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INTRODUCTION: TWO THEATERS AND CHALLENGES TO THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
According to the eminent historian of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith, people in the modern West are inclined to think of religions as discrete, static, self-enclosed entities. On this view, Christianity and Islam, for example, are rather thought of as parallel lines that do not really change over time or intersect with each other in space. Smith argues that it would be better to regard “religions” as complex, dynamic combinations of both faith (the personal dimension, focused on human beings) and cumulative tradition (the impersonal dimension, focused on things such as texts, history, etc.) that interact with one another in the world and subtly change over the course of history. For Smith, multifaceted historical realities such as Christianity are always developing and morphing into new forms, with the result that being a Christian today is very different than it was, say, in the Middle Ages.
In the last century, Christianity has undergone changes that have been profound and wide-ranging. Reflecting a new global consciousness, Christianity changed significantly in two different theaters. In the western world, Christianity began a precipitous decline in power, prestige, and influence as the process of secularization intensified and as westerners became increasingly aware of the existence and significance of the other great religions of the world.