Take the United States, for example. More Americans attend church in an average week than attend all professional baseball, basketball, and football games combined in the average y ear. A II athletic events of all kinds draw less than 1/15th as many people in a week as attend church. How did it come to be that way?
Most people alive today are accustomed to a world full of professing Christians, a world in which Christian thought and Christian values have had or are having a major influence on the civilization of planet Earth, a world scarcely a corner of which has not heard to some degree or another of Christ and a religion which goes by His name. Today messengers and missionaries march or have marched through jungles and swamps, through forests and plains, over continents and islands, in the Arctic, South America, darkest Africa, Southeast Asia, the islands of the Pacific, the glacier-studded mountains of equatorial New Guinea. But it hasn't always been that way. Less than nineteen hundred and sixty years ago, not one single Christian walked the earth. Then — suddenly — something new was introduced to the world. A preexisting Divine Being was born as a man, as Jesus of Nazareth. He taught, suffered, died, was buried and resurrected. He returned to heaven — and sent back the Holy Spirit of God to earth to dwell in and empower His handful of weak and bewildered disciples! That was to be the beginning of His Church.
To What Purpose?
He had charged His disciples — after His brief postresurrection sojourn of 40 days with them (during which He had led them away from Jerusalem as far as Galilee and back again) — that they were not to leave Jerusalem until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5). He had founded the Church He had promised (Matt. 16:18); founded it to grow, to multiply and spread abroad over the face of the earth, to bear witness to His resurrection and proclaim an advance message of His second coming and full-scale intervention in human affairs. His Church was to start the smallest possible — and it did! Like a grain of mustard seed, which is one of the smallest of all seeds but grows into one of the largest of plants. (See Mark 4:30-32, Matthew 13:31-32 and Luke 13:18-19.) But then, Christ promised, He would return and turn His Church into His Kingdom — a world-ruling Kingdom of God. To this end, His first disciples were to go into all the world with the gospel (Acts 1:8) and to make many into His disciples (Matt. 28:19-20). All these disciples were afterward called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).
How Has It Happened?
Christianity brought tremendous hope to the downtrodden masses, the discouraged, the disillusioned, the depressed and oppressed. It promised not only a resurrection from the dead — as Christ has been raised, so can we all — but also a utopian world in which to live after Christ's return. For three centuries, in spite of all persecution, this gospel increased its adherents in the Roman Empire as well as in the East under Parthian rule. In the fourth century a great breakthrough occurred with the abrupt switch from imperial Roman persecution of Christianity to its high official favor, even an established status, under the first "Christian" emperor, Constantine. From then on, multitudes rapidly embraced the faith, not only in the Empire but in the nations and tribes of Europe adjoining and influenced by the Empire. But with Christianity's universal success came corruption of its doctrines and morals, and a de-emphasis of the very factors of hope which had been its greatest strengths. Shortly, as the fourth century became the fifth, the Roman Empire crumbled politically and militarily in the West, only to be replaced by the Byzantine Empire in the East and later by the Holy Roman Empire in the West. Beyond Palestine, not much later, Christianity began to be swept back by the Muslims in all the lands to the east and south of the Mediterranean, until eventually only moribund liturgies like the Coptic, the Ethiopic, the Nostorian (or Assyrian), and the Armenian — all perhaps more pagan than Christian — remained where once the Church had been strong. Meanwhile, in Europe, Christianity was propagated to the north and northeast by those employing the sword and coercion, perhaps unconsciously copying the unchristian method of conversion used by the followers of Muhammad: "Embrace Islam, or die." Discounting for the moment the quality of its "conversions," we may note that some slight territorial extension of Christianity was thus made. But Christianity was, and remained until modern times, essentially a European religion. Penetration into Africa and Asia was negligible or nonexistent for more than a millennium — even beyond the Dark Ages (476-c. 1000 A.D.).
Outlawed, persecuted, clandestine sects lived amidst the surrounding spiritual darkness by hand-copying biblical texts and by expounding to individuals and small private groups whatever truth they had. The masses of people, however, had nothing Christian in their own languages, either written or oral. So little was changed — until just before the Reformation, which "could not have happened without the invention of printing, which put the Scriptures into the hands of the laity. Before Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg, Gutenberg's Bibles had been in print for half a century. By 1500, at least 60 German towns had printing presses; readers had access to at least 14 editions of the Scriptures. Put another way, the Reformation was the child of printing" (Christian Century, April 20, 1977, p. 379). From the time of the predominance of printing, a higher degree of Christianity began to be more common. Morality improved. More individuals were personally converted instead of having merely been reared to regard themselves as "Christians." And yet for another three centuries — virtually down to our own day — Christianity was not yet on its way to becoming the worldwide religion we now know. By 1800, though Catholicism had been widely enforced in South and Central America by the conquistadores, the real faith of the masses was little affected. Native "Christianity" was for centuries either outright paganism or thinly veneered at best. Though composed to a greater degree of Europeans, our North American colonies were not much better. "American mythology makes us think that all our forefathers were deeply Christian people. Such things as the language of the Mayflower Compact, the tradition of Thanksgiving Day, The Scarlet Letter, and Washington's prayer at Valley Forge nourish the impression that the person who didn't attend the Sunday-morning worship service, who hoed corn on Sunday afternoon, or who coveted his neighbour's ox or ass was the exception to the rule" (Christianity Today, December 3, 1976, p. 13). But not so.
"The World Was Waiting" — For What?
You may wonder what the missionaries were doing up till the nineteenth century. Strange as it may seem today, there was little missionary effort, and such as there was was stymied by complications on every hand. It seemed the door to worldwide missionary effort and mass evangelism had not yet been opened. For their first three hundred years, the Protestant churches were mainly occupied — or preoccupied — with the relations of the various groups with one another or with Catholicism. Sometimes it was war to the death instead of brotherly love. Such missionary efforts as were made were usually the work of the state or of traders rather than of churches. In 1559, for example, King Gustavus Vasa of Sweden sought to send the gospel to the pagan Lapps in the north of his domain. Church buildings were provided, complete with preaching services, but spiritual results were slight. Why? Perhaps because all services were spoken in Swedish, which the Lapps did not understand. And the gathering of them together was made the occasion for collecting the royal tribute! With similar results, or lack of them, the Dutch East India Company officials in Ceylon and Indonesia, thinking it to their best commercial and political interests to build up a population of "Christians" surrounding their trading centers, even translated the Scriptures into the native languages. But the kind of Christianity they caused to be inculcated was purely one of external conformity: memorization of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer, morning and evening prayer, grace before and after meals, acceptance of the Helvetic Confession, and baptism. What was to be achieved by the converts? Not spirituality, but favors from the government which, it was given out, were strictly reserved for Christians. Roman Catholic missionary work, while more extensive, was likewise fleeting in results, hampered by its own mistakes, notably its. stress on externals and syncretism with the heathenism of the lands. That is, the prevailing pagan religion of an area was scarcely more than "baptized" and called Christian. "Then further, the spirit of the missionaries was too lordly, they meddled too much with political affairs, and thus stirred up against themselves fear and deadly hatred. It was on account of such blunders and sins that they were driven out of Japan (1614) and China (1618), and in great numbers their poor followers were tortured and put to death. After a steady decline it had come to pass [about 1800] that Catholic missions, in foreign lands where they had once been prosperous, were in many cases almost extinct" (D. L. Leonard, A Hundred Years of Missions, 3rd ed., 1914, pp. 38-39; see also Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions, 1964, pp. 206-208). During the 1700s the Protestants too came to almost a full stop in their early attempts at missions. This was the time of the renewed Moravian Church and its missions, and the time of the early Methodists. Nevertheless, the expansion of Christianity had come to a standstill, indeed in many cases gone backward. "We might sum up and set forth the reason in few words," continues Leonard, "with the suggestion that the world was not ready, the fullness of times for the universal spread of Christianity had not come, and centuries of preparation must first intervene" (p. 41). The world was waiting — marking time. "And above all," wrote Leonard, "the religious world was waiting for the rise of a great people [Americans] beyond the Atlantic, untrammeled by tradition, God-fearing, intelligent, each one trained to think and act for himself, with democracy in the State reacting upon the Church, a people loving liberty better than life" (p. 47).
An Open Door
In America, too, as the eighteenth century neared its end, zeal, faith and doctrinal understanding were low. In Leonard's words, "the only zeal left was for an orthodoxy which was stone dead" (p. 49). But then a revolution occurred. "The closing years of the eighteenth century constitute in the history of Protestant missions an epoch indeed, since they witnessed nothing less than a revolution, a renaissance, an effectual and manifold ending of the old, a substantial inauguration of the new.... Beginning in Great Britain, it soon spread to the Continent and across the Atlantic. It was no mere push of fervor, but a mighty tide set in, which from that day to this has been steadily rising and spreading" (p. 69). It was the age of William Carey, looked back on as the beginning of modern missions and methods in backward lands, though even his work in very few years came to naught. Indeed, Leonard shows the failure of just about every effort begun before the end of the century. "Yet his [Carey's] work does represent a turning point; it marks the entry of the English-speaking world on a large scale into the missionary enterprise — and it has been the English-speaking world which has provided four-fifths of the non-Roman missionaries from the days of Carey to the present time" (p. 2.61).
The Zenith of Britain and America
When the United States and Canada experienced the so-called Great Awakening from about 1790 to 1830, a surge of evangelistic fervor to reach and convert the masses was channeled into an effort to Christianize the frontier. Meanwhile began the formation of British, American and European missionary and/or Bible societies. From a slow start in 1804, new societies proliferated after the 1820s at the astounding rate of nearly three per year for the rest of the century. Neill mentions the important societies formed to 1842. "And then the list becomes so long... it is no longer possible to follow it. By the end of the century every nominally Christian country and almost every denomination had begun to take its share in the support of the missionary cause" (Neill, p. 252). This time — finally — efforts in heathen lands began to be markedly successful. If, until the nineteenth century, all missionary activity had been pushed under the door or thrown through the transom, at last the door to the world was open. Leonard points out II major factors in the worldwide spread of nineteenth-century missions and Christianity (see box), having principally to do with modern technological achievements and the predominant part played by the English-speaking peoples in giving their benefits to the rest of the world. To Leonard's categories should be added at least two more points: first, a vast increase since about the 1830s in the materials available for biblical studies through libraries, private collections and monasteries, and through archaeological discovery; second, and perhaps most important of all, the rapid accretion of hygienic and medical knowledge. The first nine missionaries on the Guinea coast of Africa died of "African fever." By 1826, of 79 men and women who had entered this region, 65 had died. And similar situations existed elsewhere in tropical and backward lands. Use of native African personnel was "the solution attempted to avoid the devastating effects of "African fever." But there was no substitute for the goodwill gained for the spiritual cause by providing the natives with the services of the developing medical art itself. The medical approach was used in the Far East as early as the 1820s. It has been ever since a major part of opening the doors to Christianity worldwide. Without modern medicine, especially tropical medicine, little religious headway could have been made.
Where to from Here?
Today's world has forgotten, or fails to recognize; the fact that was so obvious nearly a century ago. At least since the beginning of the Dark Ages, the door had been closed to the worldwide spread of Christianity (whether the true brand or a counterfeit). Then it was opened. "In 1800 three of the six continents were practically unknown to Christendom" (Leonard, p. 415). Steadily, through the century, the door opened wider. "The, progress of the kingdom will appear still more remarkable," says Leonard, "if we divide the century into two equal parts, and note how little that is visible and tangible was accomplished during the first fifty years, and how the closing decades [and, we may now add, the century which was to follow] are fairly crowded with progress" (p. 420). Today the door is still open. To be sure, there have been setbacks, as in China and for, a few years in the Soviet Union, not to mention the turn away from religion in France, Britain and Western Europe. Majorities in southern Asia are still non-Christian, and the Muhammadan Arab world has scarcely been touched. But Islam no longer is sweeping southward in Africa — indeed, Africa south of the Sahara may now be considered a Christian continent — and in nearly every country of the world Christians are slowly increasing their percentage of the total population. But this cannot be the end of the story. What remains is in every way as important as anything which has gone before. As the percentage of professing Christians in a nation increases to and beyond a majority, the goal of evangelization gradually shifts toward a process of the more thorough teaching of spiritual principles, of deeper and fuller biblical doctrine. To the goal of upgrading the spiritual level of Christians in all countries, many of whom are Christians in name only, unsaved, unrepentant, untaught as to what salvation really is all about, those who are truly concerned must dedicate themselves.
Leonard's Eleven Reasons for the Spread of Christianity
1) The advance of the United States across the North American continent; the extension of British political dominion around the world, enforcing peace where there had been nothing but anarchy — the pax Britannica; the partition of Africa by Europe. 2) The harnessing of steam power to travel by ship and rail; the Suez Canal. (Followed in but a few decades by the Panama Canal, the automobile, diesel power and the airplane.) 3) The telegraph and the post office. (And, in due course, the telephone, followed rapidly, once the twentieth century began, by radio and TV.) 4) World exploration. 5) The forcible opening of China by the Opium War, 1842, and of Japan by Admiral Perry and the American fleet in 1853. 6) Changes in the charter in 1813, 1833 and 1857, forcing the British East India Company to allow missionaries into their domain, whom they at first regarded as more dangerous to their possessions and rule than anything else. 7) Independence in La tin America; the spread of the idea of religious freedom even in Iran and the Turkish Empire (which was in the 1800s dominant over most of the Middle East). Under this head come all the freedoms of political democracy. 8) Multiplication of Bibles and Christian literature. ("It was not until within a few decades [of Leonard's original writing in the 1890s] that the art of printing emerged from infancy" [A Hundred Years of Missions, p. 136].) It had taken 1500 years to get the Bible into 23 languages, and that in manuscripts only. The complete Bible was published in Chinese in 1811 and the trend continued. (The Russians, nominally Christian for centuries, got their first complete translation only in 1876, but today the Bible is available at least in part in all but a handful of the world's 3000-odd languages and dialects.) 9) The emancipation of women, permitting them a chance to help in missionary work, either as wives or as unmarried helpers and teachers. 10) Increasing availability of converted native personnel. 11) The quickening interest in spiritual things in the homelands. No small part of this is the awakening of care for others — in effect, "brotherly love."
Here and There With Christians Around the World
• Kenya in 1900 had less than 2000 Christians; today there are more than six million. In Zaire, which was first opened up to mission influence by two Protestant missionaries in 1880, nearly 60 percent of the people today identify with Christian traditions. • All Africa is composed in a religious sense of 41.7 percent Muslims (mostly in the north), 40.6 percent Christians (a clear sub-Saharan majority), and 17.7 percent pagans. • Since 1950, Islam has made few solid advances below the imaginary "Muslim line," 100 miles south of the Sahara. The Christian church is growing more rapidly than Islam in most parts of black Africa. • There are more evangelicals behind the Iron Curtain than in Western Europe! The persecuted Baptist Church of Romania is the fastest growing church of Europe, adding 20,000 converts a year. • Proportionately less is being done for world evangelization by non-English-speaking Europe now than at the turn of the century. At the present time about 23.00 English-speaking missionaries are at work in Western Europe. • A new Israeli law, effective April 1, 1978, has raised a storm in Israel and in the U.S. It provides a five-year prison term for offering (and three for receiving) "material inducement" to get one to change his religion. Claims are made that 70 to 80 Jews convert annually. Officially, only 19 Israeli Jews converted to Christianity during the years of 1974 to 1976, and bribery was involved in none of the conversions. • Though the ad "Churches demolished free of charge. Immediate cash settlement" runs in England's British Weekly and Christian World, the Church of England has its advisory board save some for their historic and aesthetic value. • More than one-third of Norway's 1700 churches are closed and empty each Sunday for lack of clergy. • The Marxist government of Burma, a predominantly Buddhist nation, has published 10,000 copies of the Bible in Burmese for the use of Christians who could not obtain foreign currency to import Bibles from abroad or paper to print their own. • Church buildings in post-1949 Communist China, like the mosques, pagodas and temples of other religions, are no longer in use for religious purposes. Yet reports indicate that Christianity continues to survive in most areas, and even to increase. Furthermore, all or most of China is in range of Christian radio broadcasts from Taiwan, with some known results, as ownership of small radio receivers prolife-rates.