Reformed Reflections

First of a series of five

The twentieth century began with faith in progress and full of hope. Although the 19th century had known such conflicts as the Crimean, American Civil, and Franco-Prussian wars, yet it seemed peaceful compared to previous centuries. Darwin's theory of evolution made progress seem logical. Life was believed to have begun in simple forms and to have developed into ever increasing complex stages. Man was supreme and highly intelligent, standing on the highest rung of the evolutionary ladder. The industrial revolution and the blossoming of the sciences appeared to lead to a blissful future for all mankind. Christians also joined the triumphant chorus. Christianity displayed an amazing vitality. It seemed to go from strength to strength. It had spread geographically, among a great variety of people, and exerted great influence upon mankind as a whole. At the end of this century we look back with incredulity. The outbreak of Word War I created disbelief in man's capacity to overcome evil through the scientific method and technology; it also sowed doubt about the supposed inner goodness of human nature. Skepticism, cynicism, and pessimism replaced optimism.

The end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 marked the beginning of the 19th century. The distinguished American church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette (1884-1968), maintained that for the Church the twentieth century really began in 1914 with the outbreak of the Great War. Prior to l914 Christianity had experienced 150 years of unprecedented growth. More than at any previous time in history, not even including the first centuries, missions became the focus of many Christians. Latourette called this period the "Great Century" of Christian expansion. But after the Great War, the Church suffered severe losses, especially in its historic stronghold in Europe and Great Britain. From the standpoint of the future of Christianity, the latter are no longer as prominent as they were in the l9th century. For example, while American Lutherans are generally conservative, Lutheranism in Germany suffered a decline through liberal theology, secularism, National Socialism, and Communism. The serious decline of Christianity in England is especially a great loss. During most of the 19th century Britain provided the majority of Protestant missionaries, the means of their support, as well as the innovative thinking for the furtherance of the mission enterprise. This century has seen the shift of the mission endeavor from Europe to the United States. Most of the financial support as well as mission personnel no longer comes from Europe.

Latourette notes though that in spite of losses, the Church has made amazing gains. A notable headway was made in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The Christian faith is no longer a "white-man's" religion. Three-fourth of Christian believers live in the Third World. No other religion is represented in so many different nations, tribes, and peoples. According to the handbook, The Reformed Family Worldwide, there are now 746 different Reformed/Presbyterian denominations in 149 countries; Korea holds the record with 99. In other words, no serious survey of twentieth century Christianity can neglect the churches outside Europe and North America. Latourette commented: "In the mid-twentieth century, if mankind is viewed as a whole, Christianity is more a force in the human scene than it or any other religion has ever been."

Advance of the Church

Modern means of transportation and communication has made the world much smaller than it was at the dawn of the twentieth century. In our shrunken world the opportunities for missionary expansion are enormous. The printed page, the railway, the airplane, the automobile, and other means of communication made it physically feasible to reach all mankind with the Gospel. In 1900, radio and television stations, fax machines and computers were unknown. In 1999, for every 1,000 people, there are on the average, 342 radios, 220 televisions, 118 telephones, 10 fax machines, and 81 computers. Christians have now at their disposal technological means for the advancement of the Gospel. In this century they established 3,770 radio and TV stations with 584 million listeners/viewers.

In his l948, The Christian Outlook, Latourette observed that we have been reminded until it has become a platitude that as the hundred years after Napoleon were the British century, so the coming decades are to be the American century. He was right. This is now the American century. America is the dominant economic, political, military global power. It is also dominant in missions. Its mission involvement has taken some interesting twists and turns. At the beginning of this century, historic Protestant mainline denominations accounted for the vast majority of overseas missionaries. After peaking in the mid 1920s at about l4,000, the figure dropped to about 12,000 during the Great Depression. At the same time, the conservative/evangelical Christian involvement grew in strength and numbers. By 1952, the number of career missionaries sent overseas by the conservative/evangelical community had doubled from the 1935 level, and by 1968 it had more than doubled again. And the most striking shift in the American mission enterprise has been the increase in fundamentalist, charismatic, and other generally conservative and unaffiliated agencies. In 1917, conservative faith missions formed the Interdenominational Foreign Mission Association (IFMA) as a "fellowship of missions without denominational affiliation" and with a statement of faith adhering to "fundamental doctrines of the historic Christian faith." In 1933, J. Gesham Machen and his followers founded the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Mission in their dispute with the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Mission about the liberal theology of the famous author, Pearl S. Buck, who served as a Presbyterian missionary in China. In 1945, another conservative evangelical association of mission agencies, the Evangelical Foreign Mission Association (EFMA), was formed by the National Association of Evangelicals (established in 1942), to serve and foster the work of conservative denominational missions as well as some independent groups.

Storms of Adversity

The twentieth century story of the Church is one of growth in the midst of a hostile environment. Latourette spoke of "advance through storm." The twentieth century saw new threats of gigantic proportions to the Christian faith. The most serious challenges to the Church came from unbelievers, like Marx and Engels, the founding "fathers" of communism. The losses due to secular humanism with its practical atheism are unabated. The secularization of the Sabbath observance has been called a "paradigm of decline." It has contributed to the weakening of commitment to the Church and contributed to the decline in membership. In an attempt to accommodate the Gospel to the culture and spirit of the times, large elements of Protestantism departed from the historic Christian faith. "Modern" scholarship threw doubts on the Bible, its inspiration was questioned, miracles and the creation account were dismissed as myths. Mainline churches became increasingly embroiled in social and political controversies, especially in liberal and radical causes. Urbanization challenged the Church. In 1900, there were 20 mega-cities (over 1 million population); by mid 1999, the number had grown to 405. In 1900, there were 5,200 new non-Christian urban dwellers by day; by mid 1999, the number had grown to 136,000. These are not dry statics. They represent people with spiritual and physical needs. The massive population drift from rural areas to the cities led to the disintegration of communities and extended families. The ties with the past are broken. Individuals or families are on their own. They work and amuse themselves without taking responsibility for the local neighbourhood in which they find themselves. In this environment, church planting is difficult. Churches have not been able to keep pace with urban growth.

Another grave threat is the growing power of the secular state. In our century, the state is taking over more and more functions which once belonged to the home and the Church. Among these the chief is the education of our youth. The public school system is supposed to be neutral toward religion. In reality it indoctrinates youth in secular humanism. Religion is not taken seriously. There is contempt for those for whom religion is the very heart of their existence. Modern universities and colleges are the chief wardens of any number of distinctively modern ideologies. In these secular institutions, both faculties and students are effectively discouraged from maintaining their religious faith.

Our century has become increasingly antagonistic toward the gospel. Persecution has become intense and persistent. Dr. Max L. Stackhouse asserts that the most oppressed and mistreated peoples of the world, in terms of human rights, are evangelical Christians. Committed believers are today more often the victims than the causes of human rights violations. Current events provide ample proof for Stackhouse's claim. There is no physical persecution in democratic western countries, although in recent times Bible-believing evangelical/Reformed Christians have suffered persecution from mass media, secular universities, governments, and the courts. The story is different elsewhere. Persecution has become a worldwide plague. The very successes of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America have contributed to heightened opposition from governments and majority religions. The World Mission Digest, published by the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, reported that 119 million Christians were martyred this century. Many of us can recall the martyrdom of five young American missionaries who were speared to death in 1956 by Auca Indians in Ecuador. Many of the martyrs for the faith are unknown to man, but known to God. The suffering of Christians has been ignored by the West and the world at large. Who would have thought at the beginning of this century that at its close, Paul Marshall's book, Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution Against Christians in the Modern World, would serve as a despairing wake-up call?

The twentieth century showed that the Gospel is always at odds with its environment. The battle between the Kingdom of God and the domains of Satan continues to be waged. Thank God for the hope we have. We are not permanent residents of this earth. We are ever pilgrims, seeking a homeland, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Johan D. Tangelder
September, 1999