The ebb and flow

Just recently, I was out for a walk in the forest with my family and we came across a giant anthill. From around 10 metres away it just looked like a hill of brown earth and pine needles, but as you approached you could see that the whole top of this hill was moving as millions of ants went about doing whatever it is millions of ants do (I wasn’t going to get too close).

People are like ants in lots of ways, we swarm about bumping into each other and it all looks chaotic – but step back and take a time-lapse video of it and you start to see trends, movement, direction.

The growth of the Christian faith is often only seen not over years or even a lifetime but over centuries. To pick another image, it ebbs and flows but it also grows and in some cases spectacularly. Right now across the world the Christian faith is both ebbing & flowing.

But the picture is far more complicated than this simple animation reveals. For a starter, it doesn’t represent all the different religions and it doesn’t visualise the ‘nones’ – that grouping of atheists, agnostics and unaffiliated.

A better picture of our world of faith is this. (You can see the breakdown of the images by region here).

This graphic shows variety and spread. If current trends continue I’d expect the grey (atheist/agnostic) in the USA and Europe to get much larger, the green (Islam) to get a little bigger in those areas and the blue (Christianity) to get smaller.

But in India and China, I expect the blue to get much bigger, and I expect blue to start appearing in places that currently look solid green. There’s ebb and flow.

Part of that ebb and flow is ‘a shift in the geographical centre of Christianity‘. Think southward – South America, Africa and eastward India & China (even though the blue slices in those countries look small they represent tens of millions of people). Here’s the list of the centres of Christianity.

There is also a huge ebbing and flowing within Christianity. Catholic heartlands are becoming Pentecostal strongholds, liberal Christianity is dying (pretty much everywhere it seems) and more conservative groups seem to be thriving (although not in Europe – no one is thriving there).

So as the West moves into a post-Christian phase, Africa is moving into a missions phase. Speaking from a Western perspective this is to welcomed but the test will be how successful African-led churches in the West are at reaching beyond diaspora groups and making disciples from the host nations.

This means that the world will not just have one centre of Christian missions but several. As Steve Moon says,

The pattern of expansion in Christian missions is not a process of even progress emanating from one permanent center, like that of Islamic expansion.[10] After a number of serial expansions, there are now multiple centers in Christian missions.[11]

The US is one centre, Korea is another, China will be another, Nigeria another and so on. It will be mission from everywhere to everywhere.

I think this is one reason that gives me such confidence in the future of Christianity. Hinduism is essentially locked into Indian culture and history. Buddhism is not a missionary faith. Islam is expansionist but faces massive challenges and has an essential mono-lingual component (the only true Qur’an is Arabic). Atheism has neither demographics nor organisation on its side. Only Christianity has multiple centres, missionary confidence and global reach.

There will be ebb in some places for centuries perhaps but there will also be flow. Have confidence, God is still on the move.

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