No one doubts that American Christianity has had a profound effect on the shape of world Christianity. It's figuring out the exact nature of that influence that still requires investigation and fresh thinking. University of Notre Dame historian Mark Noll has brought his usual careful research and wisdom to bear on this theme in his most recent work, The New Shape of World Christianity (IVP). Christianity Today Media Group editor in chief David Neff talked with Noll about the myths and realities of American influence overseas.
What have been the most common misunderstandings of the influence of American Christianity in overseas missions?
One version is to see a malevolent manipulation at work as moneyed Westerners determine what's happening in other parts of the Christian world. (For example, some scholars have accused Wycliffe Bible Translators of being puppets of the CIA.) There is certainly some influence from Western Christian money in other parts of the world, but it's nowhere near as important for what happens as what people elsewhere choose to do with their lives.
The other version is to equate missions activity with the growth of indigenous Christianity. Missions activity is almost always a factor in the growth of indigenous Christianity, but it's only a relatively small part of what actually develops as Christian communities in other parts of the world.
When I was quite young, I heard the statement an awful lot that we had "lost China." The loss of China meant, at that time, the expulsion of the Western missionaries. That was an understandable reaction. There had been a hundred-plus years of sacrificial labor that had led to about three million Chinese Christians by 1950. When missionaries were expelled, the only thing ...1