Over the weekend I read a recent work by Mark Noll, the eminent historian now universally considered to be THE dean of American religious history. He writes more in one year that I will likely do in my lifetime, and his insights are helping to shape the field.
This weekend’s read was 2009’s The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith. He argues that modern global Christianity, while in some ways owing a lot to American religion, is not about American forms of control. World Christianity is taking shape in ways that are reminiscent of the United States, but this is only because we have provided influence and a model for its development in similar historical, economic, and social circumstances. Essentially a rejoinder to those who too callously assume the United States has desires for empire behind every action or too piously praise the United States for every positive religious development around the world, Noll insists that world Christianities have a culture and integrity all their own.
In some way this is a rather academic debate. More interesting , perhaps, are some of his statistics regarding the global state of Christianity in the early 21st century (Noll, 20-21):
- This past Sunday more Presbyterians were at church in Ghana than in Scotland, and more were in congregations of the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa than in the United States.
- This past Sunday there were more members of Brazil’s Pentecostal Assemblies of God at church than the combined total in the two largest U.S. Pentecostal denominations, the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ in the United States.
- This past Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church…in Seoul, Korea than attended all the churches in significant American denominations like the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Covenant Church or the Presbyterian Church in America.
- And for several years the world’s largest chapter of the Jesuit order has been found in India, not in the United States, as it had been for much of the late twentieth century.
Noll’s assertion that as much as one quarter of all Christians can be considered Pentecostal (Noll, 76) should also give us room for pause.
In many ways, this is not news. Philip Jenkins has been talking about it for almost a decade, and there have been signs everywhere. But it is striking. Global Christianity is changing, and with it Christianity itself. While the money and power remain in the hands of the global North, the global South has a power all its own.
While as a Pentecostal believer and scholar of the movement I am somewhat heartened by these developments, they also make me realize how these burgeoning changes have rendered much of my American and Euro-centric historical and theological studies relative curiosities. Adapting as a scholar and a Christian in this new world will involved more than a little humility. But with it, I hope, a healthy measure of joyous fellowship as well.