How Historical Events Have Impacted the Christian Church – Part 6 of 7: World War 2

The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History

Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it.  In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.

In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.

This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.

World War 2

20th Century (1945-2020)

Christian Crusade at Yankee Stadium in New York City with Billy Graham

World War 2 had a direct impact on the United States from December 7, 1941 through September 2, 1945. Approximately 16.5 million American men and women participated in the war effort and the domestic home front was one of sacrifice and fear. The ending of the war did not bring a lasting peace as a cold war emerged and young men were drafted into the military and sent to areas in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. On the home front, returning soldiers married and the United States was overwhelmed with the births of babies (Baby Boomers). As a result, churches organized social events for families and summer educational programs for children.

The impact of World War 2 provided a climate for the expansion of the Christian religion with the building of new churches, an increase in church membership, mega-churches, and an interest in studying the Holy Bible. This movement was supported by the evangelism of Billy Graham and the leadership of churches in combatting segregation and social injustice. Protestant and Roman Catholic churches used folk music to bring people into their churches.

Unfortunately, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches faced challenges that began in the 1960s regarding the role of women in the church, contraception, abortion, secularism, and the literal interpretation of the Holy Bible. As a result of these internal debates among clergy and scholars, many denomination churches split, which resulted in declining membership. The traditional or conservative groups within these churches identified with the basic teachings of Jesus, literal interpretation of the Bible, and conservative values. The liberal groups within these churches endorsed ecumenism, acceptance of homosexuals, women as clergy, and a Pentecostal or emotional structure to worship.

A major change in Roman Catholic churches began in 1947 with the encyclical Mediator Dei issued by Pope Pius XII who stressed the importance of the participation of the people in liturgical worship. The reforms began to be introduced in 1965 with a new order of service and worship in the language of the people. Another change was that the Roman catholic Church offered both elements of bread and wine to members.  Many Protestant churches began to distribute Holy Communion in individual cups instead of the common cup, which was the practice since the first century, as a result of the fear of contagious viruses (HIV) and the changing demographics of congregations.

In the second half of the 20th century women became more involved with education after high school, employment, and delaying decisions about marriage. Divorce rates increased to 50% of American households, communities became more mobile, and immigrant populations increased significantly as a result of the 1964 Immigration and Naturalization act. Although this provided new opportunities for the church to minister to different populations, it was difficult for denominational churches to relate to Spanish, Japanese, and Indian populations while they had some success with Korean and African populations.

Churches applied innovations with contemporary music, national gatherings, social ministry in the community, providing pre-schools and day care, television ministries, and sports programs.

How can the Christian Church today regain the popularity it experienced in the years following World War 2?

How effective are the decisions to modernize the Christian Church with new forms of liturgy, music, and changing with the times?

Are there changes the Christian Church could have taken to address the diversity of populations in America and Europe and the changes within the family.


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