The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000

By Zink, Jesse | The Christian Century, July 6, 2016 | Go to article overview

The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000


Zink, Jesse, The Christian Century


The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000 By Scott W. Sunquist Baker Academic, 240 pp., $22.99 paperback

In the January 1900 issue of the Christian Century, then editor C. A. Young wrote optimistically about the potential for the growth of Christianity around the world: "May not the coming century be known as the Christian Century?" From his vantage point in North America, Young foresaw a steady advance of Christianity from the West to "the rest."

The 20th century did indeed see dramatic growth in the geographical extent and character of Christianity. At the same time that people in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere took hold of Jesus and the Bible in new ways, people in the Euro-Atlantic world began to turn away. In the global ecumenical movement, historic Christian denominations began working together in unprecedented fashion even as new independent and Pentecostal churches began appropriating the Christian message in ways that challenged traditional understandings of church. In the second half of the century, new waves of migration brought further change. By the end of the century, the body of Christ was more diverse, global, and interconnected than at any other time in history--but not at all in the way Young had envisioned.

Scott Sunquist calls this the "unexpected Christian century." Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Sunquist is well positioned to offer a survey of a transforming century. In thematic chapters, he examines the impact that politics, migration, and other religions have had on the development of Christianity both by tracing their effects on large confessional families of churches and by profiling two dozen individuals who have had a significant influence on global Christianity. The result is a book that ranges widely but does not always dig deep.

Several themes recur. Perhaps the most profound is also the simplest: the figure of Jesus Christ inspires, challenges, and transforms people across time, space, and culture. The book is replete with examples of people whose lives were changed by their encounter with Jesus. Prophet Simon Kimbangu, an itinerant Congolese preacher and political prisoner who died in 1951, became the inspiration for the Church of Jesus Christ on Earth, still a large church in central Africa. Bishop K. H. Ting sought to hold together Christianity and the Communist Party of China, not always successfully, but in a way that continues to shape Chinese Christianity.

Another recurring theme is the movement of Christians away from a Christendom model in which church and state power were closely linked, to one in which Christianity has more independence from temporal sources of authority. Sunquist sees a transition from a powerful church at the center of Western society to a weak church at the periphery of many non-Western societies. "With so little political voice," Sunquist writes, "there would seem to be little to deter" violence against Christians. "The future does not look bright for Christians as we see less and less political and institutional power to protect" the church, he asserts.

This tells only part of the story. The death of European Christendom is clear. But part of the appeal of Christianity in many parts of the world is its association with political and economic power. When political officials attend church events in Uganda, or Korean pastors offer de facto endorsements of candidates, it is clear that church-state relations in other parts of the world are still evolving. …

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