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Mark A. Noll
Who Would Have Thought?
In 1910 a great missionary conference was held in Edinburgh, Scotland, where Americans, Europeans, and missionaries from around the world strategized for the worldwide triumph of the Christian faith. Foremost in the minds of delegates to this meeting was the great advance of Christianity during the nineteenth century. In 1800 less than a fourth of the world's population was identified with Christian churches; by 1900 almost 35 percent were affiliated. It seemed only logical to conclude that the same energy, the same wisdom, and the same trust in God that had brought this great advance would continue on to finish the evangelization of the world.
As it turned out, developments in the twentieth century both confirmed and disconfirmed the expectations of Edinburgh. While the proportion of affiliated Christians has remained steady at roughly one-third of world population, the great population surge of the past century has resulted in a proportionate surge of Christian adherents. The circumstance that would have most surprised delegates to Edinburgh is the location of the world's Christians at the end of the twentieth century. At Edinburgh, only 18 of 1,400 delegates were not from Europe or North America. Not a single black African was in attendance. In 1910, the overwhelming predominance of Europeans and North Americans at a conference on "world Christianity" was not primarily the result of prejudice, since over 80 percent of the world's affiliated Christian population lived in those regions. It was, therefore, only natural to think that the expansion of world Christianity would mean the expansion of Western Christianity into the world.
What actually happened was dramatically different. The surprises as well as the magnitude of developments in the twentieth-century history of Christianity can be illustrated by considering a series of comparisons for present realities as of this past week:
Last Sunday it is probable that more believers attended church in China than in ...