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Philip Jenkins

Should the Lord Tarry

The future of Christianity

Speaking to a Pentecostal congregation recently, I made a faux pas by trying to imagine the fate of Christianity in the coming decades. As the pastor politely corrected me, such developments need concern us little, given the imminence of the return of Christ—though my speculations might be worth considering "should the Lord tarry." For many secular observers likewise, the future of Christianity scarcely seems a worthwhile topic for discussion, since the religion is self-evidently in such precipitous decline. In both cases, the perception seems to be that a book with the title The Future of Christianity should be a joke item with entirely blank pages. To the argument about Christ's return, I can say nothing worthwhile; but the view of Christian decline is easily rebutted. Two recent books by Anglican authors—theologian Alister McGrath; priest and future-watcher Richard Kew—show beyond question that the faith is booming worldwide, not just in raw numbers (though these are impressive enough) but also in terms of its spiritual and intellectual ferment.

These two idea-rich books have a great deal in common, and not just the fact that both are written by Anglicans of British origin. Each is, in its way, a masterpiece of compression, covering in a very short space a range of topics that a less skilled or disciplined writer might have blown up to a thousand pages. Both also offer an impressive historical vision of the recent past.

McGrath's book begins with the disasters that Christianity suffered across the West in the twentieth century, events like the Armenian genocide, the Communist persecutions, and the churches' failure to confront Nazism. Significantly, it is in this horrendous company that he places the general moral and spiritual crisis that the West experienced during the 1960s, and history may yet justify this grim classification. As he remarks of attempts to "modernize" Christianity in this era, "it was almost as if these people deliberately set out to create a Christianity ...

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