The Future of the Global Church: History, Trends and Possibilities

Patrick Johnstone IVP Books, Colorado Springs, CO March 31, 2012
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This book is unlike any other book this reviewer has on his bookshelf. Johnstone is a missionary currently serving as regional director of WEC International’s European sending bases. He is best known as the editor of past editions of the comprehensive prayer guide for world missions, Operation World (with the exception of the recent 2010 edition, edited by Jason Mandryk). He has also authored the highly informative The Church Is Bigger than You Think (Tain, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1998), and he has served as a member of the Lausanne movement’s Strategy Working Group. He is one of the world’s foremost missiological researchers; his strong evangelical orientation and passion for evangelism make his research especially useful for believers who have a heart to see the gospel impact the nations of the world.

 The book includes hundreds of colorful maps, charts, and graphs. Careful study of these by themselves is greatly informative and rewarding, but the information in them is unpacked even more extensively through the accompanying text. Here Johnstone’s warm evangelical faith and careful attention to accuracy come through most emphatically. Most sections of text are accompanied by a sidebar with “Food for Thought” or “Burning Questions for Today” to help readers recognize the relevance of the data to their lives and ministries. Most readers will not sit down and read the book chapter by chapter, as they do most books, since the amount of data is overwhelming. Rather they will want to scan it thoroughly to understand the treasure trove of information it contains, then return to it repeatedly to find accurate, detailed information on both the current state of the global church and the unfinished task of world evangelization.

Johnstone’s orientation is especially valuable to evangelical readers. Many other missiological research tools limit their information to discussion of the number of professing “Christians” and adherents of other religious communities. However, while including this data, Johnstone also uses all available information to include the number of evangelicals in each part of the world. He gives a careful explanation of what he means by “evangelical” and admits that even this definition does not equal the number of truly born-again people around the world; he says that only God knows this detail. Yet by including all available information on the state of evangelicalism, Johnstone allows evangelical readers to assess more accurately where the gospel is currently widely known and accepted and where the greatest need for evangelism remains.

The book is divided into eight sections: Demography, History, Religion, Christianity’s Six “Megablocs,” Renewal Growth by Christianity, Evangelicalism, the Unevangelized, and the Future of Christian Missions.  Section 2 on History is one of this reviewer’s favorite parts of the book: a century-by-century overview of the expansion and contraction of the church around the world. The maps used here are extremely informative and give a clear look at the full global impact of the church through the years. Most Western readers are rather familiar with the history of the Western church—in the Mediterranean basin, Europe, and North America—between earliest times and the nineteenth century. With colorful accuracy and detail Johnstone demonstrates the strength of the church in Asia and Africa through much of its history. Section 5, “Renewal Growth by Christianity,” includes a detailed historical survey of revivals and awakenings in the church over the past three hundred years and is a powerful motivation to pray for God to do a fresh work of renewal.

Section 6 on the state of worldwide evangelicalism and section 7 on the unevangelized are especially helpful for those planning missionary outreach. Section 6 helps readers understand that many parts of the world traditionally considered “Christian” have few true believers in Christ and are in desperate need of pioneer evangelism and church planting. Section 7 has a number of strengths, particularly Johnstone’s examination of the peoples of the world through the lens of “Fifteen Affinity Blocs” and the larger people clusters that are within these blocs. This shows how thousands of people groups in the world are gathered and where the greatest needs are. Unfortunately the limited availability of accurate data on evangelicals among these people clusters means that in this section Johnstone is forced to use two different definitions for “unevangelized.” In places where data for evangelicals among people groups is limited, his maps, charts, and graphs only compare the percentage of professing “Christians” in an area. Fortunately, in the text that accompanies these visual tools, Johnstone usually explains where Christian faith is alive and biblically based and where it is largely nominal and in need of fresh evangelism. Another strength to this section on the unevangelized is the way it weaves together broad, comprehensive coverage of the Affinity Blocs with a more careful, detailed examination of selected needy areas (e.g. Sumatra, the Horn of Africa, Nigeria) within the blocs.

Johnstone’s characteristic optimism about the state of the worldwide church does not blind him to global realities. He recognizes nominalism and immaturity, even among evangelicals, where it exists, soberly analyzes the present state of the church, and expresses cautious, well-grounded expectations for the coming decades. The title of the book might lead readers to expect that the focus is on projecting the future, and Johnstone does make careful (usually very conservative) projections about the growth and stagnation of the church in different parts of the world over the coming four decades. But his major emphasis is in understanding the past and the present so that readers can fully engage in prayer and involvement in what God Himself will do in the future.

Sample pages from the book are available at the book’s website (www.TheFutureOfTheGlobalChurch.org), and a limited number of the book’s maps, charts, and graphs are available at the website to freely download in Power Point format. An ebook version of the entire book is also available for purchase in pdf format at the website. The publishers have promised that a DVD-ROM version of the book will soon be available with all of the book’s resources in Power Point. This will be a valuable tool for public presentations of the book’s data.

This is a book that anyone interested in the world Christian movement will want to have. Pastors and others with any significant responsibility for their churches’ missions programs will want to become especially familiar with it, and should refer to it often in gauging where their churches should focus their global missional attention. Church libraries will want to own a copy to give interested laypersons accurate information on the state of the global church and world needs. Missionaries will find it useful as backup material for presentations of their own specific locations and ministries. Any believer who wants to be well-informed and awed by what God is doing around the world will enjoy frequently picking up and dipping into The Future of the Global Church. 

—Stephen J. Strauss

April 1, 2013
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2013 vol. 170 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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