Review of Mark Noll's "The New Shape of World Christianity": Chapter 1

Hello friends-

Rory Tyer, VP of Marketing, writing here. This post is the first in a chapter-by-chapter walkthrough of Mark Noll's excellent book The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, published January 2016. We are always excited about helping believers think well about mission and about the world in which that mission takes place; this book does both. Mark Noll is a widely respected evangelical scholar of Christian history who teaches at Notre Dame; he has written many wonderful books, two of the more notable titles being The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

I'm writing these summaries as I read it on a chapter-by-chapter basis, so please feel free to read along and offer your own thoughts as we go.

Chapter One

The first chapter of Noll's book sets the stage for the rest by offering a series of often startling observations about shifts that have taken place in global Christianity. In 1900, over 80 percent of the world's Christian population was Caucasian, and over 70 percent lived in Europe. Today, however, we live in a time

...when active Christian adherence has become stronger in Africa than in Europe, when the number of practicing Christians in China may be approaching the number in the United States, when live bodies in church are far more numerous in Kenya than in Canada, when more believers worship together in church Sunday by Sunday in Nagaland than in Norway, when India is now home to the world's largest chapter of the Roman Catholic Jesuit order, and when Catholic mass is being said in more languages each Sunday in the United States than ever before in American history... (Kindle loc 57-59)

More eye-opening statistics abound, such as the fact that there are currently more Christian workers from Brazil active in crosscultural ministry outside their homelands than from Britain or from Canada. In the midst of these changes, this book is meant to serve as a mediator between older and newer histories of Christianity, and then particularly "to address the question of what American Christianity means for the worldwide Christian community" (loc 72):

The book's major argument is that Christianity in its American form has indeed become very important for the world. But it has become important, not primarily because of direct influence. Rather...I am suggesting that how Americans have come to practice the Christian faith is just as important globally as what Americans have done. (loc 79-81)

Noll will structure this argument by first exploring the history of Christianity in America--specifically, how Americans inherited and then transformed European Christianity--and second mapping this to what was happening around the world, including addressing the question of how exactly American Christianity has influenced the broader world. He eschews a simple narrative of direct influence: "Without denying a substantial American influence in the world, however, I will stress the advantage of seeing the newer regions of recent Christian growth as following a historical path that Americans pioneered before much of the rest of the Christian world embarked on the same path" (loc 101).

The Shape of the Book

The rest of the book's argument will unfold as follows.

Chapter 2 will paint a picture of the present state of Christian history in greater detail and elaborate more specifically on some challenges this poses. Chapter 3 will sketch developments in the evangelical world of the 19th century that, for Noll, pointed in the direction of wider developments in the twentieth century.

Chapters four through seven will argue that American form, rather than American influence, has been the most important American contribution to "the recent world history of Christianity." This is an important distinction on which I am excited to see him elaborate. From this initial chapter it seems like he believes the American church followed a certain historical trajectory, and that other churches have followed similar trajectories--which is to say, they did so apart from an easily traced line of direct influence. What seems like a nuance may in fact be extremely important, and Noll is a careful thinker, so I am anticipating this section.

In these chapters Noll will also present "a numerical history of twentieth-century missionary activity," as well as deal specifically with criticisms of American missions that see "a controlling American hand behind modern Christian development throughout the world," as well as responses to this claim. It sounds as though Noll does not agree with this criticism and will advance an alternative interpretation of the world historical data.

In the final section of the book (chapters 8-11), Noll will present some specific case studies, and these sound incredibly interesting. First, he will survey American evangelical magazines from 1900, 1925, 1950, 1975, and 2000 "in order to ask how American perceptions related to global realities." Next, he will examine a young South Korean church to see what it might learn from the history of Christianity in America. Finally, he will provide an overview of the East African Revival, which began in the 1930s but continues to have ramifications globally. He will ask the question: "...why, if so many features of this revival seem so directly related to features of American (and European) church life, it should be considered an indigenous expression of African Christianity." His concluding chapter will summarize and reflect on "the larger meaning of these developments for believers and Christian organizations in the United States."

Application

I intend to review this book chapter-by-chapter as a way of promoting an important conversation about the future of the modern mission movement and of the shape of world Christianity. American Christian organizations who operate according to outdated paradigms in these areas (implicitly or explicitly) will find themselves ill-equipped for kingdom work in a changing world. It is certainly the Gospel, and only the Gospel, that contains the world's hope, and understanding the changing face of world Christianity will avail us nothing if we're not operating in the power of the Gospel. But the Lord has called us to Christian work in a particular time and place in world history, and it is our responsibility to contextualize the Gospel as best we can wherever we find ourselves.

I do not expect each chapter to have easy "application" points, but I want to try to draw some concrete conclusions for further reflection and discussion. This chapter alone has generated several:

 - What else has changed about the face of world Christianity, and are we aware of these changes or still operating on the basis of old assumptions?
 - Do our efforts in world missions take these changes into account? Why or why not, and what would that look like?
 - How can American Christians help other American Christians practice their Christianity in a way that takes these things into account?

Thanks for reading. Next week we'll dive into chapter two.

Rory