by John Ellis
Lifeway Research recently published an article commenting on the “Status of Global Christianity, 2022, in the Context of 1900-2050” published by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity out of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. The title of Lifeway Research’s article joyfully trumpets, “7 Encouraging Trends of Global Christianity.” To that optimistic enthusiasm, I say we should pump the brakes.
The first reason given by the article for why Christians should be encouraged is, “Religious faith is growing faster than the irreligious.” Lifeway Research goes on to explain, “Particularly in the West, it can seem like secularism is growing and people are leaving the church and the faith. Globally that is not the case at all.” To prove that claim, numbers are lifted from the report that purport to show that religious people are growing at a much faster rate than non-religious. In fact, the section ends with the optimistic revelation that, “There are fewer atheists around the world today (147 million) than in 1970 (165 million).
If you’ve been reading my articles on a regular basis over the last two years, you may be able to guess my response. Lifeway Research is operating with an unhelpfully truncated definition of secularism. In Charles Taylor speak, Lifeway Research, alongside most of us, is using Taylor’s Secularity 1, which is defined as a subtraction story. God, faith, transcendence, religion, etc. has/have been removed/subtracted – or is in the process of being removed – from society. This is usually what people mean when the word secular is employed. While secularity 1 plays a role in Taylor’s more robust secularity 3, it’s too limiting and lacks nuances that are necessary to adequately interact with secularism; it’s too easy of a definition that allows us to push the problem onto something/someone in ways that can be actionable in our own power and that allows us to combat “others” for societal control of how flourishing is defined. Secularity 3, on the other hand, is a condition that permeates throughout our social imaginary. Even for individuals who claim religiosity, they do so within the framework of secularism; we are all secular, even if we believe in God. By way of oversimplification to help us understand, Taylor claims that secularity 3 is a condition of modern life in which religious belief isn’t axiomatic the way it was in pre-modern life. When we choose religion, we have cogent and coherent options to choose otherwise. In modern times, religion is merely a choice on the expressive individualism buffet.
Now, as much as I would love to chase the thoughts in that previous paragraph, my overall objective with this article precludes a deep dive into the “Charles Taylor” weeds. I will say this, though, because I believe it’s important: It’s imperative that professing Christians do the hard work of prayerful reflection to determine if their faith is a product of secularism or not. Are you a Christian because of expressive individualism, or are you a Christian because you have surrendered your identity to Jesus Christ?
Within their first reason for encouragement, though, Lifeway Research makes a common mistake. The applauding of the decline of atheism reflects the reduction of Image Bearers (and faith/religion) to an anthropocentric mind-centeredness. Do you know who is not an atheist? Serpent-Satan, that’s who. Even if all the atheists in the world suddenly admitted that the God of the Bible exists, the problem remains. And it remains as problematic as before because the gospel isn’t a series of goals we have to hit before the Holy Spirit steps in and finishes the job. You can read more about my thoughts on that by clicking here. In summation, the world isn’t becoming less secular because more people are claiming to be religious; likewise, the decline of atheism, in and of itself, is not cause for encouragement because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything apart from cognitive assent to something – it doesn’t imply nor require faith in Jesus.
Encouragements 2, 3, and 4 are related – “2. Christianity continues to grow.” “3. Growth is fastest in the Global South.” And, “4. Christianity continues to spread out.”
Like many things, this comes down to definition(s). As in, how are we defining “Christian”? The report from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity presents data that unequivocally points out that the rise of “Christianity,” especially in the Global South, is being driven by the false gospel taught by the so-called prosperity gospel and/or Oneness theology. Now, the report doesn’t use the descriptor “false gospel,” because it’s merely compiling data, which is fine because that’s what it’s supposed to do. The problem is when organizations like Lifeway Research (an arm of the SBC, by the way) discards any pretense of theology and welcomes with open arms false gospels and heresies into the definition of Christianity. According to the report, the so-called prosperity gospel/Oneness theology is already the largest percentage piece of the “Christian” pie. At the moment, Roman Catholicism doesn’t lag far behind (are protestants supposed to be happy at/encouraged by the spread of Roman Catholicism?) but the research points to the reality that by 2025, the false gospel/heresy called prosperity gospel/Oneness theology will begin to far out-pace other “Christian” denominations. By 2050, it won’t even be close. So, yay? Am I – are you – supposed to be encouraged that the devilish lie of the prosperity gospel is spreading like wildfire through countries and people groups who are already suffering under economic oppression?
However, I am heartened to hear that less Christians are being martyred. But all in all, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity’s report is not encouraging. But that’s okay, because followers of King Jesus don’t need to read the cultural and sociological tea leaves to find encouragement. What’s encouraging is the truth that King Jesus reigns and His Final Day is assured. No matter how bleak circumstances may appear from an earthly perspective, followers of King Jesus should always be encouraged. But viewing the spread of false gospels and heresies as encouraging is more evidence that white evangelicalism is a secular institution, and that the hope of white evangelicals is in definitions of flourishing that only apply to the here and now. An eschatological hope only and always rests in Jesus, no matter the waves crashing around us.
Soli Deo Gloria