Global is the New Local
Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches
University of California Press
May 26, 2009
360 pp., $47.95
Christians have been transnational since Pentecost. But world events create new possibilities. Spanish missionaries followed closely on the heels of Columbus, and Danish and British missionaries capitalized on trade relations with India. Today, globalized economic and communications networks create new possibilities for American congregations, says Princeton University's Robert Wuthnow in his most recent book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches.
Since 2000, for instance, 12 percent of active churchgoers reported having gone overseas on a short-term mission while in their teen years. That is up from 5 percent in the 1990s, 4 percent in the 1980s, and only 2 percent before that. Currently, this represents about 100,000 congregations (or one-third of all congregations) every year sending teams that average about 18 members.
The rise in short-term missions accompanies a rise in giving to transnational ministry. U.S. church donations to both humanitarian and evangelistic transnational ministry now total about $4 billion annually. We see a similar rise in direct connections to congregations in the developing world, as modern travel and communications technology allow congregations to bypass denominational channels.
In an interview with CT Media Group editor in chief David Neff, sociologist Wuthnow doesn't see the new shape of congregational outreach as "a dramatic break from that past as some observers do." Churches that have been engaged in mission work are still doing it. But new technology, transportation, and markets mean they are able to do it better.
Your book seems designed to impress us with the scale of change in our transnational relationships.
I was surprised that as many indicators as are available are up. The number of long-term missionaries has grown, the number of medium-term missionaries has grown, and the best guess is the number of short-term mission volunteers has grown. The budgets of a lot of the major humanitarian and relief ministries have gone up.
More broadly, the indicators of globalization that have increased range from the number of international telephone calls, to the increased use of e-mail and the Internet worldwide, to the number of international travelers that leave and arrive through our airports, and the reduced cost of shipping. Goods flow back and forth from country to country more easily, and the number of people who either work with people from other countries, work in international organizations, or travel on business and interact with people from other countries has grown.
A few years ago, my church was connected to a sister congregation in Sudan. While we still support our missionaries, we are far more fascinated with our sister congregation. We raise a lot of money for them, and people travel in both directions.
That is typical of the change in the character and the aim of mission work. A generation or two ago, there were fewer churches in a lot of other countries to partner with, and there was more of a perceived need to engage in street evangelism or in starting churches. But as more so-called "indigenous churches" are out there, it has become possible for American churches to partner with them. That's been attractive because it's more of a two-way street. People from U.S. churches learn a lot and feel they are blessed through those relationships, and then they have a long-term relationship and feel on both ends that they get to know one another, figure out what the needs are, and maybe serve more effectively.