I have several times before posted on this blog about an understanding of 20th century Christian mission articulated by prominent Vietnam-born Catholic theologian Peter C. Phan in his article, “Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom, by Whom, with Whom, and How?”
"But now things have changed, and changed utterly. The change from the enthusiasm and optimism of the World Missionary Conference that met in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1910—whose catchy slogan was "The evangelization of the world in this generation"—to the discouragement and even pessimism in today’s missionary circles, Catholic and Protestant alike, is visible and palpable. . . .To the consternation of Western missionaries, the shout "Missionary, go home" was raised in the 1960s, to be followed a decade later by the demand for a moratorium on Christian missions from the West.
In addition to the political factors, the collapse of mission as we knew it was also caused by the unexpected resurgence of the so-called non-Christian religions, in particular Hinduism and Islam. The missionaries’ rosy predictions of their early demise were vastly premature. Concomitant with this phenomenon is an intense awareness of religious pluralism which advocates several distinct, independent, and equally valid ways to reach the Divine and therefore makes conversion from one religion to another, which was considered as the goal of mission, unnecessary."
Phan even contended in an America article, The Next Christianity, that "Christians constitute no more than 3 percent of the entire Asian population—after 500 years of evangelization." Since this passage occurred in a paragraph about Asian Catholicism, I have to presume it was a mere slip of the keyboard for Phan as he surely must know that while Asian Catholics make up 3% of Asians, Catholics are a distinct minority among Christians in the 21st century. In fact, Asian Christians make up 8.5% of the population of Asia as I write.
After perusing the Atlas of Global Christianity, I realized that Catholic leaders in Asia may still be reeling from the blows of the 20th century. In 1910, Catholics did made up 54% of all Christians in the whole of Asia, 85% of all Christians in southeast Asia, and 50% of all Christians in east Asia. Catholics had been the dominant form of Christianity in Asia for over 300 years. Simultaneously, Catholics had also been a tiny minority who had suffered heroically for the faith. A people can build a strong sense of self in 300 years that is not easily shifted by changes in the world about them.
But in the last half of the 20th century, the world did change. The explosion of Protestant missions and indigenous Christian groups in Asia changed everything. Today, Catholics only make up 38.8% of all Christians in Asia, 68% of Christians in southeast Asia, and a mere 14.4% in east Asia where Independent Christians are now the dominant group. Over 50% of Asian Christians are now renewalists. In 2010 alone, there were 4.5 million Asian converts to Christianity, easily outstripping the numbers becoming Christian in Africa.
Christianity in Asia, 1910
Christianity in Asia, 2010
As to the “collapse of Christian mission” that Phan refers to, that has to qualify as one of the most spectacularly failed prophecies of the 20th century.
In 1910, there were 48 nations in Africa and Asia where Christians made up less than 1% of the population. In 15 of those nations, the number of Christians in the population was so tiny that it was statistically 0.0%. There were 7 countries where there wasn’t a single known Christian.
In 2010, 7.4 million Christians live in the 7 countries where there wasn’t a single Christian a century ago. The 15 countries that were 0.0% Christian 100 years ago now hold nearly 36 million Christians. And the 48 nations where Christians made up less than 1% of the population in 1910 are now home to a staggering 268 million Christians. There are no nations left on earth without a Christian population of some kind. There are no countries whose Christian population is a statistical zero.
This series continues with Religious Change: The Whole World Turned Upside Down, Part 1.