“MORE THAN 800 million people in the world are malnourished. More than a billion lack access to clean water. Six million children under the age of five die annually as a result of hunger. Three million children die each year from waterborne disease. More than 22 million people have died from AIDS, leaving at least 13 million children without mothers.” Statistics like these, contained in Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, provoke responses ranging from activism to nervous avoidance to apathy. American Christians, who claim compassion for the poor and love of neighbor as core values, cannot, however, altogether avoid coming to new terms with global inequities and injustice as worldwide media access widens our awareness of the scale of human suffering.
In many of the places where such suffering is most acute, Christian faith is flourishing, sometimes in forms quite foreign to American Christians. Sometimes that faith brings sufferings of its own: Wuthnow reports that “more than 13 million Christians worldwide died between 1950 and 2000 under conditions that could be described as ‘martyrdom.’” Historically, the church thrives under persecution—and it is also the church’s task to challenge and resist those who persecute, whether they do so by direct violence or by economic oppression. For Christians, material abundance and safety come with responsibilities toward those who have neither.
But the strategies for carrying out those responsibilities vary from one generation to the next. The history of Christian mission offers a fascinating study in uneasy relationships between church and empire, church and state, church and culture. Wuthnow’s focus in this book comes sharply to bear on the interpretive paradigms at work in popular narratives that shape Christians’ sense of ecclesia—who is the church, what is the church’s work in the world, and what distinguishes worldwide ministry and evangelism from cultural imperialism. Over the past decades one dominant narrative suggests that the church’s “center of gravity” has shifted toward the global South, making U.S. churches less relevant to the life and growth of faith in emerging churches of South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and the South Pacific.
Wuthnow challenges the assumptions behind this representation of U.S. Christianity (articulated in Philip Jenkins’ recent studies of global Christianity). He suggests that some of what is seen as church growth may be largely a function of population growth rather than of conversions. Moreover, though it is true that other countries now send missionaries to the U.S. and that the church in developing countries has often manifested a vitality missing in many North American churches, “the number of Americans who do short-term volunteer work abroad as church builders, evangelists, religious teachers, technical advisers, and relief workers has also risen to a record high,” Wuthnow writes.
More interesting than the numbers is the question of what Christian mission ought to look like in a world where economic globalization has benefited some and harmed many others; where economic injustices render as much harm as organized violence; and where it is hard for many U.S. Christians to separate notions of spiritual freedom from American-style democracy and “free” market capitalism. Wuthnow’s short history of mission over the past century traces significant changes in the ways congregations engage in mission work: While many still sponsor individual missionaries, more have come to recognize the importance of participating in partnerships with NGOs, lobbying efforts, and political education.
Though many American Christians tend to favor “individualistic solutions to problems” and to believe that “private voluntary efforts are the only way to deal with humanitarian issues,” more churches are recognizing the need to collaborate in forms of service that entail economies of scale and shared resources. Services such as water conservation and sanitation programs, health clinics, sustainable agriculture programs, and disaster relief, all part of a broadly defined evangelistic mandate, require more than most congregations or denominations can provide without outside money and expertise.
The U.S. church, Wuthnow argues, is still in a position to do more than most of the rest of the world to help the worldwide church thrive. It is responding vigorously, if not always coherently, to challenges occasioned by controversial wars and economic policies, global warming, and food insecurity. But U.S. churches remain divided over war and peacemaking—there tends to be more interest in basic humanitarian aid than in efforts to ensure peace and resist weapons proliferation—and over the nature of evangelism. Many local churches lack a sense of meaningful connection with the worldwide church. Wuthnow suggests that one way to address such insularity is to “broaden the framework in which we customarily think about the successes, failures, and variations among faith communities,” enabling U.S. churchgoers to bring the lives of other Christians into closer imaginative range.
As a sociologist, Wuthnow’s work is descriptive rather than prescriptive, but it is also motivational: If the church is to do its work in the world, church members need ways of understanding “the world” that enable us to care for one another across “distances and differences.” We need enough political education to forestall naïve assent to policies that fly in the face of the most basic gospel teachings. And we need to be shown how we construct legitimating narratives that shape our personal and collective commitments.
Wuthnow’s thoughtful and sometimes surprising treatment of available data—statistics about membership, mission, and growth in Christian communities—makes it clear why this kind of scholarship matters: “Statistics are useful, but by themselves convey little of analytical, historical, or theological significance.” Boundless Faith can help readers concerned about the global role of U.S. churches to rethink and perhaps redirect their efforts to engage with a world that, if not exactly “flat,” is certainly full of neighbors whom we are called to love with generous and informed imagination and with action rooted in strenuous understanding.
Marilyn McEntyre, author of Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, is a fellow at the Gaede Institute for the Liberal Arts, Westmont College, in Santa Barbara, California.