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Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches
Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches
Robert Wuthnow
University of California Press, 2009
360 pp., 85.00

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Andy Crouch

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World Christianity and American churches.

Raise your hand if you believe the following statements are true.

1) In 1970, Christianity was a predominantly Western movement, but by 2000, surging growth in Africa, Asia, and Latin America meant that the majority of Christians lived outside the West.

2) While Christianity in the United States was declining notably in the 1990s in numerical terms, in African countries like Ghana it was growing rapidly to majority status.

3) The number of career missionaries from the West is declining as the church of the "Global South" takes up the mantle of leadership in mission.

It's okay if you found yourself, like an uneasy schoolchild, raising your hand to half-mast, wondering if the teacher was playing a trick on you. Each of these statements represents a widely circulating current of thought. And each of them contains a grain of truth. But each is misleading or outright false:

1) In 1970, 49 percent of Christian adherents already lived outside the West, so it would be misleading to say that Christianity even then was a "predominantly" Western religion.

2) Christianity has been astonishingly durable in the United States for many decades, including in the 1990s. Perhaps more surprisingly, 95 percent of the growth of Christianity in Ghana in the 1990s was simply the result of population growth, not a dramatic shift in religious affiliation. In fact, most of the remarkable growth, percentage-wise, in Ghana and other parts of Africa happened in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The strength of Christianity in these countries today actually comes from consolidating its institutional strength as it becomes a second- and third-generation phenomenon, not from ongoing dramatic levels of conversion.

3) The United States is sending out more missionaries than it ever has before, and they still far outstrip the numbers arriving in the United States from the Global South. And this does not even account for the explosion in American short-term mission volunteers, whose numbers may approach two million per year.

Both Robert Wuthnow's and Mark Noll's new books puncture a number of commonplaces about global Christianity and America's place in it, although they do so from notably different angles. Wuthnow is an eminent sociologist of religion who possesses a formidable capacity for memory and analysis combined with an abundance of research assistants. He synthesizes a vast amount of background reading, original research, and reinterpretations of standard datasets to survey the ways American Christians currently relate to the wider world.

One of Wuthnow's stated aims in Boundless Faith is to refute what he calls the "Global Christianity paradigm," a narrative of Western Christian decline and Southern ascent that has given rise to many of the hasty conclusions summarized above. (Inevitably, Wuthnow finds the source of this paradigm in Philip Jenkins' influential book The Next Christendom, though Jenkins does not focus nearly as much on Western decline as readers of Wuthnow might be led to believe.) Wuthnow musters evidence from far and wide to push back strongly against the idea that the United States is a fading force in global Christianity. To the contrary, wherever his sociologist's gimlet eye turns, whether to sources of funds, centers of theological education, or activities of local church members, he finds continued American activity and influence, and in many ways he finds that American Christians may be more internationally minded than they have ever been.

It is not sufficient to declare that the sheer numbers of global Christianity are shifting "southward." With typically patient precision, Wuthnow points out just how complex and unstable are the categories of "West," "North," etc., and how difficult it is to pin down exactly what is meant when we refer to the "Global South." Can Latin American Christianity, which many North Americans would reflexively include among the emerging centers of Christian strength, really be an example of a "southward" shift when Catholicism has been the dominant religion there for five centuries?

Even granted the new demographic profiles of Christian adherence, when the preponderance of finances, institutions, and technological expertise remains in a handful of "Western" countries, we can legitimately question whether the "center of gravity" of Christianity has shifted. I remember having a fascinating and challenging conversation with a theological educator in Chennai about the shifting nature of ethnic and national identity in postcolonial India, and realizing that he would greatly enjoy and benefit from talking with a pastor I had met in Kenya a few years before. Aside from the facts that the conversation was in English, and that both men had received their theological training in the United States, I suddenly realized that were the two ever to have the opportunity to meet, they might well find it most convenient to connect on flights through Europe in order to do so. Among the three of us, "non-Westerners" outnumbered the Westerner by two to one, but in the realm of cultural power I held a decided, if entirely unearned, advantage.

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.

Thanks to our social and cultural dynamism and our historically welcoming posture toward immigration (which one hopes will weather the occasional gusts of nativism just as it has in the past), the United States continues to be, perhaps more than any other "Western" nation, a place where "conversionist, voluntarist, entrepreneurial" Christianity can thrive. You can find that Christianity in storefront churches and in megachurches, in newly diverse small cities and suburbs as well as in crowded urban centers, in the dominant culture as well as among newly arrived ethnic minorities. Increasingly its leaders will have connections to fellow leaders in similar settings around the world, and they will be learning from one another. Which could mean that not only will global Christianity continue to look surprisingly American, but that American Christianity, confounding the rumors of its decline or demise, will turn out to be part of the "next Christendom" after all.

Andy Crouch, a senior editor at Christianity Today International, is the executive producer of Round Trip, a documentary film on short-term missions.

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