As I read more and more about “Global Christianity,” I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with the focus on numbers and growth rates. My objection isn’t that religion shouldn’t be quantified, etc., but rather with the ways that the inevitable breathless recitations of statistics seem to fit all too well with stereotypes about the seething horde of humanity in the Third World, with its unstoppable frenzy of breeding and spreading — such that “they” are in danger of taking over Western countries or bringing the earth itself to its knees through their demands for resources, etc.
To a certain extent, this discomfort is unfair, since birth rates really are higher in the Third World than in developed nations. Yet perhaps it is justified insofar as so many of these studies extrapolate from current demographic trends in making predictions about the future of Christianity — as though there were something inherent to the soil of the Third World such that Christianity, once planted there, can do nothing but grow.
Is it not equally possible that a movement, such as “prosperity gospel”-oriented Pentecostalism, that is enjoying incredibly rapid growth will prove to be a fad and experience just as rapid a decline? Latin American Liberation Theology may never have seen the growth levels of Pentecostalism, but it did have its heyday and subsequent slow decline (albeit never the absolute disappearance that so many Western commentators seem to envision). Similarly, there are many countries in Africa where the African Independent Churches are being left by the wayside, again after previously having grown.
This is the kind of thing you expect when you’re dealing with actual groups of human beings with particular needs and hopes that may or may not be fulfilled by a given religious movement — but for Global Christianity scholars, no such reversal seems to be possible, even though the massive historical fact of the decline of Christianity in Europe is staring them in the face. I don’t know how one would make predictions that would take that possibility into account, but something more is probably needed than extrapolating from current trends. Just as in the West, Christianity in the Third World is an actual lived experience that interacts with the surrounding conditions and the vagaries of individual lives, rather than, for example, a big gob of numbers.