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13 May 2016

Michael Doe finds a gaping hole in this study of Christianity


The Unexpected Christian Century: The reversal and transformation of global Christianity, 1900-2000
Scott W. Sunquist
Baker Academic £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70


THIS book is an excellent summary of how, during the 20th century, Christianity ceased to be at the centre of European nations and (in different ways) North America, and grew instead in the countries of the South. Today, a larger percentage of people attend church in China, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Korea than in almost any country in Europe.

Scott Sunquist, Professor of World Christianity at Fuller Theological Seminary, is good at discerning broad movements and illustrating them from detail. He begins with the great World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh in 1910, and how it turned out to be both the zenith and the beginning of the end of Western Christendom. It was assumed there that the Church in Africa would flourish least, owing to animism and Islam, but in fact that’s where the fastest growth has been found.

The problem with the book is that it describes without any evaluation, presenting a somewhat rosy and uncritical picture of these strongly growing Churches. It is true that at first sight the idea of “growth” suggests health and fruitfulness, but the Gospels warn us that we should expect to find both wheat and tares. Politicians tell us that economic growth is always a good thing, but what if it endangers the environment, or the wealth created doesn’t even trickle down to those below? And, although we ought always to be looking to where God may be growing his Church, that growth also needs close examination.

So, while he is rightly suspicious of some of the motives behind the spread of the Church through the colonial period, he says little about the need today to find depth as well as breadth, or about the social conditions that may lead to greater faith or church attendance. Those of us who have been privileged to travel round the world Church have met people who show amazing discipleship, not least under persecution; but there are also places where — as in our own colonial past — the Church is growing because of the other needs of both poor people and prosperous ones, and is far too close to power, inequality, and even corruption.

The book also fails to see the growth of Christianity in the wider context of religions. It is only in passing that we are told that, as a percentage of the world’s population, the number of Muslims doubled during the last century, but the number of Christians stayed much the same.

In such a large sweep of a whole century there are bound to be some slip-ups: the Church Missionary Society were not “High Church Anglicans”, and the Philippine Independent Church has not joined the Episcopal Church there. Its record of ecumenism underplays what has been achieved in the Indian subcontinent, and some paragraphs, such as the impact of Israel on Islamic persecution of Christians, are far too compressed.

Anglicans may be disappointed that there is little about our Communion, although that may induce some necessary humility about our significance within world Christianity. But we, too, need to see church growth in context. There are signs, as in the Primates’ Meeting earlier this year, that numerically strong Churches can claim the right to tell others what to do, whether they are in the North or from weaker Provinces in the South.

We should thank God for the transformation, for the commitment and enthusiasm that we now see around the world Church, but we should avoid power struggles that are simply the reversal of our colonial mistakes.


The Rt Revd Michael Doe is Preacher to Gray’s Inn, and a former General Secretary of USPG (now Us.).

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