In 1900 Western “Christian empires” were ruling most of the world, leading many to assume Western Christianity would dominate the 20th century. What happened instead is that Christianity in the West declined dramatically, the empires collapsed, and Christianity’s center moved to Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Pacific. How did epochal changes in global Christianity happen so quickly?
Bible Gateway interviewed Scott W. Sunquist about his book, The Unexpected Christian Century: The Reversal and Transformation of Global Christianity, 1900-2000 (Baker Academic, 2015).
What do you mean when you write, “The 20th century surprised the religionists, the historians, and the politicians”?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: In 1900 religionists—people following and studying religions—assumed Islam would become the religion of Africa. They were wrong. They thought Christianity would remain strong in the West. They were wrong. They assumed Christianity would continue to look Mainline, Catholic, and Orthodox. They were wrong: Pentecostalism was not even a concept at the time.
Historians were wrong because they and politicians were progressive; they thought everything would get better and better. The Russian Revolution, Armenian genocide, and the Great War put all those ideas to bed.
Explain the three great transformation time periods in Christianity you identify and briefly explain them.
Dr. Scott Sunquist: The three great transformations were the 4th century, 16th century, and 20th century. In the first, Christianity went from a persecution religion of the marginalized to the royal religion of the Roman Empire. Its survival was assured, but it also was transformed by being part of an imperial culture. It was no longer the religion of the humble savior born in a manger.
The 16th century transformation was two-fold. Christianity went from two major “families” (Orthodox and Roman) to four families: Protestant and Spiritual were added. These four families continue to this day. The other transformation was even more important. Christianity had been trapped in the small peninsula called Western Europe. It broke out and in less than a century, Christianity was developing along the coasts of Africa and Asia, and throughout all of Latin America.
The final transformation was the 20th century, and that’s what The Unexpected Christian Century is about.
Why did Christianity, an originally Asian religion, become a predominantly Euro-American religion?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: It’s all about politics and culture. Christianity never found a benevolent emperor in Asia except for Armenia (Tiradates III) and a small client kingdom of Osrhoene (King Abgar V). When emperor after emperor in Europe supported the church, it flourished. The idea of pluralism or multiple faiths was not really an option. For most all of human history, people assume that the ruler determines the religion. Thus, until the modern age of pluralism, Christianity had a difficult time in Asia.
What are the five lenses you use to observe Christianity in the 20th century?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: History can be told as a single story, but in doing so we usually tell it with one lens or, at most, two (politics, economics, or ideas are the major contenders). In this volume the third great transformation is illumined by looking at:
- politics and persecution
- four confessional families
- relationship to other faiths, and finally
- major biographies.
My personal favorite is looking at the 25 most influential Christians of the 20th century. They may not be the most influential, but they all were very influential in shaping this world religion as it became truly global in expression.
Who do you see as a few of the powerful personalities shaping Christianity?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: In the 20th century those great leaders of the church were less and less from the West. A fairly educated guess would posit that C.S. Lewis had greater impact than the great theologians. Karl Barth influenced the world of ideas and some of those ideas had an impact on global Christianity, but Lewis sold a lot more books and they’re translated in many more languages.
But someone like Oscar Romaro, the martyred archbishop of San Salvador has had an influence on all of Latin America and on much of North America.
The great Chinese evangelist John Sung probably had more influence on Christianity in Asia than Billy Graham did in the West (both of them made my list). He was a man of one book having read the Bible 40 times while he was in a mental hospital.
For length of ministry and breadth of influence, we would have to vote for Simon Kimbangu. He only had a five-month public ministry before being imprisoned for 30 years. He founded one of the largest African Initiated Churches; the first to join the World Council of Churches.
How did the flu have an impact on Christianity?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: The great flu pandemic of 1918-19 killed 50 million people globally in the first year. It came on the heels of the “Great War” and aided in a global financial collapse. On the heels of this, churches declined in Europe and Germany rearmed, already preparing for the next war. People were displaced globally which caused the spread of Christian faith. Thus, without drilling down too far we can say it aided in the spread and development of Christianity in some regions and aided the decline in other regions (mostly the West).
How did the global strategy and work of translating the Bible effect Christianity’s 20th century profile?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: Recently I wrote a blog post on A Historians Hunches about Future Trends in Mission. In this post, it’s the simple availability of the Scripture in the local language that’s the most important single factor in the development of Christianity. Even in the end of the 20th century, the Bible was critical for Roman Catholics in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Latin American “base ecclesial communities” were reading the Bible in local communities.
What Bible passages played key roles in the transformation of Christianity through the centuries?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: The Bible passages that have been “critical” through the centuries have changed through the centuries. I would say in the late 20th century, where the major transformation took place, the verses that were most important were from the Gospels; for the Reformation it was the letters of Paul (Romans). Late 20th century Christians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America were (and are) driven by the example of Jesus (John 20:21, “As the Father sent me, so send I you” and the “Sermon on the Mount“) and the trajectory of Jesus (“Go”). I do not find that it’s only one passage (“Great Commission“), but it’s the gospel story of Jesus gathering and sending that has brought about the transformation. The Gospels are not delivered through the filter of the Enlightenment, but directly; unmediated. That’s where the power has been found that has brought about the great 20th century transformation.
What will Christianity in the 21st century be like?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: I’m a historian, not a prophet. The greatest minds of the Christian world got it wrong in 1900. I’m not as smart as they were, so I’ll have to pass on this. However, I’ve read the Bible and I’m pretty sure it has a wonderful and glorious ending.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: I teach at the School of Intercultural Studies as Fuller which was formally called the School of World Mission. We’re always looking at innovations for the sake of God’s mission. Bible Gateway, making Scripture available in creative ways using newer technology is exactly what the church needs to do and what the world needs. Fuller was started by a radio evangelist. When Charles E. Fuller used radio, he was using the latest technology to get the Good News to all people. I think this is pleasing to God.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Scott Sunquist: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about some of these important themes. Thank you even more for the good work of Bible Gateway in “getting the Word out.”
Bio: Scott W. Sunquist is the Dean and Professor of World Christianity in the School of Intercultural Studies (@fuller_sis) at Fuller Theological Seminary (since 2012). Previously he taught missiology, Asian and western Christian history at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and before that he taught eight years at Trinity Theological College in Singapore (1987-1995).
Most of Dr. Sunquist’s writing is in the areas of Asian Christianity, global Christianity, and missiology. He’s the editor of A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Eerdmans 2001) and co-author of A History of the World Christian Movement, Volume 1 (Orbis Books, 2001) and Volume 2 (2012), as well as Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory (Baker Academic, 2013). He also co-edited a volume with his daughter (Caroline N. Becker) of A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007 (WJK, 2008). Dr. Sunquist has a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina, an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and a PhD from Princeton Theological Seminary. He and his wife Nancy have four grown children and six grandchildren.