Does global Christianity equal American Christianity (an interview with Mark Noll)-CT

No one doubts that American Christianity has had a profound effect on the shape of world Christianity. It’s figuring out the exact nature of that influence that still requires investigation and fresh thinking.

Christianity Today’s David Neff interviews Mark Noll author of The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP). Book excerpts are available on-line.

PDF Introduction »
PDF 2 The New Shape of World Christianity »

What have been the most common misunderstandings of the influence of American Christianity in overseas missions?…

You argue that we need to study American-style Christianity if we’re trying to understand indigenous Christianity in other cultures. Why?

Much of the world is coming to have social structures like those in which Christian faith grew in the United States. That social structure is after Christendom. The development of Christian communities in the U.S. was the first large-scale effort to found, establish, guide, and nurture Christian communities after Christendom.

… Under Christendom, colonizing powers sometimes tried to keep their missionaries away from the indigenous people. Take, for example, the British in India.

Yes, missionaries were seen as disruptive. It was not just that they messed with local religions, but also, if missionaries were successful, new Christians would want self-determination, and that would be hard to control.

India, of course, is hugely complex, but what was going on with the Catholics in the 16th century and with Protestants from the 18th century on was indigenization. Indian Christians tried to demonstrate to their fellow citizens that Christianity could be an Indian religion.

What elements of American-style Christianity are appearing elsewhere?

The American tendency has been to see authority as self-created rather than inherited; to read the Bible for oneself rather than just to accept biblical interpretation from others; to create organizations to meet a need rather than simply to inherit organizations; to empower laypeople, first laymen and then laywomen, as opposed to being super-clerical; and to use the forces of the market for the church rather than to worry about the forces of the market. The American tendency has been populist, and sometimes democratic, rather than aristocratic.

Another way churches in other countries have become like America is that they’ve become missionary-sending bodies.

You see that most notably in Nigeria, Brazil, and South Korea. But Northeast India sends many cross-cultural missionaries to the central part of India. Many African Christian communities now do missions work elsewhere in Africa. But then also, and this is a wonderful reversal, back to London, back to France, and back to the United States. It is mostly to diaspora communities, but increasing in a general sense as well.

The big geopolitical reality is that the Western imperial era did not last very long. It lasted roughly from the last third of the 19th century to 1960. All of us who came of age during that period felt that there was something natural about Western control of the world, but that was just a short time. In our post-imperial situation, it’s easier for missions theory and missions practice to relate to local conditions and to realize that no one size is going to fit all people.

Years ago I attended a meeting of missiologists from 30 countries. It rapidly turned into 29 countries versus America. They criticized U.S. missions for being too technique oriented, too concerned about measurable results, and too concerned about getting the maximum return on missions investment. Are those aspects of American Christianity going to spread?

I put in the book a wonderful comment that I first read in an Andrew Walls book, a comment from Kanzo Uchimura in the 1920s. He said Americans are great people but they just don’t understand religion. They have to count everything. But certainly some of the strong mission groups active in the world today—maybe Nigerians, maybe Koreans—would have something of that same desire for technique and counting…

How has missions strategy changed over the decades, in America and abroad? …

Does this shift have something to do with the rise of the church-growth movement in Southern California in the 1970s?…

American missionary efforts today are mostly the work of evangelical denominations and interdenominational agencies. How does that shape missions strategy today?

One of the things I’m most encouraged by in modern American missions history is how sophisticated the evangelism-minded groups have become. Sophisticated cultural analysis is now proceeding alongside a strong evangelism missions mandate. The 19th-century missionary pioneers in the U.S. were quite sophisticated in understanding culture and cross-cultural communications, compared to their own day and age. At the height of the imperial era, by contrast, say 1880—1950, there was a serious decline in cultural awareness and sensitivity in all the groups. But since World War II, there’s been a strong awareness among everybody, including the strongly evangelistic groups, of the need for language training and cultural understanding, as well as for gospel urgency.

Read the whole interview here.

A couple of thoughts:

On his last point, I’m sure cultural awareness has increased, and I know a lot of missions are doing more training in this area, and it varies from place to place/person to person, but on a more general level, I’m not sure how sophisticated our cultural understandings are—especially about getting at deeper, worldview levels of cultural thinking. A lot of the missionaries I see and the gospel they present still tends to come in pretty Western cultural packaging.

On an earlier point, I’m surprised to read, “Another way churches in other countries have become like America is that they’ve become missionary-sending bodies.” Imagine yourself as a European, for example, reading that statement. How many of our famous missionary biographies are about Americans? (Just for fun, name a famous American missionary 😉 The church as missions sending agency is as old as the church itself. But I suppose Americans and their historians are happy to take credit for it. The same probably applies to the point he makes about the relationship of missions to democratic thinking. Couldn’t we just as easily attribute all these attributes to the outflows of the Reformation?

From this interview it seems to me like this book will be a very America-centric reading of world Christianity through the eyes of an American church historian who I happen to highly respect. But I should read the whole book (which I don’t have) before passing these kinds of judgments. Maybe all he’s saying is that, as a scholar who has studied American church history all his life and who is now—thanks to the growing popularity of the topic of global Christianity—looking out at the rest of the world, he is seeing a lot of parallels (though he seems to want to say more). What does this say about how our environments and lenses shape the way we see the rest of the world? What does that say about the ways American Christianity sees the rest of the world? (We are the leading paradigm makers?)

In the PDF Introduction, Noll writes.

Its focus is on Christianity in the United States, but

against the background of the world. For that purpose, it is vital to understand how “American Christianity” developed out of European experience, how it was transplanted to the new world, and then how it absorbed distinctive traits from the course of American experience. But the point of this book is not primarily to shed light on the history of Christianity in North America. It is, rather, to address the question of what American Christianity means for the worldwide Christian community. How, in other words, should responsible participants and observers understand the role of American Christianity in the great recent transformations of world Christianity? What has been, is and should be the relationship between Christian development in North America and Christian development in the rest of the world?…

… The book’s major argument is that Christianity in its American form has indeed become very important for the world. But it has become important, not primarily because of direct influence. Rather, the key is how American Christianity was itself transformed when Europeans carried their faith across the Atlantic. The American model rather than American manipulation is key…I am suggesting that how Americans have come to practice the Christian faith is just as important globally as what Americans have done. (page 11&12).

…Without denying a substantial American influence in the world, however, I will stress the advantage of seeing the newer regions of recent Christian growth as following a historical path that Americans pioneered before much of the rest of the Christian world embarked on the same path (14).

… The central section—chapters four through seven—develops the argument that American form rather than American influence has been the
most important American contribution to the recent world history of Christianity

…[re: the third section] Its goal is to draw spiritual and historical lessons from the interactions of American Christianity and world Christianity.

…[re: the chapter on the East African Revival] Its main point is to ask why, if so many features of this revival seem so directly related to features of American (and European) church life, it should be considered an indigenous expression of African Christianity.(17)

In response to this last statement, on the one hand, I agree with Noll. On the other, these outward expressions don’t necessarily show the underlying resonance with traditional African worldviews—at least more so than other manifestations of church.

Overall, this book seems to me to be one of those strange scenarios where I see someone arguing against something—the importance of direct American influence in global Christianity—by standing on essentially the same ground and simply shifting the focus slightly.

Previous Christianity Today articles by Mark Noll or about global Christianity include:

Early Returns Are Mixed | Global evangelicals don’t necessarily vote like American evangelicals. (July 1, 2008)

Turning the World Upside Down | The coming of global Christianity. (March 1, 2002)

It’s a Small Church After All | Globalization is changing how Christians do ministry. (November 6, 1998)

PS: I should start a collection of these “the significance of the shift in global Christianity” paragraphs by different writers:

But today—when active Christian adherence has become stronger in Africa than in Europe, when the number of practicing Christians in
China may be approaching the number in the United States, when live bodies in church are far more numerous in Kenya than in Canada,
when more believers worship together in church Sunday by Sunday in Nagaland than in Norway, when India is now home to the world’s largest
chapter of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, and when Catholic mass is being said in more languages each Sunday in the United States than ever before in American history—with such realities defining the present situation, there is a pressing need for new historical perspectives that explore the new world situation (page 10 of The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP).)

Quotes from Chapter PDF 2 The New Shape of World Christianity » tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.