God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis

Philip Jenkins
God’s Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe’s Religious Crisis
Oxford University Press. 2007.
Reviewed by Donald Goertz.

God’s Continent is the third book in Jenkins’s trilogy, which began with his groundbreaking Next Christendom and includes The New Faces of Christianity. Both of these books focus primarily on the Church in the global south. In this latest work Jenkins turns his attention to Europe, the heartland of Christendom and the subject of hundreds of books and articles examining the secularization theories, the collapse of the Church and the larger cultural implications of this shift. This book makes no attempt to hide the troubling present reality. But, where it is so important for all of us who are interested in the future of the Church is that he begins to ask the simple question, ‘is there life in the ruins?’ The book also looks at the current ‘clash of civilizations’ literature and begins to explore the relationship between Christianity and Islam on the continent. For all wrestling with what it means to be missional leaders Jenkins lays out some very significant issues which emerge out of this close encounter of faiths once separated by great distances.

Signs of collapse
Mark Steyn, a columnist in Mcleans magazine and a proponent of the clash of civilizations with an inevitable Islamist take over of Europe, writes,

Much of what we loosely call the western world will not survive this century, and much of it will effectively disappear in our lifetimes, including many if not most western European countries. They’ll probably still be a geographical area on the map marked as Italy or the Netherlands — probably — just as in Istanbul there’s a building call St. Sophia’s Cathedral. But it’s not a cathedral; it’s merely a designation for a piece of real estate.

He argues for this position based on the demographic shifts which would suggest that the Christian church in Europe is in rapid decline, not just in commitment and attendance, but also that the old stock European population is dying out for lack of babies. Into the gap is stepping Islam, with its rapid immigration into Europe and its much higher birth rates. Victory is inevitable. It is simply a case of demographics.

Jenkins is certainly aware of these demographic shifts and of declining religious attendance. The first section of the book looks at the demographic trends and suggests a more complex reading is necessary. The great baby boom in the West occurred following World War II. In Muslim countries the big boom began in the decades following the end of the baby boom in the West. So, in the 1960s and 1970s the West was concerned with a population explosion, which falling birthrates defused. So too, in Muslim nations Jenkins argues this shift is now beginning to occur. While birth rates are still very high (4 or over, with 2.1 the rate needed for stable population) in nations such as Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, other countries are mirroring western rates, only a generation later. So, potential EU member Turkey’s birth rate is now 1.91. Iran’s rate has fallen from 6 in 1986 to 2 in 2000 and 1.8 in 2006. Jenkins observes, "The changing fertility patterns of North Africa and the Near East constitute a vastly important phenomenon that would receive more attention from media and policy makers, if it did not prove so inconvenient for so many rhetorical purposes"(22). He points out that both the left and the right have considerable vested interest in nurturing this rhetoric of an impending Muslim take over.

Jenkins goes into great detail outlining the decline of traditional Christianity in Europe. Whatever indices one chooses, the results are the same; seemingly irreversible decline. Adherence, attendance, birth to funeral ratios, baptism to confirmation ratios, all point to collapse. This collection of data is helpful. It pulls that material together in a coherent manner and provides insightful interpretation. But, he does not stop there.

Signs of hope
Jenkins does, however, move beyond demographics to a wide variety of hopeful signs of new life in the Church. First of all, he argues that Europe is massive with great regional variances. In the former Soviet Bloc nations such as Poland, Slovakia and Croatia there are thriving churches with bulging seminaries. Not only are they actively engaging their nations, but they are serving as instruments of renewal of the Catholic Church in western Europe. In western Europe itself there also needs to be a careful clarification between the decline of institutional churches and the survival of the Christian faith. Secondly, the same force that is driving the growth of Islam, immigration for the global south, is also a force for growth in the Christian communities.

Old Churches
The Roman Catholic Church has been hurt by declining numbers, especially in nations such as France and Italy. Yet, this is not the complete picture. First of all, Jenkins argues that we are in the golden age of pilgrimage. Pointing out that we regard pilgrimage as a sign of strength in other religions, he asks why we do not do the same for Christianity. Lourdes has grown from a million pilgrims in the 1950s to about six million today. While other shrines do not attract similar numbers, the rate of growth is as dramatic.

Roman Catholicism has also begun a dramatic process of re-imagining itself in Europe, adjusting itself to minority status. Popes John Paul II and Benedict have been able to see this as a helpful repositioning which allows for a greater connection with the poor and dispossessed. John Paul II began a new evangelization of secular Europe. Numerous new religious orders were formed to carry this out. Another major sign of renewal has been the Catholic charismatic movement. This has spread across Europe and touched every wing of the Church. Priests and nuns from around the world now fill positions in European churches, bringing with them an energy and vitality long lost in the more rationalist versions of the western church.

In the Church of England we also see the signs of change. N. T. Wright, the New Testament scholar and Bishop of Durham, John Sentamu, a Ugandan now Bishop of York represent some of this. Holy Trinity Brompton in London has emerged as a global leader; its creative ministry most recognized in the Alpha Course. This course has not only had a national impact, but has been used across the continent. One is now as likely to find Alpha running in a Catholic church in Paris as in an Anglican congregation in London. The Charismatic movement has also touched the Church of England and Jenkins points to the role of people such as David Pytches.

Similar things are happening in every country, Jenkins argues. Many of the new expressions are very dramatic and successful. An example would be Ulrich Parzany, a German Lutheran pastor and former YMCA director. He now heads ProChrist, a Billy Graham type movement adapted to the electronic age. Taken together these form potent signs of hope. He argues that taken together the evangelicals, charismatics and Pentecostals in Europe outnumber Muslims by two to one.

Immigrant churches
The other great sign of renewal, Jenkins argues, is the immigrant church. Precisely the same forces drawing Muslims to Europe are also attracting Christian immigrants. So, there is a growing church which sits largely outside of the mainstream. It is a church community which strikes fear into the hearts of the western liberals. Jenkins points to the belief that these new churches are backwards and more superstitious that Christian for their practice of things such as exorcism.

Other movements, largely outside of the North American awareness, are highlighted by Jenkins. The Nigerian Sunday Adelaja, founder of the Embassy of the Blessed Kingdom of God for All Nations is an example. Starting with seven members in 1994, in Kiev, Ukraine, the movement now has 30,000 mainly white adherents. There are twenty services throughout the city every Sunday. There are over fifty daughter churches in the Kiev region, more than a hundred daughter and satellite churches in the Ukraine, and over two hundred others outside the country. This is part of what Jenkins calls African-Initiated Churches (AICs). They are to be found all across Europe. Britain now hosts 1,500 missionaries from 50 countries, many from Africa. There are 380,000 black Africans in London and 344,000 Afro-Caribbeans. Jenkins calls this trend "the southernization of European Christianity"(91).

Jenkins is helpful in his discussion of the attempts by the European elites to make sense of this trend. He writes,

Media reaction to the rising Christianity demonstrates curious parallels to the treatment of Islam. In terms of the mainstream response to the practice of the religion itself, European media and officialdom have demonstrated rather greater tolerance toward Islam than to immigrant Chriatianity, which is viewed as a particularly sinister faith not worthy of legal protection (98).

This new Christianity represents what many in Europe fear the most, a zealous Christianity. Jenkins points out that there is no capacity to comprehend the power of religion to motivate and energize.

For any church leader in Canada, Jenkins’ discussion of the implications of this volatile situation is helpful. Ever since 9/11 we are aware of a radical Islam and a journey through the airport reminds us of the vigilance and fear that is a result.

How do we relate to our Muslim neighbours? Do we try to domesticate the religion here? Do we support and nurture moderate Muslim leaders while marginalizing radicals? Can Islam be tamed in a secular context? What is the Christian response? Are we to be a part of this larger secular agenda or are we asking fundamentally different questions around dialogue? What role do we see for the Holy Spirit in this encounter? How do we model something which undermines the militant history of our own faith in its relations to Islam?

The other questions raised by this relate to the immigrant Church. They are surprisingly similar. The western elites, both left and right, fear this people movement. In Europe this is most apparent, but in Canada it is likely not an issue simply because of the lower profile of many of the immigrant churches. The European press has increasingly characterized these new groups as illegitimate cults. Reports of witchcraft and human sacrifice are common and worship is often described as voodoo magic. Jenkins describes the reaction to the 1999 death of a young African girl, Anna Climbie, from extreme physical abuse related to an exorcism (98). Sensational stories have abounded. Jenkins’ point is important in that he reminds us that if a western pastor commits sexual abuse, no one sees it as a demand of the faith, yet, when abuse occurs in an immigrant church context it is attributed to the religious demands of the movement (100).

Jenkins highlights for us real issues. How do we relate to Islam and expressions of Christianity coming to us from the global south? Our whole intellectual debate has been shaped by our encounter with secularism and skepticism. The result has been a full scale attempt to make our faith compatible with modernity. But, he asks, "what happens when the main interlocutors in the religious debate operate from assumptions quite different from those of secular critics, when the rivals assume as a given the existence and power of a personal God who intervenes directly in human affairs, and seek rather to clarify the nature of His revelation?" (265-66). Jenkins has written another stimulating book, one which strikes very close to home for us in Canada. His counter narrative and framing of new questions and issues makes this a valuable book for every leader wrestling with how we faithfully enact the gospel in this time and place.