Toward a Global Church History

By Shenk, Wilbert R. | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Toward a Global Church History


Shenk, Wilbert R., International Bulletin of Missionary Research


"The great new fact of our time," as Archbishop William Temple termed it, has been apparent for at least two generations; namely, the Christian church is established on all continents and in virtually all countries. Even now, however, the ramifications of this development are only imperfectly appreciated. In this essay I wish to explore the implications of the geographic extension of the church over the past two centuries for the way we write the history of the church.

In the West, the history of the churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America is generally assumed to be a subcategory of Western mission history. The development of the non-Western churches is indeed intertwined with the modern mission movement. However, the empirical reality of the Christian ecumene at the end of the twentieth century cannot be comprehended adequately through the category of mission history per se - it is considerably more than that. We must recognize that the global extension of the church represents a different kind of history from what church historians in the West usually write and teach. Typically, they produce studies of the settled life of the church in a so-called Christian culture or where the church has existed for a long time. Such studies are predicated on a parochial and institutional view.

We must move beyond the conventional framework, which is governed by the assumption that what happened in the course of Western Christendom is universally normative for Christian history. This assumption has been reinforced by what Theodore H. Von Laue has described as "the world revolution of Westernization," which has seemed to undergird the extension of the Western Christian tradition worldwide in the modern period. Thirty years ago the Dutch scholar A. T. van Leeuwen offered a theological rationale for this emergence.(1) Today we must examine these developments from other angles.

The final report of the 1978 International Association for Mission Studies workshop on the history of mission castigated historians for being "prisoners of their own biases and frames of reference," resulting in inaccurate interpretations.(2) The targets of criticism were Western historians of mission who wrote history from a distorted "metropolitan" viewpoint, secure in their confidence that such an approach was adequate. To overcome such distortion it was urged that church history be written from many perspectives.

What is needed today are historical studies that trace the founding of the church in those places where it was not present before, paying particular attention to the nature of the initial insertion and the issues it raised. Furthermore, we need to trace the historical development of each local church and its multiple relationships, ranging from the local to the global. We must regard church histories that treat only the local, or even only the national, as incomplete. Finally, we will seek a synthesis that brings the many local expressions of the church into global relationship. We are at the point where every Christian community ought to be able to perceive and affirm its relationship with every other Christian community around the globe.

In this article I review scholarly developments, mainly since 1945, that have contributed to new understandings of ecclesial historiography. I then explore the need for a model for historical work that takes the global church, as it has emerged since the nineteenth century, as the most appropriate framework for historical investigation and interpretation.

A Changed Ecclesial Reality

In order to gain clear perspective on our subject, it is useful to examine what has happened over the past century and a half to a particular ecclesiastical tradition. For this purpose I review my own Mennonite and Brethren in Christ community. Four sets of data outline in broad strokes the state of Mennonite/Brethren in Christ reality as of the mid nineteenth century, the process of expansion up till the present, and the current situation as measured in terms of membership. …

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