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Most of the World Christianity

Pachuau, Lalsangkima. World Christianity: A Historical and Theological Introduction. Abingdon Press, 2018.

[An Installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

Most North American Christians today don’t know enough about “world Christianity.”

For that matter, most of us North American Christians have never even heard the term “world Christianity.” It’s likely to make Christians in the United States think of Paul’s contrast of “the church and the world” – and not in a good way. It’s much less likely to bring to mind “Christianity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where most of the Christians alive in the world today live.

In fact, that statement itself will likely take us by surprise. We tend to equate “Christianity” with what we know about it from our own local context. For most Americans, “Christianity” is a club for Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants and maybe a few mainline types; it’s something to invoke when trying to explain why Republicans and Democrats do what they do, or why some people care so much about the Supreme Court or gay marriage or whether the schools teach evolution.

That blind spot doesn’t only afflict “regular people.” Ask the average pastor. Ask the average seminarian. Ask the average professor of religious studies who is teaching Western Religions for the 20th time. Ask the average author of a world religions text book. You will still likely get the impression that “the Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith”[*] – with the peculiarly religious US as Europe’s western wall.

Lalsangkima Pachuau’s World Christianity: A Historical and Theological Introduction would be a helpful corrective lens. In one compact, concise, readable, and affordable volume Pachuau provides a comprehensive overview of the topic of world Christianity. From there, we could go on to dig more deeply into that subject from any one of several dimensions, and would understand why we would need and want to do that.

cover of World Christianity by Lalsangkima Pachuau

Pachuau starts with a helpful review of the readily available literature on the subject, beginning in the 1970s and 80s with Walbert Bühlmann and Andrew F. Walls, and discussing the work of Lamin Sanneh, Philip Jenkins, and more recent works by Kirsteen and Sebastian Kim and Timothy Tennant. [He could have added Douglas Jacobsen’s Global Gospel to that list, as well.] It’s striking, when we think of it, that it has taken so long for these scholars’ observations to attract academic, let alone popular, Christian attention. For comparative perspective, these are the same decades in which academic feminism and post-modernism both thoroughly transformed more than one academic discipline, including Biblical studies and theology, and became household words – regardless of whether a particular household attached a plus or a minus value to them.

What has taken “world Christianity” so much longer to be seen for the significant phenomenon it is? Pachuau may give us part of the explanation with his emphasis on the importance of charismatic/Pentecostal forms in majority world Christianity.

This emphasis is one of the remarkable, unmistakable features of Pachuau’s book. He structures his presentation of world Christianity around it, telling a story of the tension between Enlightenment forms of Christianity, which still dominate the global North, and the charismatic/Pentecostal forms that characterize “popular Christianity in the majority world.” These, he says, “can be seen as a kind of emblematic defiance of Enlightenment values,” and a corresponding affirmation of supernatural divine activity in present day circumstances (29). His reviews of the history and forms of Christianity in Latin America, Africa, and the various parts of Asia stress the numerical and theological importance of the charismatic/Pentecostal churches in those areas. And he concludes his discussion of “contextualization” in world Christian theology with a consideration of the role of charismatic/Pentecostal premises in the development of a fully “contextual” theology.

“Contextualization” is the term scholars have settled on for describing Christian theology that responds to or takes into account the specific, concretely important features of different Christian communities’ unique circumstances – their own social, cultural, economic, etc. contexts. [So people who despise the term “contextualization” should probably count their blessings. “Circumstantialization” would have been even worse.] Pachuau suggests that charismatic/Pentecostal forms are profoundly “contextual” in this sense. They do not represent what “the Enlightenment west” might label a flight from reality. Instead, they incorporate and integrate attention to concrete issues of poverty and inequality, the importance of meeting people’s material needs, and the need to balance the competing pulls of change and of continuity. They accomplish this feat by drawing on “the religiosity of the people,” taking seriously the conviction that “to believe in the salvation of Jesus Christ is to experience him in life – including his healing – and to follow his teaching and guidance in the power of the Holy Spirit” (136).

Pachuau is a missiologist, and his special interest shows. He spends time considering the relationship of European mission efforts from the 15th through the 19th centuries to the landscape of current world Christianity, the impact of the 20th century mission conferences on international mission efforts, and the shift in Christian mission activity that is underway as a consequence of the rise of world Christianity. In this context, he devotes his final chapter to a discussion of the way concepts of mission are changing in the wake of the new developments he has been reviewing throughout the book, and to brief case studies of mission activities in each of the key regions of interest.

One of Pachuau’s observations here is that charismatic/Pentecostal forms of Christianity can’t simply be attributed to the direct mission activity flowing out of the Azusa Street revival. Rather, he argues, these forms developed independently in various places around the same time. This has added to the complexity of the relationship between historical mission efforts and the contemporary landscape. Mission-founded churches persist, and continue as significant features of Latin American, Asian, and African Christianity, but they have in many cases developed in directions that their founders would hardly recognize under the impact of charismatic influences. In Africa, for instance, “deliverance” ministries have become part of every church’s program, the Anglican and Presbyterian as well as the newer house churches or independents. “Even among many intellectuals, the hold of a faith in the power of the Spirit over other spirits appears firm. Belief in supernatural manifestations of God the Spirit, or at least its possibility, would seem near to most vital and growing forms of Christian faith in Africa” (61).

Pachuau’s argument ultimately is that the rise of charismatic/Pentecostal Christian expression in world Christianity is happening precisely because “inculturation” and “contextualization” is happening. Latin American liberation theology and Korean minjung theology, which “tend to look for a this-worldly humanistic liberation” (140) have been received favorably in the west as multi-cultural, “contextual” theologies, arguably because they play nicely with westerners’ Enlightenment commitments. Their charismatic counterparts, “[l]iteral in their understanding of the Bible and biblicist in their attempt to follow the exact letter of the Bible” (141) have held less appeal. But as Pachuau points out, they, too, are profoundly “contextual,” grass roots theological developments.

World Christianity: A Historical and Theological Introduction is a valuable overview of an area in Christian studies that will only become more important in the coming decades. It’s clear enough for undergraduates to read without complaint, and learned enough for their professors to assign without guilt. And it does a great job of revealing what the North American blind spot about world Christianity keeps hiding: a glimpse of what’s happening in the rest of the Christian world, which is getting bigger by the day.

[*] Hillaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith, 1920. That’s his excuse.

A tower of books with a almond- or vaginal-shaped opening
“Hey, I’m reading that!”

2 responses to “Most of the World Christianity”

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