Our world is shifting under our feet.
A couple years ago, I posted an 11 part series on the growth of Independent Christianity which began with Catholic missiologist Peter C. Phan's evaluation of the famous 1910 Edinburgh Missionary Congress:
Peter C. Phan’s article “Proclamation of the Reign of God as Mission of the Church: What for, to Whom, by Whom, with Whom, and How?” (www.sedos.org/english/phan.htm). Phan’s title intrigued me and I started to read eagerly, only to be stunned by the first few paragraphs:
"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." [emphasis mine]
As I wrote then "I was incredulous. I knew that the last word one could use of the Christian missionary enterprise at the beginning of the 21st century was “collapse”. Once more, I was standing on the edge of an unbridgeable chasm of experience that yawned between this prominent American theologian and the world I had known. I couldn’t help but wonder if Peter Phan inhabited the same planet as the evangelicals with whom I had lived and studied. Discouragement? Pessimism? Evangelical missionaries have faced the same historical and cultural realities as Catholics since 1960. But they believe that they have been privileged to be part of the greatest expansion of Christianity in history and are absolutely exuberant about the future of missions."
And that exuberance is on display in a global manner in this 100th anniversary of the Edinburgh Conference. There are no less than 4 global congresses being held in honor of the anniversary: in Tokyo, Edinburgh itself, South Africa, and Boston.
By far the largest gathering, Cape Town 2010, will function like an ecumenical council of missions (although it won't last nearly as long as Vatican II!), gathering together over 4,000 hand selected missionary leaders from all over the world to celebrate what God has done in the last 100 years and to take council together about where to go from here. In this age of the internet, the gathering will be beamed to sites all over the world so that additional thousands can take part.
As a preparation for Cape Town 2010, an internet based "Global Conversation" is taking place with a different topic every month. This month's topic is Responding to Religious Pluralism. The lead article has an intriguing title: Sowing Subversion in the Field of Relativism
In December, the topic was "Muslim Background Believers". This topic reflects the tremendous change that has occurred over the past 30 years in the world. Yes, the largest Mosque in the world outside the Middle East now towers over London's Regent's Park. I snapped two women in the most conservative Muslim dress, feeding the pigeons in the shadow of the mosque the last time I was in London. But this is a spiritual shift that cuts both ways.
Consider this summary of what is happening in the Muslim world from the Caleb Resources February, 2010 news letter.
( A bit of background: The term "Muslim background believers" refers to individuals born Muslim who are now following Jesus. Note the term "Christ - followers" below. They may or may not be part of local Christian congregations, who are usually reluctant to trust or accept Muslim background believers. They may not even be baptized. This does not compute in Catholic sacramental theology but there are millions of unbaptized "Christ followers" in the Muslim and Hindu worlds now. A new sort of life long catechumen.)
Since the beginning of the Iraqi war, more than 5,000 Muslims have turned to Christ in Iraq, with dozens of growing churches being birthed across the region. Similarly, pre-9/11 Afghanistan knew 17 Muslim background believers, while today there are more than 10,000. In neighboring Iran, where there were as few as 500 Christ-followers 30 years ago, national pastors suggest this number could now be one million. Perhaps this is due in part to satellite television making gospel broadcasts available at all times in that country; living under a repressive fundamentalist regime may also have some influence.
In Egypt, it’s the JESUS Film that’s increasing in circulation. Whereas in the 90s, sales averaged 3,000 per year, in 2006, the Egyptian Bible Society sold 600,000 copies, as well as 750,000 audio Arabic Bible and 500,000 Arabic New Testaments. Other programs reach a more global audience, such as broadcasts from Norway that can be found on the radio, TV, and the internet. A surprising population where these are received well is among Arabs in the US and Canada, where in the span of a few months, as many as 30,000 have responded with interest in coming to Christ.
Several countries are also seeing a drastic shift in the percentage of the population that is Muslim. Some countries, like Indonesia, don’t even want to know what those numbers are anymore. The last religious census there revealed that 20% of the population chose to be registered as Christians. That was over 30 years ago. In Ghana, the number of those who claim Islam as their religion dropped by 25% in the past ten years. Also in Uganda, the percentage is down from 22% Muslim 25 years ago to around 6% today. The Ugandan church now sends missionaries to places like South America, Japan, and the United States. Meanwhile, a growing missionary force is coming from Latin America, the majority of which goes to serve in the Muslim world.
What this should tell you is that God is continually building his kingdom. As many as 160,000 people a day hear about Christ for the first time, and roughly 3,000 put their faith in him per hour. Two hundred years ago, only 25% of the world’s people had the chance to receive the gospel. Today that number is flipped, with those who haven’t heard about Christ being only 28%.
In this anniversary year, I'm going to be posting more on Cape Town 2010, as well as blogging on the remarkable history of Catholic and Orthodox missions (with the help of my friend, Fr. Gregory Jensen, an Orthodox blogger)
In 1800, there were about 106.8 million Catholics in the world.
In 1900, there were roughly 266.5 million Catholics in the world, 75% of whom lived in Europe and North America.
By the end of 2010, there will be about 1.2 billion Catholics, 65% of whom live outside Europe and North America.
10,278% growth in 210 years.
How did we get here and what does it mean?
We didn't get here by accident. The almost complete identification of Christianity with Europe for over a thousand years was a historical and ecclesial aberration. It was the result of historical trauma, not intrinsic to the faith itself.
The foundations of the global shift that we are living through was laid centuries ago by the great figures of the medieval and Tridentine Church, by the likes of Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci. In the end, a truly global Christianity was created through the obedience of innumerable great and humble men and women who sought to respond to the command of our Lord himself to make disciples of all nations.