Robert Wuthnow and World Christianity: A Response to Boundless Faith

By Shaw, Mark | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, October 2012 | Go to article overview
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Robert Wuthnow and World Christianity: A Response to Boundless Faith

Shaw, Mark, International Bulletin of Missionary Research

The year 2002 produced two religious monographs that attracted a great deal of public attention. The first was Steve Bruce's God Is Dead: Secularization in the West? His book reflected the mood captured in the Economist in a mock obituary in its millennial issue. God had simply ceased to exist for many Europeans, and it was just a question of time before the rest of the globe caught up. The second notable publication that year took a very different line. Philip Jenkins argued in The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity that, far from heading into retirement, God was busy in the twenty-first century, gaining market share just about everywhere, most visibly in Latin America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. (2) Building on the work of scholars such as Walbert Buhlman, Andrew Walls, Dana Robert, and Lamin Sanneh, Jenkins argued that a major demographic shift had taken place. (3) Christianity's center had now shifted from the Global North to the Global South.

The past decade has been kinder to Jenkins than to Bruce. Even the editors of the Economist published what amounted to a book-length retraction of their earlier God obituary, entitled God Is Back. (4) God was alive and well--and living in Brazil.

Missiology and church history were most affected by this shift, but a whole range of disciplines, from religious studies to political science, sought to understand this new phenomenon. Centers for the study of world Christianity sprang up around the world. New chairs were founded at seminaries and departments of religion in the Global North. New books poured forth from major publishers describing the new shape of Christianity.

It should come as no surprise that the rise of world Christianity as both a perspective and a discipline has met with skepticism on the part of some within the academic community. Serious questions have been raised. More evidence has been demanded.

Joining the ranks of these critics is Robert Wuthnow, Andlinger Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, director of its Center for the Study of Religion, and author of many celebrated studies of American religious life. To these studies, Wuthnow has added Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches (2009). In ten well-researched and vigorously argued chapters, he gives a thoughtful report on American Christianity's ongoing central role in shaping global Christianity and, indirectly, on international politics in the twenty-first century. He seeks to provide a corrective to views that have relegated North American churches to the margins of what God is doing in his world. One such view Wuthnow sees as needing correction is what he calls the new paradigm. He identifies this view with writers such as Philip Jenkins, Andrew Walls, and Lamin Sanneh, calling it "a huge, conceptual obstacle" to understanding what is really going on in the Christian world. (5)

The new paradigm to which Wuthnow objects tells a story about how non-Western Christianity "saved" the Christian movement from the decadence of the West. The missionaries may have brought the Gospel from the West, "but then a surprising thing happened. Once left to themselves, people all over the non-Christian world began to discover Christianity on their own." Christianity moved its center to these flourishing new churches, which began to take charge of the global missions movement by sending missionaries back to the declining West, as well as to unchristianized parts of the world. Wuthnow rejects this narrative and offers one of his own, arguing that American churches are riding the tidal wave of globalization to connect with the church around the world as never before. Contrary to the new paradigm, American influence over global Christianity is not waning but is growing, because of the continuing educational, economic, cultural, and political power of the West (pp. 5, 108).

In this article I do not offer an extensive treatment of Wuthnow's main theme of resurgent American Christian global engagement.

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