Where Faith Thrives

By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF

New York Times

March 26, 2005

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.