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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 all of so-called Christian Europe.

• Last Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Episcopalians in the United States combined—and the number of Anglicans at church in Nigeria was several times the number in these other African countries.

• Last Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were at church in the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.

• Last Sunday more members of the Assemblies of God in Brazil were in church than the combined total of the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ in the United States.

• Last Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul (pastor Paul Young-gi Cho) than attended all of the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Free Church, or the Presbyterian Church in America.

• Last Sunday, Roman Catholics in the United States probably worshipped in more languages than at any previous time in American history.

• During the past week, there were more missionaries at work overseas (as a percentage of the nation's affiliated Christian population) from Samoa and Singapore than from Canada and the United States.

• Last Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly black congregations.

If it were possible to summarize the momentous changes in world Christianity over the course of the twentieth century, five themes might emerge: First, the decline of Christianity in Europe, as a result of a steady erosion in Western Europe and the traumatic clash with communism in Eastern Europe. Second, the renovation of the Roman Catholic Church, symbolized by the Second Vatican Council, to reflect both cultural conditions of the modern world and the growing presence of the Two-Thirds World in the Church (which now numbers about 1 billion adherents). Third, the displacement among Protestants of Britain and Germany as the driving agents of Christian expansion by the United States. Fourth, the expansion of Christianity into many regions where the Christian presence had been minimal or nonexistent, including China, Korea, many parts of India, and much of Africa. Fifth, a change in the pressing issues bearing down upon the Christian heartland from the jaded discontents of advanced Western civilization to the raw life-and-death struggles of poverty, disease, and tribal warfare in non-Western civilizations.

Examination of especially the last two of these five themes featured prominently at a remarkable conference held in early July of this year at the Hammanskraal retreat center of the University of Pretoria, South Africa. The organizers were part of Currents in World Christianity, a three-year project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts that built on an earlier Pew-sponsored program, the North Atlantic Missiology Project. For the South African meeting, leadership was supplied by Dr. Brian Stanley of the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies at the University of Cambridge and Professor J.W. Hofmeyr of the University of Pretoria's theology department.

In contrast to the 1910 Edinburgh conference, the perspectives of Europeans and North Americans did not dominate in Pretoria. About the same number of Africans as Europeans and North Americans addressed the conference (each about 40 percent of the 53 people on the program, with the rest from China, Korea, Brazil, the Philippines, Australia, and New Zealand). More important, what conference attenders heard were papers outlining the new realities of world Christianity that almost no one at Edinburgh would have predicted. Books and articles are forthcoming from the conference; meanwhile, it may be helpful to highlight a few of the meeting's well-documented reports.

Chinese scholars presented carefully researched papers on how in the 1920s and 1930s groups of Chinese Christians began to develop indigenous forms of the faith as they selected from the offerings of Western missionaries what they felt was most helpful for their own setting. One of these groups was the Jesus Family Movement of Jing Dianying, which combined Pentecostal, Confucian, Social Gospel, and even communist elements into an active movement that was eventually silenced by Mao Zedong's totalitarianism. Another was the "Local" or "Lord's Recovery" Church associated with Watchman Nee, which, despite brutal treatment under Mao, was by the 1990s surging forward in China with tens of thousands of adherents and also with thousands of "Local" churches around the world. (Members from the Pretoria "Local" Church, made up substantially of Afrikaners, attended part of the meeting at Hammanskraal.)

Knowledgeable scholars, many of them still quite young, presented especially intriguing reports on complex developments among African churches—some still connected to missionary beginnings, more independent of Western ties, and still more reflecting a diverse mixture of Western and African influences. From the careful scholarship now well established or on the horizon—for Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin, much of East Africa, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and elsewhere—it is obvious that imported concepts like "Pentecostal" or "charismatic" have less and less relevance for situations defined increasingly by Christian engagement with local leaders, problems, achievements, and interpretations of Scripture. Several conference papers also documented in starkest terms how absolutely central poverty, disease, and conflict have become to Christian existence in Africa (but also in much of the rest of the newer Christian world as well). One of the most exciting papers outlined the emergence in Ghana of a theological understanding of Jesus as King and Chief who takes up and sanctifies in himself the interpersonal, intergenerational, and intercommunal mediations of the Ghanaians' traditional rulers.

Space fails for detailing the wealth of the conference's pathbreaking scholarship—on the megachurches of South Korea (at least 15 currently attended by 12,000 or more people each Sunday, some many times that number); on the Christian dimensions of migration (with several African Independent Churches now possessing strong European branches); on the tragic connection of Christian movements with ethnic warfare (and so a reprise of the century's earlier tragedies, with their Christian connections, of World War I and World War II); on the 40-plus new Christian universities founded during the last 20 years in the Two-Thirds World; on the resilience of the overwhelmingly Christian communities in Nagaland, Mizoram, and Manipur in the face of intense pressure from Indian religious and governmental leaders; on the perils of globalization (where the god Mammon rolls like a juggernaut over all in its path) alongside the opportunities of globalization (where flourishing networks of believers precede, accompany, and follow the global flow of trade); and on and on.

The world anticipated by the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 is not what actually came into existence. As portrayed at the Hammanskraal Conference—and in a steadily growing wave of solid literature—what actually happened was much more unexpected, much more intriguing, much more threatening, much more complex, and much more an occasion for praising the Lord who sent his witnesses "to the ends of the Earth."

Mark Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.

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