Christianity in the Modern World: Trends, History, Changes

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Despite challenges and set backs, Christianity continued to grow throughout the 20th century. In 1948, the World Council of Churches — part of the ecumenical movement to reunify the Christian denominations — was founded. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) was an attempt at reviving Catholicism (See Below). Among its aims were better and closer relationships with other Christian branches and with Judaism and to support the ecumenical movement. Leaders of different Christian denominations — including Catholics, Orthodox Christians and Nestorians — have gathered with Muslim and Jewish leader to pray for world peace.

According to Pew Research Center: In 1910, about two-thirds of the world’s Christians lived in Europe, where the bulk of Christians had been for a millennium, according to historical estimates by the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Today, only about a quarter of all Christians live in Europe (26 percent). A plurality – more than a third – now are in the Americas (37 percent). About one in every four Christians lives in sub-Saharan Africa (24 percent), and about one-in-eight is found in Asia and the Pacific (13 percent).

People who shaped Christianity in the 20th century included: Mother Teresa (born Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu; 1910–97, canonized in 2003), leader of the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, known for her work serving the poor; 2) Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu (born in 1931), a leader of the South African movement against apartheid; 3) Billy Graham (born in 1918), an American evangelist, who preached to more people than anyone in history. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

The strength of evangelical and Pentecostal Christian movements have greatly changed Christianity as a whole. Manfred Ernst wrote: Numerous “developments have contributed to the emergence of increasingly complex networks of transnational Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical groups and churches that form together a renewal movement where flows of people, money, ideas and images spread with growing speed and intensity. Attempts to pin them down to any particular source or objective are becoming increasingly difficult. Beside there is a variety of older denominational transnational networks such as the Roman Catholic Church, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that do neither cooperate with each other nor with the Pentecostal, charismatic, evangelical renewal movement. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

Websites and Resources: Christianity BBC on Christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Sacred Texts website ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible

Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)

One of the biggest religious events of the 20th century was the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), which transformed the lives of Roman Catholics throughout the world and reverberated into other Christian denominations. Vatican II reforms allowed worship in vernacular languages rather than Latin, taught that Protestants were "separated brethren" rather than heretics or schismatics, opened a door for dialogue with non-Christians, and called for the church to become engaged in the struggle for justice and dignity for all human beings. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Pope John XXVIII (1958-63) surprised everyone by announcing the Second Vatican Council it after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He had no definite plan when he convened the council and did not to live to see its finish but made many positive inputs and was named Time Man of the Year in 1962 for his efforts.

The Second Vatican Council, which some called the Catholic Reformation, passed many reforms and modernized most rites. According to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) the relationship between saints and living people was defined as one of "communion and solidarity" rather “supplicant and benefactor" and as for the saints themselves: “their way of life, fellowship, in their communion and aid by intercession" were to be admired and respected and seen as “examples” rather than worshiped.

At the Second Vatican Council, Pope John XXIII attempted to temper enthusiasm for Mary with the statement: "The Madonna is not happy when she is placed before her son." This was a response to the Papal infallibility was invoked in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, which stated that the Assumption—the taking of the body and soul of Mary to heaven—really occurred.

The Second Vatican Council also declared that the Jews should not be held responsible for Christ’s death. A statement was released that said the crucifixion of Jesus "can not be blamed on all the Jews living without distinction, nor upon Jews of today." Jews were no longer referred to as "perfidious" "Christ Killers" in Holy Week prayers.

Christianity in Communist Countries

Communist governments throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, which had prohibited many types of religious celebration, collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After communists lost control, the Eastern Orthodox Church in many central and eastern European countries and in Russia was able to hold services without fear of repression, which had often been the case during the Soviet era. There has been a rebirth of Christianity and religion in many former Communist countries as well as within China.

Communism denounces organized religion; Communist countries are officially atheist states. The Soviet constitution listed "freedom of worship" and "freedom of antireligious propaganda" among its freedoms. The latter was used as justification for attacks on organized religion. The Communists attempted to substitute the study of Marxism for religion. Children were encouraged to take part in antireligious activities and schools emphasized antireligious aspects of science. The belief was that if succeeding generations were taught to reject religion, religion would eventually die out.

Marx was an atheist who famously called religion the "opiate of the people." He once wrote: "The proofs of the existence of God are nothing but proofs of the existence of the essentially human self-consciousness...Man is the supreme being for man...Atheism and communism...are but the first real coming-to-be, the relation become real for man, of man's essence." Marx's experience with religion within his own family as child is believed to have been one reason for his contempt of organized religion. Even though his grandparents were Jewish Marx became an anti-Semite.

Lenin tried to forge an ideal Communist state free of capitalism, private ownership, war, poverty, and religion. Lenin set out for his new government were creating a socialist society from scratch; redistributing the land held by the aristocracy; creating collective farms; nationalizing factories; and dismantling the Orthodox church. After the deaths of his father and his brother Lenin wrote, "I was 16 when I gave up religion." In May 1932, a Five-year plan against religion was declared. Religion suffered from a state policy of increased repression, starting with the closure of numerous churches in 1929. Persecution of clergy was particularly severe during the purges of the late 1930s, when many of the faithful went underground.

Many churches, monasteries and mosques were converted into archives of the state, museums, hospitals, schools, and insane asylums. Some churches were converted in discos by the communists. Paintings were burned and manuscripts were recycled at local paper mills. Building a church or a mosque under the communist regime was a problem, not so much because of money, but because is was difficult to secure the necessary building permits.

It can be argued that church figures played a role in the downfall of communism. Pope John Paul II (born Karol Wojtyła in 1920; served as pope, 1978–2005) helped to undermine Communism in his home country of Poland. He also upheld conservative doctrinal and moral positions of the church and was a major figure of 20th century Catholicism. [Source: Michael J. McClymond,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Social Changes and Christianity

Social changes has forced Christian churches to address issues once avoided, such as female clergy and gay marriage. The declining number of priests and religious orders has threatened the viability of Catholicism. Debates over women's ordination and birth control, as well as sexual abuse scandals in the United States, has caused problems for Catholics.

In recent decades mysticism has had a profound influence on places where Christianity has traditionally been dominant. Christian peoples in these areas have develope an interest in Buddhism and yoga and other practices rooted in eastern religions nad have explored mystical branches of Christianity and Judaism such as Gnosticsm and Kabbalah that at one time were characterized as heretical.

Decline of Christianity in Europe and West

In the 20th century there has been a decline of religious affiliation, or formal connection with an organized church, in Europe and North America. Churches in Europe are losing members, and those of North America are statistically stagnant. During the 1900s, two world wars, the spread of communism, and the growth of secularism all took their toll on Christianity in Europe and brought an effective end to the perceived link between Christianity and Western culture. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Churches of Europe and North America, which for centuries were bastions and strongholds of Christianity, are losing about 2.7 million people per year to so called “nominalism” or secularism. The population in countries with predominantly non-Christian religionsis growing faster than the population in parts of the world where Christianity dominates [Source: Dayton and Wilson, 1984: 25; Barret et al., 2001]

In western Europe, services in massive cathedrals sometimes attract only a handful of worshipers. In England, in the early 2000s, less than a million Anglicans attended Sunday services, while in Nigeria the Anglican Church has 17 million members and the attendance rate is 89 percent. Judged on this data, it would appear the future of the Church of England lies not in England but in Africa and other regions that were the object of earlier missionary efforts.

Gabe Bullard wrote in National Geographic: In March 2016, driven by parishioner deaths and lack of interest, the U.K. Mennonites held their last collective service. It might seem easy to predict that plain-dressing Anabaptists — who follow a faith related to the Amish — would become irrelevant in the age of smartphones, but this is part of a larger trend. Around the world, when asked about their feelings on religion, more and more people are responding with a meh. In the meantime, the religiously unaffiliated, called "nones," are growing significantly. They’re the second largest religious group in North America and most of Europe. In the United States, nones make up almost a quarter of the population. In the past decade, U.S. nones have overtaken Catholics, mainline protestants, and all followers of non-Christian faiths. Also in the secularizing West, the rash of “religious freedom bills” — which essentially decriminalize discrimination — are the latest front in a faith-tinged culture war in the United States that shows no signs of abetting anytime soon. [Source: Gabe Bullard, National Geographic, April 22, 2016]

Rise of Christianity in Asia and Africa

There has been a sharp rise in church membership in Asia and Africa. According to Pew: Christianity has grown enormously in sub-Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific region, where there were relatively few Christians at the beginning of the 20th century. The share of the population that is Christian in sub-Saharan Africa soared from 9 percent in 1910 to 63 percent in 2010, while in the Asia-Pacific region it rose from 3 percent to 7 percent. Christianity now – unlike a century ago – is truly a global faith.

According to the Following World War II, there has been an astonishing expansion of Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. China, with only a million Christians in 1949, somewhere between 50 and 100 million Christians, and about 10,000 new converts every day. In Africa during the 1900s, the Christian population mushroomed from 9 to 335 million Christians. In Latin America, Pentecostalism has overtaken Roman Catholicism as the dominant faith in many regions. During the last decade, millions of Dalits in India (formerly known as "untouchables") have converted to Christianity.[Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Until the 1960s African Christianity was tied to colonialism, yet the expansion of Christianity occurred through Bible translations, village schools, and traveling African catechists (religious instructors) as much as through the activities of missionaries. The intense prayer, evangelistic fervor, and openness to the miraculous that characterize the Pentecostal movement—now numbering 524 million adherents—could set the future direction for world Christianity. Today Korean, Brazilian, and Chinese missionaries are being sent out to evangelize Muslims, and some are going as missionaries to secular Europeans, a trend that Philip Jenkins has dubbed "the empire strikes back."

Rise of Pentecostal Christianity

Michael J. McClymond wrote in the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”: “A major part of the modern expansion of Christianity lies in the Pentecostal, or charismatic, movements that emerged after 1900 and spread rapidly and widely. Pentecostal Christianity has come to dominate large portions of Africa and Latin America, where more people may attend weekly Pentecostal services than the Roman Catholic Mass. The movement began with the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906, led by the African-American preacher William Seymour (1870–1922). After several days of fasting and praying, a number of people began to speak in unknown languages, taken to be an outward sign of the experience known as "baptism in the Holy Spirit," which soon became the hallmark of Pentecostalism. Within a generation small groups of Spirit-baptized Christians were found throughout the world. Pentecostals emphasize supernatural elements in Christianity, such as divine healing, prophecy and visions, the casting out of demons, and "speaking in tongues," or glossolalia. [Source: Michael J. McClymond, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

The ecumenical movement arose out of a conference on world evangelization in Edinburgh in 1910. Delegates became aware that divisions in the Christian world were a major hindrance for missionaries, and the discussions begun at Edinburgh gave rise to a number of organizations concerned with Christian reunion. In 1948 they merged into the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC has promoted dialogue and joint action among Protestant, Anglican, and Orthodox churches, with some Roman Catholic participation as well. The statement "Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry" (1982) reflected broad agreements on these points. In 1999 the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation offered the "Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification," another sign of a gradually emerging theological consensus.

Christianity and Globalization

Manfred Ernst wrote: Christianity in its Pentecostal-charismatic form seems to thrive in the globalizing climate. The majority of a growing number of publications in this field of study focus on the successful growth and spread of Pentecostal-charismatic Christianity worldwide. In these publications, however, not much attention has been paid to the rapid growth of what I call “marginal Protestants”, groups usually labelled by most Christians as “sects”. In this category the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists are amongst the fastest growing denominations in the world. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

In the Pacific Islands there seems to be an ever-increasing flood of publications that deal with spiritual healing, the Second Coming, prophecies, and the End-Times. Most of these publications are of US origin. They are distributed through bookshops and increasingly through TV and radio stations such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network stations in Samoa or Fiji. These media advertise the books, CDs, DVDs and audio and videotapes, which can be ordered via credit cards. In his book End-Time Visions, the highly regarded expert on the “Doomsday Obsession”, Richard Abanes has examined and dismantled the bizarre supposedly Bible-based prophecies of historical and modern day prophets from Nostradamus to Hal Lindsay (Abanes, 1998).

Different theories of globalization processes and consequences have produced different tools and approaches. The theoretical framework used here to explain the relationship between globalization processes and the emergence and rapid growth of new religious groups in Oceania can be summarized as follows: Following world-system theory as developed by Immanuel Wallerstein and others we see globalisation unfolding in a historical process or in a set of processes. Central to this approach is the premise that the political, economic and cultural changes in history can only be fully understood if analysed in their economic and material context.

Christian Video Games

Explicitly Christian video games have been popular for decades; alternatives to the violence-inducing shoot-’em-ups decried by the moral majority, these games bring the KJV to the PS3. The only violence in Bible Adventures, for instance, is the barrel you use to stun the animals being gathered for Noah’s ark. These primary-color-filled children’s games are as much about education as entertainment and, unlike Christian music, they fail to mimic the aesthetic qualities of their secular counterpart. This isn’t like listening to Evanescence: You know that Captain Bible is about Jesus. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 13, 2017]

But then there’s the video game the Binding of Isaac, which just had a remake released, with its take on the Abraham and Isaac story. Originally released for PC and Mac, Binding of Isaac was a sleeper hit that sold a million copies before being converted for consoles. In the game Abraham is replaced by a deeply religious mother who believes that she hears the voice of God. Rather than taking Isaac up a mountain to sacrifice him to the Lord (as Abraham does in Genesis 22), pixel Isaac’s mother watches charismatic Christian television and receives a vision instructing her to kill her son. Isaac realizes he is in danger and hides out in the basement. This is where the player takes over, scouring the dungeon-like cellar for items that will help Isaac defeat his God-fearing mother.

As the game progresses, the Biblical themes get stronger as other characters are unlocked. Cain, Judas, Esau, Eve, Samson, Mary Magdalene, and even Lilith make appearances and are vindicated by our intrepid gamer. There’s even a level set in the womb. (As if religion wasn’t already overly interested in the female reproductive system.)

Is this an accurate depiction of the Bible story? Er, no. For one thing, Abraham and company were nomads who didn’t have fully finished basements. (I feel like that was obvious but after Carson’s grain silo pyramids I don’t know what’s obvious anymore.) But concerns for accuracy haven’t prevented generations of interpreters from adding and subtracting details to the story of the binding of Isaac.

In fact, many of the interpretive moves and concerns found in the game have precedents in more traditional forms of Biblical interpretation. In the game, Isaac is a diapered baby, somewhat younger than the Isaac of Sunday School but an age entertained by some ancient Jewish interpreters. The game’s transformation of Abraham into a woman (as if women don’t get blamed for enough in the Bible) is anticipated in ancient stories of Jewish martyrs, in which their mother encourages them to embrace death. As Maria Doerfler, assistant professor of the history of Christianity at Duke Divinity School, told me, “[the game is] a misrepresentation of the [story], but not so very different from, say, the mother of the Maccabean martyrs.”

There’s something delightfully subversive about a game that rehabilitates the misunderstood evildoers. But there’s more here: In the dark references to child abuse and religious fundamentalism, the horror side of our Sunday stories is exposed. When it was released in Germany, The Binding of Isaac received a 16+ age restriction on the grounds that it is “blasphemy.”

Perceived Threat of Wokedome on Christianity

In North America in particular there are sometimes sharp division between liberal and conservative Protestants, described as "fundamentalists" and "evangelicals." According to The “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices” liberals inherited the church's denominational and theological institutions, while the conservatives left the mainline denominations and started over. Conservative churches in the United States, however, have been growing at the expense of more liberal groups. [Source: Michael J. McClymond,“Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices”, 2000s,]

Many Christians, especially those belonging to more conservative Protestant denominations, object to the changes introduced in the 20th and 21st centuries. They feel that these changes, like changing A.D. (Anno Domini, In the Year of Our Lord) and B.C. (Before Christ) to CE (Common Era) and BCE (Before the Common Era), is an example of the secular, or nonreligious, world taking power over religious life.

Manfred Ernst wrote: A common feature of Pentecostal, charismatic and evangelical churches and those that are considered by mainstream Christians as being at the margins of Christianity is their claim to hold a literal understanding of the Bible. Fundamentalists across all denominations insist that the Bible is absolutely and in its entirety without error. In order to deal with contradictions and variations in matters of fact and doctrine, fundamentalists engage in a kind of intellectual acrobatics in their efforts to reinterpret and homogenize. [Source: Manfred Ernst, La transformación del Cristianismo en Oceanía: un panorama regional Christianismes en Océanie : un panorama régional, p. 29-45, 2012]

Alongside the many factors dividing the Christian denominations, such as worship styles, doctrines, traditions and organizational structures, the major division must be seen in the fact that fundamentalists are very interested in interpretation but not much in historical scholarship, unless it is of the conservative kind. Whatever his or her denominational background might be, a fundamentalist can be identified easily as any person who “knows” already that the Bible contains no error before it is even opened for reading. The scheme is simple and attractive for people who are ignorant of theology and biblical scholarship. What fundamentalist groups offer is a shortcut to certainty. They can be described as “no questions asked” groups that offer an instant identity. This entails in practice elaborate deductions from the mystic books, such as that of Daniel and Revelation, from which dispensationalists of all kinds arrive at certain conclusions about the identity of the Antichrist, for instance.

Are Christian Numbers Declining Because They Don’t Reproduce Enough?

One factor in the decline of Christianity in Europe and North America is declining birth rates in the countries there. Christianity is still on the rise globally, but its growth has been slowed by low fertility rates, especially in wealthier countries. No less than Pope Francis said this because Christians in these countries no longer feel the need to “breed like rabbits.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, April 12, 2015]

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: To the environmentally minded, this is probably not a bad thing. The Earth can’t sustain a population explosion of consumption-heavy Westerners. Who cares if Christians match Muslims in numbers if there isn’t a planet to inhabit? More important, it’s unclear if, historically and Biblically speaking, followers of Jesus are even supposed to increase their numbers via reproduction. To be sure, there is the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” issued when the world population was two. And the God of the Hebrew Bible promises Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that their descendants will be as numerous as the stars. But Jesus and his followers do not seem to have been focused on procreation as evangelization.

On the contrary, the Christian family is the community of believers, and the call to follow Jesus sometimes involves abandoning one’s legal and biological relatives (Mark 10:29-30). Instead of asking his followers to marry and replenish the Earth, he asks them to spread the good news. The Apostle Paul agrees that the “unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord…[while the] married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife” (1 Cor 7:32-33). Jesus and Paul would like to see their followers focused on God and spreading the word. Missionary activity, not marital productivity, is the order of the day.

Many of the first generations of Christian missionaries eschewed marriage and child-rearing altogether, and focused instead on evangelization. As part of their missionary activity they promoted sexual continence and chastity. It wasn’t just that there were celibate leaders like Paul; a number of converts committed themselves to sexual abstinence. And yet, under the leadership of charismatic teachers and despite periods of hostility and persecution, Christianity flourished and grew.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except maps and surveys, Pew Research Center

Text Sources: Pew Research Center, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible,; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science,, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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