It is so easy for us to focus on the remarkable rise of Protestantism in China, as if it were something utterly unique, when in fact the church in Africa and Latin America has increased just as dramatically.
Dana Robert, who teaches World Christianity at Boston University, has given us a slim volume that tells the thrilling story of the spread of Christianity from its beginnings as a tiny minority in Palestine to today, when, as the “largest religion in the world,” “[t]he geographic range, cultural diversity, and organizational variety of Christianity surpass those of the other great world religions.”
The author wants to answer the question, “How did Christianity get to be so diverse and widespread?” Simply put, the answer comes in one word: Mission. From the beginning, this faith has been a missionary one. The idea of universality stands at the heart of its philosophical structure, and its founding documents are missionary in content and function, being written by and about the messengers of the gospel, including Jesus and Paul but also the other apostles.
The first part of Christian Mission presents a concise but remarkably comprehensive re-telling of the story of the expansion of Christianity. Part II, “Themes in Mission History,” offers very stimulating insights into “The Politics of Missions”; “Women in World Mission”; and “Conversion and Christian Community: The Missionary from St. Patrick to Bernard Mizeki.”
Despite its brevity, Christian Mission is so densely-packed with information and insights that our review of it will come in two installments.
Over the past 2,000 years, Christians have sought to obey the Great Commission, by which Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That is why “the history of Christian mission – and of churches’ particular missions – provides a useful framework for grasping the meaning of Christianity as a multicultural, global presence in the world today.”
Christian Mission is a brief, “thematic history of an endlessly complex and detailed process in the history of Christianity.” The author has not tried to write a comprehensive story of the spread of Christianity, much less a record of theological controversies or ecclesiastical organizations and conflicts. She does attempt to focus on “shifts in methods of communicate and changes in sociopolitical context that opened the way for the transmission of Christian faith across cultural boundaries,” and to show how Christianity has often served as a “catalyst for new identify-formation rather than a fixed institution.”
Part I: A concise history of Christian mission
Robert divides her historical sketch into three chapter: 1. “From Christ to Christendom”; 2. Vernaculars and Volunteers, 1450 –“; 3. Global Networking for the nations, 1920 – “
From Christ to Christendom
At the beginning, she notes that “charting the spread of Christianity” is made difficult because “its expansion has not been a matter of continuous progress.” Christianity has thrived in a certain region for several centuries, then declined or even disappeared, while the faith took root in another area. We see that process in the early centuries, when North Africa and the Middle East were the heartland of Christianity, until the Muslim advance all but wiped it out. Meanwhile, Northern Europe experienced rapid church growth, largely through the work of Irish missionaries.
Paul, the quintessential missionary, was a bridge personality, since he was equally at home both in Jewish and in Hellenistic cultures. The churches that he and other apostles founded were almost immediately characterized by “internal and cultural differences,” a common feature even to this day. The spread of the gospel across cultural boundaries started as soon as Jews and Greeks learned to accept one another as members of the same family of God, and as the message was translated into another language.
The Book of the Acts shows us a “multi-cultural people on the move,” establishing urban networks of house churches throughout the Roman and Persian Empires. From the start, persecution, care for the poor, ascetic practices, and healings and other miracles brought favorable attention to the dedication and zeal of followers of Christ.
“Christendom” began to take shape with the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. It grew as new “barbarian” tribes were converted, or at least declared nominal allegiance, to the faith, often with the intention of tapping into the growing secular power of the bishop of Rome. Outside the Roman Empire, Christianity was adopted by kings or many people in Persia, Armenia, and Abyssinia (Ethiopia). The “Nestorian” or Syrian Church spread all the way to China at a time when most of Europe remained outside the fold.
Thus, even at the beginning, Christianity was not a “western” religion.
Vernaculars and volunteers
The roots of modern missions lie in the Roman Catholics who accompanied conquistadors into Latin America and merchants to Asia, and with Protestants who carried the gospel to the New World, Africa, and on to Asia as their nations’ military and economic reach extended farther and farther.
Beginning afresh with the Age of Exploration (aka Conquest) by European powers in the 16th century, first Roman Catholic and then Protestant missionaries found themselves associated with military conquest and economic expansion. Though they often vehemently objected to their nation’s aggressive policies, they also were unwilling not to take advantage of open doors to declare the love of God to people who would otherwise never hear. Frequently, they labored to ameliorate the suffering caused by conquest.
From the early church to the present, monks and nuns have stood at the forefront of cross-cultural expansion, from medieval monastics to the religious orders of the Roman Catholic church which took up the baton in the 15th century. For Protestants, the voluntary society has been the principal agent in sending and supporting missionaries.
Protestant missions have been characterized by 1. Translation of the Scriptures into vernacular languages; 2. Church planting; and 3. The central role of the family as both a base for missionary work and a model for new converts. Translation requires, of course, that the foreigner learn both the language and the culture of the local people. This, in turn, has produced greater understanding of indigenous religions and philosophy, frequently with the (unintended) result of a revival of traditional culture, and almost always with the formation of a new ethnic and even national identity.
The World Missionary Conference at Edinburgh in 1910 marked the apogee of the “great [long] century” for Protestant missions. The optimism of that gathering would be shattered by two world wars which discredited western “Christendom” and unleashed independence movements that brought freedom to former colonies.
The conference demonstrated how advances in communications had made global networking possible, a development that would continue unabated into the 21st century. Student Christian fellowships joined across national boundaries to spread the gospel and then to agitate for peace and political and social reform, while the “continuation committee” formed at Edinburgh spawned the ecumenical movement among mainline denominations and presaged the even larger Lausanne Movement towards the end of the 20th century and beyond.
Already in the 19th century, “faith missions” such as the China Inland Mission had broken denominational and national restrictions to create large agencies that dispatched intrepid workers to the farthest corners of the earth. The Pentecostal awakening at Azuza Street in California, along with other independent revivals elsewhere, sparked a worldwide explosion of charismatic and Pentecostal missions that have led to the formation of the largest movement of Christians by the 21st century.
Increasingly, independent churches in Asia, Africa, and Latin America provided scope for local leaders and believers to express their own unique versions of Christianity, some of them bizarre, even heretical, but others simply different and autonomous of western missionary structures. In China, Wang Mingdao, Watchman Nee, and John Song typified what was really a worldwide phenomenon, as Robert clearly shows.
Roman Catholics, meanwhile, had resurrected Matteo Ricci’s approach of “inculturation” in a search for ways to make their version of the gospel truly indigenous.
Throughout the 20th century, “awakening internationalism” went hand in hand with an increasing emphasis upon friendship and social service in missions that “meant that education and medicine remained the largest areas of financial investment for established church mission agencies.” In these same circles, the idea of a Christianity as a world religion harbored the “expectation that it could be expressed in nonwestern cultural terms.”
Especially after World War II, as one nation after another threw off the colonial yoke, “native” churches also sought independence. Especially within the ecumenical movement, there was a call for a “moratorium” on missions in the “postcolonial” era, while evangelicals stepped their efforts to bring the gospel to as-yet “unreached peoples.” It is no wonder that “mainline” bodies quickly made peace with the state-sponsored Protestant organizations in China, while evangelicals sought to support the “underground” churches whose existence and rapid growth came to light after China opened to the world in the late 1970s.
The most significant development in the past 65 years has been the remarkable growth of non-western churches, as well as the proliferation of non-western missionary efforts, as Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have mobilized and fielded tens of thousands of cross-cultural messengers. External factors, such as “decolonization, population explosion, urbanization, migration, globalization, and improved transportation and communication networks all played a role in the changes in Christian population,” and in the great addition of non-whites to the worldwide missionary force (though Europeans and North Americans still outnumber those from other regions).
Several new trends in missions include the formation of partnerships; the development of missions into a “multi-directional,” “multi-faceted, multi-cultural network”; and the huge number of those taking short term ‘mission trips’ rather than going to spend their lives in another culture. Robert notes that this has led to the formation of “a vast network of mission amateurs,” while “the professional, language-fluent, bicultural, long-term missionary remained the backbone of cross-cultural mission.”
While the church has grown tremendously in China, Robert reminds us that Latin American and African Christians far outnumber their Chinese brothers and sisters.
She states that “Sub-Sahara Africa has registered the most dramatic growth in the number of Christians of any region since the mid twentieth century,” resulting in the sending of missionaries to “Europe and the United States as part of the new African diaspora.”
Liberation theologies in Latin America pushed for political change, but led to heightened spiritual vitality among Roman Catholics as peasants developed “a hunger for a deeper Christian life.” Healings, miracles, and care for the poor among Protestants helped to created an indigenous “charismatic” church marked by “the cultivation of spiritual gifts, healing of physical emotional illnesses, disciplined lifestyles …, and the pursuit of material prosperity.”
“In Asia, Christianity in the late twentieth century remained a minority religion in most countries . . . The perennial challenge for Asian Christianities was the attempt to be both culturally Asian and Christian at the same time, in a context where Christianity was historically viewed as a western, colonial religion.”
Though an Africa specialist, Robert reports that “the growth of Chinese Christianity was so rapid that by the early twenty-first century it was believed to be the fastest-growing church in the world.” She notes that this came as “networks of Chinese house churches multiplied, with emphasis on healings, prayer, singing, and Bible study,” without foreign assistance.
Those familiar with Chinese Christianity will recognize many points of contact among various “Christianities” around the world. It should help us put the Chinese situation into a broader perspective.
(To be continued)
G. Wright Doyle