In my most recent post I recommended a great new book by Christian historian Mark Noll, From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story. (See here.) I focused on Noll’s account of how he was “rescued by the Reformation,” i.e., of how his faith was broadened, deepened, and revitalized by an encounter with Christians from the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. Noll’s story is a marvelous illustration of what C. S. Lewis had in mind when he exhorted us to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
To whet your appetite further, I thought I would share a bit more from the book, this time from a chapter titled “By the Numbers.” Here Noll shares an assortment of comparative statistics that attest to the recent dramatic changes that are remaking the map of world Christianity. Here are a few, which I quote verbatim:
* “Last Sunday, it is probable that more Chinese believers were in church than in all of so-called ‘Christian Europe’; as recently as 1970 there had been no legally open churches in China.”
* “Last Sunday, more Anglicans attended church in each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda than did Anglicans in Britain and Episcopalians in the United States combined . . .”
* “Last Sunday more members of the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Brazil were in church than the combined total of the two largest Pentecostal denominations in the United States . . .”
* “Last Sunday more people attended the Yoido Full Gospel Church in Seoul . . . than attended all of the churches in significant North American denominations, such as the Christian Reformed Church, the Evangelical Free Church, or the Presbyterian Church in America.”
* “From 1900 to 2000 the number of individuals affiliated with Christian churches in Europe, Latin America, [and] North America . . . rose at roughly the same rate as the general population. By contrast, the number of affiliated Christians in Africa rose about five times faster than the general population, while the number in Asia rose four times as fast.”
What’s your reaction to these statistics? The first thing that struck me is how incredibly ignorant I am about the contours of Christianity in other parts of the world. Although I am a Christian historian, I am not primarily a historian of Christianity, and so the figures that Noll shares speak to a vast field about which I have little or no knowledge, much less expertise.
Beyond that, I wonder how many of us might be troubled by these statistics, especially those that seem to indicate that the United States is declining in its significance within the larger story of world Christianity. Ought we to be troubled?
It seems to me that there are two questions here that might easily be conflated. The first involves the intrinsic vitality of Christianity within the United States. Broadly speaking, is the church in this country alive and well, holding its own, or declining as a living testimony to the truth and power of the gospel? The second involves the comparative prominence of U. S. churches in the larger story of world Christianity. Do Christians in other parts of the world, for example, look to American churches for leadership, encouragement, and other forms of support?
These are related questions but they are not identical, which means that the answer to one does not automatically determine the answer to the other. On the one hand, if Christianity in the United States is like salt that is losing its savor, then we should expect to see America’s role in world Christianity decline. But why should the reverse also hold true? If the United States is home to an ever shrinking proportion of the world’s Christians, if the world looks less and less to us for leadership, is that automatically cause for concern? Or might it instead be cause for rejoicing, interpreted as evidence of the spread of the gospel to “every tribe and nation”?
This is a complicated question, and I won’t even pretend to try to answer it. But as a Christian historian fascinated by the intersection between faith and American history, I do want to think about how we respond to it. My guess is that our initial, unguarded response to the question says a lot about what we think America’s role in world Christianity ought to be. That assumption, in turn, speaks to our sense of who we are. It reveals something about our collective identity, in other words–our identity not just as Christians but as American Christians. As a historian I’m convinced that our sense of collective identity both shapes and is shaped by the stories we tell about our past–the way that we remember our history.
All of this points to the conclusion that how we understand our country’s religious history will go a long way in shaping how we assign meaning to contemporary trends in world Christianity and America’s place within it. As I write this, I’m particularly mindful of the argument set forth in Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s The Light and the Glory. (For a previous post on the book, click here.)
With neither logic nor evidence on their side, Marshall and Manuel argued that the United States was founded to be God’s New Israel. In the opening pages of The Light and the Glory, the authors pose the fundamental question, “Could it be that we Americans, as a people, were meant to be a ‘light to lighten the Gentiles’ (Luke 2:32)—a demonstration to the world of how God intended His children to live together under the Lordship of Christ?”
Their answer is a resounding “Yes!” The authors relate how their research convinced them that “God had put a specific ‘call’ on this country and the people who were to inhabit it. In the virgin wilderness of America, God was making his most significant attempt since ancient Israel to create a new Israel of people living in obedience to the laws of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.”
The Light and the Glory is the most widely read Christian interpretation of U. S. history ever published. Readers learn from it that the United States wasn’t just founded as a Christian nation–it was God’s chosen nation. Logically, shouldn’t those who accept this view of American history see the changing contours of world Christianity as God’s judgment against His chosen people, i.e., the United States?