The 20th Century contained many exceptional spiritual events that have forever changed the nature of the world. First, there was the death of the Christendom model of Christianity in the Western world under the withering onslaught of evolutionary materialism. Second, there was a major changing of the guard with the spectacular rebirth of true Christianity in the developing world. Third, there was the attempt to impose militant Atheism on the whole globe which had failed spectacularly by 1989. Fourth, there was the greatest number of martyrs in the history of the church. Finally, there was the late re-emergence of an Islamic pride which threatened to influence the world both demographically, through large scale immigration, and by direct force. Now let’s unpack that list.
The 20th century started with spiritually significant revivals in Wales and California. The former was the last of the spiritual harvests that had periodically touched both America and England in the previous century. The latter was something new, fresh from the Book of Acts. For the first time in nearly two millennia the gifts of the Holy Spirit were being activated, first by black American Christians and then by whites. Miracles, healings, words of knowledge and discerning of evil spirits now became common practice for a small but growing number of evangelical Christians. Like other eras when lost knowledge came back into practice, the Pentecostal movement was initially lampooned and ridiculed by mainstream churches.
As the two world wars rolled by, and Communism steamrolled previously nominal Christian countries. Western Christians, and especially those in Europe, became increasingly despondent about the future. To make matters worse, liberal theology, based on evolutionary humanism now made deep inroads into previously evangelical denominations across the continent. As a result, the great era of European Protestant missions came to a halt and church attendance declined sharply in all of Europe. Those that kept their faith retreated into defeatist cultural backwaters. Evangelicals now viewed the future as one belonging to Satan via the anti-Christ, instead of Jesus via the onward expansion of his Kingdom. Christians began retreating from social engagement and manned the barricades of the local church. Secularism was triumphant.
The cause of this decline can be traced to the cosy relationship that existed between church and state for over a thousand years called Christendom. But now governments were firmly secular and the state-financed churches were a relic of a past that had allowed church leadership to grow spiritually lazy and increasingly humanist. Only in the free churches where there was no state involvement did evangelical Christianity survive the century in Europe.
In the USA all denominations were free churches, competing for market share. So those that embraced liberal theology, such as the Anglicans, Methodists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians, started to die quickly after the 1950’s. Conservative denominations, such as the Baptists and Pentecostals continued to hold ground or grow significantly as the century progressed until the last decade where they too started to decline in absolute numbers. The USA exited the century with 84 million people self-reporting as evangelicals, but only a quarter of that figure reported as adhering to orthodox Christian beliefs. The Mormon sect was the only group to experience sustained growth throughout the entire century. The year 2000 saw the secular majority culture of the USA turn openly hostile toward evangelical expressions of Christianity.
Outside of European Christendom and its Anglo-Saxon colonies the first 60 years of the century were a dark period for the Gospel. Missionaries were being driven out from former colonies as churches came to represent colonial impositions. Local church leaders were harassed. Communism was violently hostile to any expression of the Christian faith. Martyrs multiplied and the era from 1916 to 1989AD saw some 45 million Christians killed for their faith, three quarters of them at the hands of Communists determined to exterminate Christianity. This was the greatest shedding of blood the church had ever experienced in 2000 years. The seed of the great 19th century evangelical missions movement was dying, or so it seemed.
Then, in the decades from 1960-80, something changed. Freed from colonial leadership, vibrant indigenous churches began to multiply. The changes was first noticed in Africa and South America, then in China, Asia, India and finally inside Islam itself. These churches did not have the 2000 years of cultural baggage and tradition of the Western churches as they were penetrating their host culture for the first time. The Gospel message also became increasingly evangelical and Pentecostal/Charismatic, with signs and wonders following. These people understood the dark power of the spiritual realm inside their own cultures and attacked it head on with the power of the Holy Spirit. By 1980 the growth of these churches had become so significant that they were 50% of Christian believers globally, or some 100 million in absolute numbers.
Then, in the final two decades of the 20th century this new and dynamic expression of the church surged to 75% of all believers on the planet, approximately 300 million in absolute numbers. This was the greatest gathering of souls into the Kingdom of God in world history, and possibly the greatest we will ever see, given the falling birth rates around the planet at present. Some statistics are needed to demonstrate the magnitude of the harvest:
|Country (Top 10)||Millions of believers in 1960||Millions of believers in 2000|
|Totals||15.3 million||201 million|
As you can see the majority of the growth occurred in Africa, but in absolute numbers the growth in China eclipses them all, and this was in a country where becoming a Christian could get you killed. The strength of individual commitment in all these countries is high as they were first generation Christians coming from unsympathetic backgrounds that covered Atheism, Hinduism, Islam, Catholicism and tribal religions. The fire of persecution had purified the church and burnt off the dross of Western cultural baggage.
The inclusion of Indonesia is very significant, as it is the world’s largest Muslim country. In the 1960’s there was an attempted Communist coup. Some half a million suspected Communists were executed and the population were told to choose one of the four great religions. Many Muslims chose Christianity. This mass movement has now spiritually matured into the world’s largest ex-Muslim church.
Elsewhere in the Islamic world there was no significant openness toward Christianity until around 1980. But in the next two decades there were some 11 people movements of a thousand or more coming into true Christianity in Algeria, Iran (2), Albania, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Bangladesh, the Sahel in West Africa and Kazakhstan. These were small, but highly significant because apart from the two 19th Century indigenous movements from Islam into Christianity in Indonesia and Ethiopia, these were the first ever recorded spiritual harvests in Muslim countries. Something was changing and would be the harbinger of things to come. The rise of Islamic extremism was being matched by defections to the one true God.
The world finished the 20th Century with 6 billion people needing food and shelter and salvation. True Christians now numbered 7% of that population, up from about 1% of the 1.6 billion in 1900. It was truly a great spiritual harvest. However, it was actually accelerating into the close of the century so the best was yet to come for the expansion of the Kingdom of God on planet earth.