Scott Sunquist is one of my favorite writers. I’ve greatly appreciated his previous works, Understanding Christian Mission and the two-volume History of the World Christian Movement. This latest work, The Unexpected Christian Century, effectively grew out of volume two of HWCM and in it he attempts to sketch out the history of global Christianity in the twentieth century. This is a tall order indeed and I appreciate his approach to the “global century” that began with some 80% of the world’s Christians living in North America or Europe and ended with about 60% living in the Global South—the non-western nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
In just six chapters—sandwiched between an introduction to world Christianity in the first nineteen centuries and a forward looking epilogue—Sunquist does a commendable job of narrating the story of twentieth-century Christian history. Here’s a brief chapter-by-chapter synopsis:
In chapter 1 (“world Christianity”), the key trends in global Christianity at the beginning of the twentieth century area discussed. Chapter 2 (“Christian lives”) focuses on representative examples of global Christian innovators and leaders. In chapter 3 (“politics and persecution”), the global church is considered in the context of twentieth-century politics and discrimination against the church. The fourth chapter (“confessional families”) addresses the four key streams of global Christianity—Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Protestants, and Independent churches. Chapter 5 (“on the move”) captures the crucial issue of global migration and its relationship to Christianity. Finally, in chapter 6 (“one way among others”), the author discusses Christianity’s relationship with other religions in the twentieth-century context.
As far as strengths go, I think Sunquist does capture the big picture of twentieth-century world Christianity through his framework in these chapters. In particular, I think the biographical approach of chapter 2 is excellent as he succeeds in putting a face on the global church. While famous Christians like Mother Theresa and Billy Graham are mentioned, it’s also good for the reader to meet lesser-known global Christian leaders and innovators as well. I also thought chapter 4 was an excellent survey of the main expressions of global Christianity, especially the “spiritual churches” (independent and Pentecostal), which comprise the fastest growing faith communities in the world. Indeed, the categories of Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox no longer adequately tell the story of contemporary world Christianity.
My only major critique of the book has to do with the group of world Christian leaders surveyed in chapter 2. The common element for most of them is that they are somehow connected to the World Council of Churches. While the independent churches are highlighted in chapter 4, their leaders do not figure as prominently in chapter 2. Also, I find it problematic that Ghandi was listed and surveyed in this chapter on Christian leaders. Though Ghandi had dealings with Christians in South Africa, Britain, and India and he influenced Christians like Martin Luther King, Jr, Ghandi himself was not a follower of Christ.
To sum up, I am grateful for this well-written and engaging book on the global century and am happily adopting it (along with HWCM volume two) as a text for my course, History of Global Christianity II at CIU.
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