Fear for the church’s future is trending. It’s almost too easy nowadays to fall into despair: Christians’ interactions with culture and politics can often seem clumsy or foolish, and you don’t have to look far for biblical compromise, destructive power-plays, or “scandal du jour” moral failure. Compounding the problem is the fact that the modern church has been shattered into 30,000 to 42,000 denominations (depending on which study you read)—a degree of division that further damages its credibility.
Perhaps most damning, though, is the abundance of personal betrayals common church folk have experienced. I have personally survived three congregational civil wars, witnessed the deaths of two churches, and been pushed out of a plane mid-flight (figuratively speaking, of course) by pastors whom I trusted closely. Many Christians have known far worse than that.
It can be difficult, then, to feel rosy about the church’s future when it seems so weak, or even destructive. Yet an hour’s perusal through church history reveals that none of these fears are unique to our time; it’s always been easy to criticize the church because the church has always deserved criticism.
That same hour also shows there is always more to the story than compromise and incompetence. At any point in its history, the church is a case study in the contrast between appearance and reality. Despite all indications to the contrary, and far beyond any expectations, it has flourished. If you find yourself nervous about its future, though, consider the following:
1) The unstoppable growth of the church.
Maybe it’s harder to observe from a land of ecclesiastical decline like the United States, but globally, the church is growing—and has been, in fact, since its foundation.
For example, in a 2014 address at the Spurgeon Fellowship in Spokane, Michael Kelly described the growth of Christianity worldwide since the first century. While the church’s growth was initially slow, it has progressed steadily over time. In A.D. 100, there was only one professing Christian for every 360 non-Christians in the world. Today, about one-third of the world’s population claims to be followers of Christ.
According to Kelly's data, the church’s growth hasn’t just continued . . . it’s accelerated. In the church’s first 1,000 years, the ratio of Christians to non-Christians lowered from 1:360 to 1:270. By A.D. 1500, it was 1:85—almost triple the growth of the previous millennium in only half the time. Since then, the rate of growth has continued to rise steadily, with the ratios hitting 1:21 in 1900 and 1:13 in 1970 before reaching today’s 1:2.
Reflecting on numbers like these in a post at First Things, Peter Leithart described ours as “the greatest era of Christian expansion” in history. “It is old news now,” writes Leithart, “but it is news that we should be reminded of regularly.” And that same expansion has both fueled and been fueled by . . .
2) The explosive growth of missions.
In his 2011 book The Future of the Global Church, Patrick Johnstone noted the expansion of Christian missions in the 20th century. Again, the growth is staggering—in modern history alone, the world’s population of Christian missionaries has grown an astounding 1,624 percent, from 17,400 in 1900 to an estimated 300,000 in 2011. A 2013 report by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary reported an even higher total: 400,000.