The Enlightenment promised a better world and
unending human progress through education, and advances in science and
technology. Science succeeded in conquering diseases leading to longer life;
technology provided economic prosperity and material wealth. The 20th-century
opened throughout much of the world in triumphal optimism. Yet the unstable
political situation in eastern Europe led to rivalry
among European powers. The World War I [1914–1918] destroyed the optimism. The
instability continued after the war. The Great Depression [1929–1939] brought
economic hardship to most of the world. The political and economic instability
brought fascism (and Nazism) into
These traumatic events continued with violent
confrontations in the form of worldwide revolt against colonialism. Many wars
of independence in Africa and
As answers from liberal theology was unable to cope with all the worldwide political and economic disasters, religious liberalism was greatly weakened. Yet, it still retained much of its power since it had dominated most of the seminaries which produced liberal church leaders. As a result, liberalism continued to erode traditionally conservative denominations.
Conservatives opposed liberalism’s continuous
influence, viewing its historical-critical theologies as a danger to the
survival of the Christian faith. At a meeting in
In 1920s, almost all denominations were divided over the issue of fundamentalism. Bible-centred pastors and laity frequently found themselves at odds with the hierarchy of their own denominations which were controlled by liberals. In response, they founded new denominations, erected new seminaries, and began new missionary agencies. Because the word “fundamentalism” has been corrupted by the recent rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the movement is now called “evangelicalism”.
Another movement opposing the domination of liberalism was neo-orthodoxy founded by Karl Barth (1886–1968), the most influential theologian in the 20th-century. Following historical orthodoxy faith, Barth’s reasserted the sinfulness of man, the transcendence of God, and the emphasis on biblical theology. However, his rejection of the absolute trustworthiness of the Bible deviated from historical orthodoxy. Barth’s followers—Reinhold Niebuhr (social application of the gospel), Rudolf Bultmann (demythologization of the Bible), and Paul Tillich (application of existentialism)—deviated even further from orthodox faith.
Since liberalism, by its nature, was not a cohesive interpretation of life or religion, the movement inevitably became fractured, especially during the 1960s, resulting in a proliferation of theologies, each attempting to make Christianity more relevant to mankind, but all failing miserably. Some of these include theology of hope, liberation theology, death-of-God theology, secular theology, process theology, black theology, feminist theology.
One of the great religious movements in the
20th-century has been the Pentecostal/charismatic renewal. Pentecostals
insisted that the “baptism in the Spirit” was a normative second work of grace
for all believers and was evidenced by certain spiritual gifts, most of all
speaking in tongues. Pentecostalism grew out of the Wesleyan holiness movement.
It began at Charles Parham’s Bethel Bible Institute in
The movement was revitalized in the 1960s with
the emergence of a “charismatic movement” of the Spirit in existing churches
from different denominations. Pentecostals brought about renewal through lay
ministry and the gifts of the Spirit in both Protestant and Roman Catholic
In the 1980s, the so-called “third wave” of Holy Spirit-centred church renewal began, largely through the Vineyard movement, combining Pentecostal and charismatic emphases with traditional evangelical thought. These various charismatic movements have had a major impact on American religious life, particularly in the area of corporate worship and missions.
For many centuries, the Roman Catholic Church reacted to the modern world with fear and condemnation. The Council of Trent [1545–1563] condemned the Protestant Reformation. Pope Paul IV published the Index of Forbidden Books , prohibiting the faithful from reading books deemed to be even slightly non-orthodox. Pope Pius IX issued a Syllabus of Errors  rejecting contemporary ideas such as democracy. Pope Pius X condemned liberalism and modernistic ideas . With all these measures, the Roman Catholic Church was not threatened outwardly by liberal theology. However, they also restricted the church from reaching the modern mind.
New theological thoughts, overtly suppressed for the past centuries, increasingly divided the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the 20th-century. The top of the papal authority structure clutched tenuously to traditional conservatism until Pope John XXIII [pope 1958–1963] supported both renewal and a more liberal theological outlook. He convened the Council of Vatican II [1962–1965] to revitalize the church. The council attempted to retain traditional theology, yet make the church more inviting to the young and the unchurched. Changes included the celebration of the Mass in common languages rather than Latin, a greater role in the work of the church for laity, and a more cordial relationship with other religious groups.
Under Pope John Paul II [pope 1978–2005], the church retrenched theologically; renewed its emphasis on adoration of the Virgin; but also promoted a more fervent revival and world presence; and published a new catechism. Despite this, the reform-minded Catholic theologians, rebels like Yves Congar, Hans Kung, and Edward Schillebeeckx, began to speak out against Catholic traditions and were more sympathetic to the Protestant cause.
The interdenominational cooperation in
missionary activities in the 19th-century led to the hope of many Christians to
further the collaboration among churches. The World Missionary Conference in
Out of the
This form of international cooperation by about 300 national churches appeared to manifest the unity of the church and the oneness in Christ. Unfortunately, the movement often sacrificed sound theology for structural union based on the lowest common denominator. Gradually, the focus on spreading the gospel gave way to an emphasis of social action which then led to support of left leaning policies and liberation theology, resembling communist propaganda.
Because of this problem, many conservative and evangelical national churches avoided the WCC and instead met to plan cooperation in world evangelization. The World Congress on Evangelism  led to the establishment of a permanent organization—International Congress on World Evangelization. The Lausanne Covenant  emphasized loyalty to the inspired Scripture as the infallible rule of faith and practice, and also stressed that social concern and action were a relevant part of the gospel.
As the second millennium drew to a close, there were hopeful evidence of the spread of Christianity to most
of the world. In the West, Christianity has been weakened by cultural
accommodation and materialism. The majority of the population
still profess as Christians but are in name only, not living a Christian
life and not participating in a church. In contrast, a disciplined
spirituality, prayer life, and passionate evangelism have brought explosive
growth to the
Since 1990, the dismantling of communism in the
All over the world, the proliferation of technology has aided growth by providing teaching and mass-evangelism opportunities. Radio, television, films, satellites, and the Internet have all opened new avenues for the gospel. It is now possible through radio and television for the gospel to be heard worldwide. The phenomenal use of technology by Billy Graham, for example, has brought unprecedented global impact. The aggressive vision of Bible translators, many of them with Wycliffe Bible Translators, makes feasible the goal of providing at least a part of the Bible in every existing language group.
While the light of the gospel seems to shine with increasing intensity across many parts of the globe, a cultural erosion has occurred in the original Christian nations. Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines are grappling with the demise of the Enlightenment and its confidence in reason and technology. In the last decades of the 20th-century, postmodernism has emerged, with its prevailing emphasis on the self as the centre of life and personal meaning. In postmodernism, values are not seen as universal truths but as individual and private preferences, leading to moral relativism. Self-realization and self-fulfilment become the gods of the age. Postmodernism owes much of its philosophical base to nihilism and combines the notion of a liberated self with an attitude of despair.
Concurrent with postmodernism is the rise of cults, a clear demonstration of the emptiness of human soul that looks for any kind of spiritual fulfilment. One main cult is New Age thought, an eclectic blend of Eastern mysticism, pre-Christian paganism, and spiritism. New Age borrows heavily from the vocabulary of traditional Christian beliefs yet redefines such terms to fit its pantheistic worldview. In addition, many cults report ever-increasing numbers of adherents.
The 20th-century witnessed a huge increase in
visible violent persecutions of Christians perpetrated by authoritarian
political regimes. These include right-wing totalitarian countries and
left-wing communist countries. With the democratization of many totalitarian governments
On the other hand, religious persecutions have
increased in scope and in intensity. In the past decade, the most brutal persecutions
are found in Islamic countries. The efforts by Muslims to suppress the
Christian faith has led to mass killings of Christians in many countries,
One may ask why Muslims and Hindus resort to violence in stopping the Christian gospel. The simple answer is that they feel threatened because of the fact that many people have converted to Christianity once they heard the gospel. In today’s supposedly free marketplace of religions, each person can freely choose his own religion. Truth will always win the heart of most people. Christians should always stride to win religious freedom for everyone.
While visible persecutions occur in the Third
World, less visible or even invisible persecutions occur in the former
Christian countries in Europe and
In the West, there is one clear trend in the last few decades—the decline of attendance in mainline liberal Protestant churches. In these churches, theological liberalism has eroded the entire system of Christian doctrine, leading to the evaporation of faith and the secularization of those churches. They become so identified with the culture that all distinctiveness disappears. Subsequently, there is no incentive for participation by members.
At the same time, most evangelical and charismatic churches report increase in attendance, with some national churches increasing by more than 30% in 10 years. Research has shown that orthodox Christian belief is the single best predictor of church participation.
As missionaries sent to the
While there are slightly different emphases by different evangelical groups, all agree on the highest priority of world evangelism. Evagelistic work by these churches are well-supported by a large variety of parachurch evangelical organizations which concentrate on youth evangelism, adult evangelism, publication and distribution of the Bible.
Whatever the state of Evangelicalism is, an emphasis upon the need for revival and renewal remains constant. Charismatics see hope in the restoration of extraordinary gifts of the Spirit; others look to the Church Growth movement for vitality; still others hope for a restoration of the Reformation emphases—grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and Scripture alone.
Today is a time that combines elements of both triumph and discouragement for Christ’s kingdom. But Christians have assurance from God through His Word that He will be completely triumphant in the end. The God who controls history will bring His divine drama to consummation in a grand and glorious day.
The history of the Christian church is a witness to the providence of God. Schaff said it well:
“During this long succession of centuries it (the church) has outlived the destruction of Jerusalem, the dissolution of the Roman empire, fierce persecutions from without, and heretical corruptions from within, the barbarian invasion, the confusion of the dark ages, the papal tyranny, the shock of infidelity, the ravages of revolution, the attacks of enemies and the errors of friends, the rise and fall of proud kingdoms, empires, and republics, philosophical systems, and social organizations without number. And, behold, it still lives, and lives in greater strength and wider extent than ever; controlling the progress of civilization, and the destinies of the world; marching over the ruins of human wisdom and folly, ever forward and onward; spreading silently its heavenly blessings from generation to generation, and from country to country, to the ends of the earth.”
[from Schaff, Philip (1892): History of the Christian church, volume 1, Introduction.]
The goal for all Christians is the proclamation of the gospel to all nations as Christ said: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, ESV) Today, this goal is in sight. Let us hasten in spreading the gospel till Christ’s glorious second coming.