As we were passing through the town of Nyeri, some 150 kilometers north of Nairobi, our Kikuyu driver turned and said something that sounded strange to me, an American pastor spending his sabbatical serving as a missionary professor: "See that hotel. Oldest hotel in Kenya's Central Province. Built during missionary days." I peered out the window of our minibus and saw a British-colonial-style guest house partially obscured by a neatly trimmed row of hedges. "When was it built?" I asked. "Not sure. Maybe 1800s--back in missionary days."
Our Kikuyu guide knew this country well. At every checkpoint on the road through Thika, across the River Tana on our drive to the Aberdare Mountains, he chatted with local police as if they were old pals. His local knowledge made us feel comfortable in the unfamiliar beauty of East Africa. He also knew something that many in the West have yet to learn: to some people, the "missionary days" are ancient history.
During the past century a shift of epic proportions has dramatically altered the landscape of Christianity, giving rise to what Philip Jenkins has called "the Next Christendom." In his words, "The era of Western Christianity has passed within our lifetimes, and the day of Southern Christianity is dawning." (1) During the 1970s Andrew Walls began assembling a coterie of scholars in Scotland at the University of Aberdeen and later the University of Edinburgh for the purpose of studying the growth of Christianity in the non-Western world. Walls has effectively changed the topic of conversation among Christian historians, inspiring new centers for the study of world Christianity around the globe, with presses now churning out a vast body of literature devoted to the study of Christianity in the Majority World.
While historians are finally taking note of these undeniable alterations in the landscape of Christianity, many Western churches and mission agencies remain oblivious to the new realities. In The Changing Face of Christianity: Africa, the West, and the World (2005), Joel Carpenter writes, "One of the most important but least examined changes in the world over the past century has been the rapid rise of Christianity in non-Western societies and cultures. In 1900, 80 percent of the world's professing Christians were Europeans or North American. Today, 60 percent of professing Christians live in the global South and East." (2)
These "least examined changes" have captured my attention in recent years as both a scholar and a pastor. As the senior pastor of a growing evangelical church in North America that is highly committed to the global missionary enterprise, I have been an observer-participant in numerous important decisions related to sending and supporting missionaries in the Global South. As a scholar who is committed to a greater understanding of what has happened and is happening in the Majority World, I am often intrigued by the lack of communication that exists between scholars who are conducting research in the area of world Christianity and decision makers who are in the forefront of the Christian missionary enterprise. This growing concern led me to spend a sabbatical in 2006 at the Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology, now part of Africa International University, where I taught church history and conducted research on the problem of Western missions in the Global South. This article is a partial distillation of my findings.
The Nairobi Evangelical Graduate School of Theology (NEGST), a thoroughly African educational institution, has strong ties to mission agencies and churches in North America. The leadership and direction for the institution are in the hands of an African board of directors, while significant contributions come from missionaries supported by Western churches and organizations like Christian Leaders for Africa, a North American funding agency established for the purpose of promoting theological education on the African continent. …