Evangelical Christianity, once marginalized geographically and philosophically in the modern world, has become a truly global faith over the past half century — with two main competitors.
“The chief contenders for the hearts and souls of those living in the 21st century [will be] Muslims, evangelical Christians and secularists,” says renowned British mission leader Patrick Johnstone, former editor of Operation World, the bestselling guide that has helped millions of believers learn about and pray for the peoples of the world.
“Who is going to be the most successful? Islam is growing, largely by biological growth, not by conversion. Evangelicals are growing massively by conversion. Secularists are adding to their number every year, but are dying as a breed, because they are not having enough children to replace themselves — which is an interesting phenomenon.”
But you won’t hear much about that phenomenon from Western media, since they are largely controlled by secularists. Nor will you hear much from them about the staggering growth of the church in China, which is on track to have the largest evangelical Christian population in the world by 2050.
You will, however, find information about these trends — and much more — in Johnstone’s new book, The Future of the Global Church. It contains a trove of data and insights about the state of the church and the world today and in the years ahead — not to mention a fascinating summary of the past 20 centuries (find out more about the book and accompanying media resources at http://www.thefutureoftheglobalchurch.org/). Johnstone, European regional director for the WEC International mission agency, recently visited the United States to speak about his new book and meet with various mission groups, including IMB mission strategists.
What caused evangelical faith, once based largely in the United States and Europe, to spread so far beyond its traditional strongholds in the second half of the 20th century? The post-World War II missionary movement had a lot to do with it, along with the major expansion of local church involvement in missions, the spread of education and communication and, paradoxically, the end of Western colonial power in many countries.
The year 1960 marked a turning point, from Johnstone’s perspective.
“One day in eternity, I think we will look back and see God’s hand in so many things,” he says. “1960 was the great year of independence in Africa and many people thought, with the missionaries and the colonial regimes gone, Christianity would be pushed out. It did the exact opposite. It became indigenous and exploded. In many countries that are now broken politically, the churches became the source of stability and hope for the future.”
Unknown to most Western Christians at the time, the same phenomenon — the growth of truly indigenous churches, often amid persecution — was quietly unfolding in many parts of the communist world.
Johnstone also credits the “extraordinary work” of Billy Graham in encouraging a globe-spanning movement.
“The influence of Billy Graham has been quite dramatic,” he says. “Of course, he’s known for his evangelism and giving back credibility to evangelicals who preach the Gospel. The respect that he’s had around the world is amazing. But in the light of eternity, what Billy Graham did in pulling Christians together to focus on world evangelization brought evangelicals together globally for the first time ever. I think it gave a cohesion and a focus that had never been there before.”
Johnstone calls the period since 1960 the “Sixth Awakening” in church history (read the book to learn about the first five). The new, indigenous Christian movements around the world and the new focus of missionaries on reaching unreached peoples culminated in the 1990s.
“That was the decade in which more people became evangelical Christians than in any decade of history,” he observes. “I don’t believe it will happen again unless there’s a mighty work of the Spirit of God in a country like India. … I believe there are going to be breakthroughs amongst Muslims, and we are seeing some, but because of history those are going to be harder to see happen because of the long interaction between Muslims and Christians that has been very bitter and painful on both sides. Nevertheless … let’s trust God for it.”
Now that their faith has become mainstream, Johnstone warns evangelicals to avoid pride and complacency.
“Are the very successes of evangelicalism sowing the seeds of its spiritual demise by grieving the Spirit of God through pride, division, disobedience, carnality, moral laxity, theological error or prayerlessness?” he asks. “Nominalism is not the preserve of more traditional churches — it is increasingly a problem for third- and fourth-generation evangelicals.”
He also urges U.S. and other Western churches and mission agencies to pursue “multi-polar global leadership” with their Asian, African and Latin American brothers and sisters. The United States still leads the world in the sending of missionaries; it supported 127,000 of the world’s estimated 400,000 Christian missionaries in 2010, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Are they willing to share leadership — and turn it over when the time comes?
“Wherever you look in the Christian world in the 21st century, [mission teams and strategies] that remain mono-ethnic are not going to survive,” Johnstone predicts. “I sometimes jokingly say that the perfect multicultural team would have a Brazilian evangelist, a Korean church planter, a Chinese to manage the accounts, an Australian to mend anything that’s broken and an American to handle planning and goals.”