where the Holy Father lives. But he doesn’t have to live there, I guess.”