20th century: War
In the early years of the 20th century a movement began in Los Angeles which had a dramatic impact worldwide. In local churches events were taking place which seemed like those in the very first church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Christians were speaking ecstatically in unknown languages (‘tongues’). Healings were taking place in ways that could not be explained by medicine. This was happening in response to prayers for the Holy Spirit of God to work in powerful ‘charismatic’ ways. Churches such as these expanded dramatically and fast, with the result that most of the growth of Christianity in the developing world today has this kind of Pentecostal theology. Their worship is infused with joy, enthusiasm despite lives lived in difficult conditions, and prayer that anticipates miraculous responses.
For many people the brutality of the First World War completely undermined the belief that there is a loving God. Others were drawn to the Christian faith because it gave an explanation of how human sin had overwhelmed the world. The theology of Karl Barth urged people to ‘let God be God’ because it is impossible to grasp something infinite, but it is possible to see glimpses of the supernatural through what God reveals.
In Russia the leadership of the church had become closely associated with the ruling class, so there was a strong reaction against Christianity when the Tsars were deposed during the Bolshevik Revolution. The philosopher Karl Marx perceived religion to be ‘the opiate of the people’ because its promise of Heaven distracted people’s attention from the fact that the poor are exploited by the wealthy here on earth. Communist governments grew increasingly hostile to churches. In the space of thirty years the number of churches in Russia was reduced from 46,000 to a few hundred. Those which survived forged an uneasy alliance with the state. For Christians whose devotion to God made them unable to accept the compromise with the communist regime which this involved, it cost their freedom or their lives.
The rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany brought a mixed response. Most church leaders failed to anticipate what the Nazi regime would mean for the world, and were weak in challenging it. Some Roman Catholic priests publicly opposed euthanasia for disabled people and persecution of the Jews, and were murdered. A Protestant group called the Confessing Church held firm against the Nazis at great cost. Martin Niemöller spent eight years in concentration camps; Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed.
In the UK after the Second World War Christians were deeply involved in the creation of the Welfare State. The major denominations all identified themselves explicitly with work on behalf of the nation’s poor. They have frequently antagonised politicians by drawing attention to policies which have increased the misery of those living in areas of social deprivation. Charities which address global poverty were founded. Cafod grew out of the Catholic Church, Oxfam from the Quakers and Christian Aid from the other denominations.
The leaders of European and American churches watched churches expanding in countries which did not have centuries of Christian history. They were eager not to pass on the divisions which had marred their own past. Out of this came an urgency to bring together denominations which had opposed each other (sometimes bloodily) in the past. This ‘ecumenical’ movement prayed and worked for the unity which Jesus had longed for. (‘Ecumenism’ means one inhabited world.)
Archaeological discoveries in the Middle East brought new excitements. The discovery ancient scrolls preserved close to the Dead Sea showed the versions of the Old Testament which we now have to be more accurate than was thought possible. New translations of the Bible made it possible to read the words of Jesus in vivid contemporary language. Significant Christian thinkers included William Temple, who spoke of all humans being equal before God, and John Robinson, who shocked people by writing that it was possible to be a Christian without believing in an objective God.
However, the last half century has seen a momentous reduction in the number of people in the UK who go to church. Membership effectively halved between 1970 and 2000, and it is largely young people who have stopped attending. The easy availability of contraception allowed people to find transcendence in sex. And increased wealth allowed them to find self-worth in the choices they make as consumers.
In response, new ways emerged to help people look for fulfilment in a Christian context. The American evangelist Billy Graham gave a simple explanation of how a relationship with Jesus could give an improved life now and an eternal life to come. His inspirational rallies brought people to faith in their thousands. At the start of the 21st century the Alpha Course offered a different but highly effective approach, introducing the claims of Jesus in the sociable context of food and discussion.
The Charismatic Movement invited Christians to experience the exhilaration of the Holy Spirit’s presence in worship which felt spontaneous. This led to groups breaking away from older denominations and forming new Christian communities. They were originally called house churches, because that is where they met. As they grew they grouped themselves into new denomination-like structures.
Migrants from African or Caribbean countries often found it difficult to feel welcomed into existing UK churches and founded black-led churches which thrived with their Pentecostal form of worship. Migrants from Eastern Europe found it easier to find a home in Roman Catholic churches, whose numbers increased.
The emergence of festivals which attract many thousands, such as Greenbelt, Spring Harvest, New Wine and Soul Survivor, gave confidence to UK Christians who were able to worship with the energy that comes from being in a faithful crowd. Churches which grew during these years tended to be those with lively worship which matched cultural trends.
The last decade of the 20th century and the start of the 21st century saw an increase in Christian leadership exercised by women. The ordination of women in the Church of England since 1994 and their appointment as bishops since 2015 has brought diversity to church life. It has, however, been deeply painful for some whose theology does not allow them to recognise it as valid. The position of gay people within the leadership of the church remains a noisily divisive issue.
A movement of Fresh Expressions of Church has been effective in helping those whose lives had been previously untouched by religion of any kind to encounter Jesus. From it has come a large number of churches which meet the spiritual needs of particular groups at convenient times and locations, rather than Sundays in a traditional building. There are youth congregations, senior congregations, sport-focussed congregations, and Messy Churches which offer worship that incorporates crafts and food for children and their parents. An Emerging Church movement has allowed young Christian adults to exercise their spirituality in reflection, pursuit of justice and campaigns to protect the environment. They also make full use of technical advances, some only meeting online.
Continue the story of the Christian faith in the next century here.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, 'Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
A song of hope in times of war, written about one thousand years before Jesus.
And they said...
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, scientist and theologian, 1881 - 1995:
Some day, after mastering the wind, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, mankind will discover fire.
John Robinson, English bishop and theologian, 1919 – 1983:
All I can do is to try to be honest – honest to God and about God – and to follow the argument wherever it leads.