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Christianity’s southward shift demands new history


When Communists expelled missionaries from China in the mid-20th century, many Westerners feared this would be the end of Christianity in that nation.
But in a recent interview with Christianity Today, historian Mark Noll suggests that this may have been the birth of Chinese Christianity.
“Even though there was tremendous suffering and momentous persecution, what was left was Chinese Christianity, and Chinese Christians knew how to do the gospel in China without the missionaries,” Noll said.
Now researchers estimate the number of practicing adherents of Christianity in China may be approaching that of the U.S. How will these new Chinese adherents write their history?
Christianity is growing at a tremendous rate worldwide, yet it is declining in the U.S. If it is true that history is written by the survivors, where will tomorrow’s history of Christianity be crafted, and how will it differ from what we consider “the facts” today?
“The new world situation for the Christian religion demands a new history of Christianity.” That’s how Noll, Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, begins his latest book, “The New Shape of World Christianity.”
American Christianity created a template for the kind of Christianity now flourishing around the world, Noll writes, and American missionary activity had a great impact throughout the world. But Americans did not dictate or impose the shape of its Christianity on the rest of the globe.
Noll argues that we share the same shape because forces similar to those that transformed European Christianity into its American shape in 19th Century America occurred and continue to occur in other regions of the world. And these “other regions” have influenced the shape of American Christianity, too.
Noll, writing primarily to his fellow evangelical Christians, makes his case convincingly, backing his position with fascinating historical references.
Religion shaped in America, unlike its European parent, was not characterized by formality and state imposition. It was enlivened by voluntary action and by the spirit of the times.
Americans, in general, set aside the pattern of European state churches and “the Christian faith advanced (or declined) and flourished (or decayed) as believers took the initiative to do the work themselves,” Noll writes. As Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out in 1830, religion and freedom were at odds in Europe, but in America they intimately joined and reigned together.
American-shaped Christianity was born in wide-open spaces where it was easier to be independent from central authority. Much of its spread was carried out by entrepreneurs who had more trust in personal interpretations of sacred writings than in inherited positions or in the decisions of the religious hierarchy.
Noll makes brief mention of frontier Restorationists, including Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, who “shared a disillusionment with traditional churches, which they felt were too much constrained by stale European traditions.”
The author also points out many ways America influenced the rest of the world for good and for bad. As nations throughout the world experienced rapid changes in economics, demographics and cultures — changes similar to those seen in the U.S. after independence — the form of Christian faith that most appealed to them was American-shaped. It emphasized conversion, voluntary activity, entrepreneurism and non-denominationalism. What was planted was readily adapted and took on a life of its own. The extent and variety of adaptation are remarkable.
Noll is a historian. He admits he has a hard time defining “syncretism” — the combining of practices from different beliefs. In the Old Testament, this occurred when Hebrews combined worship of Jehovah with worship of Baal. In Christianity, the word commonly refers to communities in less-developed nations that combine the religion of the people who evangelize, colonize or conquer them with their preexisting, traditional beliefs.
It would appear that Noll is more inclined to include such variations of the faith under the umbrella of global Christianity than to accuse anyone of preaching “another gospel,” being led by an unbiblical worldview or having in any way a shape that is displeasing to God.
But in his final chapter, Noll reflects on the need for the gospel to penetrate and transform every culture.
He cites familiar passages in Isaiah, Acts and Revelation to remind us that God has always wanted all the nations to be part of his kingdom.
However history is ultimately written, on these truths we can all agree.
HENRY HUFFARD grew up on the mission field in Africa, was a missionary in Nigeria and served educational institutions in Africa for 24 years. He is senior producer for Africa for World Christian Broadcasting, a Franklin, Tenn.-based nonprofit, and oversees the ministry’s African Pathways Web site at www.africanpathways.org.

Filed under: Reviews Staff Reports

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