Thursday, September 16, 2004

Jenkins on the Death of Christianity

As I have worked on this book over the past few years, I have described its general theme to friends and colleagues, most of whom are well-educated and widely traveled. When I say, though, that my theme is ‘the future of Christianity,’ a common follow-up question is, in effect, “So, how long do you think it will last?” or specifically, “How long can the Catholic Church survive?”
For over a century, the coming decline or disappearance of religion has been a commonplace assumption of Western thought, and church leaders have sometimes shared this pessimistic view. Every so often, some American or European writer urges the church to adjust itself to present-day realities, to become ‘relevant’ by abandoning outmoded supernatural doctrines and moral assumptions. “Visit a church at random next Sunday,” Brent Staples, “and you will probably encounter a few dozen people sprinkled thinly over a sanctuary that was built to accommodate hundreds or even thousands. The empty pews and white-haired congregants lend credence to those who argue that traditional religious worship is dying out.” Staples was arguing that Christianity had failed and was collapsing and would continue to do so unless and until the religion came to terms with liberal orthodoxies on matters of sex and gender.
Viewed from Cambridge or Amsterdam, such pleas may make excellent sense, but in the context of global Christianity, this kind of liberalism looks distinctly dated. It would not be easy to convince a congregation in Seoul or Nairobi that Christianity is dying, when their main concern is building a worship facility big enough for the 10,000 or 20,000 members they have gained over the past few years.

Philip Jenkins
The Next Christendom

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