The New Shape of World Christianity
How American Experience Reflects Global Faith
Mark A. Noll
IVP Academic, 2009, 212 pp., ISBN 978-0-8308-2847-0
Mark Noll is a professor of history at Notre Dame and a noted author who has written broadly from an evangelical perspective. How the American experience of Christian faith is influencing or mirroring the growth of the church in the Majority world is the primary topic. Noll looks at how "American Christianity" developed out of European experience and how it absorbed distinctive traits from America. Then he addresses the question of what American Christianity means for the worldwide Christian community. Is it the determining factor, a major influencer, or coincidental?
Noll writes with an academic audience in mind. Some academic historians see American Christian influence as powerful and negative -- the church and missionaries are tools that serve American political, military and economic self-interest. Therefore (I think) Noll powerfully develops his case with thorough research and extended arguments using a few detailed examples.
What has been the relationship between Christian development in North America and Christian development in the rest of the world? To understand this, consider what happened in the U.S. beginning in the late 18th century where "one of the most successful missionary ventures of all time took place." This occurred through voluntary means. It was a faith that was Bible-oriented, pragmatic, entrepreneurial, self-motivating, middle class, and free-market friendly. All this produced a new style of Christianity with positives and negatives. "American form rather than American influence has been the most important American contribution to the recent world history of Christianity." (15)
2. The New Shape of Christianity
"A few short decades ago, Christian believers were concentrated in the global north and west, but now a rapidly swelling majority lives in the global south and east." (19) "In a word, the Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history…." (21) "The contemporary multiplicity of world Christianity reveals itself in a rainbow of variations throughout the world." (26) The variations arise "because of how deeply the Christian message, fully indigenized in local languages, has become part of local cultures." (27) "Immigration, the modern media, global trade and the ease of contemporary travel have stirred this mixture." "But the multiplicity goes far beyond what any one influence can explain, except the adaptability of the Christian faith itself." (27)
"Colonization, decolonization and globalization all undercut traditionally historic ways of living and thinking…[and] created an openness to new religious perspectives." (31)
3. Nineteenth-Century Evangelical Identity, Power and Culture as Anticipating the Future
"In the last one hundred years, the course of evangelical Christianity has been accelerated and complicated by two notable developments: first, the rise of Pentecostal or charismatic expressions of the faith and, second, the rise of indigenous Christian churches…that are essentially independent." (42)
In the 19th century evangelicalism adapted to a number of cultural currents such as using entrepreneurial market capitalism, proclamation in the public arena, utilizing higher education for evangelical purposes, defending the faith in terms of scientific rationality, making the gospel relevant for the individual, and establishing itself in voluntary, self-regulating associations. (43-4)
4. Posing the Question
"What, in fact, has been the American role in creating the new shape of world Christianity…?" Has it been manipulation, influence, or a shared historical experience? Noll says it is a combination of the second and third, that "they have emerged out of historical circumstances that parallel what Christianity in the United States passed through in its own history." (68)
5. What Does Counting Missionaries Reveal?
Counting missionaries is one aspect of the recent expansion of world Christianity. But "missionary Christianity" sooner or later became "African Christianity" because of "local appropriation of Christianity by local agents for local reasons and in the context of local cultural realities." (78)
"…it is important to stress that American missionary influence increasingly reflects forms of Christian faith that are conversionist, voluntarist, entrepreneurial and nondenominational. To the extent that these forms of Christianity possess an affinity with the rapidly changing economic, demographic, social and cultural character of the world itself, we have a partial explanation for how and why American missionary efforts have helped shape world Christianity." (91) "American missionaries, in other words, have increasingly come to promote a Christian faith that makes it more likely, rather than less likely, for the believers they influence elsewhere to chart their own ways forward." (92)
6 Indictment and Response
The question is "whether missionaries from the U.S. have been principal agents of change or have only filled lesser and supporting roles." (95)
Russian Orthodox Church leaders have complained that an influx of evangelical missionaries after 1990 treated Orthodoxy as infidelity, destroyed authentic Russian patriotism, obtained conversions through money and gifts, and so forth.
Anthropologists have made a wide variety of charges against missionaries, particularly New Tribes Mission and Wycliffe Bible Translators, including acts of aggression against aboriginal groups and cultures, serving as a lackey for American ideology and international capitalism, etc.
It has been fairly easy to expose the ideological biases of some accusers. "But the most compelling apologists for the missionaries have been those who take a broad view of recent world history. They admit that missionaries have often played a key role in integrating indigenous people into wider social, economic and political life." (104) "…the primary agency in recent movement of Christianization has not been the missionaries but the new converts themselves." (106)
7. American Experience as Template
"In recent decades world Christian movements, especially Protestant and independent movements, have come increasingly to take on some of the characteristics of American Christianity. Yet the primary reason for that development is not the direct influence of American Christians themselves. It is rather that social circumstances in many places of the world are being transformed in patterns that resemble crucial ways what North American believers had earlier experienced in the history of the United States (and to a slightly lesser extent in Canada)." (109)
According to Andrew Walls, two developments were particularly significant, the adaptation of Christianity to the liberal social environment and the emergence of the voluntary, self-directed society as the key vehicle for Protestant missionary activity. (111)
Now it takes more churches in the U.S. to send one missionary than from 30 other countries in the world. (117, from Operation World 2001). "Evangelical dynamism in these other churches has replaced, or is replacing, the evangelical dynamism of American churches as the leading edge of world Christian expansion." (118)
"As a believer, I ascribe both the spread and vitality of Christianity around the world to forces intrinsic to the faith itself. Christianity attracts adherents because Christianity is true." It is also easy to see that the inner force of this religion has assumed many different forms in many different cultures. (125)
8. American Evangelicals View the World, 1900-2000
Noll examines three case studies: developments in the U.S., Korean Christianity, and the East African Revival. He shows the parallels in common circumstances and discusses what these movements can learn from the U.S. experience.
"The main point of this book is that American Christianity is important for the world primarily because the world is coming more and more to look like America. Therefore, the way that Christianity developed in the American environment helps to explain the way Christianity is developing in many parts of the world. But correlation is not causation,…their history does not mean that Americans are dictating to the world. It means, instead, that understanding American patterns provides insight for what has been happening elsewhere in the world." (189)
"Once Christianity is rooted in someplace new, the faith itself also takes on something from that new place. Of course, when Christianity is rooted in someplace new, it also challenges, reforms and humanizes the cultural values of that new place." (190)
A common pattern becomes clear for the diversity of Christian expansion. First there is contact with the gospel, often through missionaries. Then there are early efforts at evangelization and human aid, usually from missionaries, but the movement from Christian beachhead to functioning Christian community is almost always the work of local Christians. (195).
Two false notions should be discarded: Western paternal benevolence (that unless Americans do it, it won't get done) and Western hegemonic imperialism whereby American mission agencies are blamed for all the evils of the world.
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