What Are Turning Points in the Global History of Christianity in the 20th Century?

Noll, Turning PointsOn Sunday I’ll be back at Calvary Church in Roseville, MN, teaching the second of six classes in an adult Sunday School series entitled “Turning Points: Global Christianity in the 20th Century.”

As I explained to everyone last Sunday, I’m borrowing a concept from Mark Noll, who suggests that “One of the most interesting ways to grasp a general sense of Christian history (though there are many others) is to examine critical turning points in that story.” While the selection is inevitably subjective (since it “depends upon what the observer considers to be most important”), it can “bring some order into a massively complicated subject” while still allowing us “to linger over specific moments so as to display the humanity, the complexity, and the uncertainties that constitute the actual history of the church….” (Noll, Turning Points, 2nd ed., p. 12).

(As he explains in his recent memoir, Noll’s approach originated during his first trip to Romania, in the summer of 1989. “Because we could not bring notes or other teaching aids” into the still-Communist country, “I had to come with only a few numbers scratched on an index card—70, 325, 381, 451, 800, 1054, 1517, etc.—as an outline indicating important dates in church history” — From Every Tribe and Nation, p. 81.)

In the first two editions of Noll’s Turning Points, he largely avoided the twentieth century. While his list of twelve ends with the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, that event is included more as a culmination of the 19th century. (And I’d argue that the twentieth century, as a distinct historical period rather than a round number, really begins in 1914.) The 2nd edition suggested a number of potential 20th century turning points, two of which — the Second Vatican Council and the 1974 Lausanne Congress — became a new chapter in the 2012 update of the book.

But I suggested to the class’s planners that we’re now far enough into the 21st century that we might begin to look for a longer list of turning points in the 20th. And because of the age of my students — sixties, seventies, and above — we could spend much of the first, introductory session talking about their own memories of the 20th century… and how “thinking historically” about the past is different than remembering it.

This Sunday we’ll jump in to our set of five 20th century turning points with World War I. It’s an obvious choice for someone with my interests, even though I’m not sure the war serves as the “fork in the road” or signal of a “new stage in the outworking of Christian history” that Noll sought for his chapters. Rather, the war produced a variety of complicated, even contradictory effects for Christianity.

(In a play on the “turning point” theme, I’ll open with the first lines of W.B. Yeats’ 1919 poem, “The Second Coming“: “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer….”)

Then next weekend we’ll move back a few years, to the Azusa Street Revival, and talk about the growth of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements.

Pentecostal women in Chicago in 1941
Pentecostal women in Chicago, 1941 – Library of Congress

Vatican II will no doubt claim one week at the end of October or the beginning of November, which leaves two sessions that are somewhat up for grabs.

So let me poll readers:

If you had to name two more “turning points” in global Christianity in the 20th century, what would they be?

The global dimension is really important… When I asked students to come up with a list of the ways that Christianity has changed most significantly in their lifetimes, they focused almost entirely on the church in America. But without much question, the most striking change in Christianity in the 20th century is the shift of its center from North to South. So I’d like at least one of the remaining events to help explain that change.

8 thoughts on “What Are Turning Points in the Global History of Christianity in the 20th Century?

  1. Clearly the advent of the Pentecostal movement is top of the list. I would add advent of the Religious Right, as well. [Editorially, as a Pentecostal, I’d see one of these as a positive turn and the other….not so much.]

  2. The center move to the South is certainly one of the big changes. I think another would be the technology revolution that has made it possible for the Church to see itself as a Global Church. For the first time, we in the North American Church can know much of what’s happening in the South, or the East almost as it happens. This has opened the door to a new consideration of “Global Church”.

    1. It’s a great point, Dave. I just need to pick a certain event to stand in for this kind of technological change, but I’m sure it’ll show up in our last week.

  3. Maybe not top of the list, but the Latin American Bishop’s Conference in Medellín, Colombia in 1968 was pretty significant for Latin American Christianity (i.e., as sort of the advent of liberation theology).

  4. Less well known than the 1910 Edinburgh Conference as a missionary/global Christianity moment, but the 1928 Jerusalem missionary conference is an important place to see the influence of liberalism and social justice on mainline church missions and early shifts towards empowering indigenous churches/acknowledging the growing influence of believers in the Global East or South. Sounds like a fascinating series, I’m glad that Calvary (my old home church) is on board to do it and wish I could attend!

  5. Great Question Chris!
    Here’s my quick outline.

    1906 Azuza and Global Pentecostalism
    1914 WWI and European nadir of Christian Nationalism
    1944 Florence Li Tim-Oi and First Ordination of Woman Priest in China
    1949 Chinese Communist Victory and Period of (anti-religoius) Political Secularism that covered 1/2 of worlds populations/period of global Christian resiliency
    1954 Billy Graham’s Harringay (London) Crusade marks beginning of partial American influence on Global Christianity (in practice and appearance)
    1965 Conclusion of Vatican II
    1971 Publication of G. G’s Theology of Liberation
    1979 Iranian Revolution marks period of Christian strain in M.E.
    1989 Manila Manifesto/Lausanne II as cautious rebirth of Global Evangelicalism (1974 works, but 1989 led by non-Westerners)

    Ohh, and don’t forget 1962 the publication of The Cross and the Switchblade!

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