The Unexpected Christian Century (Scott Sunquist) -- A Review

THE UNEXPECTED CHRISTIAN CENTURY:  The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000. By Scott W. Sunquist. Foreword by Mark A. Noll. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015.  Xxiv + 213 pages.

            As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth century, Christian leaders dubbed the incoming century as the "Christian Century." A journal bearing that name became one of the leading North American Christian voices (and continues to be an important journal to this day). At the time, even as Western colonial expansion was reaching its height, Christian missionary efforts from the United States and Europe were expanding the footprint of Christianity across the globe. So hopeful about the future of the Christian movements were mission leaders such as John R. Mott, that they foretold the churches that the world would be converted in their generation. While that confidence might have been misplaced, the Christian footprint has continued to expand. What was unexpected at the time was that the center of the Christian faith would move from its earlier strongholds in Europe and North America to the Global South and to Asia. What transpired during the twentieth century ended up as quite a surprise, thus it stands as one of what Scott Sunquist suggests is one of three great transformations over the past two thousand years (the other two being the fourth century Constantinian embrace and the sixteenth century Reformation).   

What makes the twentieth century transformation so important is that the century saw the greatest global expansion in the history of the church (with all that this entails, both good and bad).  So, what is needed is an accessible treatment of this amazing reversal of fortunes and transformation of global Christianity. One attempt at telling the story of Christianity in the twentieth century comes from the pen of missiologist and historian Scott Sunquist, the current dean of the School of Intercultural Studies and professor of World Christianity at my alma mater, Fuller Theological Seminary.  This book is not a comprehensive study, but it is global in scope. It is rooted in good scholarship, but remains quite accessible to the non-specialist.

It is important to note that no history is completely objective. There are "facts" and then there is "interpretation." When it comes to the field of church history, one's theological predisposition likely will color the interpretation. Such is the case here. Sunquist is an evangelical committed to expanding the Christian footprint through evangelism. While he is quite aware of the downside of the mission movement, especially as it was married to colonial expansion and conquest, he nonetheless believes that the church's vitality is seen in its commitment to conversionary mission. That being said, Sunquist offers us a most helpful and thorough exploration of the expansion of Christianity in the 20th century.

Sunquist's focus is on the transformation of the Christian faith as it moved out of its traditional stronghold to the broader world. Whereas nearly 80% of Christians in 1900 lived in Europe and North America, only about 35% of the Christian community is to be found in the old homeland. With this in mind, Sunquist looks at the century through five lenses, but first he updates us on how the Christianity present in 1900 came to be. Then he moves on to the first of five lenses. These lenses are: 1) the most influential persons in Christianity; 2) impact of political changes of 20th century on Christianity; 3) exploration of the story of four confessional families—Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Spiritual; 4) impact of migration on Christianity; 5) impact of Christian encounters with world religions.

Each of the lenses is directed toward the story of the expanding global footprint, and an interpretation is made of it. Reading these chapters, one discovers that the story is very complicated. Colonialism had an important influence on the global transformation of the church from its Eurocentric presence to one that is now more centered in the global south than in the north. But, political changes also had a significant impact.  For instance, the rise of communism had significant impact on Russian Orthodoxy, which experienced significant decline during the century. On the other hand, migration helped spread Christianity into new places and led to a reconfiguration of the Christian presence in specific regions. Sunquist points out at several points that the formation of the state of Israel after World War II has had a significant impact on the Christian community in the Middle East. Consider Lebanon, which had been a predominantly Christian enclave at the beginning of the century (under the Ottoman Empire). Its majority, however, was diluted through migration of Christians out of the region, but perhaps more importantly the movement of displaced Palestinians into Lebanon. I appreciate the honest appraisal of the impact of Israel's presence on the region, including its impact on the Christian communities in the region, because it is a part of the story that isn’t often told.

The influence of Sunquist's evangelicalism is most present, it would seem to me, in his chapter on the encounter with world religions. He notes that prior to the late nineteenth century, most Christians assumed that is was their responsibility (or that of missionaries) to convert persons of other faiths to Christianity. But, things had begun to change by the turn of the century. As Western Christians, as well as many missionaries, began to have more in-depth encounters with other religions, an increasing number of Christians began to reconsider the missionary task. As a result, the missionary movement essentially divided into two groups. A growing number began to believe that Hindus and Muslims needn't be converted, since they seek God in their own way. On the other side were those who continued to believe in the importance of conversion, even if they too had developed a greater respect for other religious traditions. Sunquist admits to being on this latter side of the debate. While he appreciates the importance of the encounter, he believes that by down-playing the evangelistic side of the missionary task, a significant portion of the Christian community in the west has lost its sense of purpose and that this contributed greatly to its decline. Readers of the book may or may not agree with the assessment, but I think it is worth having a conversation about how evangelization and conversion play in our faith traditions. Is he correct in his assessment that in being engaged in inter-religious dialog we may have given up too much?

As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, the overall percentage of the world's population that is Christian has remained relatively stable. While there is stability, this stability hides the fact that the Christian world underwent a dramatic transformation. While many in the West don’t recognize this reality, Christianity is no longer a Euro-American religion. It is now a global faith that has its greatest expansion and vitality in places like Korea and Africa, places there were hardly touched at the beginning of the 20th century.

This is a fascinating story, and the author has told it well. Yes, he has a particular perspective that won't be shared by all readers, but that is true of every historian (I speak as one who has been trained as a historical theologian). Nonetheless, I think it is an important and worthwhile read for all those interested in the state of the Christian community as we move forward through the twenty-first century.


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