Rejoice, there is a growing church out there!
On my desk is a remarkable little book entitled Amazing Mizo Missions by S. Nenzakhup. It tells the story of the mission work of Presbyterian and Baptist Churches in Mizoram, a remote, poor mini-state of India. They have sent out over 2,000 indigenously supported missionaries over the past 60 years – mainly to other parts of India, but also increasingly to other countries. This was essentially the fruit of Welsh Presbyterian missionaries. The first Welsh missionaries arrived in the land of the Mizo in 1894, with the first baptism in 1899. The 1904 Welsh Revival also impacted the Mizo, and, in contrast to Wales, there have been almost continual seasons of revival ever since. This represents the tail end of what historians call the ‘Fifth Awakening’.
What is an awakening? While revival is a revitalisation of Christians to new spiritual vigour, an awakening is when the wider unchurched population is impacted with a great ingathering of new believers. Historians recognise five such evangelical awakenings in the past 300 years.
- The first was the Moravian-Wesleyan awakening (1729-1790) whose key figures were Zinzendorf, Whitefield and the Wesleys.
- The second was the Modern Missions Movement (1790-1812) whose key figures were Edwards and Carey.
- The third took place mainly in the USA from 1813 with the key figure, Charles Finney.
- The fourth was in the Americas and Northern Europe (1859-1899) whose key figures were Moody, Spurgeon and Hudson Taylor.
- The fifth was the first global awakening (1900-1914), in Wales and the Pentecostal awakening in California.
We have barely noticed the astonishing global awakening that we have experienced over the past 60 years, the like of which is unprecedented in the history of the church. I am calling this the ‘Sixth Awakening’. Why have we not been aware of this? There are many reasons: our own retreat from ‘empire’, the massive secularisation in our society with the resulting marginalisation of Christians, the decline in even the basic awareness of what the gospel is and church growth being far away in Africa, Asia and Latin America through indigenous movements inspired by the Holy Spirit.
There are many contributing factors to the Sixth Awakening. Here are some significant ones.
- The rise of evangelicalism in the late 1950s after years of the deadening influence of liberal theology. Billy Graham made evangelicals respectable again and also popularised evangelism through his crusades and missions through the global conferences he sponsored.
- The rush to independence (1957-1964) when most Western empires were dismantled. Western control of churches also largely ended, with a huge indigenisation and growth of churches in Africa and Asia.
- The Charismatic Movement from the 1960s onwards radically impacted nearly all denominations in the West with huge increases in the numbers of active Christians and growth in recruitment for missions.
- The Jesus Movement from 1967 which started in California before going global.
- The bankruptcy of Communism. The failure of the Communist coup in Indonesia and resulting Muslim pogroms which killed 2 million and led to over 6 million Indonesians turning from Islam to Christianity. The later ideological failure of Communism in China in 1976 and political failure of the USSR in 1980 gave a generation of greater openness to the gospel, an openness which is now ending.
How can one summarise the extraordinary growth of biblical Christianity? A few vignettes may help.
- The numerical growth of evangelicals. In 1900 there were 72 million evangelicals in the world with 95% of them found in the West. By 1960 this had scarcely grown – only 85 million, with great declines in the West. Then came the awakening with growth to 184 million by 1980, 426 million by 2000 and possibly 680 million by 2020.
- The percentage of the world population that was evangelical: 4.5% in 1900 and a decline to 2.8% in 1960. But by 2000 it had risen to 7% of the world’s population, and this may be 9% by 2020. When I left for Africa in 1962, Western evangelicals were twice as many as those in Africa, Asia and Latin America, but by 2020 there will be four times as many African, Asian and Latin American evangelicals as there are in the West.
- Korea was impacted in 1904 by the Welsh Revival, and massive church growth has resulted in the churches sending out 20,000 missionaries. This is far higher than the 4,000 or so UK missionaries today.
- Massive church growth in Africa in the 1960s – mainly through indigenous movements which are increasingly evangelical in theology in recent years. Breakthroughs in Latin America from the 1970s with millions of syncretistic catholics becoming fervent evangelicals together with the Asian breakthroughs in Indonesia since 1966, China and Philippines since 1980, Iran since 1982 and India since 2000.
- The Anglican Communion is a case in point. We are accustomed to the very public arguments about differing theologies and gender issues among US and UK Anglicans, but few realise that by 2050 it is likely that 85% of all Anglicans will be Africans, and most of these are evangelical in theology and not sympathetic to the cultural battles in the smaller Western component of the wider Communion.
- The 1990s was the most extraordinary decade ever for growth with over 120 million added to evangelicals – the majority through conversion. Evangelical Christianity has moved centre stage and become the mainstream of Protestant Christianity and the only significantly growing stream of Christianity in the 21st Century.
Sadly the rate of growth of evangelicals is rapidly tailing off. Why? Many factors contribute to this
- The dropping birth rate – most conversions are among young people and children.
- The successes of evangelicals have led to complacency, pride, scandals, and compromises with political powers.
- The impact of ‘9/11’. Security issues have raised visa barriers and increased dangers for proclaimers.
- A strong reaction to globalisation. Issues such as job security, migration, greedy capitalism, diminishing credibility of democracy and a rising level of authoritarianism and persecution of Christians.
- The distractions of social media and the internet impacting prayer, spirituality, involvement in church activities and long-term commitment.
Our longing must be to pray fervently: ‘Lord revive us again!’