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From Christendom to World Christianity: A Review Essay

Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996. 266 pages; and The Cross- Cultural Process in Christian History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002. 284 pages.
 

An intriguing intramural debate is being waged today among members of the mission studies academy -- a debate about terminology. What is the best phrase to describe the result of revolutionary change in Christian demographics that occurred at the end of the 20th century? This change concerns the center of gravity of Christian adherents in the world. Mission demographers, David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, document in their massive publication (The World Christian Encyclopedia, Oxford, 2001) that by the year 2000 there were more Christians in the southern and eastern hemispheres than in historic Christendom--Europe and North America. Philip Jenkins has highlighted this phenomenon in his work, The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2002), claiming that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the world's Christians will live outside the West by 2050. Shall we refer to this global Christian movement as "world Christianity" or "global Christianity"? By either name 21st century Christianity not only now is firmly established as a world-wide phenomenon but also has become predominantly a non-Western religion.

Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996. 266 pages; and The Cross- Cultural Process in Christian History. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2002. 284 pages.
 

An intriguing intramural debate is being waged today among members of the mission studies academy — a debate about terminology. What is the best phrase to describe the result of revolutionary change in Christian demographics that occurred at the end of the 20th century? This change concerns the center of gravity of Christian adherents in the world. Mission demographers, David B. Barrett and Todd M. Johnson, document in their massive publication (The World Christian Encyclopedia, Oxford, 2001) that by the year 2000 there were more Christians in the southern and eastern hemispheres than in historic Christendom–Europe and North America. Philip Jenkins has highlighted this phenomenon in his work, The Next Christendom (Oxford, 2002), claiming that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the world’s Christians will live outside the West by 2050. Shall we refer to this global Christian movement as “world Christianity” or “global Christianity”? By either name 21st century Christianity not only now is firmly established as a world-wide phenomenon but also has become predominantly a non-Western religion.

No one has interpreted this global shift better than the Scottish historian Andrew Walls. Walls is hailed on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the most respected and insightful scholars of mission history and global Christianity. Working in both Sierra Leone and Nigeria as a Methodist missionary, he began to see striking parallels between the cultural settings of early Christianity and 20th century Africa. He soon articulated ideas about Christianity’s translatability across eras and continents. After his missionary stint in Africa, Walls returned to teach at Aberdeen and Edinburgh. He subsequently founded the Centre for the Study of Christianity in the Non-Western World, which flourishes today in Edinburgh. Walls’ missiological insights have been disseminated through his work as a teacher, mentor, bibliographer and essayist. But now, thanks to Orbis Books, his ideas have been gathered together in two volumes.

Walls’ 1996 volume is a collection of 19 essays titled The Missionary Movement in Christian History and divided into three parts. He first part deals with matters of gospel and culture especially in terms of Christianity’s early centuries. Part Two is devoted to African Christian History and highlights Christianity’s relationship with the primal religious traditions in Africa. Part Three contains essays on diverse topics, such as non-western Christian art, missionary societies and missionary scholars. One essay in this section, “Structural Problems in Mission Studies,” is a must read for all who are engaged in theological studies. Walls contends that “the global transformation of Christianity requires nothing less than the complete rethinking of the church history syllabus” (p. 145). How will Christian thought engage the other religious traditions found throughout the non- Western world? Walls calls for a “renaissance of mission studies” that integrates all the theological disciplines and creates new scholarly tools to understand the expansion of Christian faith.

In Part One, Walls advances one of his most insightful ideas in “The Translation Principle in Christian History.” He asserts that “Incarnation is translation.” “When God in Christ became man, Divinity was translated into humanity, as though humanity were a receptor language” (p. 27). Because God chose translation as his mode of action, all subsequent translations of the faith into various cultures and all translations of the Scriptures into various languages are not only legitimized but also necessary. Translation, according to Walls, is “conversion.” And conversion is not the substitution of something new for something old but a turning or a transformation of the already towards Christ. From this starting point Walls helps us see that the history of Christian mission is the story of successive translations.

His 2002 work, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History, is similarly a collection of essays and articles divided into three parts. Part One describes the process of gospel transmission across cultural boundaries throughout history. Part Two explores aspects of African Christian history. Part Three presents “Vignettes of the Missionary Movement from the West.”

The book opens with an appreciative assessment of Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume masterpiece, A History of the Expansion of Christianity. Walls agrees with Latourette that Christianity’s expansion, in contrast to Islam, is serial in nature; i.e., it grows in one place and diminishes in another. The western missionary movement has been remarkably successful in planting churches in Latin America, Africa and Asia. But as these younger churches flourish, the Gospel faith is eroding in Europe. Increasingly, one sees that Christianity is becoming non-western and the West is becoming non-Christian. Walls concludes that new starting points for writing history and doing theology necessarily will be non-western. “Shared reading of the Scriptures and shared theological reflection will be to the benefit of all, but the oxygen-starved Christianity of the West will have most to gain” (p. 47).

Professor Walls claims presciently that the worldwide Church stands on the threshold of another Ephesian moment; i.e. the social coming together of people of two cultures to experience Jesus Christ. The first such moment featured only two cultures in one church (Jewish and Hellenistic). Today’s Ephesian moment would bring together a church more culturally diverse than ever before, potentially nearer to the “full stature of Christ” that belongs to the summing up of humanity in Christ (pp. 72-81).

So which phrase best captures this multi-cultural church? World Christianity or Global Christianity? Both phrases can claim both precedent and baggage derived from associations with modernism, Enlightenment, empire or globalization. The notion of a geo-political Christianity captured by the term Christendom, however, is no longer useful except as a historical designation. It is a brave new world for Christianity as it flourishes in the global south and declines in the West. New translations of the Christian Gospel are likely to showcase features of the Christian way of life seldom seen or understood in past incarnations. These aspects of 21st century Christianity matter more than we can adequately discern or describe at the moment.

Andrew Walls has said more wise words about this phenomenon than anyone else so far. We can only hope that perhaps one or two more collections of insights and vignettes shall come forth from Professor Walls.

 

RICHARD L. HANEY is interim senior pastor at St. Giles Church, Richmond, Va.

 

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