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.
Perhaps what’s most surprising, though, is the well-documented shift away from Eurocentrism toward a more global Christianity. According to a 2015 article in TheWashington Post, in 1900, North America and Europe held a full 80 percent of the world’s Christians. A century later, however, that percentage was halved by the church’s growth elsewhere. At the same time, the United States has gone from being a major sender of foreign missionaries to being the world’s largest recipient—over 32,000 in 2010.
Meanwhile, the non-Western world has been particularly fruitful soil for growth. During the 20th century, for instance, the number of Christians in Africa rose from less than 10 percent of the continent’s population to nearly 50 percent. The Pew Research Center calculates that today, 25 percent of the world’s Christians are in Africa—and that is expected to grow to 40 percent by 2030. Similar growth rates are occurring in Asia, where Christianity has grown twice as fast as population over the last century.
This global surge in Christian missions should encourage us. At the very least, it shows us we can trust Jesus’ promise that we would be his “witnesses . . . to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8)—a vision that can seem too far-fetched to imagine. But it’s also a sign that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the church, showing a divine faithfulness that has also been displayed in . . .
3) Healthy growth in hostile places.
Throughout the centuries, Christianity has consistently grown best in the hardest of contexts. From Jerusalem and the Roman Empire to modern China and the Muslim world, times and places of resistance, opposition, and religious persecution have counterintuitively been the most fertile grounds for the church to take root.
Consider contemporary China: in 1976, when Chairman Mao died, few would have predicted that the Chinese church would ever thrive. Now, however, just two generations later, Christianity has spread across China like wildfire. According to a 2014 article in the Telegraph, there were one million Chinese Protestants in 1949. In 2010, there were 58 million—a 5,700 percent growth in 61 years. If current rates continue, China is set to have more Christians than any other nation by as early as 2030.
There are signs of similar growth beginning in the Islamic world, too. In 2014, the Times reported that Christianity is growing faster in Iran than anywhere else on the globe at about a 20 percent increase per year.
Despite such research on the global growth of the church, though, it can be hard for many Western Christians to feel like the church is really doing well. Perhaps here and now, in my own church, the news is not very good. Maybe the “big picture” seems like a snapshot taken on another world. But if we consider the testimony of Jesus and the apostles, then . . .
4) This surprising growth shouldn’t surprise us.
Perhaps these upward trends won’t last forever. If Scripture gives us any indication, however, God himself is optimistic about the church’s future. While there are abundant biblical warnings about false teachers and coming persecution, there’s also ample reason to believe that his church is secure.
In Matthew, for instance, Jesus vows to build the church, promising that the gates of hell would not stop him. In Revelation, John sees every tribe, language, people, and nation included in the coming kingdom. In Romans, Paul assures us that when that kingdom does come, every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the king. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, as we watch all of these promises made good in time and space.
Of course, none of that means the church is perfect. We know it isn’t. Even in the church’s infancy, Paul knew it wasn’t. Remember his words to the church at Corinth:
Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Cor. 1:26b-29)
Paul’s explanation should remind us that there has always been a gap between the church’s appearance and its reality—that’s exactly how God created it to work. Since the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the people of God have always seemed (and have often actually been) broken and backward.
But little in God’s kingdom is ever quite what it seems. First and last switch places. True strength is found only in weakness. And, as it turns out, a bunch of poor, mourning, hungry, and persecuted wanderers are set to inherit both heaven and Earth. Fear is losing its power as the kingdom grows.