I am beyond excited about the release of my new book World Christianity and the Unfinished Task: A Very Short Introduction (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2021). I have working on this project for a couple of years now and have often been reminded of the Peruvian proverb: “Everything takes longer than it does.” But in the end, I think the additional time has made this book better. In some ways this little introduction to the global church is about some of the things I have discovered on my many trips around the world over the last twenty-five years. There is very little in this work about me—though a few anecdotal stories are included—but it does allows readers to see a little of what I have seen through my travels to the other continents and my research in the field of World Christianity. It has changed my mind—and life—in profound ways.
I grew up in a cul-de-sac. It was called American fundamentalism. Fortunately, the genuine faith and sincere love of my parents tempered the legalistic ethos of the church I attended as a boy. It was a good place to grow up, but it was a cul-de-sac. When I first read the quip by George Marsden that, “A fundamentalist is an Evangelical who is angry about something,” I was confused. I knew fundamentalists were angry about a lot of things; I just didn’t know they were Evangelicals! At some point in my late teens, I had questions that needed answering—simplistic formulas would no longer do. My fundamentalist pastor expressed more than mild displeasure (I still have the letter somewhere) when I left the college he founded and began working on two, very rigorous degrees at an institution of higher learning that required several years of studying Greek, Hebrew, theology and church history. (Fundamentalists often discouraged this kind of intellectual exploration; it was considered “dangerous.”) My educational experiences within broadminded Evangelicalism made me comfortable in the larger neighborhood. The Evangelical “neighborhood” was older and larger than the fundamentalist “cul-de-sac.” It traced its history back to Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield in the early 1700s, and it was greatly influenced in the twentieth century by people like Billy Graham and John Stott. I felt at home here.
After finishing my Master of Divinity degree, I wanted to know more about the history of the neighborhood I was now living in. And so I tackled another grad degree (Master of Theology) in the History of Christian Thought with a special focus on the history of American Evangelicalism. What lay behind the history of the Evangelical movement? I worked under two esteemed Evangelical historians—one who studied at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) and another who did his doctoral work at Vanderbilt and taught at Yale before coming to Trinity, where I studied. They were both committed Evangelicals, but they also opened my eyes to the world outside of the neighborhood of American Evangelicalism. After all, America was only a little more than 200 years old (ca. 1770s), and Evangelicalism (ca. 1730s) was not much older. American Evangelicalism was still a rather small movement compared to World Christianity!
I was soon spending time in the older (and larger) world—the pre-Evangelical world. During this time, I was also preaching almost every single week and leading a congregation I loved with all my heart. My regular practice was two days of solid study every week (minimum) almost without exception along with large doses of historical and theological reading. I was devoted to it. I wanted every sermon to be biblical, life giving and interesting! I fell in love with commentaries, theological works (some very technical) that provide verse-by-verse analysis on every word in every chapter in every book of the Bible. In those commentaries, I discovered that for 2,000 years people had been reflecting on the biblical text and writing about it. I wanted to hear what they had to say about the passages I was preaching on Sunday! I was reading the actual comments of people who were neither American nor Evangelical, but who were completely devoted to Scripture: Tertullian (African, 2C), Augustine (African, 4C), Gregory (Italian, 6C), Aquinas (Italian, 13C), Erasmus (Dutch, 16C), Luther (German, 16C), Calvin (French/Swiss, 16C), and the list goes on. I even met this guy named C. S. Lewis—he was British (Irish), Anglican—and he smoked a pipe and swilled beer! (What would my fundamentalist pastor think about him?) Most importantly, though Lewis was not a theologian, his insights on Scripture were simply brilliant!
My preaching became peppered with quotes from some of my favorite dead people—not to replace the biblical text—but always I hoped to illuminate the biblical text. The people I was meeting were like windows in the study or lamps on the desk illuminating Scripture so that I could see the Word of God more clearly than ever before. I was still in the neighborhood of American Evangelicalism, but I was now more comfortable in the larger world of the Church that extended some 2,000 years into the past. It was old and it was so good. I wanted the congregation I led to enjoy this discovery with me.
But the journey was not over for me. I was still, to quote the Irish poet R. S. Thomas, “Vicar of large things in a small parish.” I had not encountered the contemporary church in Africa, Asia or Latin America! My first trip to Northeast India in the late 1990s opened my eyes to the “surprising work of God” in the larger world. Northeast India, which is now predominantly Christian, had just experienced an awakening and it was palpable. I soon began travelling more frequently, and finally lived abroad during a sabbatical with my wife and three boys. We travelled to East Africa where we lived “at the foot of the Ngong Hills” (the first line from Isaak Denison’s classic novel Out of Africa) on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.
It was in Kenya that my life was changed forever. I learned that the church was not only old—it was very, very big, and not very “white” at all. In fact, the African churches I attended were much larger than the one I was leading in the United States. I wanted to know why. I wanted to learn from my encounters with God’s people. It was then that my wife and I decided to make that sacrifice that all doctoral students know about—a Ph.D. (it was much harder than I ever dreamed it would be) in World Christianity. It required significant time in a couple of places I loved—England and Scotland (where there are rich archival collections on World Christianity from the colonial period) as well as Africa. My work would focus on the transnational Evangelicalism (American, British and African forms) and the uneven transition of Western mission to non-Western church in the twentieth century during decolonization. It was intensely wonderful! I was obsessed with learning as much as I possibly could about the global church. I was now part of the one, holy, catholic church.
So while this book is really not about me—my personal experiences linger in the shadows of each page. In this forthcoming work on World Christianity, I introduce readers to a few of the things I have discovered on my journey. Here are some takeaways:
- In the year 1900, more than 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in Europe and the United States while today nearly 70 percent of Christians are from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Africa, the place that was once the “white-man’s graveyard,” has the highest concentration of Christians in the world—nearly 700 million—and the church is growing by more than 25,000 converts a day.
- Christianity is declining in Western Europe (though not Eastern Europe), plateauing in North America, and growing rapidly in Africa, Asia and Latin America (I explore some of the reasons for this).
- At the turn of the twentieth century (ca. 1900), almost all missionaries were sent “from the West to the rest” while today nearly half of all missionaries are being sent out to the world from Africa, Asia and Latin America.
- Contrary to stereotypes, many of the world’s American missionaries were graduates of Ivy League institutions, and many British missionaries trained at Oxford and Cambridge; they were ministers, doctors, nurses, medical professionals, linguists, and educators—and they helped change the world.
- The church has grown most rapidly in the non-Western during the twentieth century, and recent studies suggest that the work of missionaries has been important but that other factors, such as indigenous witness and regional revivals were more influential.
- The contemporary non-Western church does not like it when Americans tell them what to do or how to do it—especially as it relates to mission as it smacks of colonialism and racism; instead they want to work side-by-side with us as brothers and sisters in Christ. (I devote a whole chapter to this.)
This book also raises the question: “If the church is growing so rapidly in the non-Western world, do we still need to be engaged in overseas missions?” I provide a thoughtful answer to this important question from both a Western and non-Western perspective.
For me the church is now really old—and really big. And it has profoundly changed me as a person. The insights and wisdom from those who lived long ago—and those who now live far away—have greatly challenged my thinking and nourished my soul. I’m glad I left the cul-de-sac. I still love the old neighborhood, but I’m really enjoying the global church. I hope this little book will help readers see just how old and big the church really is.
Lionel Young is executive vice president of Global Action and author of World Christianity and the Unfinished Task. Dr. Young is Beeson's 2021 World Christianity Focus Week speaker.