By Doug Priest
Who is an average Christian, and what does an average Christian look like?
I am not using average in the ethical sense, that is, to mean one who does not sin too much, goes to church, contributes to the offering, and finds ways to serve. Nor am I referring to the average Christian in the intellectual sense of one who has a pretty good grasp of the Bible.
Instead I am using the term average Christian in the demographic sense. In the year 2000 there were almost exactly 2 billion professing Christians in the world, but that figure doesn’t begin to describe a monumental shift that has taken place, one barely noticed by most of us.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Europe and North America contained 80 percent of the world’s professing Christians. A century later, that number had dropped to 40 percent.1 Christianity is no longer primarily a Western religion. It has become predominantly a non-Western religion. What’s more, the majority of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, meaning the average Christian now lives south of the equator. The Southern Hemisphere is the demographic center of Christianity.
Research by Professor Dana Robert of Boston University also indicates that women constitute two-thirds of practicing Christians in the world at this time. That means the average Christian is a woman. The average age of a Christian is 24.
Over many years, the rich have gotten richer, primarily in the Northern Hemisphere, while the poor have gotten poorer, primarily in the Southern Hemisphere, where the average Christian now lives. The United Nations reports that the poorest 40 percent of the world share just 5 percent of global income while the richest 20 percent of the world share 75 percent of global income.2 On average, the church in the Southern Hemisphere is poor; it is made up of the marginalized, the powerless, and the oppressed.
The average Christian today is therefore a Latin American or an African woman who is 24 years old. Picture a poor woman living in a village in Zimbabwe or in a slum in Peru.
Within the Scope of Mission
Christian understanding and practice arises out of the human context of its believers. Since that context is now what many call “The Majority World” or “Two-Thirds World,” Christian theology will increasingly focus on the issues of wealth and poverty, injustice and oppression, population, multiple religions interacting together, and the environment in addition to evangelism, discipleship, and church planting. Concerns for peace, environmental action, human rights, liberation, material welfare, health, hunger, HIV/AIDS, and a host of other problems fall within the scope of mission, if indeed mission is concerned with bringing the abundant life for which Jesus came.
John Stott, former chaplain to the queen of England, says the church’s mission today consists of everything the church is sent into the world to do. Since the church is to be salt and light, Stott believes it is the failure of the church if a community deteriorates socially or physically.
The environment is another issue that challenges global Christianity. Today more Christians view stewardship of both their personal possessions and the environment as their personal and corporate responsibility. Being good stewards means acting justly in the care and use of resources, whether they are owned by the individual or used for the common good for which God gave us the earth.
My Heart Was Broken
My heart was broken last year when I made a return trip to rural Kenya. We drove out of Nairobi toward the escarpment at the edge of the Rift Valley. As we drove down the escarpment to get to the valley floor, we began the 35-mile drive across the valley.
When I lived in Kenya 30 years ago, I made this crossing many times, but in the intervening years the land has become terribly eroded, and in several places the road had washed away. The erosion is partially due to deforestation, and deforestation is primarily due to poverty; many of the poor cut down trees because they have no access to electricity or natural gas for cooking.
But that isn’t all that bothered me. About midway through the valley was a police checkpoint called Suswa, which formerly consisted of a little shack where the policeman stayed. Over the intervening years, a town has grown up there which includes many little shops that sell items such as sugar, tea, salt, and flour. Purchases are carted off in plastic bags, which are discarded and now litter the valley floor around Suswa—thousands upon thousands of empty plastic bags of all colors and sizes.
It is a terrible eyesore. Even the lovely acacia trees with their long thorns have empty plastic bags hanging from them, blown there by the wind. This pristine plain where you could look out of your car window and see giraffe, zebra, and impala now is strewn with plastic bags that take decades to decompose. There they sit—empty, used once, thrown away—on the floor of the Rift Valley.
The urban poor of Nairobi have another use for plastic bags. Their shanties do not have toilets, and there are almost no outhouses in the slums. With a million people living in a square mile, you can imagine the amount of sewage generated. Because the poor have no place to relieve themselves, they use the plastic bags and then fling them as far as they can from their homes after dark.
These bags have a name in the slum. They are called “flying toilets.” The roofs and the ground are littered with them. Flying toilets are a symbol of poverty, depersonalization, environmental degradation, and despair.
The Poor Suffer Most
The poor often depend directly on a diversity of natural resources for their livelihood. The poor are the most severely affected when the environment is degraded and their access to natural resources is limited or denied. The poor suffer the most from unclean water. The poor suffer the most from indoor air pollution that comes from smoky cooking and heating fires. The poor suffer the most from exposure to toxic chemicals, as vividly seen when people sift through the garbage dumps of most major cities around the world.
The poor also suffer the most from HIV/AIDS because they have the least resources to deal with the problem. Their very poverty encourages the spread of the disease. Due to poverty, they do not receive education about how to prevent the scourge. They cannot afford the drugs to treat HIV/AIDS. Lack of employment opportunities means many must resort to sex for survival, which ensures that the disease continues to spread. The causes of poverty include local mismanagement, inadequate governance, and international economic structures that work to the advantage of rich and powerful nations, but not the poorer ones.
The entire Bible illustrates God’s concern for the underprivileged and the vulnerable of society. How many laws of the Old Testament are designed to provide food and security for the poor? How often does God express his concern for the widow and the orphan? How often does he, through the prophets, speak out against injustice and oppression of the weak?
Where justice is denied due to the blatant exploitation of people—especially women and children, widows and orphans—and from the exploitation of natural resources, we must all work to bring about greater respect for the dignity of persons and the integrity of creation. Know this: God brings both revelation and revolution.
We can do something. We can get our hands dirty. We can be involved in bringing good news to the poor. We can help usher that destitute 24-year-old woman from Zimbabwe or Peru into the kingdom of God.
The one mission of the church is to call people into communion with God, into communion with one another, and into communion with God’s creation.
1Statistics taken from the second edition of the World Christian Encyclopedia, David Barrett and Todd Johnson, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
2United Nations Development Program, 2007 Human Development Report.
Doug Priest is a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD and executive director of Christian Missionary Fellowship.