WutBoun 09-11-175

Boundless Faith

The Global Outreach of American Churches


Robert Wuthnow

University of California Press, 2009, 345 pp.  ISBN 978-0-520-25915-7



Wuthnow is the Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University.  He utilized a comprehensive survey and hundreds of interviews to understand how American Christianity is involved in the larger world.  He suggests that three widely held assumptions are false (as of 2008): 

1.    American Christianity has not withdrawn from the wider world: it is more engaged than ever before. 

2.   Local congregations have not turned completely inward: nearly all are involved in some kind of international ministry. 

3.    Evangelical Christianity does not guide American foreign policy in imperialistic ventures: it is much more involved in criticizing foreign policy than shaping it.



“International communication, including actually spending time in other countries, is one of the key factors driving the globalization of American Christianity.”  “Nearly two-thirds (62%) of active church members in the United States have traveled or lived in another country.” (3)  “Even through few Americans donate more than 1 or 2 percent of their income to religious causes, the nation’s affluence and its large percentage of churchgoers make it possible for U.S. Christians to play an important role in the wider world.” (5) 


Chapter 1.  At Home and Abroad

Congregations are overwhelmingly local.  Numeric growth is the premier sign of success.  And churchgoers are very consumerist. Many factors encourage retreat into local programs.  However, Americans have great capacity, giving $3.7 billion for overseas ministries (less than 5% of total church income). 


Chapter 2.  The Global Christianity Paradigm

There is a popular notion that the Global South is now the main driving force in Christianity and the U.S. has little influence.  The U.S. has about 10% of the world’s Christian population.  However a significant share of Christianity’s financial and organizational resources remains in the U.S. and Europe.


Chapter 3.  Four Faces of Globalization

The U.S. and the wider world are becoming more closely linked culturally, economically, and politically.  More than a half million foreign students are enrolled at U.S. universities.  Baywatch is translated into 33 languages and distributed in 140 countries.


A global monoculture is spreading, increasing the opportunities for mutual influence.  English is spreading as folk languages erode.  Consumer products spread easily, suggesting that American religious messages may also circulate with increasing facility.  Many indigenous religions are being replaced with more global ones.  Diversity is also increasing, responding with local variations to international input.  Globalization provides greater opportunities for direct links between people in different countries and helps facilitate ties between U.S. Christians and communities in other countries. 


Chapter 4.  The Evolution of Transnational Ties

The two central challenges to endeavors elsewhere are distance and difference.  The West has developed missionary sending structures, “the first large-scale transnational corporations.”  “The connections between people of faith in the United States and the rest of the world are organized ties that draw on patterns of coordination and control that leaders have devised and improved upon over the past two centuries.” (139)


A Presbyterian leader said, ‘Everybody wants to get on a plane and go overseas and solve people’s problems.  Gosh, what a headache!’  “She says their ideas usually show little understanding of people’s needs or of programs that actually work.  As she sees it, the challenge is harnessing this volunteer energy without letting it interfere with the board’s professional efforts.” (129) 


“Humanitarianism does not so much replace evangelism as evangelism becomes redefined as showing Christian love through humanitarian work.” (135) 


Chapter 5.  The Global Role of Congregations

Hunger and Relief.  76% of churches took an offering in the past year for hunger or relief.  Relief efforts are becoming more diverse, longer term, and helping self-sustaining efforts.  Many congregations help resettle refugees locally.  93% of church members think their church should emphasize the suffering in Africa from hunger, AIDs, and other diseases. 


Sponsoring Missionaries.  74% say their congregation supports a missionary in another country.  In congregations over 2000, nearly half have a missions or overseas outreach committee.  84% think their own congregation should emphasize the work of Christians and Christian organizations in other countries.  We found U.S. churches heavily involved in overseas ministries in innovative ways.  Congregations increasingly rely on personal contacts overseas.  Most church leaders see missions and humanitarian work as complementary. 


Peacemaking and Concerns about War.  Far fewer congregations are involved than in overseas missions and humanitarian relief.  War and peace are seen as political concerns.


Religious Freedom.  Probably fewer than 25-30% of congregations are involved.  Some say this is best handled by specialized organizations.


Transcultural Congregations. Some congregations are far more transculturally engaged than others. 


“Mark’s Great Commission teaching of taking the gospel to all people is alive and heeded in transcultural churches.  To be a Christian means sharing the gospel, and this responsibility entails a global as well as a local commitment. …  An emphasis on missions encompasses and extends beyond specific international programs.  It defines the central purpose of the congregation, providing the rationale for all its activities, whether these are the children’s ministry, a men’s fellowship group, or the choir.  As the pastor of an African American congregation in Illinois explains, ‘We don’t look at it as the work of the missions department but as the basic mission of our church to go out to the nations and make disciples.  This is what God commanded us to do.’ … A seamless connection exists between these activities and everything else the congregation does.” (163) 


About 18% of churches, mostly larger ones, have a staff member with special responsibilities for overseas missions or global ministries.  About 40% have a missions committee.  Being involved with missionaries appears to be the most distinguishing feature of a church truly committed to transcultural ministry.  Another mark is having a leadership strategy. 


Sending People Abroad.  The Southern Baptists send more than 150,000 members annually on mission trips.  Saddleback sends about 4,500 each year.  About 12% of active churchgoers who were in high school youth groups since 2000 have gone overseas on a mission trip.  About 100,000 churches have sent a group to another country in the past year.  Short-term volunteers contribute about 30,000 person-years annually.


Return on Investment.  Americans spend about $1.6 billion annually on short-term mission trips, about half the amount spent on all other U.S. mission programs combined.  “More than four million of the world’s poorest people could live on that amount for a full year.”  (180)  The proponents of mission trips “concede that these programs often benefit those who go…more than those being assisted in other countries.” (180)  “Pastors worry that the trips sometimes become ends in themselves instead of springboards for wider service.” (181)


“The vast majority of U.S. congregations are still intensely interested in international ministries and developing innovative ways of partnering.”  (185)  “Transcultural programs are in many ways producing a flat earth among Christians….” (186)


Chapter 6.  Faith and Foreign Policy

Christian groups are exercising increasing influence in U.S. foreign policies.  It is quite limited but not insignificant.  Beliefs about freedom in Christ lead naturally to emphasis on international religious freedom.  Religious groups can eagerly embrace human rights. 


Chapter 7.  The Challenges Ahead

Three widely held assumptions are false:  1.  American Christianity has withdrawn from the wider world.  2.  Local congregations have imploded.  3.  Evangelical Christianity guides American foreign policy in imperialistic ventures.  On the contrary, “American Christianity is more engaged in the wider world than ever before.”   “Nearly all U.S. congregations are involved in some kind of international ministry….”  (235)  Christianity is much more involved in criticizing foreign policy than shaping it.


Four factors contribute to the increasing global engagement of U.S. Congregations: 1) shrinking distances, 2) cultural flattening of the world, 3) the strength of U.S. based international faith-based humanitarian and relief agencies, and 4) grassroots energizing activities of local congregations. 


Five challenges:

1. Balancing the local and global involvement of congregations. Congregational dynamics are “strongly tilted toward a nearly exclusive emphasis on local activities.”  The center of gravity is within.


2. Balancing service and spirituality.  “The social pressures to emphasize service rather than evangelism…are quite powerful.  Given the prevailing ethos of tolerance in the United States, it seems quite wrong to confront a devout Muslim or Hindu about his or her need to believe in Jesus, whereas no questions would be raised about giving a starving Muslim or Hindu a meal.  Beyond these cultural norms, more mundane matters also come into play.  A missionary intent on evangelism probably has to raise small donations from friends and family, whereas a humanitarian relief worker is likely to be employed by a large international organization that takes in millions in private contributions and government contracts.  In addition, the missionary may be prevented by local laws from making converts, while the humanitarian worker is likely to be welcomed with open arms by local officials.  The question for Christian organizations, therefore, is how to follow the path of least resistance and yet preserve something distinctly Christian.  Not surprisingly, a popular solution to this dilemma is to redefine service as evangelism” (242)


3. “Doing For” versus “Partnering With”


4. The Historical Legacy.  We have made mistakes in the past.  We will make mistakes in the future.  The key is to learn from the mistakes of the past. 


5. The Conscience of the Nation

America is declining economically because of high expenditures and politically because of short-term self-interest over long-term collective reason.  Religious communities have a role to play as the conscience of the nation to help the needy in other countries when there is no economic incentive to do so and to point out the social and moral costs of foreign policies such as free trade or military intervention.  Being faithful is sometimes better than being effective.  Conscience necessitates being steadfast. 




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