The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith

Mark A. Noll IVP Academic, Downers Grove, IL May 18, 2009
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If a delegate to the first World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 could have peered into the state of world Christianity in 2010, he would have been stunned. The locus of Christian influence would no longer be Western Europe or even the United States. In fact it would be hard to posit a single locus of influence. Rather he would have seen a Christianity exploding in the global South and widely distributed throughout the continents of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Clearly this would have surpassed the wildest expectations of every delegate participating in the WMC.

Evangelical historian Mark Noll asks, What role did the United States play in shaping the immense growth of world Christianity? He suggests three possible answers: One view asserts that American cultural imperialism produced a Westernized Christianity. Another view moderates the first and suggests that Americans strongly influenced events but did not control them.

Noll embraces a third view best described as the “correlation” versus the “causation” view. Largely following the work of Andrew Walls, Noll suggests that the same historical and sociological conditions that caused American Christianity to prosper in the early nineteenth century are broadly present in the global South. Those historical conditions are five: (1) A lack of government intervention in religious affairs led to a religious free market and healthy competition. (2) A culture of volunteerism allowed Christianity to flourish among lay leaders. (3) A culture of feeding oneself from the Scriptures (as opposed to simply mastering church dogma) led to authentic spiritual growth. (4) A sense that the kingdom of God is bigger than cultural, racial, and political barriers led to confidence in Jesus’ universal mission. (5) Innovations among the middle class led to creativity in outreach. These factors led to a different religious culture in America than the long-standing traditions of European Christendom that fostered state churches, religious elites, and passivity among the laity.

Noll suggests that whenever these five factors have been present throughout the world, Christianity has tended to flourish. And rather than being an Americanized form of Christianity, it is a Christianity tailored to the specific indigenous needs of the culture. Noll gives anecdotes about a diverse Christianity centered on Christ and God’s Word. Noll maintains that “American experience is . . . important for the world not so much as a direct influence but as a template for recent Christian history” (p. 116).

The strength of Noll’s work rests in his expertise in the current literature on global Christian growth (including the works of Philip Jenkins, Andrew Walls, and Lamin Senneh) and his ability to formulate a specific hypothesis that can be tested through quantitative as well as qualitative studies. Noll is also strong in moving from detailed analysis in his case studies back to synthesis. He openly expresses humility and gratitude for the power of the gospel to penetrate cultures.

Several weaknesses in this book may be noted. First, at times Noll seems to embrace two trends common in academia: distancing oneself from American exceptionalism and downplaying the extremely positive influence of American missionaries. In the opinion of these reviewers, writers like Dinesh D’Sousa (What’s So Great about Christianity [Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2008] and What’s So Great about America [New York: Penguin, 2003]) offer an important international perspective that corrects this.

Second, in analyzing the Russian revival in the middle 1990s (pp. 96–97), Noll asserts that American missionaries “wounded” Russian Orthodox clergy through overly aggressive evangelism. They certainly may have felt wounded, but perhaps it was for good reason. One of the reviewers (MacIlvaine) participated in a church-planting movement in the late 1990s and encountered firsthand the persecution of Russian Orthodox clergy who embraced a works-oriented soteriology and flatly rejected the legitimacy of any ecclesiology other than Russian Orthodox. This dominance by religious elites is one of the conditions against which Noll is arguing in his book.

While the breadth of Noll’s analysis of American evangelical perspectives on the development of global Christianity is commendable, his research remains ethnocentrically American. This is in spite of his own warning to his “fellow evangelical Christians” (p. 15). He writes, “It would be foolish to deny a large role both for the United States and for American believers in the recent world history of Christianity. Even more foolish would be to think of American missionaries as the sole, or even the most important, engines driving the churches around the world” (p. 93). Noll’s research could be strengthened by an equally thorough examination of specific case studies assessing archived indigenous records from internationally based evangelical ministries that received support from American missionaries. For example one of the reviewers (Barfoot), having ministered in the Philippines, has observed significant American missionary influence on the establishment and success of several Christian schools in Manila. It would be fascinating to have an account from those native to the Philippines evaluating American influence on world Christianity.

In short, this is an outstanding book and can be profitably read in conjunction with Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming Global Christianity (New York: Oxford, 2007); Lamin Senneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford, 2007); and Micklethwait Wooldridge and Adrian Wooldridge, God Is Back: How the Global Revival of Faith Is Changing the World (New York: Penguin, 2009).

—W. Rodman MacIlvaine III and D. Scott Barfoot

July 1, 2011
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2011 vol. 168 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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