The Continuing Advance of Christian Faith
Excerpted from the concluding chapter of World Christianity: 1970-2000
In his seven-volume master work, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, and in his other books reflecting the same research, Kenneth Scott Latourette described alternating periods of advance and retreat by the Christian faith. His analysis made use of four main criteria – numerical growth or decline, geographical spread or retreat, evidences of vitality or of dormancy, and extent of influence on society. These same criteria can serve for an evaluation of Christianity from 1970 to 2000.
The number of Christians (by David Barrett’s broad definition) obviously has grown dramatically – increasing 61.7 percent in thirty years. However, as noted earlier, that growth has not quite kept pace with an expanding world population. As a percentage of humanity, the Christian faith represented only 33 percent in 2000 by contrast with 33.5 percent in 1970.
Primary reasons for the declining ratio seem to be the relatively lower birth rates in traditionally Christian nations, and defections from Christianity in the highly secularized West. Rapid numerical gains in Africa and Asia have not been sufficient to offset the slower growth in other regions.
It remains true that the losses have occurred mainly among those often called nominal Christians or cultural Christians, while the gains have come largely in more vigorous segments of the faith. Evangelicals, charismatics, and those Barrett labels “Great Commission Christians” have grown at rates exceeding that of world population.
Geographical spread of Christianity has continued and in some respects accelerated. With a shift in “center of gravity” of the faith from its traditional heartland in Europe and North America to the non-Western world, Christianity has become more aptly a world religion. Though some observers have suggested that the missionary era has ended, the number of workers and the range of mission efforts has expanded, with a large non-Western contingent added to the mix. And recent emphasis on outreach to neglected people groups has helped fill in some gaps in the map showing the locations of Christians.
Despite the expansion of the past thirty years, there are still vast areas and population groups where Christians are few – represented largely by the so-called “10-40 Window.” But the overall picture has been one of steady geographical advance.
Chapter 6 has reviewed the widespread and multifaceted expressions of vitality of the Christian faith in recent years. There are still some segments of the faith that seem bound by tradition, hampered by harsh environments, or weak and torpid. But such situations are outside the mainstream. Judging by the vitality criterion, the faith as a whole has certainly been moving ahead.
Chapter 7 reviewed the influence of Christianity on society, and also the extent to which the Christian faith was itself influenced by its cultural settings. As noted there, such effects are difficult to evaluate. Between 1970 and 2000, on the whole and relative to preceding decades, Christian influence seemed diminished. Secular worldviews and values increasingly dominated regions whose historic cultures had been most distinctively Christian. In Africa and Asia, where the Christian faith was spreading and growing most rapidly, and was demonstrating unusual vigor, it was often a minority without enough power to effect major change in the culture of the majority.
To sum up: The Christian faith was spreading, not retreating. Though the number of its nominal adherents was not keeping pace with world population, its central core of committed believers was growing much more rapidly. Vitality demonstrated by the faith was impressive. Only its influence on society fell short of that in earlier generations. In all, the period 1970-2000 must be judged as a time of further advance for Christianity on the world scene.
The year 2000 completed the second millennium of Christian history. Though the calendar has no ultimate significance, its changes do become landmarks in human experience. Thus it is appropriate to examine the position of the Christian faith after two thousand years. The thirty years of mixed gains and losses just reviewed bring Christianity to a situation of new strengths and of new trials.
The Church has acquired a fresh vision of world evangelization, reflected in the Global Evangelization Movement described earlier, and in the AD 2000 organization that embodied the vision. Its objectives entailed increased awareness of “unreached peoples” and a commitment to communicate the gospel to every such group. These and other new strategic emphases enable the Church to respond more fully to the needs of the world.
The events leading up to the close of the 20th century brought great new opportunities for Christian evangelism and ministry. The decline of Communism in the Soviet Union and its client states opened many avenues of outreach. New freedom for Christian missions extended to such widely scattered lands as Ethiopia, Angola, and Mozambique in Africa; Albania in Europe; and Nepal, Cambodia, and Mongolia in Asia.
Many areas and many peoples formerly resistant to the Christian message have begun to show new responsiveness. That is true of many tribes being addressed through the emphasis on people groups. On a vastly larger scale, it has been true in China, where tens of millions had come to faith in Christ by the century’s close.
New resources have become available to help spread the Christian faith. These include the marvels of technology for gathering and analyzing information, for communication, and for transportation. The Bible is being translated into ever more and more languages, with 80 percent of the world’s people by AD 2000 having the Scriptures available in a language they understand. David Barrett in his World Christian Encyclopedia cites impressive increases in Christian literature and broadcasts. The JESUS Film produced by Campus Crusade has become available in more than 500 languages. The most promising new resources for Christian advance are the hundreds of mission agencies and the many thousands of new missionaries originating from the Third World.
In telling the story of Christianity toward the close of the millennium, we have described prominent persons and decisive movements – but there is another untold and indeed untellable story. Behind the public events and movements, there have been the countless myriads of unknown and unheralded believers whose lives of faith have made the entire story possible. Those are the ultimate resource for the Christian movement.
Reprinted by permission from World Christianity 19702000:Toward a New Millennium, by Winston Crawley (William Carey Library, 2001). To order copies, see the advertisement on pages 20-21.