Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches
University of California Press, 2009
360 pp., $85.00
The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith
Mark A. Noll
IVP Academic, 2009
212 pp., $25.00
Still, Wuthnow does not seem to fully grasp what happens in exchanges like the one I had in Chennai. True, I may have possessed a reservoir of cultural power that my counterparts did not. But the essential experience I had there, and have had all over the world, was one of a peer relationship with a well-trained (indeed, better-trained), well-informed (indeed, better-informed) fellow leader. Wuthnow, whose dominant lens for understanding Christian internationalism is relief and development work, seems to assume that most of the time, when Americans carry their boundless faith abroad, it is in the posture of donors and general contractors addressing urgent needs with their technical know-how and superior resources. And no doubt that is exactly how many American Christians perceive and carry themselves. But Wuthnow may underestimate the transformative power of finding, upon arrival in a foreign land, that our fellow Christians are not solely or primarily the desperately needy people of fundraising appeals, but resourceful, even masterful, leaders, entrepreneurs, educators, pastors, and executives, as well as fellow pilgrims whose spiritual depth and integrity puts ours to shame.
If the slippery metaphor of a "changing center of gravity" means anything, it is that the words and deeds of a new group of people are carrying weight with others, altering their sense of possibility and shaping their agendas. To be sure, there is still a dramatic imbalance of power between "the West and the rest." But that may be shifting more quickly than Wuthnow imagines.
Mark Noll's great contribution in The New Shape of World Christianity is to offer a provocative explanation of how that shift in energy and influence may happen. Noll implicitly dissents from both the idea of a surging non-Western movement that will soon eclipse Western-style Christianity (though he draws appreciatively on Jenkins' and others' work), and from a Wuthnow-style emphasis on the dominance of American churches and institutions (though he carefully examines the ongoing scale of American Christian internationalism). He suggests that emerging global Christianity will look strikingly like American evangelicalism in its heyday because it is arising in cultural, political, and economic settings that resemble the conditions where American evangelicalism thrived.
This is a novel and remarkable argument. Consider the success of Campus Crusade for Christ's "Jesus Film" (which gets only one sentence in Wuthnow's book, reflecting his greater emphasis on relief and development efforts than evangelistic ones). Noll argues that this produced-in-America, funded-in-America, and distributed-from-America project is by no means simply an example of successful American religious quasi-colonial domination (past or present). Nor is its widespread use and dissemination around the world by indigenous Christian leaders simply a sign of their growing missionary zeal and sophistication (though Noll rightly calls into question the patronizing colonial narrative that would ignore the role of indigenous Christian leaders in deciding whether, and how, to use this American cultural production). Rather,
the Jesus Film illustrates not just American influence and not just local agency in responding to (or rejecting) the film but also a type of Christian appeal matched to contemporary circumstances. In turn, this appeal is similar to the type of Christian appeal that became so formative in the United States during a period when it was marked by social and cultural developments that paralleled what many societies are experiencing in the world today.
Or, as Noll puts it later,
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 shaped world Christianity.
In other words, as emerging economies and nation-states go through the kinds of upheavals that America itself went through when it was (not so long ago!) an emerging economy and nation-state, American-style evangelicalism will be likely to appear, and to appeal. But not American-dominated evangelicalism—rather, a style of Christian faith that American evangelicals will quickly recognize as their own, even as they have relatively little direct influence on, let alone control over, the forms it takes in local settings around the world. This is precisely the kind of humbling recognition I experienced in Chennai: an encounter with a faith I instinctively found familiar, yet one fully embodied in its local context and demanding a new kind of partnership.