The 20th century was one of superlatives, both good and bad. The invention of the airplane, the landing on the moon and the advances in medicine, communication, and in almost every field of science were breathtaking. People today live longer, healthier and more productive and secure lives than ever before. Unfortunately, the utter devastation of modern warfare, the oppression and murder of millions, and the falling away of whole cultures from the truths of God are also breathtaking. People live under the constant shadow of mass destruction and a lonely, materialistic worldview that drains the humanity out of man.
The Church, that rock of God’s making in the midst of the tumultuous sea of human life, has been greatly impacted by the cataclysms of the 20th century. The end of colonialism, the civil rights movements, liberal education and theology, new technologies, increased exposure to other cultures, and a host of other factors have changed the church in sometimes obvious and sometimes barely perceptible ways. Nothing, however, has changed it like the Great War, 1914-1945. Though many divide this into two different conflicts, World War 1 (1914-1918) and World War 2 (1939-1945), in many ways they were simply Acts 1 and 2 of a great drama, the decline of European (and Western) civilization.
England was a heady place in 1910. King Edward, definitely a man’s man, was on the throne of the greatest empire the world had ever seen. The phrase “the sun never sets on the British Empire” was literally true, and Royal warships ruled the waves. France and Germany had important colonies, powerful economies, and rich cultures. European missionaries had penetrated every continent and no military forces on earth were able to stand against the might of Western man (not including Russia, who lost to the Japanese in 1905). America, too, was a rising power. The “White Man’s Burden” was to lead the world to a new dawn of Civilization, Commerce and Christianity, and it seemed inevitable that man had finally found the solution to the problems that had bedeviled us for millennia.
Within four years, the leading cultures on earth led humanity into a war of hitherto unparalleled horror. Four years later, 10 million military and 7 million civilians lay dead and Europe was in ruins. The boastful Europeans, far from bringing the world to the broad, sunlight uplands of a new age brought it into destruction, misery, and the shadow of death. After a turbulent two decades of governmental instability and economic disaster, Europe, and this time Asia, fought again. The devastation now spanned the globe, with up to 52 million civilian and 25 million military deaths. To top it off, nuclear weapons, the first credible threat to the existence of mankind, entered the world stage.
The Western model, in which white men led nations into Civilization, Commerce and Christianity, was almost totally discredited. Desperate for relief from the greatest threats which man has ever known, people turned everywhere else looking for answers. Some tried non-Christian religions such as Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Others rejected religion altogether. Many sought leaders in other ethnic groups and with women, hoping that someone (or some group) could save them from the utter devastation that seemed just around the corner. As Western political power, leadership authority, and culture sank little by little, political power and authority rose in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The Church, so tightly bound to the lands of Europe just 100 years ago, is now a shadow of its former size and influence in its traditional home.
The Church, however much it was considered European, was and is not. Born in the Middle East and raised in the Roman Empire, the Church is God’s body for the entire world. Today there are more believers in the developing world than in the developed one. Though deeply challenged in the 20th century, more so by the terrible wars than by any other single factor, the Church of Jesus Christ continues to grow and thrive. It is close to reaching every people group with the gospel. The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.