Increasingly, our news programs highlight the South China Sea, a region in which international rivalries could likely lead to serious diplomatic crises, or even war. It is sobering to remember that the nations bordering that sea – China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan – are home to a combined population of well over two hundred million Christians, a number not far short of the US total. Any future conflict would be devastating for those communities.
And that is all separate from the sizable Christian communities of the Indian subcontinent, at least forty million strong. Perhaps three hundred million Christians now live in Asia, about an eighth of the global total, and most projections see the continent playing a growing role in the churches.
To varying degrees, these communities have a powerful political influence in their respective countries, most obviously in Korea and the Philippines. For the churches, though, the main question is the impact that these Asian believers will have on the future shape of Christianity.
Even in the most seemingly Westernized societies, those churches operate under very different rules from those of North America. Most tellingly, except in the Philippines, they usually occupy a minority status, often a very small minority of five to ten percent, among neighbors who follow Asian faiths like Buddhism. However confident their faith, Christians simply cannot afford to be so assertive as their Western counterparts, and evangelism is a very sensitive issues.
Even when the political situation seems quite relaxed, as in present-day China, the threat of persecution always lurks in the background. On a daily basis, those churches must negotiate their relationship with the dominant societies, without compromising fundamental principles. Of necessity, Christian thinkers have to reshape both their practice and belief. As so many migrants head to the West – Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese – they bring those new approaches and syntheses with them.
As Europe becomes increasing secular, those Asian believers will become ever more central to the Christian story.
Philip Jenkinsis a Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.