I’m Not Hearing You: The Struggle to Hear from a Global Church

In our recently published Global Dictionary of Theology, coeditor Veli-Matti Karkkainen and I set out to encourage the idea that theology has now become a global conversation. While we are satisfied with the resulting dictionary, in large measure, we concluded that a truly global conversation does not yet exist. In this article I want to explore some of this reasons for this assessment.1

First let me briefly describe the dramatically changed situation in which we find ourselves as American Christians. It is no longer possible to think of Christianity as a European tribal religion. Whereas in 1900, 80% of all Christians were Caucasian and 70% lived in Europe, today the situation is nearly reversed. More Christians worship in China than all of Europe; there are more Anglicans in Kenya than in the U.S. and Canada combined, and so on. More importantly, because of globalization, these various groups do not exist in isolation but in increasingly complex relationships. They all participate in transnational flows of people, goods and ideas. From our perspective in America, this connectionalism is seen in growing immigrant influence in religion, new forms of missionary expansion and partnership, and the fallout from American political relations.2 Immigrant religion in America is a particularly important reality given that contemporary communication and travel allows immigrants to maintain close ties with their homelands. Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offutt report that these immigrants already make up 8% of active religious workers in America, though 74% of Americans attend churches with immigrant populations. Moreover, American Christians are remarkably well traveled: 1.6 million go on short-term mission trips each year (at a cost of $1.2 million); 62% of church members have traveled or lived abroad, and 76% of church members contributed to relief and humanitarian causes last year. This has led to increasing partnership and exchanges of various kinds. Recently a Chinese ministry organization gave me a DVD about the growth of mega-churches in China. As I watched I was amazed to see some of my own colleagues from Fuller (and from other seminaries) taking part in a seminar being offered in this church. This is all to the good and must surely be having some impact on the American church.3

Yet despite this reality, and in the face of these transnational connections, the impact on the American church remains unclear—I know of no study that focuses on this. We can say, however, that the teaching of theology and the formation for ministry dominant in North American institutions is adapting very slowly to this new situation. There are a growing number of interfaith conversations, an emerging field of comparative theology, and some good work in post-colonial theology. Yet it is safe to say that we theological educators are mostly not hearing much from what is sometimes called the majority church—and this is happening at precisely the time when North-South connections are more critical than they have ever been, and, ironically, given the Internet and email, more easily promoted.

Why is this so? I want to lay out in a preliminary, and hopefully constructive, way some of the reasons for this communication gap.

Why Are We Not Hearing These Brothers and Sisters?

1. Let me start with a simple cultural observation. We hear little from the majority world because the screen of Western media and popular culture rarely lets voices from abroad be heard. Whenever I return from a stay in Africa, I am overwhelmed by the flood of media that I am exposed to every day—in addition to jet lag, I experience what I call spiritual-cultural lag. Suddenly my days are littered with email exchanges, harried commutes, cable channel offerings, and shopping opportunities. These all conspire to make my experience in Africa a distant memory. And my friends, even those closest to me, will give me exactly 15 seconds to tell about my (life-changing) experiences in Africa before their eyes start to glaze over.

Further, I am struck by the lopsided flow of information, which is almost entirely from North to South. For example, in 2006 (according to Bowker.com statistics) there were 292,000 books published in the U.S., of which 18,000 were religious titles. Compare this to 300 published in Kenya, of which 76 were religious and 1200 in Nigeria, of which 203 were religious (figures from 1994, 1995 the most recently available UNESCO statistics). Try ordering any of those books from Kenya or Nigeria—they are not available through Amazon!

2. In the light of this imbalance we can be especially grateful for scholars like Philip Jenkins and Andrew Walls who have done much to put the challenge of Global Christianity on our agenda.4 While we owe much to these scholars, they also illustrate the fact that voices from abroad, even when they are called to our attention, are usually interpreted for us by Western scholars. Jenkins, for all his strengths, focuses on the uniqueness of non-Western Christianity and often overlooks the connections that exist between these groups, and between these areas and North America.5 Andrew Walls focuses on historical factors that led to the expansion and growth of Christianity, rather than the theological (or ideological) impulses this represented. I say this not so much to criticize their work as to point out that we all describe what we see through the prejudices of our culture, and, in these cases, in terms of our academic heritage. These two scholars also illustrate the fact that we do better looking at the non-Western church historically, rather than listening theologically. Try as we might, the different accents escape us.

This means that even the best Western scholarship “about” the emerging church often fails to help us understand what is happening on the ground. Susan Billington Harper signaled this some time ago in her ground-breaking work on the church in India.6 She described the way Western missionaries often pressed agendas (even enlightened ones) in ways that were counterproductive to the health of the churches they served. They did this, in the case of the Indian church she studied, because they failed to perceive indigenous reasons for the choices Indian leaders made.

But thankfully non-Western scholars are making their voices heard and challenging some of these Western perceptions. For example, it has been popular to lament the influence of Western health and wealth perspectives on the African church and, in general, the problem that Paul Gifford calls “externality”—that is, the debilitating foreign influence on the African church.7 But the late Ogbu Kalu has recently challenged this simplistic view of foreign influence. He insists that “the popularity of the message was buttressed in its resonance with African indigenous concepts of salvation, abundant life, and goals of worship.”8 Kalu has similarly challenged the simplistic notion that African Pentecostalism is simply a transplant of American Pentecostalism, showing how it developed from indigenous sources.9

Clay-Schmit-500x650-72dpiFuller’s Reach to Cape Town, South Africa

by Clayton Schmit

Nearly two dozen Fuller faculty, staff, and Board of Trustee members attended the 2010 Lausanne Congress held in Cape Town, South Africa—among them a team from the Brehm Center for Worship, Theology, and the Arts who produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the eight-day event. The Brehm team was invited by the leadership because of its reputation for bringing the arts into conversation with theology and integrating the arts in worship. Team members drew upon the local talents of Cape Town artists and craftpersons to engage the over 4,000 people from around the world . . .

Read more about the international worship experience in Cape Town »

A further example is the huge influence of Watchman Nee on the Chinese house churches over the last two generations, which has typically been seen as a Western imposition. Because Nee traveled in the West, and was exposed to influential Brethren leaders and the Keswick movement, and because he had close missionary friends, it has been generally assumed that he simply exported these Western ideas into China where the house church movement has spread this Western virus. But an Indian PhD student at Fuller, Nuthalapati Bharathi, has recently challenged this view. She points out that Nee was critical of the Brethren movement and especially of the theology that Keswick promoted. The critical factor in Nee’s work came from indigenous sources, even if these were influenced by some missionary thinking. She writes:

The sustaining factor of Nee’s ministry was his stress on the spiritual life of individual believers and the corporate body, the Church. He questioned the intellectualism of Western Christianity and was against the systematic rendering of the doctrines. He held it as a mental apprehension and static and did not give room to the dynamic leading of the Spirit through the Word of God. For him, it was not the doctrine that was important, but experience and life.10

To understand Nee then, she argues, it is critical to grasp his Chinese (and Confucian) context rather than simply reading him as a Western clone.

3. But these factors, significant as they are, suggest a further reason why we seem somewhat hard of hearing when it comes to a global conversation. Underlying all these factors, I believe, are the ideological assumptions that we bring to the conversation. While this is an extremely complex issue, let me focus on one aspect of this: Western theology (and Western Christians generally) view theology primarily through a post-Enlightenment lens. While there are significant differences between liberal and evangelical versions of Christianity in the West, in this respect there is a tacit agreement: Western Christianity is indelibly shaped by the “liberal self,” in which the individual exists prior to and apart from society, so that the primary locus of religion is the individual.11 Moreover, understandings of theology that derive from these fundamental assumptions coalesce around certain guiding ideas that can be explored and articulated rationally and explained scientifically—indeed we have come to privilege scientific thought to such an extent that anything that cannot be explained rationally or scientifically is marginalized.

In contrast, while most places in the world experience the world in various premodern, modern, or even in some cases postmodern ways, their churches are mostly untouched by this Western liberal self. When my friends in Africa hear someone from America say, “Well I’m spiritual but I don’t go to church,” they find this incoherent. They wonder what could this possibly mean? For them, and for most people outside the West, community and relationship are preexistent, involuntary, and “constitutive,” as Roberto Goizueta puts it. This means that actual relationships take precedence over abstract dogmatic declarations, whether these involve the physical form of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico or the overwhelming presence of the spirits in Africa.

So here is our problem: that which has determined our fundamental attitude toward truth and knowledge—the Enlightenment—simply does not exist for many people. This led Ogbu Kalu, a few years ago, in his installation address to the Luce Chair in World Christianity at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, to wonder: can real exchange be possible when Western intellectual assumptions deny fundamental African beliefs about God and the spirits? As he put it: “Church historians who are in bondage to the tyranny of modern world view and secular social-science models . . . collude by diminishing the Geist of the profession and ignoring the miraculous and experiential dimensions [of the Church].”12 How, he wonders, can intellectual exchange negotiate this difference?

4. Finally, I need to mention a further underlying factor: the growing economic disparity between various regions of the world—which translates into various forms of power relationships. Jonathan Bonk, in his work on money and missions, estimates that when missionaries first went abroad the gulf between their standard of living and that of the people they lived among was five to one.13 When I taught for a year in Kenya in 1989, I estimated the gulf to be about 100 to 1—my students would go to work for 12 dollars a month while my salary was conservatively figured then at 1,200 a month. This gulf has only grown wider. Wuthnow and Offut report that the annual income of the 155 million Christians in Brazil, a relatively developed country, is about $3,640 while that of 192 million American Christians is $26,980.

Of the many issues this economic disparity raises, let me address one here. Most Americans exposed to the many challenges in developing countries instinctively imagine economic responses: from the point of view of their lifestyle, they automatically assume that these places need to be developed to their level. The assumption is that the process of modernization is the same everywhere and we in the West and those elsewhere are simply at different stages of this process.

The problem is that not everyone needs or wants to become like us—in spite of our assumptions in this respect. Hidden in much of these attitudes, and even in much of the literature of globalization, is a very modern notion of progress—usually conceived in economic terms, by which the worth and value of nations and even people are measured in economic terms. I don’t want to imply that power differentials are only a Western problem as they infect relations everywhere, but they are specially salient for us at this time.

Why does real understanding appear so allusive? It sounds like a good idea to begin conversation about these things, but, as Margaret Archer points out, the flaw is to assume that this conversation is not pre-structured:14

  1. The conversation is not equally accessible to all parties. There are economic, cultural, and communication limitations and advantages that predetermine how the conversation will begin and carry on.
  2. The conversation, as it has already developed, “constrains” or “enables” the future exchange to go in certain directions and not in others.
  3. Parties ignore, or are unaware of, the (nondiscursive) contextual factors that influence how the conversation will or should proceed—these are cultural, historical, even environmental situations that have not been cognitively processed.

For all of these reasons, a theological exchange is sure to produce various tensions and uncertainties rather than a nice conversation over tea.

Why Don’t They Hear Us (We Sure Have a Lot to Say)?

Our issues are not the only reason for the failure to engage; there are issues on the other side as well.

1. Non-Western theologians often speak with a “Western accent.” I have noted with appreciation the many emerging voices of our non-Western colleagues, as we tried our best to locate these for our dictionary. But many of these that we located and who agreed to write for the dictionary wrote excellent articles that were frequently indistinguishable from those written by Western colleagues! How could this be, we wondered, as they were teaching in Nairobi, in Singapore, or in Seoul. But they all studied with Western scholars—at Princeton or even at Fuller!

Here we encounter a major obstacle to a global conversation: many non-Western scholars have come to America or England to drink deeply at the spring of Western learning. They return with certain assumptions of what is or is not important—partly influenced by cultural and economic issues discussed above. I don’t want to imply this influence is entirely bad—the influence of Western educational models is more complex than it is usually made out to be. Imported curriculum, with all of its critical baggage, has too often been insensitive to local needs and challenges. And Western delivery systems have too often served up a simplistic packaging of theological knowledge influenced by the post-Enlightenment assumptions that I mentioned above.

Western educational traditions cannot be simply ignored or easily replaced; at the same time, much that these non-Western theologians take back with them is beneficial to their developing institutions. The tradition of historiography and sources located in the West, newer social science methodologies, access to ancient texts made possible by newer technologies, to name only a few resources, have much to contribute to theological education everywhere. Nevertheless, the fact remains that unexamined Western perspectives have sometimes kept non-Western scholars from challenging their teachers in ways they (we!) need to be challenged.

2. For others, dissatisfaction with Western biases have led non-Western colleagues to simply stop listening to us. The other side of our tone-deafness to some of the indigenous factors at work in non-Western settings is that a growing number of our colleagues abroad are simply not interested in joining a conversation in which they do not recognize themselves. Meanwhile they are busy with local debates and indigenous challenges.

One of the most interesting aspects of Christian history in the twentieth century is the fact that the take-off point for growth of churches abroad often correlated with the removal or decline of missionary influence. After missionaries were expelled from China, the church began its incredible growth as an indigenous movement; precisely at the height of independence movements in India and Africa, the church began to mature and grow. The work of Paul Freston among others shows that the vital indigenous movements bubble up from below, they do not come as foreign imports.15 As Mark Noll argues, the real expansion and deepening of Christianity is almost always the work of indigenous agents.16

Bakht Singh (1903–2000), for example, sought to employ the Bhakti thought of his Sikh background to assist Indians in understanding the Bible. He felt the popular Bhakti ideology in India was more practical or ethical, at the same time he appreciated its devotional character. Ironically, he was not considered to be a serious theologian by mainline denominations in India because he did not follow the traditional systematic pattern or employ elite Hindu or Sikh terminology. Since he had studied with British evangelicals, Western interpreters (as well as mainline Indian theologians) dismissed him as a product of Western evangelicalism. But Singh was not responding to Western issues, nor even to the traditional Christian culture of India. He wanted to make biblical truth accessible to the masses of Indians.17


Let me conclude with what I believe is a telling case study: I refer to the battle in worldwide Anglicanism over homosexual ordination. Consider, for example, the way both sides claim the theological high ground, claiming their view best reflects the gospel. At the same time, it is clear to me that neither side recognizes the contextual factors at play in their conclusions. Consider the Western case for the ordination of homosexuals: Can one even imagine the kind of arguments mounted in the West apart from the liberal self, the various liberation movements, and the omnipresent media coverage? Conversely, can we imagine the non-Western position apart from its social understanding of sin, its communitarian perspective and, in Nigeria and Kenya at least, the proximity and (perceived or real) threat of Islam? All of these issues carry a certain weight, but they are also logs in our eyes that we need to remove so we can see clearly to remove the speck in our neighbor’s eye. If we can learn to recognize these factors and also to value them for what they are, they may become possible sites for conversation and mutual learning.

What would it do for the church in Africa to understand, and perhaps value more highly the liberal self as this is transformed by the gospel? What would it mean for the American church to understand the communitarian notions of taboo and sin? Both sides have something to learn and much to offer, but this learning will only happen if we proceed from the assumption that, as the Apostle Paul put it, in Christ we are already members one of another. May the Spirit open our eyes to the exciting implications of our mutual membership in the Body of Christ.

2. See Robert Wuthnow and Stephen Offutt, “Transnational Religious Connections,” Sociology of Religion 69, no. 2 (2009): 209–32. I thank Stephen Offutt for sharing this article with me. The statistics that follow are from this article.
3. Dana Roberts reminds us that this is not a new phenomenon: “If one peruses the missionary magazines of the period, one is struck at how the actual voices of non-Western Christians are being heard by the 1930s.” “The First Globalization,” in Interpreting Contemporary Christianity, ed. O. U. Kalu and Alaine Low (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 123.
4. It was Walls who first called attention to these issues: Andrew Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996); and Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
5. This is the criticism of Wuthnow and Offutt, “Transnational Religious Connections.”
6. See Susan Billington Harper, In the Shadow of the Mahatma: Bishop V. S. Azariah and the Travails of Christianity in British India (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
7. See especially Paul Gifford, African Christianity: Its Public Role (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1998).
8. Ogbu Kalu, African Pentecostalism: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), quoted in Hanciles’ review in Books and Culture, Winter 2009, pp. 38–39.
9. See Kalu, African Pentecostalism.
10. Bathsheba Evangeline Bharathi Nuthalapati, unpublished manuscript, used by permission. She cites here James Mo-oi Cheung, The Ecclesiology of Watchman Nee and Witness Lee (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1972), 39. This has been incorporated into Bharathi’s dissertation, “Bakht Singh and the ‘Indigenous Churches of India,’” Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Theology, 2010.
11. On this, see Roberto Goizueta, “Liberalism,” in Dyrness and Kärkkäinen, Global Dictionary of Theology.
12. Ogbu Kalu, Clio in a Sacred Garb: Essays on Christian Presence and African Response, 1900–2000 (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2008), 16.
13. See J. Bonk, Missions and Money: Affluence as a Missionary Problem (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2007).
14. See Margaret Archer, Being Human: The Problem of Agency (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 258–59.
15. See Paul Freston, Evangelicals and Politics in Asia, Africa and Latin America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); and the three volumes in the series Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in the Global South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008): Paul Freston, ed., Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Latin America; David H. Lumsdaine, ed., Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Asia; Terence D. Ranger, ed., Evangelical Christianity and Democracy in Africa.
16. Mark A. Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity: How Global Faith Reflects American Experience (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 215.
17. This is argued by Bharathi in her dissertation.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Fall 2011, “Where In the World Are We? Reflections on Fuller’s Expanding Global Reach.”