20th - 21st century: World
The most telling feature of world Christianity in recent decades has been the move away from a hierarchical church, dominated by priests, to one where the whole people of God together form the church. This was evident when Pope John XXIII called the world’s Roman Catholic leaders together in 1962 for the second Vatican Council. The introduction of worship in vernacular languages instead of Latin marked a new engagement with culture. There was also a move towards greater acceptance of those who express their religion in different ways.
Roman Catholicism thrives in particular in Latin America. The church there has championed human rights. Priests in the 1970s took the side of the poor in defiance of oppressive regimes. A way of thinking about Jesus’ teaching through the eyes of poor and marginalised people emerged, called Liberation Theology. The Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated during a church service after being outspoken against the poverty and injustice suffered by his people. Most recently a leader for the Roman Catholic Church from Argentina was appointed, called Pope Francis. His concern for the environment and criticism of consumerism, combined with a notable compassion, have won the church new respect. However, allegations that priests had been allowed to get away with abusing women and children sexually have wounded the esteem in which the church was once held.
Christianity is the religion of most people in the United States. The civil rights movement gave the churches energy in the second half of the 20th century. A Baptist Church minister called Martin Luther King was the figurehead for black women and men to take a more equal role in the life of the nation. He preached about the teaching of Jesus to love your enemy and matched it with non-violent action. The shock of his murder in 1968 was world-changing.
Evangelical theology dominates Christianity in the United States today. Its vigour is strong enough to impact on national politics. It is marked by a fervent opposition to abortion and to sex between people of the same gender. A smaller but strident group holds a view of the literal truth of the Bible called fundamentalism. In some educational establishments this has given credibility to the theory that the universe was created in six days, as described in the first chapter of the Bible, and is only a few thousand years old.
The locations where Christianity is growing most dynamically are those where the faith has been persecuted in recent years, or where poverty is severe. There are estimated to be 50 million Christians in China, some forty years after all places of worship were forcibly closed. Elsewhere in Asia, surrounded by other religions, the Christian church is growing energetically in India. It was here in the late 20th century that an Eastern European nun called Teresa established a religious order which loved and served destitute people of Calcutta. She was honoured around the world for her dogged work on behalf of the poor. But she was criticised in an increasingly secular Europe which could not come to terms with the Roman Catholic church’s continuing opposition to contraception. As Communism began to fail in Eastern European countries in the 1980s, it was Catholic and Protestant churches who mobilised people in protest.
Inspired especially by Desmond Tutu, Christians in South Africa at the end of the 20th century played a part in the end of the apartheid philosophy which discriminated against black and coloured people.
Christians in North Africa and the Middle East live in considerable fear because of the rise of a very aggressive group within Islam. However, traditional and independent churches thrive throughout most of Africa. Many have energetically Pentecostal worship. Between 1910 and 1930 many new churches were founded by indigenous leaders who did not have any official position in the denominations which sent the Victorian missionaries. Their theological education was not very deep, but they had a much better understanding of African culture than European missionaries. They understood the spiritual needs of Africans, who responded in their millions. Significant leaders were Sampson Oppong in Ghana, Joseph Ayo Babalola in Nigeria and Simon Kimbangu in present-day DR Congo.
Indigenous African churches offer a compassionate alternative to tribal witchcraft, which is often driven by hate. The Christian faith holds out hope of blessing in this life and glory in eternal life to people who live with illness and poverty as a crushing reality. For those who have little control over their lives, a loving community and a sense of empowerment have proved life-saving.
The energy of the Christian faith is now more recognisable in the southern hemisphere than in the northern hemisphere. Christianity can truly be described as a global religion, as Jesus intended.
Photograph: Getty Images, Fotografia Inc.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
Where to find it:
About these words:
Jesus' final words as recorded in the Gospels.
And they said...
Douglas Coupland, Canadian writer, born 1961:
Now - here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.
Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church, born 1936:
We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace.