Is Christianity a Western or White Religion?

Many people think of Christianity as a Western or White religion. After all, at the time of the Reformation, 92% of all Christians were Europeans. Even as recent as 1900, 82% of all Christians lived in the Global North, in the historic areas of ‘Christendom’ in Europe and Northern America. However, during the 20th century, Christian affiliation decreased in the North and simultaneously increased substantially in the South. In 2020, the Global South represented 67% of all Christians in the world, projected to reach 77% by 2050. The map and graph below, taken from the World Christian Encyclopedia, third edition (Edinburgh University Press), illustrate this momentous shift.



Consequently, in demographic terms, Christians are no longer predominately European, Western, or White. This takes us back to the first 1,000 years of Christianity, when Africans and Asians outnumbered Europeans. During that time, much of the serious theological work was done where Christians lived as a minority in multi-religious contexts, a situation we find ourselves in again today.


Nonetheless, for Christianity’s second thousand years (1000-2000), theology was developed in the context of Christendom as in-house discussions, arriving at a definition of church as an institution among Christians, not as a movement for the world’s peoples. The Christian faith became overidentified with European culture. Even today, this Western approach to Christian faith and mission tends to dominate and does not encourage indigenous theological reflection. For example, in the Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa volume (in our Edinburgh Companions to Global Christianity series), Isaias Paulo Titoce concludes his essay, “The churches in Mozambique are still passing through a transitional period, in which they operate by default on the basis of the legacy left by the missionaries. They need visionary leaders to shape their vision and mission. Their biggest challenge is to achieve a shift from being churches that receive and implement policies fashioned in the West to being churches that engage in proactive ways with the dynamics of popular culture. Such a shift is needed in order to ground Christianity in the hearts of the people for the benefit of coming generations.” (p. 73) In a similar way, many Christians in the Global South struggle with the continued dominance of Western culture.

In light of this, how do we better express the global nature of our faith, freeing it from latent Western perspectives? I was at an evangelical conference in Wittenberg in 2017 to celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. I presented our research showing that over 40% of all Protestants were Africans. Out of the 100 people at the meeting only a few were Africans. I was sitting next to a leader from Ghana when someone from the stage said that Africans were welcome at the table in this evangelical movement. My colleague quietly recounted a Ghanaian proverb to us. “It is good if you invite me to your table, but it is far better if you invite me into the kitchen.” Why are Christians from the Global South invited to a Global North table when they should be found with everyone else in the kitchen? What would it mean to have Africans in the kitchen (producing indigenous theology and music)? Needless to say, the shift of Christianity to the South should be accompanied by a shift in theology, music, vision and leadership. Christianity is no longer a Western or White religion but a global faith representing thousands of peoples and languages from every continent.

 

Todd M. Johnson, Ph.D., is the Eva B. and Paul E. Tom Distinguished Professor of Mission and Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.


Professor Johnson's further recommended reading on this topic:

Johnson, Todd M. and Zurlo, Gina A., World Christian Encyclopedia, 3rd edition (Edinburgh University Press).