Where Faith Thrives

Zimbabwe ? So with Easter approaching,
here I am in the heart of Christendom.That’s right – Africa. One of the most important trends reshaping the world is the decline of Christianity in Europe
and its rise in Africa and other parts of the developing world,
including Asia and Latin America.I stopped at a village last Sunday morning here in Zimbabwe – and found not a single person to interview, for
everyone had hiked off to church a dozen miles away. And then
I dropped by a grocery store with a grim selection of the cheapest
daily necessities – and huge multicolored chocolate Easter eggs.

Source: The
New York Times

Where Faith Thrives

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

DETE CROSSING, Zimbabwe ? So with Easter approaching,
here I am in the heart of Christendom.

That’s right – Africa. One of the most important
trends reshaping the world is the decline of Christianity in Europe
and its rise in Africa and other parts of the developing world,
including Asia and Latin America.

I stopped at a village last Sunday morning here
in Zimbabwe – and found not a single person to interview, for
everyone had hiked off to church a dozen miles away. And then
I dropped by a grocery store with a grim selection of the cheapest
daily necessities – and huge multicolored chocolate Easter eggs.

On Easter, more Anglicans will attend church in
Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda – each – than
Anglicans and Episcopalians together will attend services in Britain,
Canada and the U.S. combined.

More Roman Catholics will celebrate Easter Mass
in the Philippines than in any European country. The largest church
in the world is in South Korea. And more Christians will probably
attend Easter services in China than in all of Europe together.

In short, for the first time since it began two
millenniums ago, Christianity is no longer “Western” in any very
meaningful sense.

“If on a Sunday you want to attend a lively, jammed
full, fervent and life-changing service of Christian worship,
you want to be in Nairobi, not in Stockholm,” notes Mark Noll,
a professor at Wheaton College. He adds, “But if you want to walk
home safely late at night, you want to be in Stockholm, not Nairobi.”

This shift could be just beginning. David Lyle Jeffrey
of Baylor University sees some parallels between China today and
the early Roman empire. He wonders aloud whether a Chinese Constantine
will come along and convert to Christianity.

Chairman Mao largely destroyed traditional Chinese
religions, yet Communism has died as a replacement faith and left
a vacuum. “Among those disappointed true-believer Marxists, it
may well be that Marxism has served as a kind of John the Baptist
to the rapid emergence of Christianity among Chinese intellectuals,”
Professor Jeffrey said. Indeed, it seems possible to me that in
a few decades, China could be a largely Christian nation.

Whether in China or Africa, the commitment of new
converts is extraordinary. While I was interviewing villagers
along the Zambezi River last Sunday, I met a young man who was
setting out for his Pentecostal church at 8:30 a.m. “The service
begins at 2 p.m.,” he explained – but the journey is a five-hour
hike each way.

So where faith is easy, it is fading; where it’s
a challenge, it thrives.

“When people are in difficulties, they want to cling
to something,” said the Rev. Johnson Makoti, a Pentecostal minister
in Zimbabwe who drives a car plastered with Jesus bumper stickers.
“The only solution people here can believe in is Jesus Christ.”

People in this New Christendom are so zealous about
their faith that I worry about the risk of new religious wars.
In Africa, Christianity and Islam are competing furiously for
converts, and in Nigeria, Ivory Coast and especially Sudan, the
competition has sometimes led to violent clashes.

“Islam is a threat that is coming,” the Rev. William
Dennis McDonald, a Pentecostal minister in Zambia, warned me.
He is organizing “operation checkmate” to boost Christianity and
contain Islam in eastern Zambia.

The denominations gaining ground tend to be evangelical
and especially Pentecostal; it’s the churches with the strictest
demands, like giving up drinking, that are flourishing.

All this is changing the character of global Christianity,
making it more socially conservative. For example, African churches
are often more hostile to gays than mainline American churches.
The rise of the Christian right in the U.S. is finding some echoes
in other parts of the world.

Yet conservative Christians in the U.S. should take
heed. Christianity is thriving where it faces obstacles, like
repression in China or suspicion of evangelicals in parts of Latin
America and Africa. In those countries where religion enjoys privileges
– Britain, Italy, Ireland, Spain or Iran – that establishment
support seems to have stifled faith.

That’s worth remembering in the debates about school
prayers or public displays of the Ten Commandments: faith doesn’t
need any special leg up. Look at where religion is most vibrant
today, talk to those who walk five hours to services, and the
obvious conclusion is that what nurtures faith is not special
privileges but rather adversity.

E-mail: nicholas@nytimes.com

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