World Christianity and the Unfinished Task
Posted on June 04, 2021
While I was a senior pastor in the upper Midwest I travelled frequently to the non-Western world to see the work our missionaries were doing. I noticed something. There were churches everywhere—Africa, Asia and Latin America—and many of them were much larger than the rather large congregation I was leading in the United States.
I was fixated on finding out what in the world was going on. This led to more frequent travel, then living abroad in Africa with my family, and doctoral studies in World Christianity. This finally led to an assignment at a study centre in Cambridge; and in an unexpected twist, I accepted an offer to serve with Global Action, a mission organization that is devoted to equipping Christian leaders in the developing world.
I wrote World Christianity and the Unfinished Task for ordinary Christians. Scholars began working overtime in the late 1960s to understand the rapid growth of the church in the non-Western world. We now know that during the twentieth century something remarkable was happening that many people still do not know about. The church was growing rapidly in Africa, Asia and Latin America and it was growing more rapidly than in North America and Europe.
Between 1968 and 1980 a Cambridge-educated scientist-turned-missionary named David B. Barrett (1927–2011) moved to Nairobi, Kenya and travelled to every country in the world to count Christians. His work was published by Oxford in 1981 as the World Christian Encyclopedia. It was hailed by Time magazine as “the miracle from Nairobi.” It revealed, among other things, that the church was growing most rapidly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Other scholars had been noticing the same things—and soon study centers emerged to study these findings. We now know that in the year 1900 some 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in North America and Europe—while today the majority of the world’s Christians (nearly 70 percent) live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We also know how this happened—and the work of Western missionaries is only a very small part of the story.
I wrote this little book to help ordinary Christians understand what scholars are calling the most remarkable transformations (secular and religious) in the world during the twentieth century. What is even more surprising to me is how many Christians still don’t know about these seismic shifts that have happened (and are continuing) in the world. I’ve seen the surprising work God is doing around the world with my own eyes—and have spent years studying World Christianity at major research centers.
And because I spent so much of my life as a pastor, my love is taking complex ideas and communicating them so that ordinary people can enjoy them. That is exactly what I do in this book. I talk about what has changed and how it happened. And in the conclusion, I argue that what we have learned about World Christianity should dramatically change the way we engage in missions in the world today.
Executive Vice President