Mark Noll, professor at Notre Dame and America’s foremost church historian (or at least close), has a new book called The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, and the book explores how American Christianity has shaped and been shaped by world Christianity. We begin our series today on this book.
We’re interested in voices from outside the USA: What impacts — good and bad — do you see from the USA when it comes to the Church, and how do you see that influence changing? How are your areas developing — adjusting, shifting, rejecting, absorbing — American forms of the Christian faith? Do your conditions summon you to look to similar conditions in American Church history and experience?
The drama of this book has to do with with the massive changes that have occurred in the Church, and the opening chp explores just those issues, beginning with the changes.
If Rip Van Winkle went to sleep in the 1950s and woke up now, he would see massive changes in the Church, and Noll lists a bundle, including the fact that more Chinese attended church last Sunday than all of Christian Europe, that more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than in UK, Canada and USA combined, and that about 50% of churchgoers in London were Africans. He gives others … but the point is the same: massive shifts have occurred. What are the changes?
First, there is a multiplicity of new Christian expressions, and Noll works with Lamin Sanneh to argue that translation of the Bible results in empowerment for the peoples into whose language the Bible is translated. Translation permits conservation of one’s culture, it leads to an irony in that the Bible permeates and the culture also permeates back, the people find liberation when they begin to hear God speak, and translation — leading to empowerment and liberation etc — has to the massive “chaos” of “independent” churches in the world. Translation has created all kinds of diversity.
Second, the material conditions of New World Christianity shapes world Christianity. American Christian expansion took with it American resources, and this led to unequal distribution of those resources. Education institutions are not unilaterally available, missionaries are going in both direction — there are 15,000 in England — and “Christian civilization” is making its impact. He argues that you will find more Christians in Nairobi and more Christian civilization in Stockholm. There are all sorts of challenges in this point.
Third, there are political implications. Colonization (occupied, governed, economically exploited), decolonization creating possibilities, and globalization. And if one considers that the church has become increasingly more orthodox, more supernatural, etc, due to the shifting of the church in numbers to the South and Third World, the future of international relations will become more syncretistic, pentecostal, papal, neo-fundamentalist or starkly supernaturalist. E.g., the Anglican Communion experienced this regarding homosexuality.
Fourth, there are new questions in theology.
How close are the spirits to the everyday world? (World Christianity differs from traditional Western Christianity.)
What is the unit of salvation? The individual (Western tradition) or groups, etc..
How should believers read the Bible, or what hermeneutical lens will be used? And Noll states a few times that the West has used Pauline lenses since the Reformation, but World Christians are not just using that approach.