The magnitude of change in the global church (Noll)

In Chapter 2 of The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP). Book excerpts are available on-linePDF 2 The New Shape of World Christianity, Mark Noll writes, “A series of contrasts can underscore the great changes [of global Christianity] of the recent past:

  • This past Sunday it is possible that more Christian believers attended church in China than in all of so-called “Christian Europe.” Yet in 1970 there were no legally functioning churches in all of China; only in 1971 did the communist regime allow for one Protestant and one Roman Catholic Church to hold public worship services, and this was mostly a concession to visiting Europeans and African students from Tanzania and Zambia.
  • This past Sunday more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Canada and Episcopalians in the United States combined—and the number of Anglicans in church in Nigeria was several times the number in those other African countries.
  • This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.
  • This past Sunday there were more members of Brazil’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God at church than the combined total in the two largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ in the United States.
  • This past Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church pastored by Yongi Cho in Seoul, Korea, than attended all the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church or the Presbyterian Church in America. Six to eight times as many people attended this one church as the total that worshiped in Canada’s ten largest churches combined. This past Sunday Roman Catholics in • the United States worshiped in more languages than at any previous time in American history.
  • This past Sunday the churches with the largest attendance in England and France had mostly black congregations. About half of the churchgoers in London were African or African-Caribbean. Today, the largest Christian congregation in Europe is in Kiev, and it is pastored by a Nigerian of Pentecostal background.
  • This past Sunday there were more Roman Catholics at worship in the Philippines than in any single country of Europe, including historically Catholic Italy, Spain or Poland.
  • This past week in Great Britain, at least fifteen thousand Christian foreign missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the locals. Most of these missionaries are from Africa and Asia.
  • And for several years the world’s largest chapter of the Jesuit order has been found in India, not in the United States, as it had been for much of the late twentieth century. (20-21)

In a word, the Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period
in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history. Some of this change comes from the general growth of world
population, but much also arises from remarkable rates of evangelization in parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the islands of the South
Pacific—but also from a nearly unprecedented relative decline of Christian adherence in Europe.

The result of population changes—in general for the world, specifically for the churches—is a series of mind-blowing realities: More than half of all Christian adherents in the whole history of the church have been alive in the last one hundred years. Close to half of Christian believers who have ever lived are alive right now [see the tables on page 22].

Implications for theology:

Now, when the gospel is being appropriated by multiplying new populations—when it is being seen through new eyes—believers wherever they live have the opportunity to reconsider the priorities of doctrine. The three questions that follow hint at the challenges of theological rediscovery posed by the church’s recent history around the globe, but of course there are many more (33).

  1. How close is the world of spirits to the everyday world?
  2. What is the unit of salvation? [individual vs. community]
  3. How should believers read the Bible?
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