Protestantism then and now

October 24, 2011

"My conscience is captive to the Word of God"

If your eyes haven’t glazed over by reading this post’s headline, you might be interested in Notre Dame professor (and evangelical Protestant) Mark Noll’s post about the upcoming (in 2017) 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. We in America hear all the time about the decline of either Protestantism or Christianity in general. (If not for Latin American immigration, the Catholic Church in the U.S. would also be in steep decline.)

Please note, however, that this decline is a phenomenon of Western industrialized countries of Europe and North America. In world terms, Protestant forms of Christianity are growing rapidly.

A century ago, roughly three-fifths of the world’s identifiable Protestants lived in Europe, with another third in the United States. Today, almost three-fourths of identifiable Protestants live outside of Europe and the United States. More Anglicans go to church regularly in each of Nigeria and Uganda than in Britain and America (as Episcopalians) combined. Ethiopia, Tanzania and Madagascar all have Lutheran denominations as large as the biggest Lutheran denominations in the United States. There are far more identifiable Pentecostals in Brazil than in the United States. Among the countries with the most rapid recent Protestant expansion have been Armenia, Cambodia, Burkina Faso, Guinea-Bissau, Nepal and — most significantly—China. As observant students have noticed, the recent expansion of non-western Protestant churches has been driven much less by missionaries from Europe and America than by local believers establishing local movements in response to local needs.

What about those of us in the West? I’m reminded of something that Henri Nouwen wrote many years ago: He foresaw a day when a great reversal would take place, and the global South would convert the global North.

Maybe it’s already happening.

After all, even our hopelessly mainline United Methodist Church is experiencing rapid growth from the parts of our church that are in Africa, Asia, and South America. Representatives from these parts of the world have an increasingly louder voice at our church’s quadrennial General Conference. May they teach us how to be Christians (and Methodists) again!

I’ve written a little about Protestantism here, here, and here.

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