Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.
It is a safe assumption that no lions will ever have their own historians, but there are some historians today that are lionhearted about seeing the Christian world through the eyes of those embracing the faith in massive numbers throughout the non-Western world. The shifted perspective changes most conventional understandings of Christianity today, especially its missiological and historical developments. The term used to describe the academic discipline devoted to discernment and analysis of these happenings is World Christian Studies.
The essence of World Christian Studies is a perspectival paradigm shift, which involves learning to look at Christian history from the other end of things. The proverb above depicts that. Like many others, I have experienced frustration when teaching Church History in Africa thematically arranged as if only North American and European church history ever existed. Call it ethnocentric, and it is, though at the time it was simply because of my ignorance of a larger horizon of understanding, that of the gospel receiver’s view on a worldwide scale. An awakening of sorts happens once we see things from the inside out.
God has been moving since before Creation, always engaging, reaching out, around, and toward. He is, by His own nature, relational, redemptive and—can we even say—missionary? As a result, it is evident that the Christian church exists in some way throughout the world today, and and it has not grown consistently the same but is iterative; it ebbs and flows like a tide with rhyme and rhythm. It flows where He intends to accomplish His ends. Telling the story of that rolling tide, now in flood mode in the non-Western world, is the core task of those engaged in World Christian Studies. It goes beyond transmission of the gospel and delves into the intricacies of translating the gospel into lives hitherto untouched by it among and between a myriad of global peoples. Then again, it latches onto the inmost parts of the human soul in deep level convictions that transform lives. Evangelicals would like to see this degree of Holy Spirit transformation extend through the overflowing processes and retransmit this life-giving germ, extending its reproducing nature.
God has been moving since before Creation, always engaging, reaching out, around, and toward.
Scholarly conversations surrounding World Christian Studies tend to diminish or perhaps overwhelm the more traditional Western conservative, though the non-Western populations that embrace Christ are often doing so with evangelical views of the Bible and the faith. Why the conversational disconnect that recognizes the conservative views of the millions of new adherents while disavowing the same views of their Western counterparts in the processes?
I am an evangelical who is also a conservative that views the Bible as inerrant, which means I enter this conversation applauding the progress of an enlarged perspective that opens up whole new vistas of study regarding burgeoning 21st-century Christianity, especially that of the non-Western world. Yet, there is also a sense of pause. It regards the tether that comes with revealed truth, caused by a normative view of Christian Scriptures, that should have a determinative role over our experiences and our cultures. Can one thread the eye of the needle between such a shift in perspective while maintaining conservative convictions? I think so.
What gives hope that this can and should be done is the simple fact that looking around the world these many years, I conclude that the non-Western church not only exists but that it generally shares a high view of Scripture as well. World Christian Studies writers tend to adopt an ecumenical view and leave issues regarding the idea of normative Scripture and its implications for theological issues unaddressed. Additionally, doctrinal and denominational convictions are generally eschewed and regarded as culturally conditioned forms of Christianity best left in 16th century Europe. Oddly enough, there are many thriving Christians in the non-Western world who appreciate their identity and heritages linking them to the historic churches that came and connected with them in their non-Western settings. While indeed it is now recognized that not all who came did so with the best interest of the hosts in view, many did and were well received.
If the discipline of World Christian Studies shifts our perspective by telling the rest of the story, that of the gospel-receivers, then those same receivers’ distinctions should also be understood, studied, and heard. This is especially so lest an odd form of neocolonialism accrue in Western academia, one that prescribes ways for the non-Western churches to view their vernacular Bibles and downplays bundles of doctrinal distinctions simply because they are also affirmed by denominational partners in the West. If non-Western believers wish to link with those past identities, they should be allowed that opportunity. Otherwise, a vestige of theological colonial practice continues, though from an unusual source.
A Word of Critique Pointing Forward
Syncretism, spoken by one from outside the recipient culture, signals colonialism or ethnocentrism as concluded by World Christian Studies writers. This is largely because of their views and uses of the Bible. Traditional—and yes, formerly predominantly Western—evangelicals define their theology by interpreting the Bible didactically. Lamin O. Sanneh, for example, cites an unnamed African convert mentioned by Robert Moffat in 19th century southern Africa as saying, “… We thought it [the Bible] was a thing to be spoken to, but now we know it has a tongue. It speaks and will speak to the whole world.” With that evangelical perspective, self-theologizing commences.
Contextualization intends to make the teachings of the Bible meaningful and relevant in host cultures while not altering its original teaching. However, ecumenicals disavowed this and mention the Bible only in passing. They tend to view its teachings as dynamically inspired, blended with the languages and cultural constructs already existing within the recipient culture prior to the impact of Christian thinking. That means many indigenous religions, beliefs, customs, and languages, using their own syntax, are set in dialectic tension with incoming biblical truth proposals.
In this scenario, cultural syntax determines the dance, so to speak, between Christ and culture. The tendency within World Christian Studies circles is to recognize that doctrines exist but to see them through the lens of theological relativism and move on to examine cultural transformation processes in motion. Functionally, this is something akin to a theological version of what anthropologists call being a participant observer. Objectivity, observation and analysis without change or challenge to a host culture’s patterns for digesting the new is the optimal result.
When self-theologizing happens, it is often accepted uncritically as self-validating simply because it is born from within. Leslie Newbigin alerts us to the potential of this inconsistency.
The churches of the Third World belong to societies which are struggling to achieve authentic nationhood after a period in which their cultures were overshadowed by the Western invasion. Churches in these countries, or at least some of their Western-educated leaders, are eager to shed the remaining cultural trappings inherited from the Western missionaries, and to prove their truly national character. Churches in the old colonial powers, ridden by feelings of guilt, are eager to apologize for the fact that their presentation of the gospel was so much colored by their culture, that they presented a European or American gospel instead of the pure, unadulterated article, and—for the same reason—are eager to welcome and applaud any expression of Christianity which is authentically Asian or African. Sometimes it seems that it is acceptable, however bizarre, as long as it is clearly not European. Thus we applaud in the younger churches a synthesis of nationalism and Christianity which we deplore in our missionary grandparents.
Balance is advisable. Every human brings to the drama of cross-cultural communication gospel blinders, so to speak, that come with being human and sinful. Collectively, humans in social interaction do not eliminate the taint of sin. Cultures bear the marks of our fallen humanity. Cultures are not amoral or neutral in the contextualization dance. People and cultures are given to flux and flow of every wind of thought. Yet it is the Bible that tethers believers during the gales of life. Contextualization, or self-theologizing without the Bible, can be akin to taking a walk outside a space shuttle without the life preserving tether. It is risky.
With these foundational understandings in place and differences noted; we celebrate the non-Western world’s Christian partners and enter the conversation to understand better their realities and how we in the West can encourage and enhance those developments where invited and feasible. Additionally we can engage missions from new vantage points and with new global Christian needs and ideas in view.
For more information on Southwestern’s Ph.D. in World Christian Studies program, visit http://catalog.swbts.edu/evangelism/doctor-of-philosophy-world-christian-studies/.
Hyung Jin Park, “Journey of the Gospel: A Study in the Emergence of World Christianity and the Shift of Christian Historiography in the Last Half of the Twentieth Century,” PhD Dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, May 2009: 143.
See for example William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. McLean, Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books), 2011; Philip Jenkins, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South, (New York: Oxford University Press), 2008; Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity), 2009; Lamin O. Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity, (New York: Oxford University Press), 2007; and Andrew F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books), 1996.
Lamin O. Sanneh, “Post-Western Wine, Post-Christian Wineskins?” in William R. Burrows, Mark R. Gornik, and Janice A. McLean, Understanding World Christianity: The Vision and Work of Andrew F. Walls, Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011: 101-102.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989: 143. Italics are added for emphasis.